Jesus On Stress
The gospel writers tell us that the issue of stress and worry was a recurring theme in Jesus’ teaching.1 Luke tells us what he taught in the autumn of 29 AD, only five or six months before his enemies crucified him:
Do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds! Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life? Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?
Consider how the wild flowers grow. They do not labour or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendour was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you – you of little faith! And do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it. For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them. But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well. Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. (Luke 12:22-32)
I live in London. It’s a crazy, stressed-out city. In fact, it’s a city where people wear their busyness and stress as a badge of honour. When I catch the train to work, none of us are resting. We are part of an army of commuters who all tap away at smartphones and iPads, determined to squeeze the juice out of every single second of the day for sending emails, social networking and, above all, making money. When we get home from work we don’t spend the evenings and weekends resting. We cram our free time with so many leisure activities that most of us have to go back to work on Monday to recover.
Things may be a little different where you are, but in my city stress is killing us. Twenty percent of British workers take time off work due to stress each year,2 and over five million admit that they spend most of their lives ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ stressed.3 So when Jesus told his disciples not to worry, he wasn’t just mouthing pretty platitudes. He was challenging something at the very heart of the way we live our lives.
I want to help you to understand what Jesus is telling us here about stress and worry. I want to help you to grasp why God sees our overbusyness as a very serious sin, on a par with out-and-out blasphemy. The best way for me to do so is to take you on a journey through three Old Testament passages which provide the background to Jesus’ teaching.
The Bible begins with God creating the world. It took him six days and on the seventh day he rested. Most people who read Genesis assume God rested because he was tired after finishing such a big job, but Jesus tells us that this wasn’t why he rested at all: “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working” (John 5:17). He uses the Greek form of the Hebrew word shâbath, which was used for God resting in Genesis, when he explains that “The Sabbath was made for humankind” (Mark 2:27). Jesus tells us that God rested for Adam’s sake, not his own, because day seven for him was day one for Adam. He had created a human being who needed to stop each day for mealtimes and for sleep,4 and he wanted to teach him from the outset to relax in a garden he hadn’t planted, to enjoy animals he hadn’t made and to eat fruit he hadn’t grown. In short, he wanted him to grasp that God is God and we are not. Adam never knew what stress was until he decided to have a go at being God himself and was cursed with “painful toil” and with survival by “the sweat of your brow.”5 Adam had rejected God’s Paradise and had chosen a life of stress and worry instead.
Fast-forward several centuries and we discover in Genesis 6:11 that people continued to make this same choice. It describes their sin as hâmâs, a Hebrew word which is usually translated violence (as in the name of the Palestinian terrorist organisation) but which essentially refers to busy self-assertiveness. Jesus describes the overbusyness of that generation when he tells us that “People were eating, drinking, marrying and being given in marriage up to the day Noah entered the ark” (Luke 17:27). God saved Noah because he was totally different in his outlook. He emerged from the ark after the Flood with the mother of all to-do lists: He was in charge of the rebuilding of civilisation. Yet the first item which he placed at the top of his to-do list in Genesis 8 was to kneel down and worship God, resting on his knees before his Creator.
Fast-forward a few more centuries and we find that Moses constantly reminded the Israelites that God is God and we are not. When they panicked at the Red Sea, he assured them that “The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still” (Exodus 14:14). He gave them God’s command at Mount Sinai to take one day in seven as a day of rest because “This will be a sign between me and you for the generations to come, so you may know that I am the Lord” (Exodus 31:13). He warned them that if they failed to rest then they would suffer from burnout and exhaustion (Leviticus 26:2-35), and when he caught an Israelite working on the Sabbath he didn’t let him off with a simple caution. When we get offended that he ordered the Sabbath-breaker’s execution in Numbers 15, we simply show we haven’t understood Jesus’ teaching about stress and worry. We haven’t grasped that “I’m worried” is just another way of saying “I’m not convinced that God will do his job without me”, or that “I’m feeling stressed” is just another way of saying “I’m trying to do God’s job for him and it’s not working out for me.” Jesus warns that stress and worry aren’t minor vices or personality flaws. They are the symptoms of our self-worship.6
In Luke 12, Jesus lists some of the biggest things we worry about – things like money and food and clothes and our health – and then tells us that “the pagan world runs after all such things.” People who don’t know God get very stressed about these things because they live their lives as little gods and therefore feel the burden of providing for themselves. God hands them over to their stress and worry in order that every bird and flower will preach a sermon to them about God’s provision. In cities like mine, where people can’t stop checking their emails for an evening, let alone one day in seven, God uses stress and worry to warn us to stop blaspheming and to start sabbathing. The fourth-century writer Hilary of Poitiers described stress and worry as “a blasphemous anxiety to do God’s work for him.” He understood the message of Psalm 46:10: “Be still, and know that I am God.”
Many of the people who heard Jesus saying this were furious. Since money was the currency of their attempts to play at God, they persuaded one of Jesus’ twelve disciples to betray him for a handful of silver coins. While he waited for them to come and arrest him in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus sweated drops of blood from his brow in fulfilment of the curse which had fallen on Adam for attempting to be like God (Luke 22:44). He was crucified wearing a crown of thorns on his forehead because thorns and brambles were the symbol of Adam’s painful labour in Genesis 3. Whilst the merchants of Jerusalem were busy with their trading, whilst the priests of Jerusalem were busy with their religion, and whilst the homeowners of Jerusalem were busy with their shopping and cleaning and cooking, Jesus died on a wooden cross for their sin and cried out, “It is finished!” (John 19:30). He has paid the penalty for our blasphemous anxiety to do God’s work for him.7 We don’t have to earn our forgiveness. We simply have to rest in what the Lord has achieved for us.
You can tell whether you are following the real Jesus or a Jesus of your own making by the way that you respond to this as the first of Jesus’ fifteen offensive teachings. Will you get upset and resist him or will you surrender to him? Will you confess your overbusyness and your blasphemous anxiety to do God’s work for him? If you will, then Jesus promises that your painful toil is over: “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent” (John 6:29).
Once forgiven, will you adopt a new lifestyle which plays by a different set of rules in the midst of a stressed-out and burned-out culture? Will you trust God to be God and simply be content to be his creature? Will you let him carry the weight of your life and trust him like a little child? If you will, then Jesus promises to deliver you from stress and worry:
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:28-30)
This blog is adapted from a chapter in Phil Moore’s new book, Gagging Jesus: Things Jesus Said We Wish He Hadn’t, published this month by Monarch Books. Churches buying 20 or more copies for use with Alpha guests, Bible Study groups etc can save 1/3 on the price by ordering from Phil’s books website and typing code THINKTHEOLOGY into the ‘Comments’ field when ordering.
1. For example, in Matthew 6:25-34 & 11:28-30 and in Luke 8:14, 10:38-42 & 21:34.
2. This data comes from a 2010 survey by the UK mental health charity MIND. It found that 1 in 5 workers had taken at least one day off work due to stress during the previous year.
3. This data comes from a survey by the UK Health and Safety Executive. It found that British workers take 13.5 million days a year off work due to stress, costing the economy £3.7 billion.
4. Psalm 121 encourages us to treat our need for sleep as a nightly reminder that God is God and we are not.
5. Genesis 3:17-19. We discover in Genesis 3:5 that the essence of Adam’s sin was trying to be like God.
6. The Hebrew Law reserved the death penalty for very few things: mainly for murder, idolatry and blasphemy. The Sabbath-breaker was executed for acting as though he was his own little god.
7. Hilary of Poitiers writing in about 360AD in his treatise “On the Trinity” (4.6).