FOMO or the fear of missing out is not something new. It’s been around for thousands of years. In fact, it was one of the issues Paul addresses here in Thessalonians. For many in the early church there were two false teachings that were playing on the fears and insecurities of the new believers. The first was that Paul had sent around a letter saying that the day of the Lord had already come and anyone still left had been left behind. Of course, were that true then Paul himself as the author of the letter would have been left behind or perhaps had someone send it after he had been taken to heaven.
Fear and isolation make people imagine all sorts of things and create every kind of strange explanation. Then there was the fear Paul addresses here in Chapters 4 and 5 that those who had already died would not take part in the resurrection because it was only the living who would be taken when Christ returned. Again, more fear and more creative explanations that kept Paul busy his whole ministry in dispelling rumors and intentional distortions of his teaching. When people are left too long without simple explanations or without adequate information they begin to make up things. If there is a gap in information people will not fill it in with reason but with rumors and falsehoods. It was true then and is true now.
Of course, there were – then and now – false teachers who took advantage of their fears. If only the living would be with the Lord then you can imagine all the snake oil salesmen who would be pitching potions that would help you live long enough or those selling magic merchandise that would, like the indulgences, at least make sure the dead would rise again. There are always those who play on the fears of the believers and always there is something for sale that will supposedly relieve that fear. It is hope for sale. What was it Charles Revson said about his cosmetics? “We don’t sell lipstick. We sell dreams.”
This was probably the twentieth time Paul had to reassure them the dead would rise and not be left behind and the second coming of Christ had not already occurred. Fear and anxiety may subside for a time but always return and people need to be reassured of even the most basic things. Of course, there are always those hoping to take advantage of their anxieties.
Of course, no one knows the time even though there is a virtual industry built around predicting the time based on certain signs and events. There is probably no topic that has been speculated about as much as this one. Every generation experiences events – war and rumors of wars, earthquakes, floods, famines and nations rising against nations – that convince people the end is close. Even though Jesus himself said he did not know the time, that has never kept people from coming up with timelines and predictions about the second coming of Christ and the taking of the Church. All it does is create false expectations and, worse, the sense that someone somewhere knows something you don’t and this secret knowledge can be yours for the price of a book, a movie, a commentary or following a particular teacher. Yes, Jesus says we are to be watchful in several places and we should look at those but he does not say we are to waste our time focused on something unknowable. It is the wrong emphasis for life.
What does it mean to be watchful? Does it mean being afraid, anxious, obsessed with whether all the signs are in place? No. Let’s look at three stories Jesus tells about being watchful.
First, in Matthew 24 Jesus tells us to keep watch because we do not know and still should be ready. “Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom the master has put in charge of the servants in his household to give them their food at the proper time? It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns. I tell you the truth, he will put him in charge of all his possessions.”
Again, in Matthew 25 Jesus tells the story of the five virgins who were wise and took extra oil with them to wait for the bridegroom and the five who did not. While they all fell asleep while waiting it was only the wise virgins who were prepared and then went into the banquet.
Finally, in Matthew 25 Jesus tells the story of the talents in which two of the servants are productive and the third is not. When the master returns the two productive servants are called “good and faithful” and their reward is to be put in charge of many things. The foolish servant loses what little he has.
There is a theme which runs throughout the stories. First, some servants are wise and others are foolish. Some are watchful – even though they might fall asleep – and others are unprepared. Some are responsible with what they have been entrusted and others have wasted their opportunities. That is how we are to be watchful and prepared. Not in fear and anxiety. Not in hoarding for fear of loss. Not squandering opportunities. We are to be engaged in the daily assignments we have been given. We don’t have to constantly take our eyes off those assignments and look fearfully into the future for signs of his coming. We keep our eyes on what we have been given to do and be faithful knowing that the times are in his hands. And then there is the reward of even more responsibility.
In 1958, C.S. Lewis wrote a short piece about how we should live under the threat of nuclear annihilation made possible, even likely, by the atomic bomb. Here is what he wrote:
“In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. ‘How are we to live in an atomic age?’ I am tempted to reply: ‘Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.’
In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.
This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.”
We are to be prepared and to be watchful but not caught up in unhealthy and unproductive speculations about what no one has been given to know.
Then Paul talks about the darkness of the world and those who are sons and daughters of darkness.
