THE STRUGGLE WITH STRESS
BY PASTOR GLENN PEASE
Gipsy Smith was one of the great evangelists in England in the last half of the 19th century. He had the largest congregation in England outside of London. They met in a building that once housed the Imperial Circus. One Sunday night the pre-service prayer group was meeting in a side room used by Circus people as a dressing room. Three hundred people were there singing and praying. All of the sudden the floor collapsed sending them sprawling into the stables below. 75 people were injured with broken arms, legs, and a few skulls were fractured. All were bruised, but not a life was lost.
The people gathering in the large auditorium heard the loud crash and were terrified, but there was no panic. Doctors were sent for, and the injured were taken home in cabs. Gipsy Smith got himself out of the debris, and rushed back up to the platform to explain the accident, and assure people that all possible help was being rendered to the injured. He begged them to keep calm. Some urged him to cancel the service, for though he had no injuries his nerves were in a state of shock.
He was not alone. When he asked for the lights to be turned up, the nervous caretaker turned them out, and there was a scene of fear and confusion. A Mr. Brown saved the situation by starting to sing the hymn, Jesus, Lover Of My Soul. The people calmed down and joined him in the hymn. The lights came on and the service went on, but Gipsy Smith was so weakened by the stress of that evening that he had to be carried home. For months after this he had after effects of fear and trembling, and many years later he wrote, "Even now, occasionally, when I am face to face with a large crowd, something of that feeling of that night comes back to me." He went on to win thousands of people to Christ in England and America, but he never completely escaped the impact of that traumatic event.
The point is, just as Christians do not escape the storms of nature, so they do not escape the storms of their human nature: The storms stirred up by stress, tension, and anxiety. The Christian is in the world with a physical body and nervous system just like everyone else. When it is 99 in the shade the Christian body sweats. When it is 30 below the Christian body freezes. When it steps into an open elevator shaft the Christian body falls, and when the Christian feels the friction and grinding gears of a fallen world that will not run smooth, the Christian body and mind records the stress, just like everyone else. Nobody escapes the reality of stress, and that all inclusive statement does cover our Lord as well.
In Matthew 26:38 Jesus said to His disciples in Gethsemane, "My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death." His disciples did not say to Him what some Christians have said to others under great stress, "Christians never need to be under the circumstances, but can always live above them." Such positive thinkers would have a hard time facing the reality that even the Son of God felt the crushing power of stress. He was already feeling a foretaste of being forsaken by God.
Dr. Luke writes of this same scene of super stress in Luke 22:44, "And being in anguish, He prayed more earnestly, and His sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground." If we saw a Christian brother or sister sweating with anxiety, we would be appalled by their little faith, and would feel compelled to rebuke them, even if their sweat was just normal body moisture and not blood. But here we have such stress that blood vessels are broken, and blood is mixing with the sweat. We are talking about a breaking point here. The human body has limitations as to how much stress it can bear without breaking down, and Jesus was on the edge of that limit.
It makes sense that He would be, for He was facing a trial which makes all other human trials minor in comparison. He was facing the burden of the world's sin and hell: That is separation from the Father, and He was innocent. The only man ever to never deserve hell was going to endure it for all those who do deserve it. We can understand that the cross puts stress on Jesus that was beyond anything we can imagine, but it is a mistake to think Jesus did not feel the stress of normal life as well, for he did.
We read in John 11:33, "When Jesus saw her weeping and the Jews that had come along with her also weeping, He was deeply moved in spirit and troubled." The stress of the sad emotions around Him was more than He could bear, and two verses later comes the shortest verse in the Bible: Jesus wept. It is short, but it speaks volumes about the stress of life and what is consistent with Christ-likeness. You have two choices: Either stress is not a sin, or Jesus was a sinner, for He had stress. If you are a Bible believer, you have only one choice, for Jesus was without sin, and yet He had stress, and so stress cannot be sinful.
The Bible is often a puzzle to us because we try to force a Biblical precept into places where it does not fit. For example, we see a Christian friend in sorrow and we feel an obligation to cheer them up with a, "Rejoice in the Lord always and again I say rejoice." But we forget that the man who said those words, Paul, was also a man who felt deep sorrow, and wept with a troubled heart over the problems of believers. We forget he also said, "Weep with those who weep," as well as, "rejoice with those who rejoice."
