Leaving Stress and Anxiety Behind
I am pretty sure of one thing this week: most of you understand the ideas and the burdens of stress and anxiety. Stress is a part of our culture. People even tend to wear stress as a badge of honor . . . at least at first. Counselor Archibald Hart writes,
In recent years, researchers have discovered just how much of our modern-day anxiety is being caused by stress. Stress not only causes headaches, ulcers, and heart disease, it also sets the stage for anxiety by wreaking havoc with the brain’s biochemistry. This is why the most frightening increase in anxiety problems has occurred in highly functioning executives, women, pastors, and leaders, the very groups who are the most over-stressed.
The reason we are seeing such a dramatic rise in stress disease, anxiety, and clinical depression in modern times is not to difficult to discern. In a nutshell, most of us are living at too fast a pace. Our adrenaline is a continuous stream of supercharged, high-octane energy. And, as with any vehicle running on high-octane fuel, we usually burn out quickly. If you really want to know why you are so stressed-out, consider the fact that you, like many others, are too hurried, hassled, and overextended. The pace of modern life is stretching all of us beyond our limits. And we are paying for this abuse in the hard and painful currency of stress and anxiety-plain and simple. [Hart, The Anxiety Cure]
In Luke 12:22-34 Jesus talked to the disciples about anxiety. The times may be different but the counsel is just as wise and may be even be more important to hear than ever. I see four principles for living a life that is properly balanced. If we take these principles to heart we can start to walk away from stress and anxiety.
Let me add a caution here. If your anxiety is causing panic attacks or obsessive compulsive disorders and if your phobias are unmanageable there may be a physical problem and you may need medication or other treatment. This is no different than needing medication for your blood pressure. There may be a physical problem that needs treatment.
The anxiety that Jesus addresses has to do with being preoccupied with what might or might not (in some cases) happen. We dwell on all the bad things that could possibly take place and we fret, stew, lay awake at night and feel our heart beat fast inside of us.
Worry Doesn’t Do anything But Make You Miserable
The first principle comes from verses 22-26
22 Then Jesus said to his disciples: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. 23 Life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. 24 Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds! 25 Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? 26 Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?
Jesus points to two common worries of his day: providing for our basic needs and sufficient clothing. Our list of basic needs has certainly expanded from the time of Christ. We feel the need to provide so much more for our family because we have come to believe we “need” much more than ever. And when it comes to appearance…has ever a generation been more enslaved to the mirror?
Jesus’ first principle is one we have heard many time: “Nothing is accomplished by worrying.” Jesus reminds us that we can’t make our lives a day longer and we can’t make bad things stay away by worrying. Worry is not only a waste of time; it spoils the enjoyable times. I don’t know how many trips to various places I made less enjoyable because of my anxiety about potential traffic problems. Sometimes the traffic was bad, sometimes it was not. The only thing the anxiety changes was my ability to enjoy the journey!
Jesus tells us to look at the ravens. These are birds considered unclean by the people of the day. They were “nothing” in the minds of most people . . . yet God took care of them. Jesus also pointed to the flowers. Flowers have a short “life span” but God still takes great care of them. They are more beautiful than clothing you can find in a store.
Jesus is arguing from the greater to the lesser: if the ravens and flowers are taken care of by God . . . He will certainly care for us because we are more valuable to Him. God knows what we need and He will provide for those needs. Jesus advises that in stressful times we choose to focus on God’s sufficiency rather than potential problems. In other words He calls us to rest rather than stew; trust rather than worry.
It is Better to Be Preoccupied With the Pursuit of God’s Kingdom
Jesus didn’t stop at telling us simply not to worry . . . He tells us to put all that energy we give to worry to something much better.
31 But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well. 32 “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.
Jesus is telling us that if we focus on the Lord and His Kingdom the other things will fall into place. Isn’t that true with everything in life? Generally speaking if you do your job well you will be rewarded; if you master the fundamentals of a sport you will be a good athlete; if you save a little each payday and never spend more than what you make you will be on solid financial ground. If we put our primary focus on primary issues secondary issues tend to fall into place.
