A week ago today, I did something I should do more often—turned notifications off on my phone, drove to an area with no cell reception, hiked to the bottom of a canyon, and sat for two and a half hours with a good book.
For the first fifteen to thirty minutes of reading, I surprised myself at how often I reached to check my phone, even though my notifications were turned off and I didn’t even have cell service. Definitely not a habit I’m proud of.
About thirty minutes in, I was reaching for my phone for a different reason—to take pictures to share online.
Finally, as the connection-detox ran its course, I let my phone sit unnoticed on the rock beside me as I simply sat and absorbed my surroundings. I didn’t post any pictures that day, but I did leave wonderfully renewed and less stressed than I had let myself be for quite some time.
The next day, while sitting at my desk at work, it occurred to me that stress steals from us some of God’s most valuable gifts—gifts I had hardly noticed were absent forty-eight hours prior, but realized now what a treasure they are. I jotted four down.
Before I share them, however, I’d like to clarify the difference between stress and being stressed out. Stress is a part of life and not something we can, or even should try to, avoid completely. Although we could make a case for living with manageable commitments, that’s beyond the scope of this post. We could also make a case for the fact that there are avoidable stressors that are worth choosing because they are connected to serving people. And there is also the reality that sometimes God leads us through seasons of unavoidable stress.
The aspect of stress that I struggle with the most, however, is not the tension between how much stress to allow versus how much I should have, but the tension between letting pressure drive me to being stressed out versus living under pressure with the grace of God.
So what do we lose when stress overcomes grace?
The morning of the day I went hiking, I had read Psalm 19.
The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork.—Psalm 19:1
As I sat there at the edge of my rock and tried to take pictures, I realized I couldn’t capture the expansiveness of what I was surrounded by. I was simply in awe of God. I couldn’t stop thinking, “God made this!” I know that sounds simple, but it’s not a thought I’ve ever been overcome by when I’m stressed out.
Suddenly God was big, and I was small again. As it should be.
When I was first discovering the awesomeness of God’s Word as a young teenager, I loved seeing “something new” in my Bible reading. I still do. But I think what I love even more now is when I come to a familiar passage and am surprised by the awesomeness of it.
Recently, I was reading Romans 8. I knew that I was coming up to verses that tell me nothing can separate me from the love of God. But as I read them, I was taken aback by the absoluteness of their expression. It was like there was a crescendo of intensity in the what that can’t separate us from Christ’s love. I knew those verses—have even memorized them—but I was still surprised by their depth.
I think the classic example in Scripture of someone who was too stressed to be surprised is Balaam. I mean really, how would you respond if a donkey began talking to you? Shock? Fear?
Balaam dialoged. And you get the sense that he didn’t even recognize that he was talking to an animal.
And the Lord opened the mouth of the ass, and she said unto Balaam, What have I done unto thee, that thou hast smitten me these three times? And Balaam said unto the ass, Because thou hast mocked me: I would there were a sword in mine hand, for now would I kill thee. And the ass said unto Balaam, Am not I thine ass, upon which thou hast ridden ever since I was thine unto this day? was I ever wont to do so unto thee? And he said, Nay.—Numbers 22:28–30
I have no explanation for this conversation, except to think that Balaam was too angry and too stressed to be able to feel surprise.
How about you? When was the last time you were surprised by God’s grace? The Romans 8 moments have never happened to me when my distracted and stressed mind was reading but not absorbing. That kind of surprise takes a quieted heart.
This may be the most grievous loss of stress. Gratitude actually softens stress in a way no organizational planner or resolution to take on less can do. (And I’m not discounting the importance of organization or wisdom.)
Gratitude reminds us that the sources of our stress are often the same as the sources of our blessings.
That long to-do list? It’s an opportunity to make a difference in things that matter.
Those noisy children? They are your gifts from God to imprint with His love.
That tiring ministry? It is a place to personally give God’s grace to others.
That long commute? Demanding schedule? Challenging projects? Heavy burden? These are all the places where God desires to meet us with His grace. But it is difficult to take pleasure in how His strength is made perfect in our weakness when we face that weakness without giving thanks.
For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.—2 Corinthians 12:8-10
When we fail to give thanks, we live stressed out and free of gratitude.
Do you remember when you were excited about the beginning of what is now stressing you out?
You couldn’t wait to go to college. You learned you were going to be a new parent. You were about to begin a new ministry. You were starting a new job.
When stress takes over, it sucks the joy right out of what once excited us.
All throughout God’s Word we see that the sharp edges of life and turbulent times can be our times of greatest joy.
My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations; Knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience. But let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing.—James 1:2–4
Wherein ye greatly rejoice, though now for a season, if need be, ye are in heaviness through manifold temptations: That the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perisheth, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise and honour and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ:—1 Peter 1:6–7
But a stressed out perspective robs us of the joy God desires to give us in challenging times.
The tragedy of these losses is that all four of the above are gifts God desires for us to live with continually. We might be content to go through seasons of stressed out days, not noticing what we’ve lost. But that’s not God’s intent for us.
Reclaiming the Gifts
So how do we reclaim these gifts stress takes from us?
In many—perhaps most—cases, we can’t take away the stressors. But we can be intentional in our responses.
My suggestions are simple:
- Meditate on the greatness of God. There was nothing magical about my desert hike last week. It changed the tide of stress for me because it brought me back into an awareness of the greatness of God. Taking time to enjoy nature can be a help to starting this process—the desert, ocean, and mountains all can help renew my awe of God. But it’s really more a decision of the heart than the location. Meditating on who God is renews a needed perspective as once again God is big, and I am small.
Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; and his greatness is unsearchable.—Psalm 145:3
- Quiet your heart. God’s presence is the greatest gift He gives His people. When we live stressed out, we act as if it all falls on our shoulders. We live as if we don’t even have a God who is present with us. Carve out time and place to set your concerns aside and rest in the presence of God. Be surprised again by His care for you and His commitment to you.
Be still, and know that I am God: I will be exalted among the heathen, I will be exalted in the earth. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah.—Psalm 46:10–11
- Give thanks. I’m amazed at how simply giving thanks can turn the tide of my emotions from stressed out to grateful. Sometimes I just find something to thank Him for. And sometimes I center my thanks on an aspect of what is presently stressing me out. Either way, these three words can work wonders: “Lord, thank You….”
In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.—1 Thessalonians 5:18
- Rejoice. It’s interesting to me that although God promises to give us joy, He never commands us to feel joyful. But He does repeatedly tell us to rejoice. To feel joyful is a response; to rejoice is a choice.
Rejoice in the Lord alway: and again I say, Rejoice.—Philippians 4:4
The opposite of stressed-out living is not a stress-free life. It is peace—a gift God desires to give, if we will just open our hands to receive it.
The Lord will give strength unto his people; the Lord will bless his people with peace.—Psalm 29:11