We Christians have great tools for combating overwhelming stress in our lives. Faith knows that God has valid reason for what is happening and is with us and helping us. (Matthew 8:25-26) Hope knows that things will not always be as they are now, but a better day is coming. (2 Corinthians 1:10; Psalm 42:11) Love knows that God cares about us and is doing what is best for us even though life does not seem right. (Job 13:15; 1 John 4:16) Wisdom knows good things to be doing in the midst of our stressful sufferings. (Proverbs 8:12, 14, 17, 20; James 1:5) We can honestly share our feelings of hurt or anger over what is happening (Job 7:11; Psalm 6:1-4; 10:1; Habakkuk 1:2-3), but faith helps us see beyond the present and we learn to wait and trust God’s goodness to appear. (Psalm 27:13-14; 18:1-6; Habakkuk 2:2-4; 3:17-18) When under great stress, the goal is to be able to come to a calming peace, even joy, by sharing our pain, and using our tools of faith, hope, love, and wisdom.
Everyone has stress. Stressful pressures inside of us help us perform our proper duties. Stress involved in family situations, health issues, finances, jobs, and social life is a normal part of living. However, disheartening events can put us beyond our normal stress range until we feel we have more than we can handle. If the pressure or stress is too great, there is a danger of reacting poorly. As believers in Christ Jesus, we claim to have a faith that can get us through. But we can “fall apart” like anyone else if we are not able to eventually connect with God in calming ways during upsetting events. Although many Christians have learned to rely on God in a way that enables them to cope, the faith of others does not seem to automatically kick in when needed, sometimes through no fault of their own. We can hear the words that tell us to trust God, but that does not mean we are able do it. So how can we better experience our faith in those times when we are overstressed?
Catholic Archbishop, Joseph Cardinal Bernardin was once featured on the cover of Time Magazine. Before his death on November 14, 1996, an autobiography on the internet said that “In a September 1996 ceremony at the White House, President Bill Clinton awarded Joseph Cardinal Bernardin the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor bestowed on individuals who have made significant contributions to their communities and the nation.” The archbishop shared his experiences of stress in a book entitled, “The Spirit of Cardinal Bernardin”, 1983. His responsibilities and pressures had increased throughout his work. He talks about experiencing loneliness in spite of being surrounded by people, having anxieties caused by the fear of not being able to live up to other people’s expectations, how it hurts when he is misunderstood or criticized, the frustration he feels when his best efforts seem to accomplish little or nothing, his experience of times when he feels abandoned by God, and a depressing loss of morale when taken for granted as an insignificant person. At the end of his life on earth he suffered battles with cancer. In that book he also stated that it took him 25 years of ministry before he realized that he needed to put Jesus Christ first in his life, not just in theory, but in practice. When he did that he says that a profound spiritual change took place. He describes it as “letting go of Joe Bernardin and grabbing on to the Lord.” His stressful situations did not go away, but by putting Christ in charge, there was a difference in his life that enabled him to successfully cope with life’s stresses. Faith knows how to “let go and let God”. This phrase is a cliché, but learning how to do it in unsettling situations works to settle us. It took Joe Bernardin 25 years to learn it, but it need not take that long for everyone.
Jesus’ disciples needed to learn how to have trusting faith, but it took many experiences to learn it. Learning to trust is often, though not always, a process where faith becomes stronger due to many testing situations. When a sleeping Jesus and his disciples were in a boat, a huge storm suddenly caused Jesus’ learners to fear for their lives. They woke their master and implied that he did not care about their well-being. Sometimes we feel that way when bad things happen to us. But Jesus did care for them and he spoke to the raging wind-tossed sea. It became instantly calm. The disciples were completely amazed. “Who is this person”, they asked. Jesus puts forth a question to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” (Mark 4:35-41) As I think about this, I ask myself, “Could God’s voice, speaking “Peace, be still” to me in the midst of my stressful crisis, calm my troubled heart and mind just as it did the sea?” Apparently, the answer is yes, if I but trust in his caring presence and believe in his love for me and in his power to help me, not necessarily in his power to take away my present hurtful circumstances, but in his power to fulfill his promise that all will be all right no matter what happens, because nothing can separate me from his life and his ultimate plans for my good. (Romans 8:22-25, 31-39)
What if we are doubtful or too depressed to believe? What can be done if we find ourselves in a frame of mind or heart where we cannot bring ourselves to trust God? I think of the man who came to Jesus and said, “If you can, heal my son.” Jesus responded that all things are possible for one who believes. The man cried out, “I believe, help my unbelief.” (Mark 9:22-24) The point here is that unbelief can be helped. Although this kind of healing does not happen for everyone, Jesus helped the man’s inability to have faith by healing his son. What things might help our unbelief? Here are a few things I have found helpful when I have doubts or am struggling to trust God.