What does it mean to “seek first His Kingdom”? I think it means that we look at every opportunity and situation in life and instead of asking, “What could go wrong?” or “How do I minimize risk?” we ask: “How can I bring honor and glory to the Lord in this situation?”
If you have ever been to a performance of a good magician you know the magician will often sets up his magic tricks by erecting all kinds of obstacles (or stressors, if you will). He might saw a box in two or pierce it with swords. He might suspend an object in the air, submerse it in water, or set it on fire. When this happens we don’t scream with terror. We don’t become anxious. Instead, we watch with greater anticipation. We have confidence in the magician. We don’t know how He is going to pull off the trick but we believe the obstacles will serve to show how good of a magician he really is.
What if we viewed God that way? What if we saw every circumstance as an opportunity for God to reveal His greatness? What if we saw the stressors not as destroyers but as windows into the character and greatness of God? What if instead of choosing to worry we chose to watch the Lord with eager anticipation to see how He would bring blessing from the pain?
When Jesus says “these others things will be added to us” he isn’t telling us that we are going to get everything on our Christmas list. What we desire is not always what we need and it is not always what is best for us. God will give us the things we are really looking (even if we don’t realize it).
- We may not have material abundance but we will find contentment and we will thus be truly rich.
- We may not be the most attractive person but we will be seen as a truly beautiful person
- We may not be spared hard times but we will know peace and strength and will have an attitude that enables us to overcome whatever circumstances come our way.
- We may not be popular but we will be respected and honored.
- We may not win awards but we will make a difference.
Ultimately, the promise is that God will give us a place in His Kingdom. There is nothing left to give us and nothing more than we need after that.
Take Your Eyes Off of Yourself and Focus on Others
33 Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.
The best way to address worry is to do something positive. Instead of wringing your hands get up on your feet and make a difference in the lives of others! Volunteer, make a donation, or get more training . . . give yourself to solutions rather than fretting all the time about problems.
Why should we do this? When we invest ourselves with others we break the paralyzing effect of anxiety. When we give to others we acknowledge that we are blessed and have something to share with others. We re-gain perspective.
Let’s say your child has just had a heartbreaking loss in a sport. They feel like life is over. What do you do? You may offer to buy them ice cream or you tell them to invite some friends over, you suggest you go home and watch a movie or we saw in an old TV commercial, you give them a Lifesaver®. Why? It’s because you are seeking to help them regain perspective. You want them to see that there is still joy even after disappointment. This is what serving others does….it helps us see things in perspective.
There is another benefit to focusing on others. Jesus says, when we give we receive a greater treasure in return. The Bible lists some of those treasures:
- a faithfulness that will never be removed (Ps. 89:33; 138:8),
- a life that will never end (John 3:16),
- a spring of water that will never cease to bubble up within the one who drinks of it (John 4:14),
- a gift that will never be lost (John 6:37, 39),
- a hand out of which the Good Shepherd’s sheep will never be snatched (John 10:28),
- a chain that will never be broken (Rom. 8:29, 30),
- a love from which we shall never be separated (Rom. 8:39),
- a calling that will never be revoked (Rom. 11:29),
- a foundation that will never be destroyed (II Tim. 2:19),
- an inheritance that will never fade out (I Peter 1:4, 5).
In today’s day of uncertain investments . . . this one is a “sure thing”.
Choose What You Treasure Deliberately
Jesus, who understands the human heart and condition better than anyone cautions us:
34 where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
To state this another way: what occupies your heart reveals what really matters to you. . . what you truly treasure. Jesus is contrasting the man who lays up treasure to indulge himself and those who seek a treasure that honors God. What you treasure will dictate how you live your life. You treasure determines your priorities.
- If you treasure peace you will overlook problems and tend to be weak when it comes to disciplining your children.
- If you treasure success you will be a workaholic (if you are seeking success in your job) or you will ignore more important things to get success in other areas.
- If you treasure stuff you will buy things even though you can’t pay for them and end up in the shackles of debt.
