The signs are everywhere: On billboards. Behind home plate. On your social media feed.
He Gets Us.
Since its launch earlier this year, the campaign to re-introduce the USA to Jesus has fanned widely into American life. It’s been well-funded and creatively deployed, a vision of a streetwise Jesus for a deeply skeptical society.
At the heart of the message is empathy, a central theme in the New Testament book of Hebrews. Hebrews is a series of connected treatises which together highlight the superiority of Jesus over other religions and worldviews. Among the core arguments that the writer makes is that – unlike angelic personalities or Greek philosophies – Jesus understands the human experience. Jesus gets you.
And Jesus knows the universal experience of stress.
We live in a stressed-out nation. The Americas Psychological Association’s 2022 Stress in America Survey reports “A battered American psyche, facing a barrage of external stressors that are mostly out of personal control. The survey found a majority of adults are disheartened by government and political divisiveness, daunted by historic inflation levels, and dismayed by widespread violence.”
These myriad causes are spinning off major health issues as well. According to WebMD, up to 90% of doctors’ visits are associated with stress-related symptoms. Stress factors in everything from headache and fatigue to sleeplessness, ulcers, and psoriasis.
Others have pointed out that the experience of stress – at least at the levels we humans process it – is unique in God’s creation. We don’t see caterpillars wigging out over their social calendars or donkeys panicked over their 6-month performance reviews.
But people have those experiences. We get worried about school grades, exasperated about our overcommitted weekends, and anxious about our kids’ friends. Everybody gets stressed sometimes.
Chapters 4-6 of Luke’s gospel describe the initial public phase of Jesus ministry. For many years, Jesus had been living the relatively quiet life of a small-town carpenter. But around the age of 30, Jesus gets baptized by John. And then, well, things ramp up in a hurry.
I don’t know the duration of time that Luke 4-6 represents – a month, maybe? – but look at what Jesus takes on in just three chapters. He:
- Launches a preaching tour
- Goes against the grain by befriending a tax collector
- Faces life-and-death temptation by the devil
- Recruits his first team members
- Gets shouted at by demons
- Heals countless people
- Survives 40 days without eating
- Gets chastised by the Pharisees
- Gets chased by crowds
- Nearly gets pushed off a cliff
- To top it all off, deals with mother-in-law issues! (Okay, it was Peter’s mother-in-law. But still.)
That seems like a lot, right? Even for Jesus. He’s got social stress, spiritual stress, and speaking-in-public stress. He’s low on calories, low on sleep, and very high on pressure.
Any more doubts about whether he gets us?
And at the same time, Jesus wants to help us. In John 13, Jesus tells his followers that he has set an example for them. And while Jesus’ life teaches us that stress is inevitable, his response to these stressors also suggests three patterns and practices for handling anxiety in our lives.
By the way, that word-choice is intentional. These are practices. Just like an oboe player or a welder or a volleyball libero needs practice, handling stress takes effort and it takes time. None of us can change everything overnight.
Practice 1: Gratitude
If we had the privilege of walking along with Jesus and his twelve disciples, we’d see that in some of his most stressed-out moments, Jesus gave thanks to God. He didn’t just pray those desperation requests that we often do: (God, if you can get me through this thing I promise I’ll go to church more often and I’m willing to reconsider my afternoon donut routine.) He prayed prayers of thanks.
In Matthew 14, Jesus had food-prep stress. You ever have a whole bunch of people show up at your house and everyone is looking to you to provide some food for them? Yeah, there’s some stress in that.
The Bible says that Jesus was going along teaching and at one point his disciples were like, “Jesus, what’s your plan for dinner?” So what does Jesus do? Verse 19: [Jesus] directed the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people.
In John 11, Jesus’ friend Lazarus died, and people were giving him the business for not getting there sooner. Jesus processed the grief, traveled to the tomb, and then prayed a prayer of thanksgiving.
And on the night before his own death, when he had the fate of human history weighing on his shoulders, Jesus took time to thank the Father for the blessings of the Passover food.
Gratitude makes a difference. And that’s not just in a kind of churchy, spiritual sense. I mean, cultivated gratitude over time makes a physiological difference. According to a great piece by Christopher Littlefield in the Harvard Business Review, the practice of gratitude releases dopamine and serotonin, two hormones that help the body naturally process stress. Emily Fletcher, an expert in the physiology of gratitude, reports that the effects of thankfulness can be almost the same as that of medications.
And of course, the Bible knew this a long time ago. Philippians 4:6-7 says: Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.
How can you practice gratitude like Jesus? I appreciated the phrasing of these prompts to thankfulness by Littlefield. He suggests that we ask questions like these:
- What opportunities do I currently have that I am grateful for?
- What physical abilities do I have but take for granted?
- What did I see today or over the last month that was beautiful?
- What am I better at today than I was a year ago?
- What has someone done for me recently that I am grateful for?
Even in his most stressed-out moments, or perhaps, because they were his most stressed-out moments, Jesus took time to be grateful.
Practice 2: Solitude
The Bible tells us a number of times that when he needed a break, Jesus made a habit of getting away. Right there in the middle of the wild ride that is chapters 4-6, Luke reports: Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed. (5:16)
The phrase “lonely places” in the Greek is eremos topos. It means “wilderness” or “desolate region”. I kind of want to press the issue and translate it as “campground,” but that’s probably too much.
But Jesus would go on retreat sometimes. He needed a break, even from his closest followers. Sometimes he would pray. I imagine that sometimes he would just think. Listen to the birds. Close his eyes and feel the sun on his face. Jesus needed that time to reset his soul.
