The Fine Art of Belly-Aching, Week 4 — The “When Panic Attacks” Sermon Rewind

Yesterday’s message …

  • Began with the heavy — and heavily unorthodox — topic of panic attacks;
  • Dealt with the context that leads up to Habakkuk 3:17-18. Those verses are two of the most thrilling in the biblical library, even moreso when you know the setting;
  • Reminded people that worrying is simply another version of praying to yourself … and you are a really bad god.
  • Landed at this bottom line: “You won’t panic about what God’s not doing when you’re defined by what he’s done.”


We’re going to start a little bit heavy today, and not in jest: panic attacks. Some of you have seen them, others of you know people who suffer from them, and then I know for a fact that more than a few of you have had them. Maybe even earlier today.
A Panic Attack SOMETIMES has a trigger that brings it on, like an important date or a big presentation or a Sunday morning sermon (!) or a difficult conversation where you can’t avoid the conflict anymore but actually have to address it head on. But just as often, Panic Attacks come completely out of the blue, with no circumstantial reasoning behind them at all. And whether there is a “reason” or not, the elements in a Panic Attack have a lot of similarities across the board: it starts with an intense wave of fear (usually WAY out of proportion to the impending situation), followed by hyperventilation, chest pounding, body sweating, and, in some cases, of feeling of certain and imminent death. They’re scary to see and worse to have. Here are the words of someone from our own GS family on their Panic Attacks:

It comes out of nowhwere. A random thought, question, or mental image. It can be anything, literally. But once triggered, a chill runs up my spine to between my shoulders and my mind starts a downward spiral into what can only be described as dark meaninglessness and fear. I can be surrounded by people, yet feel utterly alone. My stomach knots up and thoughts such as “Where is God in this? It’s all a lie. You will always be alone. Life gets no better than this and you have only fear and isolation to look forward to. What have you accomplished? What does it matter if you accomplish anything in the end anyway? It’s all meaningless and you will always be alone in this darkness and futillity.” The two things that are most prominent about it are the feeling of loneliness and despair—two things “good Christians” aren’t supposed to feel…because Jesus.

So let’s admit something together: that’s a WEIRD way to start a sermon. Even if you’ve had one of these things I’m talking about, you’re glad for the shout out (sort of) but you admit this is an unorthodox “sermonic” beginning. But I’m starting this particular talk there, with Panic Attacks, because that is essentially what Habakkuk has as he nears the end of the book that bears his name. When he puts the landing gear down, and he is ALMOST done, that’s when panic sets in. By way of reminder – or intro if you haven’t been here – here’s what’s going with the book of Habakkuk, named after the guy who is quite likely the most epic belly-acher in the biblical library. Here’s the situation: he is in Jerusalem in about 610 BC. The Jewish people – a small, almost insignificant kingdom to begin with – were weakened from the inside out and because of that, the mighty Babylonians had surrounded the city and laid siege to it.
It was an awful scene in and out of Jerusalem and we know from history that the siege got so bad that ultimately some of the ppl resorted to cannibalism to survive. But we also know from history and from Scripture that the people of Israel were, in a sense getting what they deserved. Although they were the Jews, the chosen people, keepers of the covenant, they had fallen into descending cycles of disobedience. And that disobedience always and forever centered on two things – idolatry (worshipping statues and gods they’d been specifically from worshipping) and poverty (mistreating the most vulnerable among them). But whatever the reason, when your city is surrounded by an enemy who is both mighty AND vicious, it is quite easy for panic to set in.
And in Chapter 3, Habakkuk has a genre change. Remember how we always say that the bible is a library with many different writing styles? Well, here’s a case of multiple styles within the same book. Because the first two chapters of Hab are what we’d call lament, complaint, belly-aching, questioning of God on behalf of the people. But here in the last third, it turns into a song. It’s almost like a lot of those novels you can read today where every chapter has a different narrator and point of view. This shift is almost like that. How do we know it’s a song? Look at 3:1:

A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet. On shigionoth.