You get the idea. From the very beginning human being have had the tendency to try to build our “kingdom” over building God’s kingdom. We become self-centered rather than God-centered. When this happens we begin drifting from God. As a result we manipulate, justify, lie and hurt people who get in our way. If, however, we seek first God’s Kingdom
- We view our jobs as a place to honor God and make an eternal impact rather than just a place to get money.
- We will find ourselves turning every conversation to eternal matters.
- We will seek to downsize in our lives so that we have more to share.
- We will find greater delight in meeting the needs of others than we find in indulging ourselves.
- We will view the trials of life not as barriers to a better life but as opportunities given to us from which we can grow.
- We will look at death not as the enemy but as the doorway to be with the One whom we have longed to know more fully throughout our life.
- We will not be concerned about building the size of our church but will be concerned about building the size and influence of God’s Kingdom.
- We will sleep more soundly in His arms.
If you find your stomach constantly tied up in knots, if you can’t sleep at night, if you are known as a “worry wart” it may be because your treasure is in the wrong place. Not only does your treasure determine your behavior . . . your behavior can show you what your treasure is. Choose you treasure and do it deliberately.
We’ve seen four simple principles that can diffuse anger and stress in our lives.
- The Only Thing Worry accomplishes is to make us (and those around us) miserable.
- We should intentionally be preoccupied with the Kingdom of God (that’s often different from the work of the church)
- Take Your Eyes Off of Yourself and Focus on Others (Regain Perspective)
- Choose What you treasure deliberately.
So let’s come up with some practical steps to diffusing stress in our lives. First, examine your relationship with God. In Isaiah 26:3 we read, “You will keep in perfect peace him whose mind is steadfast, because he trusts in you.” Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (John 14:27). If we are not experiencing peace, that may be a sign that there is a problem with our relationship with God. Check it out.
Second, examine your schedule. Being over-committed is not a sign of significance, it is a sign of danger! Make time for rest. Make time for renewal. You cannot keep borrowing from your physical, emotional, and spiritual reserves without paying the price down the road. We all bemoan the habit of deficit spending that we see taking place in government and in consumer households. We know this cannot continue without a collapse . . . the same is true for your mind and body! Make time for sleep, relaxation, worship and renewal or deal with the high price of the consequences.
Third, practice things that reduce stress.
- Practice Gratitude…focus on what is being done for you rather than to you. Count your blessings rather than focusing on your struggles. Change your focus.
- Set realistic expectations for yourself and for the people around you.
- Laugh. Laughter serves as an escape valve for stress.
- Take time for Play. Have a little fun in life.
- Meditate. Be quiet and learn to listen.
- Pray. Take some time to talk with God.
- Accept what cannot be changed. Learn to ask yourself, “Have I done what I can do in this situation?” If so, stop fretting about it.
- Do something physical. At a stressful time when a deadline is looming get up and take a walk. Do something physical to change pace and restore perspective.
- Try living for a while without your watch.
- Reconcile with others. One of the greatest stressors in our lives comes from conflict. We nurse our grudges and stoke the fires of resentment. Instead of replaying the hurt it is better to resolve it.
- Pay attention to your breathing and blood pressure. These are gauges God has given to us to measure and warn us of stress.
- Limit your time with Negative People. Negative people obscure the sunshine of God’s love with their cloudy personalities.
- Diffuse and avoid anger because it only causes the pressure inside to boil and build.
- When you feel anxiety kick in, ask yourself a simple question: “Do I trust God, or don’t I?”
- Limit adrenalin producing activities. One of the problems we face is that our so-called relaxation is not relaxing. Think about how your adrenalin sometimes rises during a ballgame, a video game, or even watching a movie. Adrenalin is a stressor! You may call this relaxation but your body does not! Make a conscious effort to limit these kinds of things . . . especially before you intend to sleep.
In the years to come there will probably be plenty of things to feel anxious about. We live in an increasingly dangerous and unpredictable world. We can pay the physical and relational price of such anxiety or we can follow the advice of Jesus. In other words we can fret or we can trust. We all would probably say that we trust God in our lives. But whether we actually trust Him or not will be revealed the next time we go to bed and worry comes knocking on our door.