Does the title of this piece sound familiar? Have you said something like this in the last ten days? You can identify…yes? Me too. None of us is a stranger to strains that put us on medication, drive us into therapy, or land us in the doghouse when our tempers fray and our coping mechanisms fail.
That we feel stressed from time to time is natural. It’s been shown that we need a certain level of stress in order to be creative, motivated, and responsive to others. So if a deadline or a creative challenge or a crying baby stresses you out, don’t worry, be happy. It’s good for you.
Ordinary stress, physiological or psychological, is not going to kill us. Stress itself is not remarkable. What’s remarkable is that so many of us are willing to tolerate higher and higher levels of it.
Of course, if your house gets blown apart by a hurricane, your kid gets arrested for shoplifting, or your doctor gives you bad news about your last mammogram, you don’t have a choice about how high your stress level goes. If you’re a Syrian refugee in a camp in Turkey, a soldier on patrol in Afghanistan, or the mother of a teenage boy in certain sections of a big city on a hot summer night, it’d be a miracle if your stress level were not off the charts.
But much of the stress that has us on the verge of stroke, acid reflux, and road rage is unconnected to such dire things. It has to do instead with our insertion in a world of dizzying choices, so many choices that we feel disempowered by them, frustrated and depressed by sheer variety. Or it’s connected to the images of success and the good life that bombard us daily. We are set up for stress by high expectations about relationships too—parenting, the kids’ SAT scores, whether our teeth are as white as God and Crest intended. Powerful economic and cultural interests are out to get us, and we seem to have fewer and fewer defenses against them, given the influence of the media, the mediocre state of our spiritual lives, and the erosion of the power of traditional communities of wisdom to anchor us.
We have become so inured to these manipulations that even the most sincere among us have a hard time getting a clear read on what our heart-of-hearts really desires. Even the most idealistic and committed among us are easy prey for corporate marketing departments who every day determine on their own what is good for our well-being. These interests have a story to tell about what it means to be a fulfilled and contented human being, a powerful and appealing story they tell artfully and well. And most of us believe it.
We Christians have a better story to tell about the source and meaning of a good and happy life, but it seems we believe it less and less, we rarely rely on it ourselves, and we are very reluctant to tell it to others. What an irony that we who have the ‘Greatest Story Ever Told’ have lost confidence in its power to ground and shape us, ceding the ground to Madison Avenue, where there is every confidence in formative myth-making!
Perhaps we have come to acquiesce in our own unhealth because we sense that to de-stress our lives by resting in faith in the arms of the old, old story of a trustworthy God will require changes too radical to contemplate. We may long to simplify our lives, to choose downward rather than upward mobility, to learn to pray and observe more faithfully the pleasures, rhythms, and rituals of a grounded life, but we are have a hard time taking the first step to make it come true.
The thought of what it will take to de-stress stresses us all the more. And so we accept the unacceptable, take the pills, pay our therapists, and settle for small oases—a day or two without Facebook, a week-end away without the phone.
It’s time to listen to Jesus.
In an unnerving story from Luke’s gospel, Jesus announces that he is anxious too—he feels stressed, under pressure to get on with a ministry that he describes as a work of provocation and controversy. His mission will strip him and his followers of the comforts of home and family, even cost them their lives. All the traditional loyalties will be on the table to be weighed against the graceful reality of the kingdom of God that Jesus announces and embodies.
He is aware of the adverse reaction he is stirring up; and so he chooses images of fire, which means judgment and cleansing, and images of discord and disruption. If the new relationships of the kingdom undermine the traditions and cause trouble, so be it. He speaks about the “baptism” he is chafing to immerse himself in. He is at a crossroads, a crisis is fast approaching, a juncture all his disciples also face, sooner or later.
