Ending the Reign of Stress in Your Life

SONY DSCA recent milk commercial shows a crying, distraught cow watching her best friend (a young girl) going to school.  The idea of emotional cows may seem ludicrous, but research actually shows that cows have best friends and do get stressed when separated from them. This unusual fact about stress helps illustrate the far-reaching impact of stress even beyond human uniqueness.

While a stressed-out cow may have little meaning for your own over-stressed life, perhaps the following facts about stress might.

Symptoms & Causes of Stress

Everyone knows that stress impacts physical, mental and spiritual well-being. But do we really realize the extent of its control? 

Symptoms of stress

And those are just the symptoms, not the actual causes. Here are just some of the causes:

Causes of Stress

When we consider the distance stress will take to rule our lives, should we not also consider the great lengths we must be willing to go to if we are to end its reign?

Drawn Tight

The term “stress” comes from the Latin word “stringere” which means “to draw tight.” Can you relate to a feeling of being drawn tight, perhaps as tight as you think you can go, as tight as you’ve ever gone before? Most people can.

Do you even remember NOT feeling that way?

Sure, we find moments of relief watching mindless television, tweeting, or shopping with friends. But the source of stress always awaits our return, ready to tighten the strings once again.

And stress’ domain seems to be growing, doesn’t it? Even in a culture with all we want continually, easily and readily at our fingertips, more people seem chronically over-stressed. Even kids and teenagers experience stress well beyond what their maturity level can handle. Why does stress seem to be getting worse when we have so many ways to relax?

This month we’re looking at stress’ reign in our lives, and we’ll consider the idea that perhaps stress grips so tightly because we let it, and maybe we live with the consequences of stress simply because we fail to create and implement habits to prevent them.

Want to change? Want stress to be a healthy part of your life instead of a fascist dictator? Want to feel like you’re running on smooth terrain instead of wading through thigh-deep mud?

Let’s get into the details of stress in our lives with the goal of finding permanent solutions. Let’s get at the root causes of stress rather than simply treating the symptoms and numbing the consequences of living chronically high-stressed lives. Are you game?

DISCUSSION: What exists as the root cause – going beyond symptoms – of stress in your life?

Loving Others AS Yourself

Back to the Beginning

While immediately associated with romantic love, Valentine’s Day’s ties to romantic love actually did not take place until Chaucer’s poetry in the 14th Century. Instead, Valentine’s Day originated in commemoration of at least one early Christian saint named Valentinus, martyred between AD 197 and AD 496 for their acts of sacrificial love.

This focus on sacrificial love – of focusing on others over self – ties with what Jesus said that ALL scripture hangs on (is summed up in and depends on):

Valentine 1

Paul amplifies Jesus’ words by connecting them specifically with new life activity in our relationships:

Valentine 2

So, loving God above all and then loving others AS yourself not only provide THE most important principles for our lives, but also THE most important article of clothing for our new natures in Christ.

A long-time struggle for me in living this principle lies with fulfilling the second of these commands, loving others AS yourself.

What if you don’t love yourself?

For me, years of chronic depression involved a great deal of self hate. Outside of that struggle, failures in relationships led to significant self dislike, while comparisons showed even more reason for wishing I was anyone but me. And this selfish focus blocked my ability to love others.

Over time, the impact of Jesus’ sacrificial love changed how I viewed myself. As my focus went from feelings, emotions and comparisons to how He saw me, I began to realize not only the importance of self love but that it must be rooted in God’s view of me and how He exercises His love.

Valentine 3

Focusing on AS

Realizing God’s sacrificial love for me helped bring me to a point of self love that allowed a focus outside of myself, one intent on love God and others AS I am loved.

The commands to love others and to love self are not two separate commands. Rather, they are two parts of one command to live out love for God, a love that consumes the heart, soul and mind.

Love for self does not include selfish pursuits that make us feel good or happy, and self love does not justify fulfilling the flesh’s wants and desires. This selfishness provides only a temporary emotional happiness fix.

Instead, self love involves accepting ourselves – personality, physical appearance, even weaknesses and faults – because our own identity lies grounded in Christ’s unconditional love for us exactly AS we are right now. Out of this flows a love for others that comes through in our attitudes, actions and words as we live in relationship with them.

