Human beings hate uncertainty. This dislike may go way back into our evolutionary history, when not knowing what was around the bend or in the water or up a tree might mean you’d get eaten. In fact, studies show that we’d rather know for certain that something bad is going to happen rather than to wonder if something bad might happen.
A couple years ago, some researchers devised a computer game to test this out. In the game, subjects had to turn over digital rocks to see if there were snakes under them. If there was a snake, the subjects got a mild but painful electric shock. Meanwhile, the researchers were recording various indicators of stress like changes in perspiration, saliva, and the eyes. It turned out, even if the subjects were certain there was a snake under a rock and were sure they were going to get a shock, their stress levels were lower than when they didn’t know whether they’d get a shock or not.
When we’re faced with this kind of uncertainty or ambiguity, we are driven to get answers for ourselves. There’s an actual psychological term for this; it’s called the “Need for Closure.” The more stressed, fatigued, and uncertain we’re feeling, the greater our need for closure.
The need for closure is so strong that it actually makes us behave in predictable ways. Researchers Arie Kruglanski and Donna Webster explained it this way: first, in our urgency to get answers, we “seize” on the first information we can get our hands on, without bothering to find out if the information is good or not. Then, in order to maintain the closure we’ve gotten from the information we’ve seized on, we “freeze” the answer we’ve gotten and do whatever we can to protect it. We reject any new information that comes our way, and we certainly don’t seek it out. The longer we are frozen on our initial answer, the more confident we become that it’s the only answer and the less likely we are to consider other possibilities. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle.
It’s easy to recognize. Think of any disaster that’s happened in the relatively recent past, and think about all the harebrained explanations that people seized on before the actual facts were known. This actually happened this week in the wake of the school shootings in Santa Clarita. In the story published in the “Blade” the day after the shooting, the police were quoted as saying they had not yet determined a motive. Yet, several paragraphs later, neighbors of the boy who did the shooting had already seized on an explanation: the boy’s father had died a couple years ago, and he must have been sad about that. The “seize and freeze” approach to satisfying our need for closure is obvious once you know what to look for.
Stress levels among the people surrounding Jesus were probably pretty high that day in Jerusalem. There had been the incident in the temple courtyard, when Jesus overturned the tables of the moneychangers. The hostility of the religious authorities was unmistakable. Then, as some around him were admiring the admittedly beautiful and awe-inspiring temple with its massive blocks of golden stone and its exquisite furnishings, Jesus makes a jaw-dropping comment. “All this that you’re so impressed by? The day is coming when not one stone will be left upon another. It will all be thrown down.”
His listeners’ “Need for Closure” must have kicked into high gear. The temple, destroyed? What a terrible possibility! They immediately ask Jesus, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” They didn’t want to be left hanging. It was better to know the worst than to wonder, “Is this the day?”
Centuries before Kruglanski and Webster described how we humans try to satisfy our need for closure, Jesus knew that in their need for closure around his very frightening statement, his listeners were likely to seize on whatever information was available. They might seize on people who said they had come in Jesus’ name, or who even claimed to be the Messiah themselves. There would be people warning that the end of the world was near. There would be news of war and insurrection, famines and plagues. There would be no shortage of things to seize on as signs and omens that would satisfy their need for closure.
We are so much like those listeners gathered around Jesus. We’re not awaiting the destruction of the temple, but we are awaiting his return. We anticipate that day with both joy and, I would say, some dread. Because we spend a lot of time trying to figure out the signs of when it’s going to happen. We have that same need for closure—the need for certainty. So, we scour the Scriptures for clues we can seize on.
The problem is that while we’re busy doing that, we miss the important things that Jesus has to say to us. We seize and freeze on the images of natural disaster and war and famine, forgetting that Jesus said these are not signs and omens of the imminent coming of the kingdom. When we focus on looking for signs, we shut ourselves off from Jesus’ words about how we are to live until he comes again.
Jesus was speaking specifically of the destruction of the temple, but his advice still holds true for us as we wait for the fulfillment of God’s kingdom. First, regarding those fear-mongers and false prophets who claim to speak for God or speak as though they are God, Jesus says, “Do not go after them.” Don’t allow your fear to attach you to someone who speaks as though they have authority.
That may make you think of people preaching on street corners wearing signboards that say, “The end is near.” But the bigger dangers are the people who use Christianity as a political tool, the ones whose preaching fattens their wallets and promotes themselves more than Jesus Christ, the ones who promise that the righteous will be rewarded with wealth and health rather than the persecution that Jesus warns of. Their flash and their influential connections and their world-wide media reach make them easy to seize on but, as Jesus says, “Do not go after them.”
