When was the last time you felt stressed-out? (Note to reader: A picture of a fish swimming in a blender was shown.)When I was in college this cartoon was pretty popular. Especially during finals. Sometimes our circumstances can make us feel like the fish in this picture!
Speaking of college, I remember attending a mini-seminar on stress management. During that seminar they gave us students a lot of practical tips for reducing stress. Their suggestions were great, but one day I found just the relief that I needed. Someone had taped this piece of paper on one of the steel doors in the dorm with the following instructions for reducing stress. The paper read, "BANG HEAD HERE!"
Well, that was then. Just recently I logged on to the internet looking for tips about managing stress. I found a number of helpful suggestions. For financial stress use your Mastercard to pay your Visa bill. When things get stressful at work, dart around suspiciously while humming the theme from "Mission Impossible." When an announcement comes over the loudspeaker at work, assume the fetal position and scream, "No, no! It's those voices again!" Stare at difficult coworkers through the tines of a fork and pretend they're in jail. When someone says, "Have a nice day!" tell them, "I have other plans." For shopping stress hide in the clothing racks. When people walk by you say things like, "Pick me!! Pick me!!" and make them think that the clothes are talking to them.
This morning I would guess that most everyone here is under some kind of stress. A few years ago I came across a list of the top things that cause stress. These events included death of a spouse, divorce, incarceration, separation, unwanted pregnancy, death of a family member, unemployment, suicide of a family member, debt, alcoholism in family, miscarriage, hospitalization, or a fine. Life is full of stress! We face stress of some kind every single day.
The effects or evidence of stress.
The effects of stress are well researched and well documented. Stress has a profound impact on the overall quality of our lives and relationships. Stress is notorious for wiping out life, for making us sour, and for stealing our joy. Some common emotional signs of stress include irritability, tension, worry, edginess, fatigue, daydreaming, procrastination, nightmares, and forgetfulness. And just think, you thought it was old age! Some of the physical signs of stress include rapid heartbeat, shakiness, chest pain, a burning stomach, upset stomach, headaches, difficulty breathing, muscle aches, back pain, neck pain, a weakened immune system, gastrointestinal distress, teeth grinding, dry mouth, and insomnia.
This morning as we continue our study in Philippians, we have the opportunity to consider what God's word has to say about coping with stress. Throughout Philippians a stressed-out Paul has been addressing a stressed-out church! Paul had been incarcerated for months in a Roman prison. His future was uncertain. His very life and his health was teetering in the balance. His dear friend Epaphroditus had just survived a life-threatening illness. Paul was isolated from friends. His enemies were stirring up trouble for him in prison. Certain Christian workers were maligning his reputation. He was enduring persecution. Brush fires were breaking out within the Church. People were quarreling. Disagreements went unresolved. People were growing hard and becoming selfish. Paul was very much like a fish in a blender!
But in Philippians 4:4-7 (NIV)he encourages the Philippians with a message about managing stress. He says, "Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus." In these verses Paul is offering a prescription for stressed Christians.
Paul commands the Philippians to rejoice. (Attitude)
In Philippians 4:3 (NIV) Paul says, "Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!"
Most of us have been taught that our attitude is beyond our control. Since childhood we have been immersed in the whole victim psychology thing. Whenever we have a sour attitude we have learned to blame variables in our environment. "It's my job. It's my childhood. It's my kids. It's my spouse. It's whatso-n-so said. It's the neighborhood I live in." We have been trained to believe that our attitude is not by our choice, but rather by our circumstances. Thus a good attitude is caused by good circumstances. A rotten attitude is the result of rotten circumstances. We have been trained to believe that the only way we can truly change our attitude is to first change our circumstances. So we say to ourselves, "I'd have a better attitude if I had a different job or if I made more money. I'd have a better attitude if my kids..., if my spouse..., if my health..., if..., if..."