When our identity exists grounded in Christ, in His love for and acceptance of us, we discover a self love that gives us the capacity to love others AS Jesus exhorted. To help grasp this, think about what’s at the heart of you feeling loved, of your feeling genuine acceptance of who you are AS a person. Gifts and even kind acts mean very little in the absence of genuine acceptance of who you are AS a person.

Something significant happens in how we view ourselves when our our Christian identity involves being accepted by Christ and is not earned by works or moral standing. This creates a love for self that transfers to how we love others; it serves as an example of HOW we are to love others.

Celebrate Valentine’s Day

With the idea of Valentine’s Day’s original intent in mind along with understanding the tie between loving others and loving self, celebrate Valentine’s Day with fresh perspective. Celebrate the sacrificial love that seeks for the greatest good, that accepts how God made you and others. Celebrate a love that sacrifices any focus on self and instead embraces personalities and makes allowances for faults. Live love that comes only through complete focus on God’s love for us.

DISCUSSION: How does loving yourself change how you love others, and, ultimately, how God’s love exists in your life?

Are You Willing to Not Fit In?

When I was in grade school, I never felt like I fit in. That feeling followed me into my teen and adult years. I’d love to say this problem no longer exists now that I’ve hit mid-life, that I am now secure enough in who Christ made me to be that the desire to fit in no longer plagues me. That would be a lie.

Certainly, I am more confident, but the desire to fit in still lingers and often rears its ugly head in social situations.

Over the years, I did adapt to not fitting in. At some point, I even began to seek out ways to emphasize that aspect that seemed to define me. If others are doing something, I look for ways to avoid doing exactly the same thing. From clothing and accessories to exercise and eating to social interaction, something inside me now purposes to go against the flow, even if only slightly, of what the majority does.

5-7-13 be transformed 1

Both Right and Wrong

In 1 Corinthians 9:22, Paul says that “To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” In other words, he tried to find common ground with people in order to bring them to Christ. Of course, this does not mean sinning, but it does mean getting involved in people’s lives and being authentic with them.

So, in the sense that my going against the flow sometimes causes disconnection with people I could influence, I am wrong in my approach. In fact, doing so has led to missing out on some significant witnessing opportunities. For that, I truly am sorry.

On the other hand, John 15:18-27 clearly indicates that to a great extent, Christ followers won’t fit in with the culture surrounding them. In other words, we must be in the world but not of the world (Romans 12:2). Jesus certainly set the example for us in this area by spending time with and ministering to those who needed Him most and who were often social outcasts, but He did not let them change Him.

When my intentions fall into the realm of wanting to remain separate from the material and fleshly focuses of the world, my approach to not conform and follow the crowd then seems wise.

Resist the Call of the World

5-7-13 be transformed 2

Perhaps both of these approaches need to exist. Maybe both looking for commonalities and connections need to exist alongside being an outsider. In my quest to find that balance, I realize that the outsider status must still dominate; otherwise, my impact as I connect and care becomes less effective.

Let’s look deeper at John 15:18-27 to hopefully understand the importance of an outsider status.

Being an outsider, feeling like you don’t fit in with the crowd (culture), can indicate progress towards becoming more Christ-like (v 18). Realizing that Christ chose you to be an outsider can keep feelings of rejection and aloofness from affecting your walk with Him (v 19).

What’s more, knowing that people aren’t really rejecting you but are actually reacting to their fear of the unknown creates a motivational steadfastness to perhaps amplify your outsider status (vv 20-21). You see, knowing Jesus creates a responsibility that so many people want to avoid because it means increasingly living as an outsider.

Knowing Jesus can mean breaking the death grip that the need to belong and be accepted by the world has. But a dying to self must happen, and this scares people. So, many instead choose to succumb to the call of the world and seek to eliminate any feeling of an outsider status (v 22).

Even with evidence of a better way, hate of Christ’s ways exists without any real cause except a desire to avoid the truth of Christ (vv 23-25).

Outsider Victory

God’s Holy Spirit reveals truth that reveals Jesus (v 26). As His Spirit dwells within us, our outsider status feels more and more like home, like a place of safety, peace and joy. And in that, we discover the courage to bravely tell others about the Jesus who welcomes outsiders. In other words, we become better able to care and connect in an authentic way.

