Stress is not automatically unhealthy, but relieving the harmful, unwanted stress is mostly thought of in terms of changing behaviors. Many strategies are widely recommended for reducing stress such as improving ways of managing time, exercise, meditation techniques, breathing, games, sex, music, hobbies, communication, listening, other relational skills, diet, pets, art, journaling, dancing, vacation, prayer, sleep, and on the list can go.
But instead of only focusing on the externals, it is imperative to address inner personal transformation. Clarifying and simplifying the way we think, recognizing the way we interpret, and sanctifying the way we respond, can have the greatest impact on our stress levels.
I will focus now on what I believe is the largest source of inner conflict, thus creating toxic stress. It is not a popular topic for discussion, but I find in my counseling work, it is at the root of almost every personal and relational struggle, creating stress (and leading to much deeper problems). The topic is critical, condemning judgment. Condemning judgments may take the form of drawing false conclusions, forming wrong opinions, all the way to nursing harmful attitudes which destroy good-will toward people. When a person judges (pronounces condemnation) less, their stress level will be dramatically reduced.
Critically judging presents itself in one or more of three major categories: God, other people, and ourselves.
Let’s start with ourselves. If my opinion of myself is too high or too low, the further I go to one of those extremes, the higher the possibility I will feel over-stressed. Thinking too little of myself may lead to feelings of not good enough, not strong enough, not smart enough, or not fit enough. Thinking too much of myself may lead to over estimating my abilities and under estimating the amount of energy required to complete routine tasks. When my short comings cause me to severely blame and condemn myself for the disappointments, losses, and failures, I feel the over-bearing weight of unmet self-expectations. When my value and worth is too tightly tied to my work, relationships, productivity, health, or wealth, my thoughts, beliefs, and actions are ruled by excess self-doubt, self-criticism, self-condemnation, self-bitterness, and self-rejection.
Similarly, when our focus is too far “other people” directed, we over stress, based on the words they say, how we perceive their beliefs about us, and the reactions they display toward us. For example, if a person needs a job desperately to provide for their family, and a friend who is a potential employer makes a decision to hire someone else, the person who was not chosen has some choices of their own to make. Will they critically judge the employer as unkind, insensitive, uncaring, unethical, racist, and whatever else might be tempting to think depending on the situation? Will the job seeker’s background and belief systems cause him to interpret the rejection as “all business owners are crooks,” or “he’s a very selfish person,” or “he’s not being fair to underprivileged people?” Will she respond in anger, blame, bitterness, resentment, and revenge seeking actions? Each person has a choice whether to allow the pain of disappointments, mistreatment, rejection, and betrayal to hurt us more deeply or not. He could instead use emotional pain to become the catalyst for more healing of the inner person. When loss occurs the default tendency of human nature is to complain (about what is wrong), blame (other people for their failings), and justify (their own bad reactions to other peoples’ failings). These kinds of responses create harmful stress.
Sometimes people bring God into the scenario. Complaining about God’s lack of intervention to keep bad things from happening,, blaming God for bad consequences, or justifying their own mistrust and hatred toward God, compounds the stress. Many times these thoughts about God, beliefs about his character, and corresponding reactions are hidden until we become honest about the possibilities that they exist. As preacher AW Tozer says, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” Thoughts and impressions of God shape the entire world as we know it, for better or for worse, creating less stress or more stress. More and more scientific research is revealing this truth. An excellent book I read recently is called “The God-Shaped Brain: How Changing Your View of God Transforms Your Life,” by psychiatrist Dr. Timothy Jennings. Perceiving and responding to God rightly as a loving Father provides much more brain health than viewing God as a harsh task master ready to punish all wrong doing. Our filtered perspectives generally follow one of two directions: fear or love. Fear-based responses create negative, unwanted stress producing consequences. Love-based responses create less stress.
