Modern life is consumed by stress. We seek to manage it in a myriad of ways. We read self-help books, do exercises, and go to conferences. Yet, the best way to manage stress was communicated nearly two-thousand years ago.
Stress is a state of mental tension and worry caused by problems in your life, work, etc. I was told to view stress as the effects of frustration, which is the feeling of being upset or annoyed, especially because of inability to change or achieve something. Frustration is the feeling that you do not have what you think you deserve, and stress is the effect.
Before proceeding, I admit to being stressed a lot. This essay comes at a time when I am feeling acutely stressed, and is the effect of reflecting on that stress. That is, I am not asserting a position of teacher, but of fellow student.
Stress in the modern life comes from all the variety that life hits us. Via social and multimedia, we are barraged by information; and we feel a need to process it less we miss out on something important. At work, we struggle against conflicting interests (both internal and external to the company) and are stressed when our interests are in tension. This occurs in our homes, in our workplace, among friends, on the city streets and in our churches. We feel stress in our political world, and in international relations. Perhaps at its root, the issue is one of self-rightness. That is, our belief that what we think we want and need are right and should prevail over others.
With that statement, I point two fingers in the mirror. I am the source of my mental tension at work, at home and elsewhere. I know that I am aggressive in pursuit of what I view are important goals, and I will compete. It is what I am known for. In that competition there is stress.
The gospels speak of Jesus walking on water, but Matthew includes Peter’s stepping out to join him. Through the gospels, we see Peter as aggressor and would-be leader. He lops off ears and makes bold claims he fails to honor. Here we see Peter briefly relying on God and able to dismiss the wind, waves and laws of physics. Yet, when he becomes aware of this, those forces promptly act and only by Jesus’ intervention does he reboard the boat.
In the movie The Last Samurai, Algrin learns to become Samurai by being of “no mind.” That is, to dismiss all thoughts but the immediate conflict. Eastern religions focus on stress by emptying of the mind.
Again, Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount that we are not to worry about anything on the premise that God is in charge. Christians believe that God made the universe so that he could have a personal relationship with each of us—which is simultaneously seemingly very arrogant and humbling. Master of the Universe is specifically interested in you. I say seemingly arrogant, because this master of the universe is specifically interested in the lives of every living creature, so only humility should result.
Jesus demonstrated worry in the Garden. With mere hours left in his ministry, he was about to embark in the greatest battle of rightness. He was about to fight both death and evil, and it would kill him. Nobody has endured the stress he endured. Yet, his teachings on stress and worry we ignore.
How did he address worry? He focused on God in prayer. Peter failed to stay focused on God and it resulted in him sinking. Jesus remained focused on God, even when God abandoned him (as was necessary to win), and it resulted in the greatest of triumphs.
God is not Santa; he is not in the business of giving you what you want. God is in the business of doing what he wants and of using us for his purpose. Prayer is not asking him to fulfill our wants, but of aligning to his. Of ensuring our wills are aligned, that we seek to pursue what he wants us to. We pray to surrender ourselves, to see God in our daily actions, and to accept that God will meet our needs as surely as gravity.
What about yoga, alcohol, meditation, drugs and exercise? If your motive is to cope with reality via these means, then perhaps you should do without. In his study on Judges, Tim Keller observes that there are many man-made gods and idols that are used to cope with reality or fulfill our fantasies. Those gods are not jealous: you can have as many as you want, and they will share you with God. However, we know that God is jealous and will not return the favor. This is not because he has some need that we fill, but because he knows that these so-called gods ultimately pull us away from reality and harm us.
Rather than seek to evade reality or pursue our fantasies, freedom from stress involves focusing on God and understanding reality, and recognizing that many of our fantasies are just illusions of the mind.