When hard pressed, I cried to the Lord; he brought me into a spacious place. (Ps. 118:5 NIV)
Submarines and elevators and MRI machines and windowless cubicles and underground restaurants are wonderful things. Unless, of course, you are claustrophobic. Claustrophobia is commonly defined as the fear of small spaces. The word is formed from the Latin word "claudere," which means to shut or close, and the Greek, "phobis," fear. Those who experience claustrophobia often panic when they feel they are being "shut" or "closed" in. It's not always the small space itself that is the problem. Often, it's the feeling that one is trapped in a tight space, that there is no way to escape. This causes distress and real physical reactions, like shortness of breath.
Like most phobias and things in this world, there are mild to severe cases, and singular to chronic experiences. My mother was not claustrophobic, but she avoided elevators when possible. She was once stuck on one, and from that day forward, elected to take the stairs. Only a small percentage of people are clinically claustrophobic, but I suspect feeling unable to escape is a universal experience.
The English language has built in phrases, or idioms, to express this experience of being trapped, often by intangible things. We feel stuck in our routine. We feel pressed for time. We feel overwhelmed by the weight of the world. We feel imprisoned by our addictions. We are hard pressed to meet our deadlines. We feel like everything is closing in on us. In every one of these situations, we experience distress and feel like we cannot breathe.
The Hebrew poet in Psalms uses the word "tsarah" to express his adversity. It's often translated as "distress," or "trouble," or "affliction," or, as above, "hard pressed." Literally, however, it means "tightness." In this, we see the poetic skill of the writer. He beautifully contrasts tightness and space, constraint and freedom. This contrast is used often in Scripture (for instance: Psalm 31:8, Psalm 18:6,19, Job 36:16). "When the world was closing in, and I could hardly breathe;" says the poet, "when there was no escape in sight, I cried out for help from my God, and he set me free, placed me in a wide open space, and I could breathe once again."
When the world begins to cave in, and panic sets in, and it becomes difficult to breathe . . . just breathe. Breathe out a prayer to the God of wide open spaces, and breathe in the breath of the giver of life. He is a liberator, after all. There are no walls he cannot break down and no space he cannot expand.
May you discover freedom in wide open spaces, - Pastor Jonathan