Self concept is at the center of all stress (see my earlier articles to see how and why). God determines our worth, and it is not determined by our own self-will or effort. Each person has equal value simply because they are a unique expression of God’s creation. Worth is not about proving myself valuable. When there’s nothing to prove, the stress is off. My heart can be at peace because who I am at the core is the real me, and it’s all good, because everything about God is good. False beliefs and judgments about God keep us from the most important connection of our being. Eckhart Tolle says, “You find peace not by rearranging the circumstances of your life, but by realizing who you are at the deepest level.”
Consider the following two lists; a stress list and a less-stress list. Stress traffics in confusion, complication, clutter, secracy, dishonesty, mistrust, falsehood, misinterpretation, idolatry, distractions, pride, irresponsibility, and the like. Less stress is found in clariy, simplicity, order, transparency, honesty, trust, truth, accuracy, loyalty, attentiveness, humility, taking responsibility, and so forth. We all have things in the first list that need to be transformed into their counterpart in the second list. Changing toxic stress to less stress is a journey and requires commitment to a process orientation (for thinking, interpreting, and responding). External change is more of a result, than it is a source, of less stress.
For God-followers some considerations from the Bible have the most authority to influence thinking, interpreting, and responding for less stress. Condemnation is rooted in fear, and thus in direct opposition of love which is the center of Christ’s teaching. Some of the worst expressions of critically judging are gossip and slander. We don’t often hear those words talked about in our conversations about sinful behavior, but they are extremely damaging in relationships, and far too common. They even get excused as “prayer requests,” or “just thought you should know” warnings. Negative treatment or speech toward another person meant to harm and put them down, opposes love and therefore, condemns. This not only creates stress for the victims, but piles more stress on the gossiper and slanderer (see Matthew 7:1-2 and Romans 2:1-2).
Also, God is supreme in his opinions, conclusions, and judgments. When we condemn, we are holding our own opinions, conclusions, and judgments as more valuable than God’s. When we are in opposition to God and His ways, our toxic stress levels will always be higher. Aligning our values and actions with God’s ways will reduce stress.
If we are on the victim side of someone’s condemnation, we must remember where it is coming from. The original and ultimate source of condemnation is the devil. Recognizing condemnation as a weapon of satan to stress and defeat us, should cause us to run to God for His deliverance. Read the Psalms for examples to follow. Keep in mind that God never condemns people. He may condemn actions of people, but not the essence of who they are. That’s one reason not to condemn others, but it’s also important to keep in mind when you feel condemned. Shame is never from God. Guilt (from constructive criticism) can help us repent and make improvements, and therefore work toward stress relief. Shame, on the other hand, ties a person to toxic stress. The Cross of Christ bears our guilt and shame. Declare truth of God’s love and grace to counter the condemnation.
Read the book of Hebrews in the Bible for the best guard against stress. The people of God from ancient times on have cycled between following God with their whole hearts and drifting into unbelief (as Hebrews calls it). the writer of Hebrews draws a comparison to Ancient Israel and the early Christ-followers. When their hearts were “all in” they found peace and rest (less stress), but when they wained in their faith and trust in God, they felt burdoned, overwhelmed by life (toxic stress). Converting to Jesus doesn’t automatically remove struggle from life. Our life with Christ is a journey whereby our belief increases and we find more rest from stress. Let us heed this warning, “Those who first heard the good news of deliverance failed to enter into that realm of faith-rest because of their unbelieving hearts”(Hebrews 4:6; TPT). May we cultivate a believing heart by yielding and finding that spot of sweet surrender to God and His ways. Consider the areas of the stress list above that you need transformed into the less-stress list. Ask God to help you discover and act on the next steps in transition.
Let’s not give up on time management, enjoying hobbies, and other stress-reducing activities. Let’s also look at our beliefs (about ourselves, other people, and God) in regard to stress. The solution to “unbelief” is belief. Too obvious? Too simple? It’s not always easy to believe and trust in God for deliverance (from whatever the stress causing item may be). May God be your source and help for less stress.
by Ed Hersh, Blue Rock BnB Healing Ministry