Stress – pressures or tensions – is an inevitable part of life and is not necessarily bad in small doses! Sometimes, however, we feel that the stresses of life are just too much for us to bear and this can cause our general health to suffer.
We can think of our lives as being like a bucket which is filled with water as the stresses pour in. These can be anything – financial worries, relationship worries, job pressures, academic stress for students, moving house, bereavement and so on. Many stresses are short-term and easily resolve themselves, but others are not quite so easy to get rid of (dealing with a long-term illness, for example.) The current situation, where lockdown has been imposed, job security is up in the air for many and there are fears of illness or dealing with bereavement, is definitely stressful.
In order to prevent the water overflowing and resulting in mental health issues which we find difficult to manage, we need to let the water out of the bucket. That doesn’t necessarily stop fresh water being poured in, but it means we don’t break or snap. These are generally called ‘coping strategies’, ways of relieving and releasing stress.
As this picture shows, we all develop both helpful and unhelpful coping strategies. Some unhelpful ones include smoking, alcohol and drugs, which can generally cause as many problems as they solve, but they also include eating (too much or too little) and self-harm. What we really need are to find helpful, safe coping strategies – for example, physical exercise, eating healthily, getting enough rest and relaxtion, doing something you enjoy (hobbies are great stress-busters!)
One of the additional stresses of our current situation is not being able to spend time face-to-face with supportive people, as many people find they are helped by other people as much as (if not more than) by doing activities. Talking is one of the great coping strategies (which is why therapy can be a useful way of dealing with mental health issues); it helps to bring our anxieties and fears into the open and to know we are loved and cared for. A listening ear is a great help (‘The way of fools seems right to them, but the wise listen to advice.’ Prov 12:15), often restoring a greater perspective to us (stress makes us feel swamped; we literally feel as though we are drowning at times.)
We may well need to find other ways of talking and listening at the present time: phone calls, video calls, texts, sending cards, writing letters, posting out gifts and dropping off goodies such as baking may well become your ‘coping strategy’ at this time (or what you need to receive to help you.) But there is an alternative help which many never consider: God.
Being a Christian doesn’t mean all stress is removed from life (in actual fact, there may well be additional stresses simply from following God!) It does mean, however, that we don’t have to deal with stress on our own. The loneliness and pressure many feel at this time are compounded by isolation, but the Christian is never isolated from God. He is always with us (Heb 13:5, Matt 28:20).
So don’t forget God when you’re dealing with stress. Jesus knows all about stress. He knows what it is to be human, to suffer, to sorrow. (Heb 2:14-18, Heb 4:15) He is there to help us; He won’t abandon us, even if others do. And don’t forget God’s people, for they are often His means of upholding us and supporting us. We may feel we daren’t admit our darkest thoughts to another person and don’t want others to know we’re imperfect and not coping, but it’s surprising how we can be helped up by other people, for we all face pressure and stress (see Eccl 4:9-12). Don’t suffer in silence, but let the water out of the bucket…
This week is ‘Mental Health Awareness Week’, and while we may feel such labels are not particularly useful (since mental health matters fifty-two weeks of the year and not just one), it can be helpful to stop and think about such things in a more reflective way.
People are not just physical beings; we are created in the image of God, and our emotional and mental health are as important as our physical health (in fact, the two can’t be separated; ‘wellbeing’ or ‘health’ refers to every aspect of our lives.) Physical problems may be more visible, however, and therefore we seek help when we see those problems more readily.
How we feel and think are much harder to articulate and discern. This can lead to us becoming stressed, anxious, fearful and even despairing – and not knowing how to handle those perfectly normal human emotions in ways that help us rather than harm us further. We need to understand at the deepest level that God loves us and accepts us as we are, no matter how we feel. He wants us to know life in all its fulness (John 10:10) and to bring us to the place of contentment and satisfaction, no matter what the external stress factors might look like.