DISCUSSION: What else does scripture say about how Christ followers must interact and exist in the world?

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Separation Is In the Preparation

Rookie Wisdom

Prior to the Wildcard playoffs, Seattle Seahawks’ rookie quarterback Russell Wilson was the subject of several newspaper and television features lauding his leadership ability. While being interviewed, Wilson’s verbalized his philosophy:

1-11-13 separationThese features went on to describe Wilson’s detailed approach to preparing for games, citing a specific story about how he put “cheat sheets” on his teammates’ chairs prior to their Monday morning team meeting following an away game the day before. Actions like these, teammates say, are why Wilson has become a team leader even though he’s only 24 and in his rookie season in the NFL.

And while watching Wilson on the field before and during both before and during games, his actions emphasized his leadership ability as he encouraged and motivated his teammates. Clearly, Wilson’s approach to preparation has separated him as a player and leader in the NFL.

Biblical Principle

As Christians, we are called to separate ourselves too. Just as Wilson has separated himself from being an average football player, we too should seek to separate ourselves from blending in with the world around us. Specifically, the Bible talks about Christians separating themselves in three aspects of life. We are to separate ourselves from:

The World1 John 2:15-17 encourages us to love the things of God instead of the things of this world, and Romans 12:2 encourages separation by not conforming and by letting our minds be renewed.

False Teachers – In Romans 16:17-18, we receive warning to avoid those who deceptively preach anything contradicting God’s Word, and Deuteronomy 13:1-3 indicates deliberately and consistently choosing God above all others.

Disobedient Christians – According to Matthew 18:15-17, while we are not to instantly avoid fellowship with disobedient Christians, we must do so when every effort to persuade them from wrong receives rejection.

Separation through Preparation

Just as Wilson deliberately prepares himself as a football player thus allowing him to excel when game time comes, we too must prepare to separate ourselves as Christians in order to excel in glorifying God.

Wilson’s preparation comes through viewing game tapes, analyzing opposing players, creating a plan for the next game, and making sure he’s in top physical and mental condition. A Christian’s preparation – and maintenance – for separation comes through establishing Godly habits, keeping short accounts, taking thoughts captive, having firm convictions and refusing to conform.

Examples to Follow

Russell Wilson seems to provide a terrific example for other football players as well as athletes in general to follow.

Scripture gives Christians numerous examples of the importance of preparing ourselves to become and remain separate. Examples include the Recabites, Daniel, Joseph and even David. The Recabites show the importance of knowing your why and being ready with an answer. Daniel gives a great example of the value of the habit of daily prayer. Joseph shows us that staying true to God holds significant long-term impact. And David lets us know that even when we mess up, pursuing God restores us to our separated (holy) state.

AMPLIFY: Many questions resonate in my mind as I consider how I can personally amplify my separation from the world, from evil and from disobedience. Does what I read and watch honor God? Are the video games my kids playing harmful to their minds? Am I too busy, overloaded and stressed? Do I over-plan and miss God’s plan way too often? Am I preoccupied with money? Do I explore alternative teachings? Am I too open-minded? Do I justify my attitudes, actions & words? Am I unteachable? Am I creating my own reality in order to continue doing what I want? Do I avoid conflict? Do I get caught up in comparing myself to others?

DISCUSSION: Can you think of additional examples, biblical or otherwise, of someone implementing the principle of “separation is in the preparation”? In addition to what we’ve already mentioned, how else does the Bible tell us to live separately?

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Trapped by Complexity

Simplicity is constantly under attack. Perhaps a more accurate statement is that we are trapped by complexity, which seems to be our default setting, and simplicity becomes the casualty as a barrage of complexity invades our lives.

Our hurried lifestyles and constant scurrying after progress certainly add complexity to life by giving too many choices too often.

How can we discover who we truly are and what makes us happy if we are constantly distracted by choices thrown at us by progress?

Yet progress is impossible to completely ward off, and we soon discover that we must simply and deliberately choose to not take it all in. Even the Amish, who represent a long-forgotten simplicity in life, live lives more complicated than they once were. Even though they don’t personally maintain them, the fact that the Amish are the focus of many web sites and are themselves a tourist attraction shows the impossibility of keeping progress at bay even when simplicity is a religious doctrine.

