Oh boy, it’s that time of year again. You know the one I’m talking about…the season of holiday cheer, “Christ in Christmas” campaigns, snowflakes on cheeks, peppermint kisses and:
(Begin playing “Jaws” soundtrack now)
When I graduated a couple years ago, I thought I was finally, after eight years, sixteen attempts and a whole lotta caffeine, done with finals. Then I made the oh-so-ironically-stupid decision to turn around and head back to graduate school. If finals week in undergraduate was like trying to play “Jenga” with fragile, glass blocks of intellectual tidbits I may or may not have ever learned, then finals week in graduate school is like attempting to baptize a cat of mediocre intellect in an ice-cold bathtub of academia. It never seems to end well.
That being said, the worst part of finals week is not the grades I get, the hours of sleep I don’t get, or the opportunities to burn my textbooks in an act of defiance I wish I could get…but rather the worst part of finals is how much I sin.
Granted, this is nothing new. I am, after all, a perpetual sinner and thus always in need of God’s grace (#Gospelmessage). But I find that, when exams come to town, myself and many of my peers seem to become adamant professionals at one sin in particular: stress.
In today’s Evangelical culture, stress is an unmentioned sin. We have no problem in our communities confronting the reality of drunkenness, swearing, drug abuse, lust, pornography, and rooting for the Dallas Cowboys (okay, so that last one needs to be discussed more). Nor do we typically shy away from discussions on how such sins ought to be eliminated. But never once have I heard a sermon addressing the perpetuation of the sin of stress in our lives. In fact, most Christians wouldn’t even label stress as a sin. Nonetheless, it’s a common trait in many Christian circles; sitting down at my seminary’s lunch table seems, lately, less like a reprieve in communal bliss and more like a passive aggressive competition for the right to claim:
So how is stress a sin? Well, for one, stress is a graduated and developed version of worry. Jesus was very clear about the role worry should have in our lives…none. Unfortunately, we have taken his command “do not worry”, and, like so many others written it off as:
If that weren’t enough, our acceptance of stress in our lives, by nature, violates the fourth commandment. When God laid down laws for the Israelite nation, one commandment he gave was that they must “honor the Sabbath and keep it holy”. In the most basic and fundamental rules for the Israelite nation, God commanded that they rest. For an entire day. And lest we be deceived, this commandment was not one to be taken lightly; the penalty for violating it was death.
“Hark!” you say, “That is a strange concept. Why on earth would God care so much about the Israelites resting? Is it just because He’s a micromanaging, obsessive deity?”
The necessity of the Sabbath is anything but some sort of cosmic dictatorship. Rather, it’s a means to the fulfillment of our purpose as humans. This is exhibited in two ways and ultimately has to do with living a life of worship.
First of all, it’s often forgotten that God truly does care about the well being of His people. Granted, Christianity is a call to take up your cross and follow Christ, a prospect that doesn’t exactly sound beneficial to one’s health. Certainly, Jesus does make it clear that whoever wants to follow Him must put their own hopes, desires, passions and plans on hold…for all eternity. Any deviation of this concept is an injustice to the Gospel message. But if we focus solely on this area of Christ’s ethic, we find ourselves diving into a dangerous, somewhat Medieval form of theology which, if taken to its extreme and played out, can result in complete physical deprivation and some modern form of flagellation…such as, say, courtship or prolonged viewings of “Touched By An Angel” re-runs.
Inasmuch, we completely ignore something else Christ said (seeing a pattern?) while on earth: “I have come that they may have life and have it to the full”. Christ’s demand is not that we give up our lives for the sake of misery and torment, but that we give up our lives for the sake of Him. Thus, within the person of Christ and His ethic, we find not a subtraction or deviation from true satisfaction, but the fulfillment of all we could ever ask for. His command that we cease from worry was not a form of control, but a way of freeing us from the yolk that is heavy and trading it in for one that is easy.
But the primary reason the Sabbath, rest and the removal of stress from our lives is important is because it is a practical testimony to the world about how we view God. The fourth commandment was counter-cultural in Ancient Near Eastern culture for a variety of reasons, the most apparent being that the Israelite God, YHWH, was telling His people not to work. Other gods didn’t do this; they demanded work. They demanded constant tribute; the other gods were high maintenance because without the deeds of humans it would become quickly apparent that these gods did not exist.
But the God of the Israelites (who, btdubs, is our God) is different. Because God is all-powerful, because He is omnipresent and because He does have control over everything, He has the ability not only to command us to rest, but also to rest Himself. Because nothing can happen outside of God’s plan, He has the freedom to sit upon His throne, examine His creation, and declare that it “is good”, all without the fear of something unpredictable happening and it all exploding in His face. For the Israelites, the ability to rest in this aspect of their God was a declaration to His deity; it was a form of living, daily, real worship. The Lord didn’t make such a strict rigid command for kicks and giggles. He made it so the Israelites could better understand their God and thus worship Him better. For Christians today, the ability to free our lives from stress and worry is an even greater form of worship. Unfortunately, we suck at it.
We suck at our ability to look at our schedules and give our tasks up to God. We suck at our ability to carve out even five minutes of our day in which to sit, in silence, before our Lord and praise Him for His goodness. We suck at our ability to hear the words of our Savior and say anything other than “But you don’t understand what I’ve got on my plate…” We suck at worshipping Christ with all of our lives, instead holding onto the small portions in which we know best. We suck at our ability to face something as looming, intimidating and demanding as business reports, financial burdens, children’s sports practice, car repairs, school loans, fantasy football (guilty) and yes, final exams and not stress out about it because we believe that our control must remain intact…or else.
Jesus takes the load from us and he makes our burdens lighter – if we let Him. A faith in God is a faith in which we don’t have to always be in control. Stress is not a result of circumstances but attitude, and our ability to transform our attitude through the Gospel message will directly affect our quality of life and worship. This is the essence of the Sabbath, of rest, of knowing how to be still and know that He is God. Let the rest of the world stress over the intricacies of control they feel they must have. Let the rest of the world fret over retirement funds, GPA’s, business projections and when Jerry Jones will finally leave Dallas.
But as Christians whose lives ought to be lived in constant worship of the one, true, all-powerful and all-knowing God, may our lives be free from stress; may our lives be free from the burden of worry and instead open to the prospect and embracing the reality of our incredible God. With every worry that comes our way, may we constantly and automatically be able to say:
The call to live a stress-free life is not just an Old Testament concept or idealistic notion taken out of context but is an ethic of vital importance that Jesus Himself lived. It’s counter-cultural, surprisingly difficult and looks different from anything this world has ever seen. But our ability to live lives free of worry will not only make our earthly existence much more enjoyable but will finally, with much joy and contentment, grant us the ability to worship our Lord well.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some finals to study for…