Spring 2012: Questions and Answers about Stress
Author: Dan Gabbert
Publish date:

What is Stress?

Contrary to the way the buzzword “stress” is used these days, stress is not the situation in life a person is facing. The situations in life are actually the stressors—the things that cause stress. Stress-response researcher Dr. Hans Seyle defined stress as “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change.” I like to think of stress as the effect situations of life have upon a person’s body and mind.

There are two kinds of stress: eustress, the healthy kind that benefits a person’s body and mind and distress, the unhealthy kind that is damaging to body and mind.

How is Stress Experienced?

We experience stress in at least two ways:

  1. Its effect upon the body through environment and lifestyle, such as the invigorating eustress created by healthy, balanced exercise in the fresh air and sunshine, or the harmful distress of eating too much at mealtime or staying up all hours of the night to finish a project.

    stressed-out woman with yellow sticky notes all over her body
  2. Its effect upon the body via our mental and spiritual perceptions of current or past life situations, such as the eustressing effect of choosing to view the experience of being stuck in a traffic jam as an opportunity to spend time in prayer, or the distressing effect of viewing that same traffic jam as the very worst thing that could happen that day.

Concerning distress, the reality is that overdoing any activity creates damaging distress. Any situation of life that is not viewed and handled in a healthy way can also become a distressor—a stress-inducing situation.

Mishandled stressors can cause distress physically, mentally, and spiritually. When the demands upon my time or energy exceed my resources to handle it healthfully, I experience physical distress. When I’m mentally or morally challenged with an experience I perceive to be a threat to my sense of wellbeing, I have a distressor on my hands. My body reacts in order to protect and preserve itself, causing the “fight or flight” reaction that affects every cell in my body. Even dwelling upon a distressing experience of the past can induce this same reaction!

Could you give us some insights into the effects of stress on the spiritual side of our nature?

Here are some Biblical laws or principles of the heart and mind that really come into play in our response to life’s stressors:

Proverbs 23:7: “as he thinketh in his heart, so is he.”

Matthew 12:34 adds understanding: “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh.”

Matthew 15:19-20 adds to the list of things that originate from the heart and produce damaging distress in a person’s body and mind: “For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies. These are the things which defile (distress) a man.” Since the inception of sin, every situation humans face has had the potential for causing some type of stress. Why do I say that? Because it isn’t the things that happen to people physically that have the most potential for causing damaging distress. Rather, it is the way those things are perceived (interpreted in our thoughts) that produces major distress.

For instance, when the Israelite army was defied by the Philistine giant Goliath, they were stressed out—distressed! 1 Samuel 17:11 states, “And the Philistine said, ‘I defy the armies of Israel this day; give me a man, that we may fight together.’ When Saul and all Israel heard those words of the Philistine, they were dismayed, and greatly afraid” (emphasis added).

Do you see what caused them to be distressed? It was their perception—their interpretation of Goliath’s challenging words, and physical stature I might add!

But notice David’s empowering response—his eustressing perception when faced with Goliath’s challenge:

. . . who is this uncircumcised Philistine, that he should defy the armies of the living God? . . . Let no man’s heart fail because of him . . . The LORD that delivered me out of the paw of the lion, and out of the paw of the bear, he will deliver me out of the hand of this Philistine (1 Samuel 17:26, 32, 37).

Let me ask you a question with a conspicuous answer: Why was Saul so distressed and David so courageous when faced with the same situation? What made the difference?

I hope you’ll consider this important point: through the grace of God, even in crisis, it is possible to keep God’s eustress-producing thoughts in mind and respond to glorify Him (2 Corinthians 9:8).

Christ’s life is full of examples of this healing reality. Remember when He and the disciples were caught in a sudden storm on the Sea of Galilee? The disciples were extremely distressed because of the intensity of the storm. Why were they stressed out about the storm? It was their perception of how the storm was going to affect them! Where do we see that? Matthew 8:25 says, “Lord, save us: we perish.”

Look at Christ’s reaction to the same situation in verse 24: “And, behold, there arose a great tempest in the sea, insomuch that the ship was covered with the waves: but he was asleep” (emphasis added). He was at peace in the midst of a life-threatening storm!

Someone might say, “Well, Jesus was God’s Son, what do you expect?” The Scriptures assure us that everyone who receives Christ Jesus as Saviour and Lord is God’s son or daughter (John 1:12). As Jesus was in this world, so we can be by God’s empowering grace through faith (2 Corinthians 4:7-10; 1 John 2:6; 4:17).

