The Spiritual Mind and Stress
"Casting all your anxiety on him because he cares for you."—1 Peter 5:7 (NAS)
Is modern life really so much more stressful than earlier times? We struggle to provide food, shelter, and clothing for ourselves and our loved ones. So did our ancestors. The hectic pace of modern life weighs us down, but surely the day-to-day hardships worried people living in earlier times. Whether in times past or in our day, the cares of this world hang upon the hearts of men like a millstone. We are stressed and distressed.
In addition to the cares of this world, cataclysmic events, whether natural or manmade, have caused further anxiety and stress throughout man’s history. Wars, famines, earthquakes, droughts, and floods have plagued humankind through the centuries.
Coping with Stress
The wise men of God are consistent in their advice to us about how we can cope with stress. The following counsel is but a taste of the nourishing spiritual food they have provided.
Paul encouraged, "Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God" (Philippians 4:6). Peter counseled, "Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you" (1 Peter 5:7). Jesus instructed, "Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear" (Luke 12:22). Jeremiah assured Israel that "blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD, whose confidence is in him" (Jeremiah 17:7). Solomon advised, "Commit to the LORD whatever you do, and your plans will succeed" (Proverbs 16:3). David wrote, "Cast your cares on the LORD and he will sustain you; he will never let the righteous fall" (Psalms 55:22).
These men of God did not write these words just for us. Surely they intended to comfort the people of their generation. Thanks be to God that his word, through these faithful men of old, has endured to console us at this end of the Gospel age.
Stress is External, Distress is Internal
Careful consideration of the words of Jesus, the apostles, and the prophets reveals what wise men down through the ages have known: stressful forces come from the outside, but the distress comes from within. Events become stressful by the meaning we give them and the meaning we give to events is revealed when we "listen" to our own words. When we tell ourselves the truth as revealed in God’s word, then the significance of all events in our lives rests in the context of God’s will for us. When we deceive ourselves about the meaning of an event, then we tend to wallow in the mire of self-pity.
Events can be stressful only if we attach a negative import to them. Quarrels with others, the death of a loved one, divorce, financial setbacks, problems with children, and physical illness are all common stressors. Here are some examples of how we can produce our own distress and how it may be avoided.
Stress Over Positive Events
To the surprise of many, positive events can also cause anxiety. Getting married, finishing school, being promoted, or preparing for a vacation, all can be stressful, but only if we talk falsely to ourselves. All these situations, both positive and negative, involve change. When we are threatened by or fearful of an event involving change, that event becomes stressful.
Expectation and Stress
A key ingredient of stress is expectation. If we anticipate things to remain the same, then change or the appearance of change causes distress. Likewise, we become distressed if people do not behave as we expect or if events do not work out as we had thought they would.
Does this mean we should not "expect" anything? Should we just let life happen without expectation? The answer centers around confusion between hope and expectation. When we hope a person will behave according to our desires, we may experience disappointment or grief if they do not. Expecting a person to behave as we wish is likely to result in distress if they behave differently. An example of the stress we cause ourselves by the significance we attach to an event and by the expectations we place upon others is in the account of the conversation between Martha and Jesus in Luke 10:38-42:
"As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me! Martha, Martha, the Lord answered, you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her" (NIV).
The work that Martha was doing was noble. Likewise the need of Mary to sit at the feet of Jesus was important. Martha’s expectation of what both she and Mary should be doing caused her distress when Mary behaved differently. The way she spoke to herself, about what was important for both of them, is what caused her worry. She tried to convince Jesus that it was important that Mary help prepare food. She told herself that Jesus did not care that she was doing all the work and she may have felt that those around her would think less of her if everything was not perfectly. The truth was that Jesus’ time with them was drawing short and it was important for Mary and the others to spend time with him. Jesus appreciated the work of Martha on his behalf but the spiritual work that remained to be done was more needful.
"Let Go and Let God"
"Let go and let God," is the kind of bumper sticker slogan that intuitively makes sense to most people, but the power behind its simplicity is in understanding how restraining and driving forces cause us distress. The restraint of distrust in people, lack of faith in God, hatred towards others, and false beliefs are in constant tension with the driving forces of truth, faith, hope, and love. It is only when we "let go" of the restraining forces in our lives and "let God" work in us to accomplish his gracious purpose that we can be free from the distress caused externally.
The Bible is full of examples of men and women who let go of false beliefs and negative thoughts in order to accomplish the will of God.
The wonderful story of Joseph is a shining example to all of us in this regard. Did he distrust his brethren when they came to Egypt for help? Did he hate them for selling him into slavery? Did he lose hope in the true meaning of his dreams? No, he persevered by his knowledge that God meant his experiences for good.
In a like manner, our spiritual mind knows that God cares for us. The Apostle Paul articulated this most clearly in his letter to the Romans. "In the same way, the spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the spirit, because the spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will. And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. . . . Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? . . . No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 8:26-28, 35, 37-39 NIV). Do we really believe these words of Paul?
Do we really believe God cares for us? It is only when we believe the truth of God’s word that "he careth for us" that we can "cast all our anxiety on him." May God increase our faith.