Lowering Your Stress Factor
Stress, Control, God, Trust, Prayer, Quiet, Peace
Last week we began looking at a very real problem: the problem of Overload. Overload keeps us constantly on the run and robs us of the opportunity to invest ourselves in what is ultimately important and lasting. Overloaded people rush through a day and at the end of that day wonder if they have accomplished anything of value.
Whenever you talk about overload you have to talk about stress. Stress has become an inevitable part of life for most people.” Four out of five Americans report a need to reduce stress in their lives. According to the American Institute of Stress, stress-related illnesses cost the American economy $100 billion annually.”
Stress hampers our health. It causes our heart rate to rise. It can lead to ulcers or other abdominal problems. Stress often provokes anger and a feeling of being out of control. It ages our bodies, impacts our ability to regenerate blood cells, wears on our heart, and inflames arthritis. Stress can even impact certain kinds of cancer. It keeps us from restful sleep, from healthy eating, hampers relationships and can provoke fits of deep depression.
There are lots of things that can bring stress into our lives. Stress can come from any kind of change in our life, from the expectations of others, from the stacks of government regulations, from the erosion of a relationship, from the sense of competition, from illness and from frustration and anger.
Child psychologist David Elkind sums it up this way.
There are at least three contemporary sources of stress that mark our age as a difficult one. First, due to the alarming increase in violence and crime, we are more afraid. Second, due to rapidly changing job markets, technology, and economic factors, we are more professionally insecure. Finally, due to widespread separation and divorce, we are more alone. (David Elkind THE HURRIED CHILD: GROWING UP TOO FAST TOO SOON p. 26)
Our task this morning is to look to God’s word to find ways to lower our stress factor. Matthew 6 gives us some principles for dealing with stress.
First, Stress is Natural; Distress is largely a response.
Jesus us tells us, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear.” Jesus does not tell us, “don’t have difficult times”. He doesn’t tell us to “stay away from stress”. No. These things will naturally come into our lives. What he does tell us is that we shouldn’t respond to these things by becoming anxious. The words “do not worry” are in the imperative tense and that means it is a command. Our distress is a response to the stressors of life.
Jesus told his listeners that when we worry about the things of this world, we are acting like pagans. (v. 32) When we become filled with anxiety, we are acting like someone who has no faith. When we become overwhelmed by life, it shows we have taken our eyes off of the Lord.
We have trouble seeing it this way. We feel like we don’t have a choice of how we respond to the stressors of life. We have learned instinctively to respond with anxiety, anger, and distress. We need to stop ourselves when we feel stress rising and remind ourselves that we do have a choice as to whether we will become anxious and overwhelmed or whether we will trust God.
On occasion, you will meet someone who responds to everything aggressively. They are combative, argumentative, and just not happy. When you talk to them about this behavior they might respond, “It’s just the way I am.” That’s a cop-out! That person has a choice. They could choose to listen rather than speak. They could choose to talk softly rather than be harsh. They have chosen to respond aggressively for so long that it seems to come naturally. It’s still a choice.
We have a choice as to how we will respond to the stressors of life. We can respond by being anxious or we can respond with faith. One response comes naturally; the other must be learned.
Second, We must accept the fact that some things are out of our control.
Jesus asks a question: “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? (v.27) Jesus reminds us that worry or distress is unproductive. We can minimize stress in some areas of our lives but there are always going to be some things in our lives that are outside of our control. For example, we can’t control,
- The weather. No matter how concerned we become, it won’t change anything.
- How other people respond to us. We can control how we respond to others and how we treat others. We can’t, however control how they respond to us.
- Many of the circumstances of life. We have no control over the deer that jumps into the roadway or the person who runs a stop sign. We can’t control which employees an employer decides to hire or let go. We can take precautions, but we really can’t control who gets sick and who doesn’t.
- The choices other people make. We can see that someone is making a bad choice, we can warn the person, but we can’t make the decision for them. It is truly their choice.
- Other people’s expectations. We can’t control what other people expect of us whether they are too small or too great. We can control whether we do our best. We can’t control whether a person sees our best as “good enough” or not.
We spend too much of our lives fretting over and trying to change things over which we have no control. When life begins to feel overwhelming we need to focus on the things we can control and change and set aside things over which we have no control. There is nothing we can do about these things and we need to leave them in God’s hands.
Third, We Should Learn from Nature
Jesus said, “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” (v.26) When we feel the pressure rise inside; when we begin to feel overwhelmed by the circumstances of life; it might not be a bad idea to find a seat and just observe nature for a little while.
God takes care of the created order, and seems to do a pretty good job of it. None of the flowers is the same, but each holds its own beauty. The animals can’t go to grocery stores to buy food, and yet they seem to have their needs met. Vegetation is largely helpless to secure what it needs, yet God provides.
