A good friend of mine lost his job the other day so I dropped by his house to see him. Stepping through the front door, I noticed he was wearing his trademark Superman t-shirt and ball cap.
“Hey, Superman,” I jabbed, attempting to cheer him up with a playful greeting. His freshly bludgeoned ego seemed to deflate like a balloon at my words. The stress he was living under was palpable.
Whether it drops on our heads from the sky or swells over time, stress is the drunk uncle no one wants around but no one knows how to get rid of. But what if, armed with the right perspective in our relationship with God, we could get a handle on stress—and toss it out the front door?
For that to happen, we need to grasp what stress is.
There’s a guy at our local gym who looks like he rumbled around on a monster Harley back in the day. These days, not so much—he’s morbidly obese and his knees are worn out. Despite his obvious pain, I see him working hard every day to slim down. Why? Because he knows his bulk is breaking his knees.
We tend to think stress is caused by what we’re doing: working long hours, balancing too many things. Those factors certainly contribute to stress, but stress is less about what we’re doing than it is about the weight we’re carrying while we’re doing it.
Let’s pretend you’re joining me for a hike up a mountain. Before we begin, I clip on a slim backpack—stocked with band-aids, a bunch of water bottles, and a hefty lunch. My lunch is way better than yours because my wife put her freshly-baked cookies in it, but that’s another story.
Imagine your surprise when I pull four extra backpacks out of the vehicle. Weirder still, they’re full of rocks. You look at me sideways as I heave all four of them onto my back for the hike. Shouldering the extra packs doesn’t make me macho. It makes me loco.
Or maybe it just makes me normal. Because the fact is, we all wear extra backpacks. It’s just that they’re invisible—and instead of hiding rocks, they’re concealing emotional baggage. We’re so used to carrying them around that we’re oblivious to how they’re affecting us unless someone else points it out. So let’s yank open each one of those bad boys and come to grips with what’s inside.
The Prove / Please Pack
When a man feels invalidated, it’s like the air has been sucked from his soul. Our fear of falling short drives us to prove ourselves while gobbling up every scrap of affirmation and validation others toss our way. Think of how much energy you spend trying to convince yourself and others you’re good enough or better-than. It’s exhausting.
The Produce / Protect Pack
Faith or not, our actions often obey a solo script: If I don’t do it, no one will. Unsure of whether we have what it takes to succeed, we push ourselves harder. If by some crazy stroke of luck we finally secure what we slaved for, a new boulder lands on our backs: protecting our prizes from people and things that could steal it from our grasp.
The Pursue / Possess Pack
Despite all our proving, pleasing, producing and protecting, there’s still a cavity in our souls that craves more than we’re feeding it. Our absurd pursuit of ‘more’ draws us into deeper and deeper disappointments, but we refuse to give up the quest. Whatever our binge may be, our biological clock is ticking, our bucket-lists are beckoning, and the fear of missing out gnaws at us like a tapeworm in our gut.
The ‘Get it Together’ Pack
As if living under the trauma of the first three burdens isn’t enough, we add more pounds to our packs by resenting others when they don’t live up to our expectations. Think of how much of your stress is really frustration triggered by people not proving themselves trustworthy, failing to please you, not producing the results you want, not protecting what you’ve earned, and not helping you get what you’re pursuing. And we wonder why we’re stressed!
But what would it feel like to put all four of those backpacks down? Picture how satisfying life would be if you didn’t waste your energy:
- Proving yourself to anyone
- Pleasing others to win their approval
- Trying to produce results that are beyond you
- Protecting what you have from forces you can’t control
- Pursuing what never seems to arrive
- Trying to possess what cannot satisfy
- Trying to get others to meet those needs
Sounds amazing, but we don’t have to imagine. Jesus lived it! After a long day that would have stressed any of us out, Christ got into a boat with his disciples for some down time. As the story goes,
“A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm. He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”” (Mark 4:36-40)
This blows my mind.
Christ was dog-tired—not because he was stressed out, but because he’d put in a good day’s work. Not only that, he didn’t feel guilty sleeping while others were working, trusted others to do their jobs and get him where he needed to go, gave them space to work out their own issues, didn’t need people to be pleased with him, and didn’t get mad at his disciples for ruining his nap. He had so much peace that he shared the overflow with the storm.
Simply put, Jesus was heaven in a human. That’s awesome, but it’s clear from the story that Jesus wants his friends to have that peace too. He said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened (stressed!) and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me… and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 12:28-29).
Imagine Jesus stopping you at the door before you leave for the day. Opening the Prove / Please Pack on your back, he says, “Uh, why are you carrying this thing around?”
“Because real men are successful. I want my family to be proud of me. And there’s nothing more energizing than excelling in front of my peers.”
“So… Why is the pack so heavy then?”
You pause. “Because of the pressure I feel to validate myself. And the fear of failing. My dad’s voice echoes in my head, telling me failure is not an option. But lots times, I do fail.”
“That’s a heavy burden to bear,” Jesus says. “I would know, because I already bore it. I lived the perfect life you long for, earning me an exalted place at the right hand of God in heaven. And I’ve saved you a seat with me. Sitting means resting. You’re already approved and totally validated by my Father. All this posturing and striving is totally unnecessary. It’s beneath you now.”
Let’s give this truth boots on the ground. When my friend lost his job it was obviously a tough blow for his family, but most of the stress wasn’t about losing his job. The real weight he was struggling under was invalidation, compelling him to rack his brain for how and why he’d failed.
We sat down on a couch together to pray through his stress. After connecting with the Father and hearing his affirmation about his situation, my friend bolted upright, eyes on fire with joy, and announced, “It wasn’t me! It wasn’t me!” He wept tears of relief as his wife and I celebrated with him. When he stood up, he felt noticeably lighter because Jesus had ripped the Prove/Please Pack off his back. He was seated above it all with Jesus.
This is real, guys. What emotional weight are you carrying? It’s time to turn to Jesus for rest. Name the backpacks you’re carrying and why you feel like you need to carry them. Ask him to show you the truth about it. And then? Take off the packs, and praise God as the stress rolls off your shoulders.