How long has it been since you have spent some time in an eremos topos? When did you last hike through the woods or sit by a campfire in your backyard? Jesus says that sometimes the best way to reconnect with God is to go to an inner room in your house and shut the door.
Perhaps the Father is inviting you today to a kind of digital solitude. To go six hours without a screen or a device. The great wilderness of analog living awaits!
But there is something more fundamental about solitude. In some sense, solitude makes you more real.
Nathan Foster, whose father Richard Foster penned a landmark text called Celebration of Discipline back in 1978, recently wrote: “In solitude, the useless trivialities of life begin to drop away. We are set free from the many “false selves” we have built up in order to cope with the expectations others place upon us — and we place upon ourselves.”
I love that phrasing. When we are alone with God, there’s no point in faking it. There’s nobody around to trick with an artificial version of ourselves. We can be real with God, and reality with God is probably the best pathway into prayer, into release, and one of the best ways to set aside the stresses of life.
Practice 3: Fortitude
What is fortitude? Fortitude is strength, settledness, and courage. It’s about planting your feet on a principle. In Luke 21:19 Jesus says “stand firm and you will win life.” And in this case, standing firm means having the courage to say no.
Do you realize how often Jesus had to say no? And to lots of good things, things that should maybe be on a Messiah’s to-do list. These were helpful things, noble tasks high-visibility opportunities. His followers wanted Jesus to participate in all of them. But despite the expectations of the crowds, Jesus was willing to say no.
Luke 4:42-43 reports: The people were looking for him and when they came to where he was, they tried to keep him from leaving them. But he said, “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent.”
Jesus knew what was essential for him to do. He knew the reason why he was sent. And because of this, he had the courage to say no, to move on, to travel ahead.
Listen closely: You can say thank you to God a lot, and that will help. You can make time to be alone and practice solitude, and that’s great for your soul. But the truth is, you will never really get a handle on the stresses of life until you develop the fortitude to say no to things.
Now, just so there’s no misunderstanding, this is not an invitation to be lazy. “Sorry boss, this blog said that I have to say no to some things, so from now on, I’ll be coming in at 10 and leaving at 2. It’s all part of the process of sanctification!” No, this is not a license for you to be irresponsible.
Instead, it’s a call to prioritize as Jesus did. It’s about living into what is most important and setting aside things that just make you busy.
Every time you can’t say no to your neighbor or to your HOA or even to your pastor, you are saying yes to the stress.
Targeting the Killer P’s
Let’s be specific about fortitude in closing. To what kinds of things should we start saying no right away?
Let’s talk about the Killer P’s. The Killer P’s are habits and desires that we believe will make life more satisfying and will our hearts more secure. But like mirages in the desert, they are forever out of reach. How many people have died in the desert pursuing mirages?
There are three Killer P’s I want to name and expose right now. Possessions, Perfectionism, and People-Pleasing. Let’s look at each very quickly.
Possessions. Lots of people take on undue stress every day because they believe that if they just can just earn enough to buy that next toy or tool, they will find satisfaction in their lives. This is the mirage of peace through more things: My neighbor has one, my brother has one, and those people look happy. So maybe I, if I had one, will be happy,
So we work more hours, take on side hustles, squeeze and strain our finances – all the while layering in more stress – in hopes of acquiring that Beautiful Thing that will make everything all right. But of course, it’s all a mirage. That Beautiful Thing, even if you get it, won’t make your life right again, and it won’t be worth the stress.
I once heard Rick Warren say that one of the greatest discoveries in his life was learning to admire, not acquire. To say to your friend: Wow, it’s great that you have that jet ski, that trampoline, that travel trailer. And if you’ll invite me over sometime to use it, that would be great. But I don’t need to own it, because of the stress of getting it, maintaining it, insuring it, storing it, and everything else.
This makes so much sense. In a recent piece entitled Unpopular Money Rules, CBNC’s Grant Cardone urges his readers: “Don’t buy anything that you can lease.”
Don’t let the mirage of possessions stand between you and contentment.
The second Killer P is Perfectionism: the mirage of peace through self-satisfaction. Now, again, this doesn’t mean that we just mail things in or skate by half-heartedly. But sometimes we can allow the perfect to become the enemy of the really good. And that generates stress in our lives as well. We fuss over too many things, getting them exactly right, because if we think we don’t we won’t be able to sleep at night. (I can be Public Offender Number One on this one).
But the Law of Diminishing Returns suggests that often we can get that project to an 8 out of 10 in 5 hours, but it will require 20 more hours to get it to a 10 out of 10. And when we stress over the fine details, the gilding, the frippery, we can wear ourselves out. We need to be okay with excellent rather than ruining ourselves over immaculate.
The final Killer P is People-Pleasing. This is the mirage of peace through the approval of others. Some of us try so hard at making other people happy that we make ourselves sick. We will inflict untold harm on ourselves rather than disappoint others. We believe that having their approval will finally bring us peace.
But that’s a whole lot of people to try to keep happy. And odds are, they aren’t looking for them to please you anyway. Do you have the fortitude to say “No, I can’t do that for you” – or does the mere thought of that make you queasy?
Living the other way is worse. People-pleasing is a kind of slavery where you disrespect yourself and your own dignity just to let others have their way with you. You think satisfying others will be a source of hope and happiness, but instead, it’s a mirage that leads you into a desert of death.
This fortitude, fortitude of the sort that Jesus practiced, will open pathways to gratitude and to solitude, and ultimately to a better handle on life’s inevitable moments of stress.