Fight or Flight….or Something Better?

In 1915 a Harvard researcher, named William Cannon, defined the automatic response of our brains to threats, as the Fight or Flight response. Here’s what physically happens, as we encounter  a situation that poses a threat: the body releases stress hormones, the muscles tense up and the heart rate increases, as well as the metabolism, and breathing. All of this prepares the body to either fight off the threat, or have the speed and agility to flee it. These, according to Cannon are the only two responses an individual will have to any posed threat. Some people will tend towards fight. Others towards flight. But it’s basically a coin-toss. One or the other. That’s what  our bodies are programmed to do.

Perhaps physically all this data is undeniable. But what about spiritually? What about our souls in that moment of threat? What about our emotions? What if we could carve a different path?

Earlier this week, I was listening to a message by JoAnn Hummel, a pastor from Bent Tree Bible fellowship. She suggested that Hagar found a third response all the way back in the 2500s BC, before any of us knew or could label our bodies’ physical responses to threat. As a slave in the house of the patriarch Abram, Hagar fled her mistress Sarai after becoming pregnant by her master. Yes, this whole situation was a mess. But it wasn’t particularly unusual in that culture. Sarai was barren and getting old. She chose to give her slave to Abram so that she could have children through Hagar. Of course once her slave was pregnant, Sarai became jealous and incensed. Sarai, mistreated Hagar so extremely that Hagar’s flight response kicked in and she took off out into the wasteland alone, a pregnant runaway with nowhere to go.

But the Angel of the Lord met her in the wasteland. He called her by name, “Hagar,” he said, “Where have you come from and where are you going?” He invited her to vent; which she did. And then he told her just enough of the future to encourage her heart and send her back–yes, back into a troubled, messy, broken situation. But he sent her back with a promise: her child was blessed, she was blessed. Her response: “You are the God who sees me.”  And that’s the third possible response–the only response that really brings peace to our troubled souls–TRUST in the God who sees. Hagar knew that this God saw all the injustices she faced, all the troubles heaped upon her. This God, saw her flee, and he had chased after her! Hagar named the well where she had collapsed, “The God who hears and sees.” And because she trusted this God, she obeyed him, returning to all that she had fled.

I’m usually a fighter. But everyone once in awhile, when I feel overwhelmed with the demands made on me, I get the urge to flee. This happened to me last week. Circumstances beyond my control resulted in changes of my schedule, upheaval in my household, and a general lack of cohesion and order all around. Nothing life-threatening, mind you. Certainly nothing like Hagar was facing. But it was enough to send me into fight or flight. And my instinct for flight was kicking in hard! I wanted to simply find some way to escape the situation…perhaps just disappear for awhile…but that would have been incredibly unfair to my whole family, who had not invited the upheaval either.

By God’s grace I didn’t flee. Instead, with fragile faith, I chose to believe the God who sees–to trust that he knew all the changes and difficulty I would face, even if I didn’t, and that he would give me the strength, the desire and the power to live in the chaos.

I can’t claim some mountain-top experience. I can’t say the chaos suddenly gave way to a choir of angels singing, household chores completed, atmosphere relaxed and peaceful. (Hagar’s story doesn’t have that kind of ending either.)  But I can say that the God who sees, the God who hears, gave peace to my troubled heart. And rest to my weary body.   The God who sees and hears offered me a better solution than my own brain and physical responses could. No fight, no flight…just fragile trust.


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