Interestingly, the Amish are such a draw because of their simplicity. Life used to only become complicated mostly by choice. Now, complexity happens to us at the speed of progress.

Where the Journey Began

simple-and-healthy-lunch-1317488-1278x912Teaching my boys that value of simplicity is a focus of mine. These lessons include a deliberate limiting of extra-curricular activities, a focusing of time and efforts on fewer and better quality activities, and a prioritizing of events and opportunities that constantly present themselves.

We’ve also incorporated simplicity into our eating. With about 20 meals that we cycle through, my guys love that they get their favorites often. Because they feel the quality of their meals are better since they regularly have their favorites, they more look forward to meals. We also find simple joy sharing these favorites regularly.

When I first began to deliberately simplify my life, I thought I was pursuing simplicity in order to be healthy and strong. My initial push for simplicity came after undiagnosed food allergies created an environment where depression, anxiety and illness thrived. This experience not only forced me to simplify my eating habits, but it also directed me toward a less-stressful and more fulfilling career.

At first, I was very unhappy at what I saw as a severely limiting diet. But the illnesses caused by my food allergies provided the necessarily motivation to pursue lifestyle change.

For the first year, I convinced myself that having multiple food allergies (dairy, gluten, eggs, crabs and cashews) would cause misery for the rest of my life. I hated reading all the food labels, I quit going to my favorite restaurants, and I had to cook separate meals for myself. Oh, and allergen-friendly food is more expensive too.

Now, years later, adapting my diet feels quite natural, and I find that less food choices makes grocery shopping much easier. Plus, my husband and I no longer go through our usual back and forth “Where do you want to eat?” conversation when dining out. We basically have 3-4 choices most of the time, and choosing among those few is definitely much simpler than choosing among the myriad of options found in most cities.

So many people feel trapped by complexity. They feel hopeless because a way out keeps alluding them. At least, that’s how I felt when I just couldn’t climb out of the pit (turns out there is a labyrinth in the pit too). Yet, taking the first few deliberate steps toward simplification often starts the momentum needed to affect major change.

While I didn’t know what change needed to take place for me to be healthy, I kept looking and trying and adjusting. Eventually, I discovered many small changes that added up to make a huge difference for healing in my life.

Complexity pursues. Simplicity must be pursued. And while complexity will never cease to pursue, simplicity will begin to pursue as we allow room for it to do so by slowly pushing out the complex.

DISCUSSION: What is one area in your life you would like to simplify? What small steps could you take to begin that process?

Harmony In Submission

The Bible sometimes uses marriage to describe what our relationship with Christ will look like in Heaven (Revelation 19:7, for example). In making this connection, God creates a framework for earthly marriages that foreshadows our future relationship with Him.

This framework is detailed further in Ephesians.

“…and be subject to one another in the fear of Christ.” (Ephesians 5:21)

“Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord.” (Ephesians 5:22)

“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her…” (Ephesians 5:25)

Out of respect for Christ and His submission to the will of the Father, we submit ourselves to our spouses within marriage. Unfortunately, our flesh often bucks up when we hear the word submission because we think it dictates a domineering relationships in some way. But that’s not what God intended.

For Wives

Submission means following a husband’s leadership in Christ. This includes complete commitment to your husband and the relationship. It involves cheering him on instead of trying to fix and change him (that’s God’s job anyway). It means deciding to build him up whenever possible.

On an individual level, a godly wife focuses on developing her inner beauty.

“Do not let your adornment be merely outward – arranging the hair, wearing gold, or putting on fine apparel – rather let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the incorruptible beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in the sight of God.” (1 Peter 3:3-4)

Note that the scripture doesn’t say to NOT pay attention to your appearance; it just says to not give that a greater focus.

For Husbands

Submission means laying aside your own interests to care for your wife. In doing so, you seek to understand and protect her and to also strive for gentleness and tenderness.

In addition, your leadership should reflect godliness and not demand servitude.

“You husbands in the same way, live with your wives in an understanding way, as with someone weaker, since she is a woman; and show her honor as a fellow heir of the grace of life, so that your prayers will not be hindered.” (1 Peter 3:7)

In addition to honoring his wife, a good marriage also benefits a husband’s spiritual life. Logically, the opposite is also true.