For us who follow him, this crisis might be big, bold, obvious, and immediate, like a crucifixion. But it is more likely that it will be subtle and less dramatic, and that it will unfold over time—maybe a sense prompted by a passion for justice that you must change your profession and do a new thing; or an inner voice insisting that you finally break that debilitating habit that has kept your soul in thrall and prevented you from loving the way you were meant to love; or a growing inner attraction to God that finally leads you to a scary but joyful new capacity to give away who you are and what you have more generously.
It could be a single moment of insight, or a long season of life. Whatever it is, it is a crisis, a crossroads at which we will be asked to accept that we will never be happy unless we let our hearts be governed fully by something or someone for whom we are willing to make real sacrifices.
The crazy-making stress we accept every day is different from the sort of stress Jesus says he is under, but his and ours are connected by this notion of governance and sacrifice:
Jesus’ stress is what happens when you are impelled from within. It arises from his faithfulness to a grounding vocation that has shaped everything about him and governs him completely. It is the impatient energy, the eagerness of a person in love.
Our stress arises mostly from not surrendering to something that governs us in a truly grounding way, and to live a more spiritually aimless life that makes only momentary, fragmentary sense. We hedge our bets about anything that feels like a final claim on us, and squander all our energies perfecting our defenses.
Jesus’ stress stems from the urgency to know and do God’s will.
If we are under stress, it is often because we are so easily blown around by distractions and so passively governed by unexamined wants and needs that we can’t figure out our own will, let alone God’s.
It starts early, this heart-confusion of ours. John Ortberg, a well-known preacher and author in evangelical circles, tells a (now-famous and oft-reprinted) story about the search for grounded happiness in his own young family.
He has three little kids who regularly worship at the shrine of the Golden Arches. It’s the only place they’ll eat. And they always want the same thing. It’s just a couple of basic food items and a cheap little plastic prize, but in a moment of marketing genius the folks at McDonald’s gave it a great name—the Happy Meal. The Meal of Great Joy. You aren’t buying McNuggets and a Hercules Ring, he says, you’re buying happiness.
Every now and then he tries to talk them out of it. He gives them a dollar to buy their own cheap little plastic toys, but they want a Happy Meal. They cry for a Happy Meal. A lot. He does not want to be the father who won’t buy his kids the Meal of Great Joy, so he buys them the Happy Meal, and it makes them happy—for about a minute.
You would think, Ortberg muses, that his kids would eventually catch on and say, “You know, I keep getting these Happy Meals and they don’t give me lasting happiness so I’m not going to buy them anymore. I’m not going to set myself up for the stress of disappointment.”
But it never happens. They keep buying Happy Meals and they keep not working. No young adult ever returns home to say to her parents, “Remember that Happy Meal you gave me? That’s where I found lasting contentment and lifelong joy. I knew that if I could just have that Happy Meal, I would be anchored for a lifetime. And I am. Thanks, folks.”
Contentment, meaning, purpose, fulfillment, a God-governed, centered and meaningful life—many of us still believe it’s just a Happy Meal away; only our Happy Meals, Ortberg notes, keep getting more expensive, more complicated, more dangerous, more self-defeating and more elusive. And our stress keeps rising, our frustrations become downright cosmic.
We dream of a mystery inheritance or a Powerball win that will be the escape hatch that permits us to live the simple life in Tuscany or raise llamas in Vermont, forgetting, as they say in AA, that wherever we go, we takes ourselves with us. The truth is that there is no such thing as a geographical cure for the stress that arises in us from spiritual aimlessness—unless, of course, you decide against Tuscany and go instead on the open road to Someplace New with Jesus.
The Happy Meal our hearts truly crave is the one set out in Isaiah 55, the great banquet of creation that God is always offering. It is the banquet at which the messiah breaks bread for free, pours abundant wine with joy, and gives us the whopping prize of acceptance, mercy, forgiveness, and the bonus of a world to serve, full of kin to care for.
And all these things are ours when, by grace and over time, our hearts come at last to rest, as Jesus did, under the merciful governance of the God whose only demand—and gift—is love.