26 September 2016

Stress Management

I was thinking this morning, as I pondered all the tasks in my Reminders app, that 90% of stress is self-induced.

We tend to think of stress as something that springs up unconsciously as a result of the external pressures of life, work, relationships, and financial crises.  Blame-shifters to the core, it's far easier for us to cry victim in these circumstances than it is to honestly evaluate our own hearts in the matter.

Hi, my name is Justin and I'm a recovering people-pleaser.  That means that I can easily allow myself to become stressed out if I think someone (or many someones, since I'm a youth director!) is displeased with something I said or did.  It also means that mundane tasks can incite stress -- stress that seems like it's simply attached to the vast amount of things I have to do, but that really originates within -- attached to a swollen concern of others' perception of me.

Why am I stressed about this task?  Because it's time-sensitive?  Maybe a little.  But the real source of stress is that if I fail to get it done on time (problematic), people will judge my time-management skills (more problematic) and think less of me as a leader (most problematic).  That's like a 10% /  20% / 70% ratio.  And I'm willing to bet that if we evaluated all of the things we claim bring us stress, we'd find that the breakdown isn't much different -- regardless of the specific circumstances.

Here's what I'm learning.  First, I am a glutton for affirmation -- just like the rest of the human race.  Why are other people's opinions of me such a big deal?  They shouldn't be.  Furthermore, my heart is so deceptively prideful that, even though I tell myself I don't care what other people think, I still compulsively check my appearance in the mirror, choose some clothes over others, trim my beard and my nose hairs, and get angry with myself when I don't say things the way I intended.  You, like me, care far more deeply about what other people think of us than we even realize.

Second, the bulk of my stress is almost always the result of my response to a situation, not the situation itself.  It's 10% fear of failure and 90% fear of having my character judged.  Which means that the problem itself is not the problem: I'm the problem.  And if I'm the problem, then I must also have the solution.

I think that's why Paul makes it sound so easy to quash that sense of being overwhelmed in his letter to the Philippians, in which he admonishes the believers not to be anxious for any reason (Phil 4.6).  He makes the peace of God that passes all understanding sound so attainable, like you can just turn off the anxiety with a switch.

Can it really be that easy?

For Christians, it should be.

With our salvation -- that is, our permanent rescue from divine judgment of our sinful condition -- Christians have the ability to surrender such things as stress, anger, and frustration as the sins that they are to a Messiah whose blood frees us from all unrighteousness.  As a follower of Christ, when I am feeling stressed out, I'm also being presented with a choice: succumb to my old ways of operating, or walk in the newness of life that has transformed the very core of who I am.

Most often, we choose stress.  Seriously, we do.  We choose it.  It's far easier to sink into that panicky, "how-in-the-world-am-I-going-to-get-this-done" mode of thinking than it is to surrender moment-by-moment to the power that God provides, because we are control freaks who desperately want to micro-manage our own lives.  Were we to honestly address our own exalted views of our desires and our own self-importance, and exalt instead the One Who is truly in control, however, we might begin to access the divine power of peace that passes all understanding.

This is one of those things that I'm tempted to say is easier said than done, but I'm coming to believe more and more that stress is yet another one of those mole hills we've turned into mountains because we'd rather feel sorry for ourselves than do the hard, daily work of crucifying our flesh.  If we did, we might overcome our stress instead of being overcome by it.

Because I sense the objection coming, the answer is yes -- there are folks who have chemical imbalances that cause them to feel all manner of depression, fear, anxiety, etc no matter what they do.  Unquestionably.  But because our society as a whole would rather claim to be a victim of biology than acknowledge physiological/psychological issues as the result of our own spiritual weaknesses, we instead prefer to be diagnosed and get out of jail free.  Some people do need medication, yes.  Some people's stress is a factor of their biology, and I believe God gives grace in those instances.  However, the stress the rest of us we experience is 90% internal choice -- that is, us choosing to view our problems as bigger than our ability to handle them, and choosing to focus on others' perceptions of us rather than the problem itself.

A view of reality that elevates me and my problems over God and His power is a sinful perspective on life -- it is a form of idolatry that is incredibly difficult to subvert.  But as followers of Jesus Christ, we are told repeatedly that it is our responsibility to walk in the power of the Spirit (in which Christ Himself walked -- Gal 5.16), that we must adopt the holiness of God the Father Himself (1 Pet 1.16), and that we have the ability to battle against the desires of the flesh (1 Cor 10.13).  Stress is the symptom of one of those desires of the flesh -- the desire to have control over not only our circumstances, but also over the people around us.

By acknowledging that we have no true control over anything (except our own actions), we remove one tentacle of stress from our brains.  

By acknowledging Christ as Lord, as the One Who is not only our Friend but also our Redeemer and Rescuer who modeled the path of servanthood so that we too could give up our lives for others... we lessen the power of our own self-exalting thought processes.

By choosing to focus on who Christ says I am rather than what other people think of me, and by choosing to express only gratitude for the magnitude of love, grace, and mercy that God has lavished upon me, I drown my stress in a healthy dose of the peace that passes all understanding.

Stress is 90% internal quandary.  If I can surrender my doubts and insecurities and unreasonably high self-expectations, all through the power that Christ supplies, then that 10% (what I call the "legitimate" stress in my own day-to-day life) will be all the more manageable.  I believe we're called to thrive as believers, not merely survive.  With stress constantly dragging us down, we are only capable of the latter.