We may need to learn new coping strategies, to be transformed in the way we think, to find ways of dealing with the stresses of life, but we can do this safe in the security of our relationship with God. No matter how bleak we may feel circumstances are or how sorrowful our situations, God is a very present help in times of trouble. (Ps 46:1)
Don’t despair; don’t give up. There is hope for the hopeless in God. There is help for the helpless. There is a way out which God provides for us which leads to hope. (1 Cor 10:13)
If you need to talk further with people about mental health issues, here are some useful telephone numbers – but don’t forget you can talk to God about these things 24/7.
You can call Humankind – Umbrella, in Barnsley on 01226 709040 (Mon- Fri 9.00am – 5.00pm)
Or call Barnsley IAPT on 01226 644900 (Mon- Fri 9.00am – 5.00pm)
Or call NHS on 111, or your local GP
You can call Samaritans 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. You can call 116 123 (free from any phone).
Paul’s letter to the Philippians is one that teaches us much about joy and rejoicing, despite adverse circumstances. Written from prison, while Paul was in chains, we find that Paul, unlike us, is not downcast, despairing or depressed because of his circumstances. In Phil 1:12-30, we begin to see why he is so resolutely joyful. Ultimately, he can rejoice because he knows God is Lord of all and He is good.
Paul was utterly convinced that everything which happened to him was filtered by God and therefore whatever came his way would be used by God for good. (Rom 8:28) He said, ‘Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel.’ (Phil 1:12) We may wonder at this statement, since being in prison stopped Paul from continuing his missionary journeys and evangelism, but in fact, he continued preaching the gospel in prison and was encouraged by others doing the same – no matter what their motives. (Phil 1:13-14, 17-18)
Paul was able to see beyond the trouble and the short-term suffering. He knew people were trying to make life more difficult for him. (Phil 1:17) He knew there were all kinds of potential problems ahead, but he also knew that Christ living in him was making a huge difference. He was confident that ‘now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.’ (Phil 1:20-21) As far as Paul was concerned, he was in a win-win situation! If his life were spared (‘if I am to go on living in the body’), he would rejoice, because that would mean fruitful labour for him, the opportunity to continue fulfilling his calling as an apostle to the Gentiles. (Phil 1:22) If he were to be killed as a result of his preaching, he would be with Christ, ‘which is better by far.’ (Phil 1:23) Whatever happened meant he won. Life had meaning and purpose (even in prison) because of Jesus, but then Jesus has made it possible for us to live without a fear of death and dying, because we know that this too has been dealt with by His death and resurrection. To die is gain. We gain freedom from sin and suffering when we die. Paul was able to view life and death from an entirely positive perspective, and if we too learn this lesson, it will transform how we view all the negatives of life, giving us the ability to rejoice no matter what.
Garry continued his series looking at the Sabbath this morning (when we finally managed to overcome various technical problems!) He looked at two similar words which are also connected to praise: shabach & shebach.
Shabach means to praise, to celebrate and shout, to shout in triumph. It’s used in Ps 63:1-3 and in Ps 106:47, where it is translated ‘glorify‘ or ‘glory‘ and in Ps 145:4 where it is translated ‘commends.’ It has the idea of jubilation, the crowd going wild, the kind of excited praise which would see a crowd climb on tables or chairs! Usually, this kind of praise comes as we recognise what God has done for us and we declare God’s power and confess His supremacy, rejoicing in all He has done.
Shebach is a quieter, more reflective praise, with the word only being used in Daniel 2:23 and 4:24. It is the kind of praise where we whisper our love for God or simply talk quietly. It’s the kind of praise that comes as we rest in God’s presence like a child snuggling on a father’s lap, as we become aware of His song over us and delight in us. (Zeph 3:17)
Both types of praise are necessary, and whilst it is easy at times to overflow with praise, more often than not we must choose to worship God. There are many occasions when we will not particularly feel like praising Him (any more than we leap out of bed every day with great enthusiasm… some days our beds have a great pull on us!) We have to learn to choose to praise Him, and this is where the connection with the Sabbath comes in.
One of the purposes of the Sabbath is to change our focus from ourselves to God. Gathering together is an important aspect of this and an important aspect of praise. Heb 10:24-25 reminds us that we can spur one another to love and good deeds; we can ‘incite’ one another to praise and this becomes infectious! We are called to encourage one another, and this means coming alongside each other to spur each other on. Ps 122:1 talks of rejoicing and being brightened when we exhort each other to go to God’s house. It’s not easy during this period when we cannot gather physically, but we can still inspire and encourage each other to praise and our collective gatherings are still important as we shift our focus firmly onto God.