We have gotten it into our heads that the Christian is not to feel the negative side of life, and have the down emotions that come with the stress of life. We quote our Lord in John 14:1, "Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, trust also in me." We take this out of its context of rejoicing in our hope of life forever with Christ in that place where He has gone to prepare for us, and try to apply it to the Christian who is distressed over a problem in this life, and by so doing, we are going against the grain of Scripture.
The Greek word for troubled is the same word used by Jesus back in 12:27 to describe His own emotions. "Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say, Father save me from this hour? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. Father glorify your name." John uses the same word to describe Jesus in John 13:21. "Jesus was troubled in spirit and testified, I tell you the truth one of you is going to betray me." We take the words of Jesus, to not be troubled, which apply to worrying where we will spend eternity, and make it say, don't be troubled about anything, and that is folly, for Jesus was troubled about plenty.
What all this means is that to be troubled and disturbed because you are full of anxiety about your heavenly destination is to be in a state of disbelief in the promises of Christ, and therefore, under the impact of sinful stress. On the other hand, if you are working with a boss who is godless, and who is just looking for an excuse to fire you if you try to have a Christian perspective about life-style, and you have a troubled spirit-this is not sinful anxiety and satanic stress, it is the normal reaction to life's frustrating pressure. It is not good to have such stress, just as it did nothing good for Jesus to have it, but it was not sinful, and is not sinful for us. The point I am establishing is, life is full of stress that is not sinful, and there is no need for a Christian to feel guilty for having it. Jesus did the will of God on earth as it is in heaven, but while on earth He suffered the same stresses and anxieties that trouble us.
This is important to see so that we do not get involved in the foolish effort of trying to persuade ourselves and others that we should never feel the stresses of life. When we do this, we only add more stress to our lives, for we are trying to do something that even our Lord could not do. To pretend we can escape the stress of life is to put ourselves above our Lord. It is sinful to think God expects us to be more than Christ-like. God's goal is that we be Christ-like, and in a fallen world that means being subject to stress that must be manifested in a appropriate manner.
It is nothing but sinful pride that makes a Christian try to pretend they do not feel the normal stresses of life like Jesus did. He got exhausted to the point of collapse. He was heart-broken with sinners who rejected Him, and walked away into darkness. He was deeply disturbed by those who betrayed Him. He wept over the sadness that sickness and death inflicted on people. A Christian who does not feel these things is like a Pharisee who stands in the temple and says, "I thank God that I am not as other men." It is sinful not to feel the stress of compassion for the fallenness of man.
When Jesus said, "Let not your heart be troubled," He was not saying that we should cease to be caring persons, and to get our heads so far above the clouds that we can't feel the stress of this world. Jesus came into the world to feel these very things, and to taste to the depth the reality of human stress. There is nothing Christ-like at all about escape from life's stress. Jesus sought it, and so did Paul. Paul gave his life to reach the Gentiles with the Gospel, and in so doing, he went through every negative emotion and stress we can imagine. Those who preach that the Christian life can be stress free are preaching a message not found in the New Testament.
And that brings us to our text finally. I know this has been a long introduction. It is like building a five room entry way to a four room house, but all of this is important as the foundation for a valid study of stress.
In this home in Bethany we find three of the favorite people in the life of Jesus. They were all single like himself. The setting shatters the idea that only brothers fight and live in conflict. Cain killed Abel, and Joseph brothers sold him into slavery, and the elder brother would not even go in to say hello to his long lost younger prodigal brother. These and other brothers in conflict blind us to the fact that sisters have conflict as well, and they add stress to each others life also.
It makes clear that being single is not a stress free way of living. No family in the New Testament had to endure more tension than did this lovely trio of singles. Lazarus was sick unto death, and the two sisters were frantic, for they knew Jesus loved him, and they knew He could heal him. But they could not reach Jesus and persuade Him to come. You talk about frustration and anxiety and super stress. There is more weeping recorded in that home than any other in the New Testament.