And that shig thing? A note to the worship leader. In our day, it would be in the Key of C. Or put the click track on. That kind of thing.
And the song itself is full of MEMORY and HISTORY. Just layered with all these things God DID on behalf of his people Israel. It starts in 3:2:

Lord, I have heard of your fame;
    I stand in awe of your deeds, Lord.
Repeat them in our day,
    in our time make them known;
    in wrath remember mercy.

Note the plea embedded there: you’ve done it before; do it again. Then 3:5 there’s a reference to Israel’s escape from Egypt:

Plague went before him;
    pestilence followed his steps.

READ. In 3:11 a reminder of the time the sun stood still to benefit Joshua’s army:

Sun and moon stood still in the heavens
    at the glint of your flying arrows,
    at the lightning of your flashing spear.

READ. In 3:15 there’s a strong hint of crossing the Red Sea, no doubt the grandest thing “God did” on behalf of his people:

You trampled the sea with your horses,
    churning the great waters.

And the purpose of this history lesson in which Hab “reminds” God of what God no doubt already knows (I guarantee God never said, “Wow, Habakkuk! Thanks for that! I’d forgotten all about it!”)? Ah, great question because I’ve got an answer. Habakkuk’s history lesson is his way of asking God – still sorta bell-aching to the Lord – “Why aren’t you DOING stuff now in the same way as back then? Why was the earlier stuff so dramatic and the current stuff is so subtle?” And the rather remarkable result of that apparent conflict, that seeming tension between what God DID then and what he apparently is not DOING now is that a Panic Attack starts in a biblical author.
Yep. Look at 3:16a:
I heard and my heart pounded,
    my lips quivered at the sound;
decay crept into my bones,
    and my legs trembled.

All those classic signs. Pounding heart. Pulsing lips. Bones decaying literally in the moment. Trembling legs. Boom, boom, boom , boom. A Panic Attack description for a pre-Panic Attack culture. And again, some of you know precisely what that feels like. And you know what else? For some of you those Panic Attacky feelings are, deep down, for the same God-centered reasons: Why aren’t you DOING what I need you to be DOING right now, Lord? You feel a disconnect between what God did and what God does and it’s led to a crisis of faith and life. Like you don’t want him to part the Red Sea – but you would like him to save your marriage. You don’t need him to make you as strong as Samson – but you would him to make your kid strong enough to get off those pain killers. You don’t need him to make you walk on water like Peter did ever so briefly – just give you the ability to get AND KEEP that job that keeps slipping through your fingers. You’re panicking on one or all of those and if it’s not quite at the Hab level, you still know what it means and how it feels.
But the reason Hab 3 is such a great prayer, the reason the bridge of this song (like Jesus Paid It All!) is so stunning is that from the rubble of this panic attack bursts forth something glorious and life saving. It starts with one word in 16b: “Yet.” And what’s on the OTHER SIDE of “yet” is worth the price of admission:

Yet I will wait patiently for the day of calamity
    to come on the nation invading us.

OK, A little bit of karma, as we saw last week, we’re gonna be invaded, they’re really bad dudes but deep down they’ll get justice even if I’m not guaranteed to be around to see it.
And then comes 3:17-18, two of the most remarkable verses in the entire biblical library:

Though the fig tree does not bud
    and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
    and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
    and no cattle in the stalls,
18 yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
    I will be joyful in God my Savior.

THOUGH I HAVE NOTHING YET – another on the other side of yet! – I am exactly who and what I want to be. Habakkuk BRILLIANTLY piles on the NOTHING words – NOTHING is working, NOTHING is growing, NO ONE is home, NO ONE is answering me, I GOT NOTHING because NOTHING is what God is DOING right now to alleviate his problem. Doing nothing.
So why is Habakkuk in such a good, post Panic Attack place in light of the fact that God seems to be doing nothing? Look at 3:18 again and add 3:19: READ. Oh! Less than nothing, it turns out, is more than enough. My panic attack over what God is NOT DOING has been replaced by something much deeper, much more enduring, by this combination of peace and boldness. Why? How? Do you remember what all of Hab 3 has been? A HISTORY LESSON! All that history is not just God’s intervention; it’s my definition. And look who he is in 3:18 – not my buddy, not my guru, not my bro – but MY SAVIOR. If that doesn’t get you Panic Attack stricken Xns in the house filled with healthy adrenaline, nothing will! Because here it is: You won’t panic about what God’s DOING when you’re defined by what he’s DONE. Habakkuk moves from panic to praise because the history lesson reminded him that he is in continuity with those folks who walked through the Red Sea, who conquered the Promised Land, who received the law.