Harmony In Submission

As husbands and wives submit to one another “in the fear of Christ,” they show their trust in God. They let go of self, the enemy to submission. They deliberately and intentionally choose to prefer one another.

In marriage, separate wholes come together to make one new whole.

“And the two shall become one flesh; so they are no longer two, but one flesh.” (Mark 10:8)

Through submission as Scripture indicates, spouses learn how to harmonize with one another. In doing so, they become a beautiful tune pleasing to the ear not only of people around them, but most significantly of God in Heaven.

More importantly, spouses within a Godly marriage learn how their relationship with Christ will be in Heaven. Realizing this is life-changing as we understand that not only are we building up our spouses as we strive for harmonious submission, but we are also preparing ourselves for eternity.

Go Against the Flow

Moneyball tells the story of a general manager who decides to build a baseball team based on statistics rather than individual talent. Everyone, except the economist working for him, thought he was making a huge mistake. Everyone was wrong. His counterintuitive decision was right on the money. Billy Beane went against the flow of conventional baseball wisdom, and it changed the game of baseball forever.

Ever had an idea or wanted to make a change that went against what everybody around you was doing? Or, maybe you felt the need to resist going in a direction everyone else was taking. Going against the flow is difficult simply because it sets us apart from everyone else.

4 Principles for Going Against the Flow

Scripture says that while we may plot our course, the Lord directs our steps (Proverbs 16:9). Choosing to follow the steps He indicates often means going against the flow of our culture.

These 4 principles for going against the flow can help you better see the steps he wants you to take.

#1 Acknowledge Limits

Our culture is one of pushing limits. The world of sports is a perfect example. How fast can the mile actually be run? How many touchdowns can one person make in a season? Who can jump the highest or farthest? No matter what records are broken, the new record always becomes the goal. But the truth of the matter is that we do have – and need – limits. Limits allow us to avoid significant negative consequences (think weight control and traffic signs). Intentionally setting limits on desires and pleasures allows us to stay balanced and healthy in body, mind and spirit.  Setting limits is also counter-cultural because we’re told daily we can have what we want when we want it… no limits. Embracing the blessings of limits can protect us from thinking outside of the will of God.

Acknowledging limits goes against the flow of mainstream thinking.

#2 Raise Expectations

There is always someone who isn’t doing as well as you in some way, and it’s easy to get a false sense of superiority. Comparisons are dangerous, yet our culture promotes them like crazy. Comparisons create a false reality, and they can lead to pride in feeling like improvement is unnecessary. When we realize that Jesus is the bull’s-eye, though, we understand the need for progressive improvement. He is the standard by which we should measure our lives. In doing so, our expectations are raised, and we can set goals that don’t pit us constantly against one another.

Forgetting comparisons is certainly not mainstream thinking.

#3 Be Separate

Holiness is a Bible word that many think means perfection. But holiness is not about being perfect; it’s about being separate. When you separate yourself, you avoid conforming to the world. You avoid walking the path of destruction. You become an example of one aiming for the bull’s-eye. Others may consider you odd, but their approval isn’t what matters. The question you must ask is, “Does God approve of my life?” if the answer is yes, then you are living a life of separation and not conformity.

Seeking God’s approval over man’s approval goes against the flow.

#4 Make Relationship a Priority

Limits and rules exist for our safety, but they mean little more than restriction and confinement without relationship. Parents can discipline kids, but kids won’t truly aim for obedience if the relationship is weak. The book of Leviticus is all about establishing rules for the safety of the Israelites. While they focused on God, the rules weren’t a big deal to follow. They followed them because they loved Him. But as soon as they took their eyes off of Him, the rules were broken and rebellion reigned. Relationship makes following the rules a desire rather than a requirement.

Focusing on relationship over self does not support the thinking of our “me first” society.

Directed Steps

As John Carty noted in Coach Wooden’s Pyramid of Success: Building Blocks for a Better Life,

“It’s not easy to overcome the training and traditions of a lifetime.”

Often, though, this is exactly what Christ leads us to do. He sometimes directs us to go against the flow of the training and traditions of our comfort zones.

Are you willing to take the steps He directs?