(This article was published in my church's bulletin on 30 April 2002 . Reproduced here with permission.)
Biblical Stress Handling
Everyone knows what stress is. At least, everyone has experienced some stress in his life whether he admits it, or recognises it as such, or not. Stress is always present with us because man is a thinking and emotional being. As a thinking being, he makes choices based on what he perceives to be most satisfying, or having the best outcome in his reckoning. Such being the case, if he were to live in a vacuum, and he can do all he wants, he would always be happy. But man is a finite creature, who is not always able to control the environment he lives in or the circumstances surrounding his life. Thus, he often finds himself in situations which he prefers not to be in. When that happens, stress results. And since every person is made differently, we can expect to be stressed in many different ways. In fact, what may be relaxing to one person may be stressful to another, and vice versa. If you are a person who enjoys a fast-paced life, and cannot stand not doing anything for a moment, you may find it very stressful to sit at the beach to relax for a while, or even to go to the toilet without a book in your hand! But if you are a person who hates pressure, you can find it stressful just to see someone walking quickly across the room!
Stress is not all that bad. It is part and parcel of human life and is a manifestation of the very different ways in which God has made us and the many different circumstances that He providentially puts us in. Many of us are stressed because of work pressures: tight schedules, unreasonable bosses and colleagues, many late nights, office politics, etc. Some of us are stressed because of demands of the family: misunderstandings between husband and wife, financial strains, illnesses, decisions pertaining to the children’s education, the interference of in-laws in the family affairs, etc. Others are stressed at school: assignments and project deadlines, examinations, relationship problems, competition among peers, etc. Even driving or walking along the road can be stressful. The list of factors contributing to stress in the modern society is practically inexhaustible. They are part and parcel of our lives.
However, stress, if it leads to frustration and is prolonged, can be harmful spiritually and physically. It is a well-known fact that too much stress can result in physical and psychosomatic disorders such as high blood pressure, heart diseases, ulcers, insomnia, migraine, and even eczema. It is less well known that prolonged stress, if not properly handled, can lead to spiritual depression and desperation, which is sin (cf. 2 Cor 4:8). Stress may also lead to manic depression.
How do we handle stress? Many have gone to New Age oriented stress handling seminars. Others have attended meditation classes or taken up yoga. Should the Christian ever participate in any of these things? Not at all! The Apostle Paul teaches us: "What concord hath Christ with Belial? … And what agreement hath thetempleofGodwith idols? for ye are the temple of the living God" (2 Cor6:15–16). Many of these pagan techniques stress on "emptying the mind," but the Word of God teaches us that we must be "transformed by the renewing of [our] mind" (Rom 12:2). In other words, our lives must be transformed by a new understanding and new attitude, which is based on the Word of God. Let me therefore suggest seven biblical and practical steps which we can apply to our lives to handle the stress that we experience.
Firstly, you should be aware if you are feeling stressed. You are probably stressed if you feel a great but inexplicable pressure upon you. You should suspect you are stressed if you find yourself becoming unusually impatient and irritable. You know you are stressed when you carry a frown all day long and find it hard to smile or laugh; and find that Proverbs 14:13 describes you very well: "Even in laughter the heart is sorrowful; and the end of that mirth is heaviness." Under such circumstance, you may even doubt your salvation because you feel miserable and loose focus of the purpose for your existence.
Secondly, and most obviously, you should pray. The Apostle Peter urges us to cast our anxieties upon the Lord because He cares for us (1 Pet 5:6–7). Come to the Lord therefore, with your burdens. Cry out unto Him as did the psalmist (Ps 18:6). Cry out to Him as your Abba Father who loves you and cares about every aspect of your life. Ask Him to grant you not only contentment in the midst of turmoil, but ask for wisdom and strength to handle the particular situations in your life. If you are aware that you have sinned, then you must repent and plead for forgiveness of sin. Sin is one of the greatest causes of stress for the believer. This is graphically portrayed by David in the Psalms: "When I kept silence [regarding my sin], my bones waxed old through my roaring all the day long" (Ps 32:3). Pray for peace of conscience. Pray for guidance and help. A Christian who is constant in prayer is unlikely to become very stressed up, or be stressed for very long. A praying and trusting Christian may be facing much stress, but will never be tempted to despair. Like Paul, he can say: "We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair" (2 Cor 4:8).
Thirdly, seek to be biblical. I am convinced that being biblical is the most important Christian way of preventing and combating stress in the believer’s life. There is much that can be said under this subheading, but let me just focus on two points.
In the first place, I would suggest that many Christians are greatly stressed to the point of exhaustion because there is a general failure to observe the Lord’s Sabbath today. There is a certain sense in which the Sabbath is a primary means of stress-relief appointed by God. The Sabbath is the legislated rest day for all men, but especially for the child of God: "Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work…" (Ex 20:9–10). Sadly, many will find keeping the Sabbath,—which is anything more than just attending a worship service on the Lord’s Day morning,—very stressful today! But this needs not be so. Those who have been observing the Sabbath rest (see WLC 116–117) will surely agree and can testify of the great blessings upon their life both physically and spiritually. And I believe that the initial stress that will be experienced by those who have to readjust their lives in order to keep the Sabbath cannot be compared with the benefits that will be derived. Being biblical can never be wrong.
Now, in the second place, if there are specific areas in your life which are stressful to you, then I would urge you to direct your mind and your eyes to the Scriptures to see if your attitude, your actions and your decisions pertaining to the causes of stress have been biblical. I know of a sister who was under tremendous stress in her life and was becoming quite distressed. Though there were numerous factors pressurising her, she eventually realised that the biggest contributory factor was that she was teaching in the Sunday School of her church. She stopped; and she was much happier. I believe that a child of God, who is doing something that is not in accordance to the Word of God, will eventually be troubled in his or her conscience and so experience guilt, stress and distress.