Superstition is defined as ‘any belief or practice based upon one’s trust in luck or other irrational, unscientific, or supernatural forces.’ Whilst Christians definitely believe in a supernatural Being (God), there is no place for superstition in our faith. It might not be prudent to walk under a ladder if a window-cleaner is at work (because you might get wet!), but there is nothing inherently ‘wrong’ about doing this, just as there is no evidence that ‘Friday the 13th’ is any more fateful a day or date than any other or that black cats are lucky omens. Many superstitious practices are associated with pagan gods and therefore should not be embraced by those who live under God’s care and love.
Paul and Barnabas encountered the full force of superstition and idolatry in Lystra. (Acts 14:8-20) Some 50 years previously, the Latin poet Ovid had narrated in his Metamorphoses an ancient local legend, in which the supreme god (Jupiter to the Romans, Zeus to the Greeks) and his son Mercury (Hermes to the Greeks) once visited the hill country of Phrygia, disguised as mortal men. In their disguise, they sought hospitality but were rebuffed a thousand times. At last, they were offered lodging in a tiny cottage thatched with straw and reeds from the marsh. Here lived an elderly peasant couple called Philemon and Baucis, who entertained them out of their poverty. Later, the gods rewarded them, but destroyed by flood the homes which would not take them in. It is reasonable to suppose the people of Lystra were familiar with this story and were anxious not to suffer the same fate as the inhospitable Phrygians if the gods were to descend again, hence their reaction to the healing which they witnessed as a result of Paul and Barnabas’s arrival. Barnabas was identified as Zeus and Paul as Hermes, and it took considerable skill for the two missionaries to extricate themselves from the hero-worship which bordered on idolatry.
Their response to superstition was to point to the liberating truth from the living God: ‘We too are only human, like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them.’ (Acts 14:15) Superstition is another form of bondage, another way the devil tries to trap us in fear and anxiety. It is ultimately worthless. The Christian faith points us to the living God who created the world, rather than leaving us bowing to multiple gods and goddesses who cannot do anything for us. Today, we can be freed from the paranoia of superstition and can live in confidence and hope because of our renewed relationship with God through His Son, Jesus Christ.
Acts 14 reminds us why Paul would in later days write to Timothy that ‘everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.’ (2 Tim 3:12) In Iconium, Paul encountered Jews who refused to believe the gospel and who then stirred up Gentiles, poisoning minds with their slander and opposition. (Acts 14:2) Later, the plots against the missionaries became so severe (plots to mistreat and stone them) that they were forced to flee (Acts 14:5), and life didn’t get much easier when they arrived at Lystra, with Paul actually being stoned there (Acts 14:19). We might wonder at both the strength of opposition and at the strength and courage of Paul to endure such persecution and even to rejoice in it, because, as Tom Wright says, ‘the journey of the gospel from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth is unstoppable, but uncomfortable.’ (‘Acts For Everyone Pt 2’, P 31)
Opposition came because the message Paul proclaimed challenged the worldviews held by both Jews and Gentiles alike. Some were excited by the message and responded favourably; some were incensed by the message and could not cope with the ramifications this meant to their dearly held beliefs. We need to understand that the gospel message will always elicit these responses: indifference surely means we have not communicated the message effectively enough!
Paul’s response to opposition echoes Jesus’s words that we are blessed when we are persecuted. (Matt 5:10,12) He did not minimise the pressure such opposition created (see 2 Cor 1:8-10) and certainly did not forget the problems (see 2 Cor 11:23-29), but his perspective looked beyond temporary pain to eternal glory: ‘We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed,’ he wrote to the Corinthians (2 Cor 4:8-9), going on to say, ‘our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.’ (2 Cor 4:17) The only truly Christian response to suffering and persecution is to see our lives as part of the bigger picture God is creating for His glory and to understand that God is always working for the good of those who love Him. (Rom 8:18-28)