Again, just as there are several kinds of watchfulness there are several kinds of darkness.
First, there is the darkness of the world around us. This is the result of the fallen nature of creation. There has always been the darkness of night. Genesis tells us that darkness was over the surface of the deep and God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning – the first day. Night is part of creation. Night is good.
But the darkness Paul is talking about here is the darkness caused by ignorance of light and the shadow of sin. It is the darkness in which so many dwell. It is the darkness of bondage, slavery, stupidity, oppression and hopelessness in which people live. It is not so much their being evil as it is those who live without light. This is the darkness that Jesus spoke about in his first public teaching in Nazareth. ““The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” This is the darkness of a fallen world in which we all live one way or another.
But there is another kind of darkness that is described by John in the opening verses of his Gospel. ”In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not understand it..The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.”
This is the darkness of hearts that choose not to recognize or accept the light. These are the hearts that prefer darkness and the deeds of darkness to the deeds of light. Jesus says of them in the Gospel of John. “Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.” Paul describes them in Romans 1. “For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator.” This is the description of those who have chosen darkness.
Third is the final and eternal darkness that is reserved for those who reject the love of Christ altogether. It is the place of weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth, the outer darkness, the eternal extinguishing of light.
But between those who dwell in the darkness of a fallen world and those who have chosen the deeds of darkness there is something Peter describes in which he uses the word gloom. “These men are springs without water and mists driven by a storm. Gloom is reserved for them.” It’s the word “gloom” that catches my eye because I know people who live in the perpetual half-light and mist of gloom. T.S. Eliot wrote the line, “The burnt out ends of smoky days” that captures it. We can call it melancholy or pervasive sadness but the early church fathers called it acedia. It is not quite hopelessness. It is not yet despair. It is neither darkness nor light but greyness and the deep sense of dread and alienation. We may be active – even overactive – but it is always in an effort to escape the gloom that returns when we are quiet even for a moment. Blaise Pascal put it right. “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
Kenneth Himes describes it this way: “When used in the moral sense, the person seized by acedia is the individual who cannot be affected, the one incapable of investment or commitment, a person who cannot get deeply involved in any cause or relationship. . . . Acedia as moral apathy is what hinders a person from pursuing that which is good. It is a refusal to seek the good because it is difficult and demanding.”
Gloom is what C.S. Lewis describes in the opening paragraph of “The Great Divorce”
I seemed to be standing in a bus queue by the side of a long, mean street. Evening was just closing in and it was raining. I had been wandering for hours in similar mean streets, always in the rain and always in evening twilight. Time seemed to have paused on that dismal moment when only a few shops have lit up and it is not yet dark enough for their windows to look cheering. And just as the evening never advanced to night, so my walking had never brought me to the better parts of the town. However far I went I found only dingy lodging houses, small tobacconists, hoardings from which posters hung in rags, windowless warehouses, goods stations without trains, and bookshops of the sort that sell The Works of Aristotle. I never met anyone. But for the little crowd at the bus stop, the whole town seemed to be empty.
I know a great many people who dwell in the darkness of a fallen world and sometimes the darkness overwhelms them by the hypocrisy, deceit, greed, endless pursuit of power or happiness or pleasure. Their spirits are oppressed by it and they sense what Paul said about the rulers and tyranny of darkness in the world. They have not chosen darkness but they cannot see much light.
I know a few people who have chosen darkness and have exchanged the truth of God for a lie. Their lives are nothing but avoiding being found out, trapped and caught in the deception. There are others mired even further in the mud. They are totally caught up in dark deeds and have surrounded themselves with others who are devoid of light. They have learned how not only to lie and deceive but it has become the imprint of their lives. It is who they are.
But it is the people who live in the half-light, the gloom, the twilight Lewis describes that affect me the most. Their hearts are not dark but they are restless and uncommitted. They are detached from their families and friends and cannot find joy that will give life meaning. They are not despised but they are dejected. In some ways, this is the worst darkness of all. There is just enough light in their lives for them to see but not enough for them to overcome the gloom that has seeped into their souls.
And that is why Paul ends as he does. We are to put on the armor of light – self-control, faith, love and hope to deal with a fallen world and combat those who have given themselves over to hearts of darkness but also to encourage one another and build each other up. It’s simplistic but I have found it to be true. “It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.” That is how we are to watch and to prepare for his coming.