Second, Jesus says, “Do not be terrified.” The world is a frightening place. It was when Jesus walked the earth, and it is today. And now, we know of every war, every time a nation rises against nation. Now we witness, on our screens if not in person, earthquakes, fires, and floods, famines and illnesses across the globe. We can add to Jesus’ 1st century list: gun violence, climate change, and weapons of mass destruction. And yet, Jesus says, these things are all part of the world as it is. They aren’t good things, by any stretch of the imagination, but they are not the omens we want to make them out to be. “Do be terrified,” Jesus says.
But, not being terrified is not the same thing as being apathetic. Not being terrified doesn’t mean being inactive. We still have a responsibility to live out what we have been commissioned to do as faithful people of God and disciples of Jesus. We are to continue to serve as stewards of the earth. We are to love others—caring for the sick and the poor, and working for the good of the oppressed, the stranger, and all those affected by the ills of this world. These are the conditions of a broken world, no more and no less. Do not be terrified, but do not be complacent, either.
When we are tempted to give in to fear, we have to break out of the impulse to seize and freeze. We need to take a step back and remember what we’re waiting for—the complete fulfillment of God’s kingdom. We aren’t waiting for the horrible monsters and battles of John’s Revelation. We’re not waiting for a world laid waste by disaster. We’re waiting for the New Jerusalem, when the home of God is among mortals, and God will dwell with us. We are waiting for the world that God promised through Isaiah—a world that is completely restored.
This restoration goes all the way back to the beginning—a correction of the problems that began in Eden. The woes described in Genesis will “no longer be remembered”; they won’t even come to God’s mind. Of this new world, God says through Isaiah, “The former troubles are forgotten and are hidden from my sight.” Children formerly born through and into pain will be born and blessed with long, healthy, and fulfilling lives as God’s beloved.
Rather than being excluded from peace and plenty, people will build and live in their own houses. Rather than wringing a living from ground that produces only thorns and thistles, humanity will plant vineyards and eat their own fruit and “long enjoy the work of their hands.” Those who were once enemies will live together in peace. Trees will become symbols of long, healthy, fruitful, and faithful lives rather than a symbol of Eden’s disobedience, unfaithfulness, and brokenness.
Most importantly, humanity’s relationship with God will be fully restored. No longer will we be tempted to hide in the bushes as Adam and Eve did, ashamed to have God see us. Instead, our relationship with God will be such that we will not even have to call on God before God responds to us. God won’t wait until we are done speaking but will hear us while we are still putting our thoughts into words. No longer will God mourn over a people who will not call on God’s name but will have a people who rejoice and delight in what God has created. This is the future we wait for, and we wait for it not with terror but with hope.
Finally, Jesus has a warning for us if we are bold and courageous enough to fully live out Jesus’ call to radical love and to stand up to false prophets. If we do that, we are likely to face resistance. We may not face the same degree of persecution Jesus’ listeners did, or that our brothers and sisters in many other countries do today. But we may have friends and family members, co-workers and classmates, who confront or challenge us.
Jesus says, don’t waste your time anticipating how to respond. When the time comes, Jesus himself will give us both the words and the wisdom we need at that moment, in that situation. We don’t need a planned-out, one-size-fits-all defense. What we will need when we are challenged to defend our faith in Christ are words that speak directly to our challengers’ questions and fears. If we allow Jesus to guide us, we will be able to speak in ways that offer a true and faithful witness to our Lord and Savior.
The key to all of this is endurance. Endurance is the opposite of a “seize and freeze” reaction. When we have questions about what is happening around us, endurance keeps us from grasping at the most convenient answers or following the lead of the loudest voices, ones that lead us away from, not closer to, the God who loves us so much. Patient endurance in our faith will keep our souls strong and help us face trying times as they come.
Luke’s readers would have known that Jesus’ words about the destruction of the temple had come true. Luke’s gospel was likely written in the mid 80’s, some twenty years after the actual destruction of the temple in the year 68, some thirty-five years after Jesus spoke his words of prophecy. This is important to remember. Because Luke is reminding his readers that Jesus was a true prophet—one whose words they could depend on.
We can depend on Jesus’ words as we wait for his return. When events around us tempt us to ask, “When will this be, and what signs should we look for?” we can believe him when he says, “Do not go after false teachers.” We can believe him when he says, “Do not be terrified.” We can believe when he tells us to trust that he will be with us and guide us. As we trust in his presence, our faith will endure until he comes again. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young