It is no surprise that we expend a great deal of energy in life trying to eliminate stress by trying to change our circumstances. The problem is that we can't eliminate all stress. We can only eliminate some stress. There will always be variables in our lives beyond our control. There will always be people we cannot change, debt, health concerns, mounting pressures, deadlines, frustrations, childhood issues, adult issues, and uncertainty. The stress-free life simply does not exist, nor is it even attainable in any measure!
We should always try to improve our circumstances. This isn't wrong or immoral. The point is that we cannot wait on future circumstances in order to start having the right kind of attitude in the present. Not only is this ineffective, but there are absolutely no guarantees! And furthermore it's just plain foolish and it goes against everything a Christian is to become!
Please take note of this passage. For Paul there is no excuse for a sour attitude. Paul says that we need to make a choice. You can't choose your circumstances but your can sure choose your attitude. You are not a victim. Your response is not predetermined! Paul says, "Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!" When confronted with stress we choose our response. We can get bent out of shape or we can rejoice. We can pull our hair out or we can rejoice. But make no mistake about it. You are in the driver's seat!
Notice that Paul repeats this command twice for emphasis. Rejoice! Rejoice! Paul isn't just commanding the Philippians to change their attitudes. He is commanding them to change their attitudes (snap) just like that! And notice also that Paul isn't telling us to rejoice in circumstances, in the fact that we just got a speeding ticket, or just got laid off, or just got cancer, or just lost a loved one, or some other horrific circumstance! Paul doesn't say a word here about rejoicing in circumstances. Instead he is directing us to rejoice, "in the Lord", to rejoice in the security of our relationship with Jesus Christ, and to find cause for celebration in our God.
Paul commands the Philippians to be gentle. (Personality)
In Philippians 4:5 (NIV) Paul says, "Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near."
What generally happens to our personalities whenever we are stressed out? Well in a word, we become grizzly bears! Remember that the emotional signs of stress are irritability, edginess, short temper, tension, and touchiness. As you know, all those qualities make for a joyous and exciting marriage!
In college I remember burning the candle on both ends. I had eighteen hours of classes, which required four to five hours of study each night. I was working part-time twenty hours a week during the day for a local company. In the evenings I cleaned at a dentist's office. On the weekend I had a preaching ministry and it took me fifteen to twenty hours each week to write a sermon and put together lessons and then commute. I had also met a charming young lady who I badly wanted to spend quality time with, my future wife Lara!
Thrown into the mix was a roommate who was going through terrific stress in his life. He was constantly on the phone with relatives sorting out major family issues. During his phone calls he would get worked up. When he was upset he would sleep. And when he fell asleep you did not want to wake him up! He frequently would toss and turn whenever he heard me typing at my keyboard or flipping through pages at my desk.
Suffice it to say that I experienced more stress back then than I ever have! I started losing weight. I started walking in my sleep. I was tired all the time. One morning I woke up, and my roommate was staring at me in disbelief. He cautiously asked me if I was alright and I told him, "I think so, why?" As I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes I noticed that my entire side of the room had been ransacked in the night. Books were thrown down from the shelves. My drawers had been pulled out and dumped. Papers were torn in two! I got irritated and asked what had happened. He said, "Dude, last night in your sleep you got up and went berserk. You were a grizzly bear!"
Seeing an opportune moment I told my roommate, "It is amazing what people are capable of doing in their sleep." I then told him about a movie that I saw on television where a man murdered his in-laws in his sleep and was found not guilty in the court of law. I then asked him again, "Just how crazy was I the other night?" Within a few weeks, I kid you not, my roommate moved out! And I slept happily every after!
Stress can affect your personality just like your circumstances can affect your attitude. But in both cases Paul commands the Philippians to take responsibility. He tells the Philippians that in attitude, they should rejoice. He tells them that in personality they should, "Let your gentleness be evident to all."
