All Stressed Up... With No Place to Blow

Advice for taking charge of your life.

Doug Dickens is the Associate Professor of Pastoral Ministry at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in For/ Worth, Texas.

Which of the following situations would you consider to be stressful? Being audited by the Internal Revenue Service; unexpectedly inheriting a large sum of money from a friend; discovering that your child is on drugs; or being promoted to the job in the company you've always wanted. The fact is, all of these events are stressful because they represent major changes.

As Christians, we would like to believe our faith in God would keep us from tension, trouble, and stress. But we quickly discover that the Christian life isn't like that. Consider, for example, the life of Jesus. He was born into poverty; He was constantly criticized by other ministers; He was often treated with ridicule; He was forsaken by His friends; He died a horrible death, He was to be, as the Prophet Isaiah said, "A Man of sorrows ... acquainted with grief."

Where does stress originate? What does "stress" mean? It has become a catch-all synonym for the problems, pace and pressures of life. In every­day conversations we talk about "feeling stressed out," "being under stress," or even "facing stress-producing people." In Latin, "stress" is translated strictus, "to he drawn tight." In Old French it is estresse: narrowness or tightness.

Modern stress experts define stress as a reaction to any change in the environment. It usually comes from changes in our environment, from conflictual relationships, or from pressures we create for ourselves.

It's moving to a new pastorate. It's changing pastors! It's moving to the next grade. It's failing a grade! It's the changes and responses to life. Stress is an inevitable part of your life and mine. Good stress has been called "eustress," and painful difficult stress has been called "distress." Since we can't escape stress, we must learn to live with it In some concert grand pianos, over 240 taut strings exert a pull of 40,000 pounds on the frame. Think of the tremendous tension in the piano! If the tension is too great, the strings will snap. If the strings are too loose, no wonderful music can be created.

When we meet challenges and pressures successfully, we feel a sense of pride and accomplishment. The happy feeling that often comes with facing problems and effectively coping with stress is eustress. It comes when we identify our stress and take constructive steps to face it, feeling some sense of control, and not being overwhelmed.

Distress occurs when life seems out of control, when we see few options, when we don't really under­stand what is happening, when the stress lasts for a prolonged time, or when several problems exist at the same time.

Remember the tight feeling you got in your stomach when you had a painful disagreement with your teenager? When was your last headache or the awful tension you felt after an unpleasant situation? Medical textbooks say somewhere between 50-80 percent of our maladies are stress-related. Stress affects our bodies, our budgets, our minds. If we fail to handle the distresses of life we may internalize it in our bodies. American industry spends more than $26 billion every year in disability payments and medical bills.

The impact of stress on our "peace of mind" is likewise troubling. "Stressed out" persons often feel inadequate, guilty, or shameful, have lots of anger, and loads of anxiety. From this standpoint, every Christian should see stress as a spiritual challenge.

What can the Christian do to more effectively handle stress?

Earlier I suggested that stress can even come from the internal pressures and anxieties we create for ourselves. You might respond, "I would never be the source of my own stress!" How do you answer the following questions:

Do I frequently worry about situations over which Ihave no control? Do I expect perfection from myself or others? Do I feel I have to compete to win in every situation? Do I focus on faults rather than strengths? Where do I find my emotional and spiritual security? Do I "check out" what other persons want and feel, or merely make assumptions? Do I frequently feel powerless to see the choices I may have? Am I always pushing myself, in a hurry to perform faster and better? Do I constantly compare myself and my achievements to others? Do I always expect the worst from life?

If you answered, "Ooops, yes ..." to most of the questions, what can you do? All of us have heard the typical (sometimes appropriate) suggestions:

Take charge of your life, get organized; take breaks and vacations; anticipate and rehearse difficult situations ahead of time; don't procrastinate; know your limits; learn to say "No"; schedule your stressors so they don't all have to be faced at once; take care of your body; believe God can work effectively through you.

Most of the suggestions we hear fall into two categories: "Take it easy... be happy ... think positively!" Or, "Try harder ... get tough on life ... Fight back!" But a John Wayne jaw won't make your stress go away.

I recently heard William Hull, provost at Samford University, discuss how Jesus faced His stress. Look, he suggested, at the schedule of our Lord during "Holy Week," the most stressful week of His life. A genuine clue is found in John 12:27, where Jesus prayed not to be delivered "from this hour," but rather, "for this hour ... "

Monday, He cleansed the Temple, and asserted His deepest convictions about life. This was not impulsively done. He had spent a lifetime &fining Himself, committing Him­self to what really mattered.

Tuesday at His anointing service at Bethany, He let people love Him. Even facing His greatest challenge, Jesus refused to wallow in self-pity.

Wednesday, He took a day off. The Gospel writers are silent. Apparently He did not try to fix things, but to ready Himself for the cross.

Thursday, He went to dinner with His friends in the Upper Room. While His disciples were fussing over greatness, Jesus was anticipating the future, with a bold "Remember me."

Friday, just before the cross, He offered it all to God in prayer. "Nevertheless, not my will but Thine be done!"

In almost every case, Jesus faced His pressures and stress by doing the opposite of what we usually do. Thus, His example becomes a challenging one for us:

Take a courageous stand, open myself to love, find privacy to heal the soul, accept the friends I've got, and offer it all to God.

On His last day, when everyone else lost it, Jesus came center stage with the Victor's shout on His lips. We, too, should pray not to be spared from the stress, but saved in the stress by the Savior's strength.