Fourthly, look away from self and man to God. Personal expectation and peer expectation are often the major causes of stress. If you are feeling stressed because of a sense of personal helplessness in a particular situation that you are in; then I would simply suggest that if you have already done what you could, that you should learn to submit the rest to the Lord. Some problems are simply beyond your control. Acknowledge your limitations and present your case to the Lord. When you have done so, you really have no reason to feel frustrated, as it would be to distrust the Lord.
The situation is quite different with peer expectation. Many of us are stressed because of what we perceived to be what others expect of us. This is not all bad, but sometimes we can become too sensitive so that we feel a tremendous amount of pressure when there need not be any. So, learn not to be overtly conscious about what others think about you. I used to feel very stressed when I wear a shirt with patterns on it, because I get a feeling that everyone is looking at me. But how often do you actually take notice of the way in which another person dresses—unless he is wearing gaudy green or orange. Similarly, I used to be very self-conscious about singing aloud in congregation worship because, once, someone who was standing in front of me actually covered his ears in order not to be distracted by my singing. But I have learn that unless I am exceptionally loud or if I am singing over the microphone, that I need not feel overtly conscious about singing out of tune. The Lord does not look on the outward appearance or the external sounds we make. He looks at the heart. And I must seek to please Him above man (Gal1:10). If I am singing with grace in my heart, I really need not feel inhibited to sing my heart out even if I am not absolutely sure of the tune! Rather than being concerned with what others think of you, be concerned only with what God thinks of you. Look to the Lord, not to man.
Fifthly, learn to communicate. There is some truth to the popular adage: "A blessing shared is doubled; a burden shared is halved." Besides, it is imperative for saints to bear each other’s woes: "Bear ye one another's burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ" (Gal 6:2). So make sure that you share your burdens with brothers or sisters in Christ who can empathise or at least sympathise with you. This may be your spouse, your parents, your siblings or your friends. Make time for Christian fellowship. A healthy soul should generally experience much blessing from godly Christian fellowship. Also, learn to speak your mind when you find that you are being stressed because of some decisions or actions by your bosses. I am, of course, not advocating cathartic philosophy of stress reduction by gossiping against the boss with others who view him as a common enemy. I am referring to speaking to your boss himself. In the same way, you must learn to speak to your pastor, if something he said or did troubles you. I am told that speaking to the pastor can be a stressful experience! But it really need not be so, nor should it be so. The pastor of a flock who feels this way is in some sense failing his duty, for the Word of God forbids that the pastor should be lord over the flock (1 Pet 5:3). If the Chief Shepherd is a friend unto His flock (Jn15:13–15); then an under-shepherd who is not a friend to the flock is simply not representing Christ. So, learn to pour out your burdens. Do not bottle-up and get more and more stressed-up and frustrated.
Sixthly, learn to make use of lawful means for relaxation. Remember that what may be relaxing for one person may be stressful for another. Some of us will find the singing of psalms very useful. But, I know that for some of us who are still not used to singing the psalms, it can be quite stressful to sing the psalms! But persevere, and you will soon find it a balm for your soul. Some of us will find it very relaxing to pick up a book to read; or to listen to music. Learn to make use of these in proper measures. Soothing music can be very helpful to relief stress. Although the problem of King Saul must have been more than emotional stress, it must have been part of it. And the music of David must have relieved him somewhat. Sports and exercises are also legitimate means of relaxation, which are very helpful for stress relief.
Remember that man is a two-part being. The attitude of suspicion towards anything that has to do with the body, that prevails in many a fundamental circle, is simply a form of stoicism and gnosticism. Some say that when Paul speaks about bodily exercise (1 Tim 4:8), he was not referring to exercise as we understand it today, but to ritualism. This is false. The Greek indicates that Paul was indeed referring to physical training. He says the "bodily exercise profiteth little." This is definitely true when it is compared to "godliness." But we must not therefore swing to the extreme to disdain exercise altogether. Exercise is generally recognised as an effective stress relieving activity. Similarly, it is not wrong for Christians to have fun, though we may be amazed at why we should be allowed to have pleasure despite our sin. Learn to laugh at the appropriate time (Ecc 3:4). A Christian needs not and should not go about with a sorrowful countenance. Laughter and smiling are definitely good medicine for stress: "A merry heart maketh a cheerful countenance: but by sorrow of the heart the spirit is broken" (Prov15:13).
Seventhly, planning your time well is a good preventive to stress built-up. But again remember that we are made differently. Some of us find it useful to have an hourly timetable, others prefer to plan by day or week. But some form of plan, however imprecise, is always useful. When you plan, however, always bear in mind that God is in sovereign control over all that happen and will happen in your life. So all your plans must be accompanied by a Deo Volente —God willing (Jas4:13–15). As such, do not worry about what would happen if things do not turn out as planned. "Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof" (Mt6:34). Learn to submit your life entirely to the Lord.
A child of God should not feel stressed to the point that it becomes physically and spiritually detrimental. The word ‘stress’ does not occur in the Scripture, and for that reason, it is thought that the Bible has nothing to say about it. But we can see that this is not the case. However, it is true that much of the Bible deals with a greater problem of sin and guilt, which is itself a great cause of stress. Let us therefore give due priority to addressing the problem of sin in our lives, and then let us not neglect to handle the stress that may build up in our lives.