The word gentleness refers to a gracious and reasonable spirit. When confronted with stress it's easy to become a grizzly bear and to tear into the enemy. Paul is saying to be gracious toward others when overwhelmed with stress. Be reasonable. Be rational. Don't go berserk. Don't become emotionally unstable. Maintain control of your personality. Choose a gentle spirit to emanate forth. You choose your personality! You're in the driver's seat. Don't wait on circumstances to become a gracious, reasonable human being.
Paul commands the Philippians to stop worrying.(Mindset)
In Philippians 4:6 (NIV) Paul says, "Do not be anxious about anything."
In attitude, rejoice in the Lord. In personality, let your gentleness be evident to all. In your mind and in your thoughts, stop worrying. Next week I am going to preach about the power of the mind, the potential danger of certain types of thinking, and what a Christian mind should dwell on. Without stealing my thunder for next week, let me point out that absolutely no peace can be found in worrying about circumstances. Worry compounds stress. Worry distorts problems. Worry blows things out of proportion. It immobilizes us. It makes us feel like powerless victims. Worry robs us of mental energy that could be productively invested elsewhere. Worry serves absolutely no useful purpose. It is a self-destructive activity, and any counselor or psychotherapist worth his or her salt will tell you so!
Paul says, "Don't be anxious about anything." ANYTHING! There can be no peace where worry persists. Worry is to the mind what hunger is to the stomach. Worry reminds us that there is something beyond ourselves that is needed to satisfy us. Worrying cannot satisfy the mind anymore than hungering can satisfy the stomach. Worrying points us to something beyond ourselves, to something beyond our circumstances, and to something greater than what we already have. And this ties in nicely with the remainder of our passage.
Paul commands the Philippians to pray. (Action)
In Philippians 4:6 (NIV) Paul says, "Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God."
I believe it was Gerald Hawthorne who said, "The secret to being anxious about nothing is to pray about everything." 1 Peter 5:7 (NIV) says, "Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you."
God has resources that are available to us through prayer. There is something beyond us that is in God that can make a tremendous difference! God urges us to pray! He urges us to trust him! He urges us to remember that the Lord is near, that he understands, that he loves, and that he knows us in our need.
Whereas food satisfies the hungry stomach, prayer satisfies the anxious mind. God wants us by prayer and petition to cast all our worries on to his shoulders. Prayer satisfies. Prayer quenches the hunger of our souls. Prayer fills us up. Prayer provides us a peace that is not based on the shifting sands of circumstance.
Notice also that Paul commands us to pray with thanksgiving as we present our requests. Thanksgiving is like looking in the rearview mirror. It is looking back over all the blessings God has already provided us, both in life and through his Son Jesus Christ. Looking in the rearview mirror helps us reflect on God's track record of faithfulness and goodness toward us in the troubles of yesteryear. God will never forsake us. He will do for us in the future what he has done for us in the past. He will provide in the future as he has provided in the past. Gratitude reminds us that God is just as trustworthy yesterday as he is tomorrow and today and everyday. He is trustworthy with everything that concerns us.
Prayer gives us something productive to do in the face of stress instead of worrying.
A promise to the stressed-out person.
I want you to take special notice of the promise that is in store for us when we rejoice in attitude, become gentle in personality, stop being anxious in thought, and become prayerful in everything. Paul promises in Philippians 4:7 (NIV), "And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus."
The peace of God is ultimately what provides satisfaction to stressed-out people. The peace of God is not something that is based on circumstance. It is something that is internal and that dwells in our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. The peace of God is not something that can be rationalized. It transcends understanding. It is beyond us. It is of God! The peace of God is not something within us. It is of God and can only be found through a vibrant relationship with Jesus Christ. The peace of God is not something that will leave us dissatisfied. Just as the Roman soldiers guarded Paul in prison, so God's peace will stand guard of our hearts and minds and not let the stresses of this world snuff out our lives.
The peace of God is what our unsettled, agitated souls hunger for. Why not accept this peace that is available to you through faith in Jesus Christ?