How to Overcome Apocalyptic Paranoia

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How to Overcome Apocalyptic Paranoia

Love just seems to make life not just livable, but a galant, galant event. – Toni Morrison

 

Last Sabbath I took my kids to the beach to watch the sunset. While we were there, I reminded both of them to be careful with the seashells because blue ring octopus – a poisonous species – sometimes hide underneath them. In Australia, the blue ring octopus has taken a number of lives so I took the opportunity to teach my kids the importance of being alert and exercising an appropriate level of caution. However, the situation didn’t quite pan out as I expected. One of my boys, the elder one, took the lesson to heart and maintained a healthy level of awareness as he picked up seashells. The other boy, the younger one, completely lost the plot. He refused to stay at the beach, insisted he wanted to go home and spent the entire time paranoid about the potential of being stung. As a result, our beach trip was a little less pleasant than it could have otherwise been. Nevertheless, my eldest son and I collected a number of seashells and, to our content, never encountered a blue ring octopus.

 

As I drove home my brain did what it always does – it began to decipher the situation. I asked myself a number of questions about the event and how it could have gone differently for my younger son. But the thing that stood out to me the most was the difference in response between my two boys. What made the difference? I wondered. So I began to dissect the event until I arrived at a crossroads. Both boys, I noted, had the same exact information at their disposal, therefore, the information itself cannot be the source of the problem. The problem—rather than rooted in information–must be rooted in something else. What this means is that the information itself cannot be blamed for the discrepancy and I would have to dig deeper to find the answer.

 

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The same exact scenario is present in the lives of many Christians and Seventh-day Adventists. A few days later, a friend randomly shared a story with me about her family’s response to Y2K. “They went crazy!” She said as she painted a picture of two otherwise wonderful adults in her life stocking up on tons of groceries and boiling water to store for nearly 8 hours straight. The fear in their eyes was evident as were their frantic attempts at preparation. In the same vein, over the years I have known many Adventists hyper-sensitive about moving to the country, preparing for the end times, identifying the antichrist in every pope and president they see and even becoming distrustful of their own church and its leaders.

 

I wish I could say that this is reserved for a fanatical fringe among us. It is not. There is an underlying fear in Adventism that makes it susceptible to sensational interpretations of current events. If you don’t believe me, take a look at Adventist influencers who focus on conspiracy theories in social media. They have followers in the tens, sometimes hundreds, of thousands. Now take a look at ministries that focus on Jesus. Such ministries have a much harder time establishing a base following because if there is one thing that sells well in Adventism, it is fear. Startup ministries with marketing skills are aware of this so they package their products to appeal to our fear–fear of culture, fear of Hollywood, fear of music styles, fear of fashions, fear of the cities, fear of the education system, fear of disease, fear of a New World Order, fear of ecumenism, fear of mysticism and fear of liberalism. And if you, as a startup ministry, can tap into these fears in a unique way you are en route to becoming the next big thing in Adventism. Fear among us sells like water bottles near the Sahara.

 

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As I thought about my kids and their respective reactions to the threat of blue ring octopus, I couldn’t help but see the connection to our church. There are those among us who are aware of end-time events and exercise a healthy and appropriate level of caution. But there are also those among us who lose their composure. They become paranoid about the Devil’s deceptions and begin to obsess over anything and everything that is remotely evil. What is the difference between these two classes?

 

More Than Information

 

Here is what I discovered: it’s not information. Both types of Adventists have the same information before them. They both understand the Great Controversy. They both are aware of the prophetic warnings. They both have been exposed to the soon-to-come challenges of the end times like persecution, Sunday law, and national apostasy. In short, they both have the same exact information at their disposal. But for some reason, one group is able to take that information and use it to exercise a healthy and appropriate caution while others simply seem to lose themselves.

 

I tried to reason with my younger son by explaining that intelligent caution would suffice but nothing mattered. As far as his little mind was concerned, death was everywhere and he had to get away. He couldn’t enjoy the sunset, the couple out in the water wind skiing, the dog splashing as he ran up and down the edge of the coast or the pools of beautiful seashells with their unique colors and designs. All he saw were deadly creatures everywhere. What could I say to calm his fears? How could I help him to relax, maintain a necessary level of situational awareness but also enjoy the beauty that surrounded him? In the end, I simply gave up. Nothing I said worked.