But before this major crisis, we see the minor crisis of our text where it is revealed that they had to deal with the same old stresses of life everyone else has to deal with. The stress of work, cooking, cleaning, and entertaining of guests. The tension of different values and goals within the family. Here are two sisters who are both very loyal in their desire to serve Jesus as their Messiah. But their differences create a scene of stress that we want to examine, and see in it two valuable truths about stress. The first is,
I. SOME STRESS IS INEVITABLE.
If Jesus could not escape it; if His disciples could not escape it; and if His best friends in the world could not escape it, there is something very unrealistic about any Christian who expects to escape from the stresses of being human. In other words, if you are not a pet rock, you can count on stress, for it is an inevitable part of life. Even Adam, an ideal man in a paradise could not escape stress. It was not good for him to be alone God said. He felt the stress of lacking companionship. There was stress even before sin, and so we see, that stress is inevitable in a world that is anything less than absolutely perfect. This means stress will not end until the new heaven and new earth, which will never pass away, and where all that is less than absolutely perfect will be excluded.
The good news is, if stress was a part of life before sin then there has to be a good side to it. That is, it has a place in God's plan, for God planned for Adam to begin his life with stress. It motivated Adam to seek for a companion, and it motivated him to do some self examination as to his own feelings. Stress made Adam want even more from God than a beautiful, wondrous world. It made him want love, and whatever makes us want the highest is good for us.
Look again at the stress between Martha and Mary. It grew out of love. Martha so loved Jesus she would labor the day away to make sure He had the best hospitality a man could enjoy. She was a fanatic for her strong point which was domestic excellence. That was her gift, and she wanted nothing short of the best for her Master. But Mary loved Him too, and showed it by eager listening to the Master. This is why stress is inevitable. Not everybody has the same gifts, perspective, interests, and time schedule. The only way you can make stress not inevitable is to make all people carbon copies of each other, so they always act as one with no differences. Since God did not choose to create a world of such carbon copy clones, and instead, made it so that even two sisters with the same parents, and the same environment are radically different personalities, stress is inevitable.
But remember, it is not all bad. A world where all are Martha or all are Mary would be a bad world. We need both, and both learning from each other, and both benefiting from each other. The stress produced here by their differences led Jesus to point out the need for balance. We are certainly guilty of extremism if we interpret this passage to mean Jesus expected Martha to become a Mary, or that Martha should cease to be a good cook and care about hospitality. If you read this into the account, then you produce enormous stress. That would mean Jesus is rejecting Martha's gift and personality, and is asking her to stop being herself, but be her sister. Jesus is the author of individuality and not its destroyer. He had no such intention. His point is, neither should Martha expect Mary to conform to her.
Martha had let stress become excessive, and this was making her a problem. Stress was good to a point, for it was making her be the best of who she was. But excessive stress was bringing out the worst in her. Stress is like the oil in your car. It is vital to the engine, but if you overfill it, it becomes a problem. Too much of a good thing is a bad thing. So it is with stress. Dr. Hans Selye is considered the worlds leading authority on stress. He has written many books and sixteen hundred articles on the subject. He says this, "Stress is the wear and tear of everyday life; it is part of everything we do. We can't avoid it, nor would we want to, because the absence of stress is death. The idea is not to try to avoid stress, but to make sure we live with beneficial stress." He goes on to explain that beneficial stress is basically the proper amount.
Martha was not wrong for being under stress. That is what made her a great hostess, and why Jesus kept coming back to her home for more. He loved it when He could get back there for a home cooked meal. We don't want to knock this lady whose gift gave Jesus a good taste of human pleasure. Her problem came because she allowed stress to build beyond her level of control. She cared so much to make this event perfect that she spoiled it. Here is a paradox. The one most concerned that it be perfect is the one who blots it with imperfection. That is what stress does when it becomes excessive. In proper amounts it is the energy to achieve your goal, but then when it is excessive it becomes the enemy that undermines your goal. Stress is a dangerous necessity, for like electricity, it can bless you or burn you.
Dr. S. I. McMillen was for many years a medical missionary to Africa, and later became the college physician at Houghton college in New York. He tells of how he developed the habit of generating ten dollars worth of adrenaline over a ten cent incident. A college nurse called him and said she was sending a girl with a dog to his office. The dog had a fish hook in its ear and she did not know how to remove it. Dr. McMillen says he would react with lightening like hostility, and his head would begin to pound, and he would develop a terrible headache. Here was a man called to fulfill the great commission, and he was spending his time taking a fish hook out of a dogs ear.