And if it was true for Habakkuk in his day, HOW MUCH MORE in ours! REFRAIN frees you from the tyranny of the now! It turns out that the best treatment for anxiety is a steady dose of history!! Because as NT followers of Jesus, consider what an incomparable, defining history we have! All those “ion” words: INCARNATION, CRUCIFIXION, RESURRECTION, ascension, locomotion, redemption, inspiration. Whew! Not to mention a history we anticipate: return. You recite THAT history lesson enough, you remember that the most important thing in your life did not happen in your life – it was Jesus’ life over you, on you, in you! – and man all of our Panic Attacks take on a whole new perspective. You won’t panic about what God’s DOING when you’re defined by what he’s DONE.

Here’s what I mean. It means that when you start hyperventilating – and even if you don’t have classic Panic Attacks, I KNOW a lot of you wrestle with anxiety; I know a lot of you, like me, do lose sleep because of worry – you do this simple breathing exercise:
INHALE – I am bought.
EXHALE – I am resurrected.
(Do it.)
It takes the focus off your dilemma and puts it where it belongs, on your definition. And oh by the way, worry is just another name for praying to yourself. And YOU, I am sure, are a really terrible god. The worst. Breathe. That’s what I’m talking about. You won’t panic about what God’s DOING when you’re defined by what he’s DONE.

Or it’s like the rabbi who was asked why Proverbs 7:3 (AV) says write them ON the tablet of your heart? Why not just in the heart, teacher? And the rabbi answered, “Ah, you place the Word on the tablet of you heart so that when your heart breaks, the Word will drop right in.” Beautiful. And true. My goodness, for me whether it was a girl who didn’t like me back or a pimple that wouldn’t go away or even a church that didn’t do what I wanted it to, how much of a reality check is Romans 8:18: READ. That’s some perspective. That’s some history. That’s the assurance that even if God is not at my clean-skinned beck and call now, I know what he is GONNA do based on the once in a universe reality of what he has DONE. You won’t panic about what God’s DOING when you’re defined by what he’s DONE.

You know what I am so glad this protects us from? A preoccupation with his answers. Because if your faith is built on his answers for NOW, for TODAY, it will be in constant pursuit of the shiny and the new. And you will pinball from one season of life to the next, from one crisis to another, from one church to another, always in search of the latest, the bestest, the nowest. My God, how liberating to realize and to celebrate that you’re not the first and you’re not the only. That you’re part of this incredibly long stream full of incomparably smart faithful people, all authored by our God who didn’t pay it some, he paid it all. Every answer today pales in comparison to what the Answerer has done for all time and for eternity.
Because I can’t help but wonder if the reason God doesn’t answer a lot of MY NOW and YOUR NOW prayers is to teach you something in the delay – even the painful delay – that he couldn’t teach you otherwise. It’s like a note I received from a someone here who has walked a HARD road and on that road found strength from the most unexpected sources:

Grief can be a hard and sometimes lonely journey and sometimes you feel like people don’t understand. As you were preaching, I was crying and there was just this release of pressure of hurt and pain. It was an encouragement to me to think about all of the previous believers that do understand. I could just see them standing firm in their belief despite their sufferings and I can just see them encouraging us to do the same. Not only do we have a community of believers that supports us today but we also have this huge group of Christian brothers and sisters from the past that understand and are standing firm with us and encouraging us. When I think about digging into the scriptures like you said and sticking to what is old, it opened my eyes to see this huge body of believers that are a support system to us during our trials today. And on those days when I don’t feel like looking at the Word I do feel alone. However, when I do dig in like you said, I feel the outpouring of love and support and I feel the strength that can only come from digging into the past. I can see their strength despite hardships and I know where they get their power. It is power built on what’s always been: God our Father, His Holy Spirit and His son Jesus Christ (our risen Savior).