(1) There have been times in my life when I have felt such great stress and spirit-crushing fear that all I could do was cry out to God to give me His peace; not to take away the problem, for I knew that He may want the problem to remain to grow me more, but just to give me His peace so I could endure the frightening aspects of the situation. There has been a time or two when His grace did this for me because I could not get there by myself. He instantly calmed my inner spirit, just as He did the sea for his disciples. It was amazing and I was so grateful. What I did was to ask. It was what the man did when he wanted Jesus to heal his son, he asked. (Matthew 7:7-11)
(2) Another thing that might help our unbelief is to review the evidence for our faith, or remember the times God has helped us in the past. If He helped us before, what makes us think He will not continue to be faithful? I need to review Who He is so that through trust in such knowledge I might become settled and at peace with my situation, confident that He is able. (1 Chronicles 16:11-12; Lamentations 3:22-24) The more I find Him to have been faithful, the more I trust Him. And when I do not experience the answers I want or need from Him, I can still trust that He is good and in His time will provide what I need. I am at peace with the fact that God will do good for me no matter what.
(3) Another way to help our unbelief is to read the Bible. The Bible tells us that faith comes by hearing the word of Christ. (Romans 10:17; John 20:31) As said of Jesus, “He has a word that can sustain us in wearisome times.” (Isaiah 50:4; Matthew 11:28-30) Many times the Bible brings to me the words I need to relax my soul and troubled spirit and to help me be calm, helping me to rest in God’s presence and reviving in my heart the certain hope that He is with me and helping me. Even though I may not know what way that help will come, I look for it with expectation, confidence, and joyful anticipation. Each of us can find special words in the Bible that comfort us, or give us courage, or settle our mind and heart. Reading God’s word in times of stress helps. We need to hear from God, but for those words to empower us we need to believe them and surrender to them. (Proverbs 16:20) The struggle I sometimes have is to find what word he has for me in my particular stressful situation that he wants me to trust. I sometimes desperately want to hear him say something to me that gives me assurance that everything will be all right. (Romans 15:4)
(4) Another way to help our faith is by inviting believing friends to share in our trials. God often encourages us and strengthens us through their presence, or their reassuring and calming words, or their suggestions, or their prayers on our behalf. (Romans 15:14; Philippians 1:19)
To feel secure and experience his calming peace, I must be able to trust him completely, knowing for sure that no matter what happens, I am safe in his care. Sometimes, I find myself saying, “Even if I die, God will take care of me, and my loved ones who are left behind. All will be ok.” I think this is what was meant by Archbishop Bernardin when he used the words “putting Jesus first” to describe how peace and calm entered his life. Jesus said, “My peace I give to you, not as the world do I give to you. Do not let your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” (John 14:27) Continual frustration and debilitating fear is not from God, we must not allow our hearts to stay afraid. The way to do this is not to enter denial, or withdraw into ourselves, or drown our sorrows with drugs or alcohol, but to face our situation by exercising faith in the presence and truths of our Lord. When I say that coming to possess a strong faith is often a process, I mean that God desires this for us and it may take many stressful situations in order for us to learn how to trust or surrender our lives into the care of our loving and all-powerful God. This world will always present challenges until God’s kingdom comes in fullness. We must learn, in the midst of life’s stressful times, to “cast all our anxieties on Him for He cares for us.” (1 Peter 5:7)
Psychiatrist Dr. Harry Tiebout once discovered from a female patient, what was for him, an unrealized way to deal with stress. The woman was addicted to alcohol as a sedative for handling life’s difficulties, but she had something happen to her that changed her life completely. She described it as something that gave her a good feeling; that gave her hope for a new life. The Bible talks about such a possibility in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore, anyone in Christ has become a new creature, the old things passed away; behold new things have come.” Dr. Tiebout saw a definite change in this lady, but had no explanation for what had happened to her. He noticed that she had been unstable, but now was at peace; that she had been tense and nervous, but now was composed and felt safe; that she was afraid, but now was relaxed; guilty, but now contented. How could this be? According to a paper Dr. Tiebout wrote, she could not even tell what happened to her until she discovered what it was that enabled her to experience such a change. In a church service she heard a hymn that used the word “surrender”. It suddenly dawned on her that surrendering her life is what she did to experience this great spiritual transformation, thus relieving her of a defeated life and the stressful feelings that she could not handle.
