Falling Seed: Using stress to drive us up and in instead of down and out

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I’m sitting outside. I have to. I need to feel the cool breeze of this overcast summer day. I need to hear the background noise of the nearby freeways that sounds almost like water … if I squint my imagination just right.

More than natural (and manmade) surroundings, I need a break to breathe and pray.

Do you ever feel like you need a break to breathe and pray? Better still, do you ever take the time to do it, to step away for some fresh air and a conversation with God?

I need to breathe and pray because I’m stressed.

Why are you stressed, pobrecito?

Life is good. I’m a “fortunate son” with a wonderful family, good health, good job, good connections, a lot of education, a roof over my head, plenty to eat and plenty of creature comforts. How on Earth could I be stressed?

As good as life is, it’s not perfect, and I’m not immune to the emotional and physiological effects of stressful situations. Two examples will suffice.

I just started a new job and moved. Relocating my family was and still is stressful. A bad contractor situation in the midst of the move was and still is stressful.

I read a lot of news, which I’ve always done and more so now as part of my new job. The news is full of stress-inducing stories from our less-then-perfect world. In turn, my mind is full of things I wish were different in politics, economics, racial relations, society and the world.

Reading the news as I do, I am well-aware what a charmed life I lead. For me to give the above as examples of stressors in my life, for me to offer them as a not-so-subconscious ploy for sympathy is bald proof of how good I have it.

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But the fairy-tale nature of my life (and maybe yours, too) should not be a diversion from the need to acknowledge and respond to stress. Instead, the luxuries of life should give space for responding to stress better. After all, stress is an opportunity for followers of Christ to grow closer to him and in turn to exhibit his hope to a world awash with stress.

Frankly, the world needs us to take such an attitude to stress.

Are you stressed?

In case you are unsure of your stress level, you might take a few minutes to assess your situation using the well-known Holmes and Rahe stress scale, which you can access here. If the link doesn’t work, you can find the Holmes and Rahe scale with a simple Internet search.

Go ahead. Take a few minutes. I’ll wait.

(Insert Jeopardy theme song)

How was it? Did you answer all the questions? Are you ready to continue? Or do you need to see your doctor?

In truth, we don’t need tests, inventories and questionnaires to reveal our stress. Stress is not that mysterious. What these instruments do for us is provide a measure of the sources and intensity of our stress, which can help us make beneficial adjustments in our lives in two directions—vertically and horizontally.

Vertical: Stress and our relationship with God

Though God is not relegated to a room upstairs, we generally think of our relationship with God being an up/down, or vertical relationship.

When we become aware of stress, what is our first reaction? Do we become angry, withdrawn, worried, anxious, combative, critical, suspicious or cynical? Or do we become prayerful, turning to God for peace, security and guidance?

I’m not talking about piety. I’m not assessing our level of faith or gauging how spiritual we are. I’m not wagging my finger at us chiding us “to just trust in God … more.” I’m simply asking: What does stress drive us to do? Does our stress drive us away from Christ or closer to him?

For both of us—you the reader and me the writer—we can gauge our vertical relationship through our horizontal relationships.

Horizontal: Stress and our relationships with each other

Our response to stress and the condition of our vertical relationship with God are played out, whether or not we are aware of it, in our horizontal relationships with each other.

Our family, friends, coworkers and even the people standing in line with us at the grocery store (if we still buy groceries in a store) can tell us how we respond to stress. These people know without our telling them whether we breathe in air or breathe out fire when we are stressed.

So, I ask the same questions here I asked above: When we become aware of stress, what is our first reaction? Do we become angry, withdrawn, worried, anxious, combative, critical, suspicious or cynical? Or do we become prayerful, turning to God for peace, security and guidance?

What does stress drive us to do? Does it drive us to mirror the world’s angst or to reflect Christ’s hope?

Stress drives too many to an early grave

Unfortunately, too many of us allow stress to carry the day. As a result, we put ourselves at increased risk of “obesity, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, depression, gastrointestinal problems and asthma.

These are just the physical problems associated with stress. Stress also affects our mental and spiritual health, driving us apart from each other, God and even ourselves … if we allow it.

“Hmm. If we allow it,” he echoed ponderously.

A stress exercise for followers of Christ

The next time we sense tightness in our chest, shoulders, jaw or forehead; the next time our breathing becomes shallow; the next time our pulse quickens; the next time we become aware of stress in our lives—whatever the cause or intensity—let’s take a deep breath (or two or three) and reach for God in prayer so we are not driven down but up, not out and away but in and together with Christ and each other.

It sounds like a Sunday school answer or cat poster until you try it.

What the world needs now

The world could use a lot more love, it’s true. That love can start with us taking stress seriously, taking our relationship with God seriously and taking each other seriously. The things dividing us from one another, the things doing damage to our own selves, and the things we are allowing to divert us from God threaten to take us down and out.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Instead, those same things can drive us up and in to Christ and each other, and that’s what the world really needs now.

I don’t know how you scored on the Holmes and Rahe stress scale, but I know based on my score I need much more time outside breathing and praying.

But I already knew that.

Eric Black is the executive director, publisher and editor of the Baptist Standard. He can be reached at eric.black@baptiststandard.com or on Twitter at @EricBlackBSP.

We seek to inform, inspire and challenge you to live like Jesus. Click to learn more about Following Jesus.

If we achieved our goal—or didn’t—we’d love to hear from you. Send an email to Eric Black, our editor. Maximum length for publication is 250 words.

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