Notice this eye-opening comment about this situation found in the Desire of Ages:

When Jesus was awakened to meet the storm, He was in perfect peace. There was no trace of fear in word or look, for no fear was in His heart. But He rested not in the possession of almighty power. It was not as the ‘Master of earth and sea and sky’ that He reposed in quiet. That power He had laid down, and He says, ‘I can of Mine own self do nothing.’ John 5:30.

He trusted in the Father’s might. It was in faith—faith in God’s love and care—that Jesus rested, and the power of that word which stilled the storm was the power of God. As Jesus rested by faith in the Father’s care, so we are to rest in the care of our Saviour (336, emphases added).

Is it a sin to be stressed?

That’s a great question, one that calls for a truly honest answer within every person’s heart. Perhaps another way of framing the question would be this: When does my response to a stressor become sinful?

elderly woman with younger woman smile over a book
According to 1 John 3:4, sin is the transgression of the law, or the disobeying of the law. Even when we are ignorant of the fact, anything that we are thinking or doing outside our loving Creator’s original design for us will create a certain amount of distress. We are not guilty of sin for that. Jesus tells us in John 9:41, “If ye were blind, ye should have no sin: but now ye say, We see; therefore your sin remaineth.” See also John 15:22.

Spiritual Gifts puts it this way: “If light comes, and that light is set aside, or rejected, then comes condemnation and the frown of God; but before the light comes there is no sin, for there is no light for them to reject” (Volume 4, 3-4).

However, when I knowingly choose to step outside of God’s revealed will and determinedly cling to my own way of responding to a stressor, I have sinned against my loving God and Saviour. James 4:17 says, “Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin.”

For instance, when the weather turns icy cold, it naturally produces some physical distress on our body. This distress is not a sin. But if I’m well aware of the fact that my body is the temple of the Holy Spirit and the cold will be harmful to it, and still I choose to go to work outside without putting on the necessary clothing to keep me warm, that is sinful distress—knowingly mistreating the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).

Notice this statement from the inspired book Temperance:

Every law governing the human system is to be strictly regarded; for it is as truly a law of God as is the word of Holy Writ; and every willful deviation from obedience to this law is as certainly sin as a violation of the moral law. All nature expresses the law of God, but in our physical structure Jehovah has written His law with His own finger upon every thrilling nerve, upon every living fiber, and upon every organ of the body. We shall suffer loss and defeat, if we step out of nature’s path, which God Himself has marked out, into one of our own devising (213-214, emphases added).

Doesn't being stressed imply that we are not trusting and resting in God?

Remembering what we just learned, the answer is not necessarily. It depends on how you choose to view and respond to the stressor—God’s way or your way? See Jeremiah 17:5-8 and Hebrews 4:15-16, and consider Jesus’ response in Matthew 26:36-39.

What about interruptions?

Remembering what we just learned, the answer again depends on how you are choosing to view the interruption. Are you viewing it as an opportunity to humbly thank God for another chance to practice thinking and responding like Jesus, or are you viewing it as a personal affront to your pressingly superior mission? Consider Jesus’ response in Mark 2:4-5.

When the apostle Paul was threatened by his thorn in the flesh, our gracious Lord told him (and us) in 2 Corinthians 12:9, “My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness.”

I’m so thankful for the apostle Paul’s response in verses 9 and 10: “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 (potential stressors), in reproaches (potential stressors), in necessities (even interruptions), in persecutions (potential stressors), in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.”

The way our loving Lord sustained Paul through His grace is the same way He can sustain us, even when the stressors we face appear insurmountable (2 Corinthians 4:16-18; 9:8).

How does a person cooperate with the Lord in developing healthy responses to life’s stressors?

I’ll do my best to be brief about such a wonderfully transforming topic:

  1. Ask the Lord to help you grasp this healing reality: His plan is for me to cooperate, through faith, with His work to sanctify me (transform my habits of life to be like His) in all three dimensions of my nature—physical, mental, and spiritual. By faith, I must recognize my body is not mine, but the Lord’s, and in it I glorify Him and not myself (1 Corinthians 6:19-20; 10:31).

  2. Understand that love for God is the only motivation that will empower me to remain faithful to His Word in my interpretation of stressors and to glorify Him in my responses to those challenging stressors (2 Corinthians 5:14-15).

  3. What are the means to experience this healing motivation? Study God’s Word to know Him intelligently (John 17:3; 2 Corinthians 3:17-18); this transforms our motivation. Then, also practice God’s Word to know Him experientially (John 14:23; 1 John 2:5-6); this transforms our responses to life’s stressors.

Remember that the goal in learning healthy responses to stressors is to know Christ and continue to practice His thoughts and responses—instead of your own—to every life situation. What does God promise us? “If ye continue in my word...ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:31-32).

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