By and large, people in our culture are encouraged to be self-sufficient. We are taught to believe in our abilities to do things. How often do we hear phrases like, “You can become anything you want to be; we believe in you”, or, “take control of your life”. It is good to have self-confidence and to responsibly exercise our abilities to their fullest potential, but in our human frailties and sinfulness, we often lack that needed power beyond ourselves. That power is the Spirit of God whom Jesus has promised to send to those who follow Him. (John 7:37-39) God’s Spirit is a person who comes along side of us to be our helper – He comforts, guides, teaches, imparts peace, empowers us beyond our own strength, and guarantees a good future that will certainly come to pass. (John 14:16-18; 16:13; Romans 8:14-15, 23, 26) As the apostle Paul once said, “When I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:10) When we are stressed and feel weak, or not in control, or frustrated, or uncertain about what to do, it is God’s Spirit who is able to give us what is needed. (Zechariah 4:6) The key for us is to learn to step aside, humbly admit our need, ask God to help us, and let Him work in His time to accomplish in us what we feel we cannot do. (Proverbs 3:5-6) It takes faith to know that God is interested in us as His truly beloved children. It takes a heart to want His will to be done in our lives and courage to surrender to whatever that might be. And it takes belief in Him; that He can make happen what we cannot. In “Finding God”, Dr. Larry Crabb wrote, “When our strongest passion is to solve our problems, we look for a plan to follow rather than a person to trust.” In a corrupt world our self-made plans or wants often fail at some point. We need a God we can trust to work things out in his time, and in ways He knows are best for us. When we learn to surrender our lives to Jesus, trusting a trustworthy person, things can happen inside, and outside of us, that we ourselves do not make happen. So… we first take care of trusting, but then we must also be responsible to do what God wants us to be doing. This is where wisdom continues of be a part of our tools to deal with stress.
Peace through faith is wonderful, but wise decisions also help us handle stress. God’s wisdom can come, not only from the Bible, and from God’s people, but also from the social and medical sciences. They have much to offer. To learn what works and what does not work in dealing with depressing stress, they study all sorts of human behaviors and conditions. If we believe that all truth is God’s truth, no matter its source, then part of God’s wisdom is to receive what is helpful from the medical and psychological sciences. Man has learned much about how to overcome stress, and books on the subject abound. These books have some great suggestions for things to do to help relieve our stress. Helps such as self-questions are good for assessing our situation. For example, ask yourself if there are physical signs of stress such as headaches, muscle tension, fast heart rate, sleeplessness, or upset stomach. Ask yourself if there are emotional signs of stress like quick temper, frustration, anxiety, discouragement, or guilt. Ask questions about your thinking; does your mind race with pre-occupations, worries, negative thoughts. Once you have seen how you are being affected, ask what is causing the pressures and then look for ways to ease the stress. It may help to do physical exercise, or reduce some of your tasks, or get away for awhile, or call someone to talk to. Asking these kinds of questions and taking advice from these books is helpful. Some books recommend self-talk techniques. Do you need to change what you are saying to yourself? Instead of negative talk, counter with statements like “everything will be ok”, or “it is not as bad as you think”, or “calm down so you can think what to do”. (Philippians 4:8-9) Many of these suggestions work for lots of people. We can take the good advice of books and medical practitioners, but if that is all we rely upon we will miss the wonderful work God wants to do in our lives, or even how we fit into His overall plans for this world. The Spirit of God can add so much more benefit and meaning to our lives than what we could ever get solely from self-helping human created techniques, or medical assistance. God’s word says that he wants us to consult Him in the midst of our trials. (Isaiah 30:1-2; 8:19; Jeremiah 17:5-8; 2 Chronicles 16:12) “In quietness and trust is our strength.” (Isaiah 30:15) We call upon Him for help and we trust our hope. (Job 13:15; Psalm 33:21-22) We learn to make Jesus everything and surrender our troubles into His care. We can know ourselves and be aware of our situations. We can set boundaries to protect our stress levels. But we never prevent stressful situations from happening. Sincere Christ-followers immediately know where to turn. Their thoughts turn to the God of loving kindness for supernatural help. (Isaiah 26:3-4; Psalm 13:5; 31:7; 36:10; 69:16-17)
God has a goal for us which is stated plainly in His word. His goal is that we be able to endure our stresses and pressures until they produce in us the completeness He desires – an understanding that in Christ Jesus we lack nothing – and thus we are able to experience His peace in mind and heart. But how do we get there in a Satanic and corrupt world? When bad stuff happens, we welcome those stress-filled trials, knowing that God wants to use them to grow us to be faith-filled, hope-filled, love-filled, and wisdom-filled people. (James 1:2-5) When things are stressful and are going from bad to worse, we need to know, even if not at first, that God is interested in refining us further, testing our hearts to see if we will continue to believe in his loving presence and plans. God has confidence in us. We may falter for a time, like Peter did (Luke 22:31-34), but we will come back and be stronger than ever. He would have us to be faithful in doing what is right in the midst of our stress. (Psalm 25:4) Perseverance means to wait on God rather than to try and hurry out of the situation. When we see ourselves enduring our stress and its sufferings and still trusting God, we become confident that God will not disappoint us; that He will fulfill all He has promised. And we are sure of this because, through our surrender, we experience how much He loves us. (Romans 5:3-5) Ultimate faith is when we have surrendered completely, trusting Jesus’ goodness and wisdom with no questions. When this happens, though our trouble may not be removed, we enjoy His perfect peace, a sign to us that we are more at home with God than with the world. Such faith speaks volumes to those who live in this world without hope. Our problems help us empathize with those who are hurting and their observing our God-enabled response gives us opportunity to share with them the reason why we are at peace; it is our faith and our love relationship with God. (Psalm 55:22; Romans 15:13)