 

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We find a similar tension when we meet someone at church who is obsessed with the works of evil. You try and reason with them but it’s of no use. If you say we should focus on Jesus, they say you are watering down the seriousness of the end-time warnings. If you say we should trust in God, they say you are exercising presumption not faith. If you say we shouldn’t focus on what Satan is doing they say you are like an ostrich with his head stuck in the sand, too soft and emotionally sensitive to contend with the ugly matters of life which are sure to tear you apart the moment they come knocking on your unsuspecting door. And as I thought of this scenario in light of my youngest’s paranoia at the beach, I couldn’t help but wonder, why does this happen and how can we help those who are caught up in the mires of apocalyptic paranoia to experience a healthier relationship to end-time events?

 

Before I dive into what I believe is a meaningful way forward allow me to offer a disclaimer. Sometimes, people experience paranoia of different stripes due to reasons beyond us. For example, a person may suffer from schizophrenia or some other mental health condition which fuels a diversity of irrational fears. In these cases, no amount of reasoning will ever accomplish anything. So what I share below is not intended to be a solution for those suffering with severe mental health challenges but rather, an approach to help the average Adventist contend meaningfully with the uncomfortable realities of tomorrow while simultaneously experiencing the kind of life that novelist Toni Morrison referred to as “not just livable, but a galant, galant event.”1

 

Safeguard for the Moment

 

I thought back to my sons on that beach and the more I pondered the difference in their responses, the more I settled on one key variable. For my oldest son, the warning of a potential danger was used as a tool through which he could maximize his enjoyment of the beach. In other words, by exercising a healthy level of caution my eldest son understood he could actually protect the moment. So in short, the warning became a safeguard for the moment.

 

For my younger son, a bit less mature and self-confident, the warning did not become a means by which to protect the moment but rather a moment in itself. Consequently, the danger overshadowed the present. He could no longer be on the beach because he was now elsewhere. The present moment had thus been hijacked by a potential moment that became so real, it’s as if he were already existing in it. The sad outcome of this is that my son was consumed by the very thing he was trying to protect himself from. He might not have been stung by a dangerous octopus, but the outcome of his fear was identical. Were he to be stung he would have to leave the beach and yet, the fear overshadowed the beauty of the moment so much, that he had to leave the beach anyways.

 

In short, the difference between the two boys is that one used the warning as a means by which to protect the moment, whereas the other allowed the warning to rob him of the moment. In doing so, he robbed himself of the present and was consumed by the potential.

 

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As I pondered these things, I realized the same exact scenario was at play in my own life. Once a conspiracy theory aficionado myself, I have since moved away from that way of thinking. However, the information I possess is not all that different from my former self. I still believe there is a struggle between good and evil at play in our world. I do not trust corporations, institutions or systems all that much. I’m not convinced by the official 9/11 report and think something fishier was going on that day. I believe the geopolitical movements of the day are aligning the chess pieces for the unfolding of end-time events. I believe persecution is coming, religiopolitical tyranny and the antichrist. I am wary of evangelicalism’s partisan efforts and am aware of Romanism’s growing power all over the world. I am not blind to the dangers of nationalism and globalism, to the agendas of the right and the left, and to the very real possibility that the industries we love (digital and social media) lie to us.

 

However, I never spend time rummaging over these things. I do not watch YouTube video after YouTube video to reaffirm and embolden my sense of Satan’s contemporary tactics. I do not hide or retreat, reject the culture or rage against governments. I do not live in tension, paranoia, or fear and I rarely ever discuss these topics with anyone. Instead, these warnings serve as a tool through which I can appreciate each moment God gives and through them I celebrate the fact that where sin abounds, grace abounds much more. If Satan is up to all these things, how much more is God up to? And so, like my eldest son, I live with the awareness of the dangers that surround me and use them as tools through which to protect the moment—a moment basking in the beauty of crashing waves, shells tap dancing as the waters wash over them, a sun setting in the distance and the breathtaking colors spread across the sky.

