When the Pressure Builds

It is interesting how the world political climate has become with such strong personalities overseeing countries around the world. With the United States, Russia, North Korea, Iran, China and other countries all having or tinkering with nuclear weapons, and their leaders seen as unstable or unpredictable, it leaves the rest of the world on edge. Sometimes it seems they are playing a game of “chicken” with the world as it’s gameboard!

Sadly, many of us who are older, have seen this game played before. In fact, back in the 50s, 60s and 70s, disaster was as close as the press of a red button. I think most of us remember the Cuban Missile Crisis back in the early 60s. The USSR and the US were at odds over the presence of nuclear missiles in Cuba.

But as imminent as that was, the truth is, nuclear war was much closer than that. Back in 1962, four Russian submarines were discovered off of the US coast. Warships were dispensed and began dropping depth charges. The Russian captain was stressed, trigger-happy, and ready to destroy a few American cities. Each sub was armed with a nuclear warhead and had the potential to do devastating damage.

But on board one of the ships, an officer was able to defuse the situation. His name was Vasili Arkhipov. He was the thirty-six-year-old chief of staff for a fleet of Russian submarines. The crew members assumed they were being sent on a training mission off the Siberian coast. They came to learn that they had been commissioned to travel five thousand miles to the southwest to set up a base near Havana, Cuba.

The subs went south, and so did their mission. In order to move quickly, the submarines traveled on the surface of the water, where they ran head-on into Hurricane Daisy. The fifty-foot waves left the men nauseated and the operating systems compromised.

Then came the warm waters. Soviet subs were designed for the polar waters, not the tropical Atlantic and temperatures inside the vessels exceeded 50 degrees Celsius. By the time they were near the coast of Cuba, the men were exhausted, on edge, and anxious.

The situation worsened when the subs received cryptic instructions from Moscow to turn northward and patrol the coastline of Florida. Soon after they entered American waters, their radar picked up the signal of a dozen ships and aircrafts. The Russians were being followed by the Americans and began dropping depth charges. The Russians assumed they were under attack.

The captain lost his cool and summoned his staff to his command post and pounded the table with his fists. “We’re going to blast them now! We will die, but we will sink them all – we will not disgrace our navy!”

Unbeknownst to the world, it was teetering on the edge of war. But then Vasili Arkhipov asked for a moment with his captain. The two men stepped to the side where he urged his superior to reconsider. He suggested they talk to the Americans before reacting. The captain listened and his anger cooled and he gave the order for the vessels to surface. The American ships kept them under surveillance and after a couple of days the Soviets dove, eluded the Americans, and went home.

No one knew about this secret for decades. Arkhipov deserved a medal, yet he lived the rest of his life with no recognition. In fact, many looked on him with disgrace as one who did not fulfil his duty. It was not until 2002, four years after his death, that the public learned of the barely avoided catastrophe. As the director of the National Security Archive stated, “The lesson from this… is that a guy named Vasili Arkhipov saved the world.”

Why does this story matter? Hopefully none of us will not spend three weeks in a sweltering Russian sub. But you may spend a semester carrying a heavy class load, or you may struggle with finding work while in the midst of a recession. You may spend night after night at the bedside of a sick child or aging parent. You may fight to keep a family together or a business afloat.

As the pressure builds, you may be tempted to press the button and release, not nuclear warheads, but angry outbursts, a plethora of accusations, a fiery retaliation of hurtful words or unfiltered gossip. Unchecked anxiety can unleash its own “nuclear” destruction. How many people have been wounded as a result of unbridled stress?

And how many disasters have been averted because one person refused to buckle under the strain? I think these potential disasters is what Paul is talking about in Philippians 4:5. He writes: “Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything.”

The Greek word translated here as gentleness describes a temperament that is seasoned and mature. It pictures an attitude that is fitting to the occasion, someone who is level headed and tempered. The gentle reaction is one of steadiness, even handedness, and fair. It “looks humanely and reasonably at the facts of a case.” Its opposite would be an overreaction or a sense of panic. This kind of response is not reactionary, rather it sees, evaluates, then responds.

Paul says this gentleness is “evident to all.” Everyone notices when we are “off” don’t they? Your friends, family, coworkers, everyone can benefit if we take this attitude. Others may freak out or run out, but the gentle person is sober minded and clear thinking. They can be contagiously calm. As a Christian, what this communicates to others is this: God is in control.

This is the leader who sees the challenge, acknowledges it, and says, “These are tough times, but we’ll get through them.”

Gentleness. Where do we find this gem? How can you and I keep our hands away from the trigger? How can we keep our heads when everyone else is losing theirs? We build our foundation on the second phrase. “Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything.”

The Lord is near! We are not alone. We may feel alone. We may think we are alone. But there is never a moment in which we face life without help. God is near. We remember Jesus’ words: “I will be with you,” but we forget that this promise is seen and repeated throughout Scripture.

To Abram in Genesis 15:1, God said, “Do not be afraid… I am your shield, your exceedingly great reward.” To Hagar in Genesis 21:17, the angel announced, “Do not be afraid; God has heard.” When Isaac was expelled from his land in Genesis 26:24 by the Philistines and forced to move from place to place, God appeared to him and reminded him, “Do not be afraid, for I am with you.” After Moses’ death God told Joshua in 1:9, “Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” And to a young pregnant teenager named Mary in Luke 1:30, “Do not be afraid…”

It is easy for us to think we are not good enough and therefore not deserving of God’s presence. Well, that is true, but God does not base His presence on our “goodness”. God was with David, in spite of his adultery. He was with Jacob, in spite of his conniving and deceitful heart. He was with Elijah, in spite of his lack of faith and struggles with depression.

To go further, in the ultimate declaration of communion, God called Himself Immanuel, which means “God with us.” He became flesh. He became sin. He defeated the grave. He is still with us. In the form of His Spirit, He comforts, teaches, and convicts.

We do not have to assume as the Bette Midler song goes, that God is watching from a distance. We need to avoid falling into the “God has left you!” trap. This is a lie! To fall into this trap not only amplifies our sense of loneliness, it denies the truth of Scripture! It’s one thing to face a challenge, but to face it all alone? Isolation creates a downward cycle of fret. We must choose instead to be the person who clutches the presence of God with both hands.

David understood this in Psalm 118:6 when he declared, “The Lord is with me; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?” Because God is near, we can be anxious for nothing!

This is Paul’s point. Remember, he was writing a letter. He did not use chapter and verse numbers. This system was created by scholars in the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries. The structure helps us, but it can also hinder us. Paul intended the words of verses 5 and 6 to be read as one thought, “Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”

Early commentators saw this. John Chrysostom liked to phrase the verse this way: The Lord is at hand. Have no anxiety. Theodoret of Cyrus translated the words: The Lord is near. Have no worries. A more recent translation might be: “Chill, dude. God’s got this.” In the end, we can calmly take our concerns to God because He is as near as our next breath!

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