Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy (Matthew 5:7).
Participants in Alcoholics Anonymous keep an eye on themselves with the acronym, HALT, which stands for, “Hungry, Angry, Lonely, and Tired.” That experience cues them to call the sponsor, go to a meeting, or otherwise take care of themselves. HALT raises the risk of taking another drink and sliding down a slippery slope.
Although not an alcoholic, heeding the teachings of AA helps me emotionally and spiritually.
HALT cues me to slow down and attend to my needs – go to bed earlier, reconnect with friends, engage in activities that give me energy, or just pray and meditate. Moreover, observing my feelings and thoughts during HALT helped me recognize the nerve center of my anxiety: fear of vulnerability in a world where no one cares. In shorter form, call it the fear of abandonment. That fear recurs in my nightmares, and when HALT weighs heaviest, I almost get lost in it, putting up defenses and expecting to be unwelcome, sometimes feeling overwhelmed in a merciless world.
If that sounds like too much information about me, I share it nevertheless because clinical experience strongly suggests that I am not alone with this abandonment fear. If it is not the nerve center of all human anxiety, it lies close to the heart for most. So many anguished emotions and maladaptive behaviors result from failure to face and work through it.
Especially for people of faith, holiday HALT sets up a tragic irony: In the very season intended to celebrate God’s most decisive act of mercy – sending a Son to forgive and reconcile us in love – we hunker down in the cold of a merciless world and keep to ourselves. Granted, cruelty abounds, but when we let the nightmare of an ultimately cruel world eclipse the reality of God’s mercy in Christ, we practice a kind of atheism that suffocates the spirit. We blind ourselves to miracles of kindness initiated by a welcoming God. No place remains in that nightmare for the God who comes as a Child, joins us in vulnerability, and saves us.
I do not introduce the term, “atheism,” to accuse the sufferer. In fact, I confess my own susceptibility. But my point is that when I find and confess
this inner atheism, peace descends upon me. This discovery offers a foothold to step up with a decision during HALT: Invite the loving God into everything I experience, into dreams when I go to bed, into encounters with people who might hurt me, into silence when alone.
Of course, you “invite” God in prayer, and prayer asks for what God already does – love, help, and hold you. Have mercy on you. Invite the merciful God into your lived or dreamed nightmare, pray for mercy from the God who is love, for then you welcome Immanuel, God with us. You celebrate his coming right in the face of feeling hungry, angry, lonely, and tired.