Jesus reminds us that we are more valuable to God than the animals. Human beings were fashioned in His image. He created us to be in unique relationship with Him. Jesus argues from the lesser to the greater. If God takes such good care of nature, we can be sure He will take good care of us. Paul reminded us that “NOTHING can ever separate us from His love.” Take a moment and remind yourself that life IS NOT out of control. God is still at the helm.
How quickly we forget that we could work for ten years and not be able to accomplish what God can accomplish in ten minutes. We can fret for an entire weekend over some demand on our life that God can handle in an instant. He is sufficient for our every need.
Finally, We must change our focus from the stressful situation to the Providence and Promise of God.
Jesus gives us an alternative to distress and worry, “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (33) Jesus told us that we must change our focus in the stressful times of life.
- We should focus on God’s sufficiency rather than our problem
- We should rest in His love rather than in our own insecurities
- We should trust His providence (His working in the circumstances of life) rather than our ability to understand or fix things.
- We should cling to His promise that He is working in all situations for our good, even when the situation is painful and it doesn’t feel like God is working at all.
- We should be confident of His forgiveness and restoration even when we feel like we have really made a mess of things or aren’t measuring up.
Psalm 77 is case study of what we have been talking about. We don’t really know what was going on with Asaph but we do know his honest feelings.
- His soul refused to be comforted
- He groaned
- He couldn’t sleep
- He didn’t know how to express his feeling
- He longed for past days
- He felt forgotten by God
Sound familiar? Asaph is weighted done by the circumstances of life. He was overloaded. God seemed far away. The circumstances of life can do that to us. One minute, life is good, the next it feels like the floor gives way beneath you. The Doctor calls with the test results you didn’t want to hear; there is talk of layoffs at work; your child gets in trouble with the law; the IRS informs you of an audit. Suddenly, you are overwhelmed. You don’t know which way to turn.
This is the way Asaph felt. As we get to verses 10-15 of the Psalm Asaph’s attitude changes.
And I said, “This is my fate;
the Most High has turned his hand against me.”
11 But then I recall all you have done, O Lord;
I remember your wonderful deeds of long ago.
12 They are constantly in my thoughts.
I cannot stop thinking about your mighty works.
13 O God, your ways are holy.
Is there any god as mighty as you?
14 You are the God of great wonders!
You demonstrate your awesome power among the nations.
15 By your strong arm, you redeemed your people,
the descendants of Jacob and Joseph. (NLT)
Asaph changed from one who was overwhelmed to one who finds courage and faith. What happened? In the first twelve verses the prominent pronoun is “I”. In verse thirteen the focus changes. Asaph turned from focusing on his problems to focusing on God’s sufficiency. Asaph recounts three of God’s attributes.
First, God is Holy. James tells us, “God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone. . . Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. (1:13,17) James emphasizes that God is consistent in his goodness. He isn’t fickle in his character like we are. We have good days and bad days. God never has a bad day. He is holy, pure and good. He is absolutely dependable.
Second, God is Great. God is not handcuffed by any circumstance. He is never in a position where He is helpless. We are often helpless. God can rescue us from any situation. We are reminded of God’s question to Abraham, “Is anything too hard for God?”
Third, God is Caring. God is not an indifferent bystander. God has redeemed us. He went to great effort to set us free from the curse and liability of sin. He does not turn a deaf ear to our cry. He loves us. In the stressful times of life, like a child running to a parent, we need to run to the shelter of God’s greatness and sufficiency.
Have you ever watched a child try to do some task that was greater than they could handle? Perhaps they were trying to move something too heavy for them or work on a homework assignment they just did not understand.
As a parent or adult we offer our help but the child rebuffs us. They want to do it on their own. We are forced to watch helplessly as they get angry, frustrated, and sometimes even start to cry. Eventually, after they have worn themselves out, we offer our help again. Sometimes they will take it; sometimes they choose to remain miserable.
This is the way it is with our lives. At times we are overmatched by life. God offers to help us, but we want to “do it ourselves”. We struggle, we fight, and we toss and turn at night. We get angry, we stop enjoying life, and sometimes we make ourselves sick. All the time God stands waiting . . . waiting for us to let Him help us. Our job is to turn to Him and to focus on His sufficiency rather than our weakness and His wisdom rather than our confusion.
I want you to take away two things. First, Stress is a part of life. We can minimize much of the stress by doing some simple things,
- 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.
- Do volunteer work. Do something to help someone else. It takes has a wonderful way of restoring perspective.
- 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.
- Learn to relax…take a power nap, find a quiet spot, visit with someone.
- 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.
- 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.
Second, we need to recognize that after you have done what you can to minimize stress, the next step is to work to adopt a new attitude about the pressures of life.
Have you ever been to a performance of a good magician? The magician 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 saw 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 we saw every obstacle as a reminder that He is the one we need to trust and not ourselves?
You know what would happen. Our faith would grow. Our hearts would delight in His greatness.
We are going to face stressful times. It’s a part of living. What we choose to do with this stress will determine whether the stressors destroy us or deepen us.