 

The warnings of what is and is to come, are therefore the means through which I celebrate the moment and am present in it. I refuse to allow the warnings to become moments in themselves, to take me away from the obvious here to the supposed there and from the actual now to the potential later. And this, I believe, is part of the cure to apocalyptic paranoia. We are to embrace the warnings, but use them as tools through which we develop a composed awareness that in turn allows us to protect the beauty of the moments we occupy rather than permit them to become moments in themselves that hijack our ability to enjoy the precious God gifts us with each day.

 

Before I close, here are two examples of how a healthy apocalyptic consciousness can inspire a meaningful and galant way of life.

 

The Investigative Judgment

 

The Investigative Judgment is the beginning of the end—the final chapter in the story of redemption. What this means as that during this portion of the judgment, God is bringing evil with all of its suffering to a close. This inspires me to live a life in which I co-labor with God to reverse suffering and restore beauty and harmony to life. This belief has motivated me to invest in meeting people where they are, in serving them and journeying with them toward a restorative experience with God. The healing and beauty people encounter through this journey is amazing.

 

This belief has also inspired me to be what Nathan Brown refers to as “agents of reversal” in that, as God deconstructs the reich of evil and its consequent suffering, I am therefore to live a life that reverses the impact of evil and suffering in my own sphere of influence. This leads me to seek opportunities to reverse suffering in my world rather than living a life of indifference or, worse, one which perpetuates suffering. In conducting myself this way, rather than the warnings of the Investigative Judgment becoming moments in which I get lost in fear and self-obsession, the warnings actually become the tools through which I enjoy the moments I have in the here and now, and work to beautify those moments.

 

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The Sunday Law

 

No eschatological perspective gives Adventists fodder for conspiracy theorizing more than the Sunday Law. Now grant it, most people have a super shallow understanding of this doctrine that does not lend itself to utilitive reflection, so this is certainly something that needs to be fixed. But that aside, Sunday law predictions have tended to foster a kind of fear and paranoia in Adventism. It leads some—including pastors—to hyper analyze everything the pope does and to live in fear of Catholics and those “Sunday Christians”.

 

But the Sunday Law perspective, I believe, actually calls us to the opposite. What this perspective does is it calls us to preserve and fight for Religious Liberty. Notice, I did not say “Adventist Liberty” but “Religious” meaning all religions. This perspective has actually helped me to come to a great love and appreciation for a diversity of religions and cultures. The knowledge that I will someday be persecuted for my beliefs leads me to a kind of solidarity toward those who are currently experiencing the same. It has given me a greater love and appreciation for the Muslim, the Buddhist and other religious minorities.

 

I was deeply moved last year when, during a prayer meeting at one of my churches, the Adventists who had gathered to pray for the Christians being persecuted in China took the time to also pray for the Muslims who are also experiencing terrible injustices at the hands of the communist regime. Thus, rather than getting lost in a dizzying array of gloomy forebodings about what’s coming and when and by who and in what way, or rather than withdrawing from society with some fatalistic “it’s all going to burn anyway” mentality, the Sunday Law perspective moves me to live in the here and now, as a person who values and honors the conscience of others, who fights for religious liberty even in the political space, whose faith is non-coercive and gentle, and whose standards are tempered by the understanding that we won’t always agree on all things, and that’s OK.

 

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Summary

 

In short, use the information to protect what is beautiful. Do not allow it to overshadow what is beautiful. Because if you do, then the outcome of your paranoia may just be identical to the dangers actualization, even if it never materializes. When we use the information in this way, we can live a life that is aware rather than oblivious, and nevertheless manifest what Ellen White referred to as, “joy unspeakable and full of glory”.2 This joy, enthusiasm, and faith can be ours in Christ and lead to a life that celebrates and beautifies each moment despite the reality of life’s trending chaos.

 

In closing, I would like to leave the reader with the words of God to the prophet Isaiah:

 

Don’t call everything a conspiracy, like they do, and don’t live in dread of what frightens them. Make the LORD of Heaven’s Armies holy in your life. He is the one you should fear. He is the one who should make you tremble. (Isaiah 8:12-13)

___

Notes

  1. Toni Morrison. “Conversations with Toni Morrison,” p. 268.
  2. Ellen G. White. “Evangelism,” p. 180.

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About the author

Marcos Torres

Marcos Torres is a pastor in Western Australia where he lives with his wife and children. He loves talking about faith, culture and Adventism. You can follow his blog at www.thestorychurchproject.com.