He was angry that people would not cooperate with his goals, but instead interrupt his life with such trivialities. His over-reaction to stress, and the reading into this minor request a major catastrophe was a symptom of his lack of stress management.Stress poorly handled led him to develop a bleeding ulcer, and had he not learned to deal with stress more wisely he could have died, or been incapacitated and out of commission in his service for Christ. Like Martha, he cared so much to be useful that he almost became useless. The more you care the more likely you will be excessive, and allow stress to become a friend turned traitor.
Time magazine did a study of stress and discovered that the highest incidence of stress related sickness came to people who felt little sense of control in their lives. They did not have the power to make things happen like they wanted, and the result was enormous stress. Martha could not control Mary and get her on her band wagon and this led to her excessive stress. The world is filled with Martha types who just cannot get the Mary types of the world to do their thing. The Mary types have their own thing, and the result is frustration and stress.
If you wonder why a lot of prayers are not answered, here is the reason. Notice, Martha came to Jesus and said, "Tell Mary to help me!" It sounds more like a command, but she was asking Jesus for help. That is what prayer often is, a plea for help. But Jesus did not grant her request, for she was doing what people tend to do under stress: They want to use God to help them get control of the situation. Mary is not cooperating with her agenda, and so she is asking the Lord to take her side and help her get control of Mary. Such prayers are seldom answered because they are a selfish request to strip others of their freedom of choice. If God answered such prayers we would all be somebody else's puppet.
Jesus rebuked Martha for being so worried and upset about many things, and He said that Mary has made a good choice, and I will not take that which she has chosen away from her to satisfy your need for control. So Jesus thus, taught her that some stress is inevitable in a world where nobody can always have their own way, and where others are free to choose their way. But we see also,
II. SOME STRESS IN NOT INEVITABLE.
Martha did not have to be upset, for she had the same choice as Mary, and she could have made the better choice as well. It was not ordained that she be a worry wart fussing over every detail of a meal and miss the joy of fellowship with her guest. This was a choice nobody needed to make. This is self induced stress which is so harmful to life.
The fact that some stress is inevitable does not justify preventable stress. Paul said in Rom. 12:18, "If possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all." The implication is clear: A peace maker can prevent a lot of stress in life if they really work at it. According to Dr. Selye not only does your Christian life depend on it, but your physical life depends on you being one who prevents stress. In his book, Stress Without Distress, he reveals his discoveries as the worlds leading stress researcher. He says the evidence shows that all of us are born with an adequate supply of what he calls "adaptation energy." It is enough for a lifetime, but it is a bank account from which you can only withdraw. You cannot deposit, so every time you withdraw from your account you deplete it. When your reserve is gone, so are you.
It is like airplane fuel. It is expected to be enough to get you to your destination. But if you use it excessively by radical climbs and dives, you will run out before you arrive, and you will crash. Why do Christians crash and have all kinds of problems like mental breakdowns? One of the primary answers is, there choice to cling to stress related living rather trust related living. In other words, if a Christian pilot tries to fly over a hundred and twenty gallon mountain range with only one hundred gallons of fuel he will crash. We can all agree it was a foolish decision. But it is what many Christians do when they go beyond their capacity and take on more stress than they can control. People with a Martha complex, who have to have everything perfect, and everyone under their control will have a higher likelihood of a heart attack, than the Mary types who can love to work as well, but who know how to let it go and relax, and let their minds and souls be fed.
Mary was living in the same stressful world as Martha, but she was spending her quota of adaptation energy moderately. Martha was a spendthrift and was depleting her resources rapidly. Jesus was teaching it is not necessary to handle stress like Martha. We can choose to handle it like Mary and live the balance life where some stress in not inevitable. We can prevent it, avoid it, and eliminate it.
Stress brought Jesus to the breaking point, and if you are bearing the sin of the world you have a perfect right to be so stressed. But if you are getting all bent out of shape over a meal, or fish hook in a dogs ear, or one thousand and one other trivial things of life, you are mismanaging your stress. Ps. 34:19, "A righteous man may have many troubles, but the Lord delivers him from them all." God does not promise escape from stress, but He does promise to help you manage stress so you can take advantage of its positive side and control its negative side. May God help us all to be good stress managers in this stress-filled world.