The word stress was originally used to refer to the amount of weight that a beam or physical support could bear without breaking. It was a term used in the field of construction. How much weight can a material bear?
Today we use the term stress to refer to mental and emotional pressure that comes when there is too much put upon us, too many activities, too much uncertainly, too many demands.
A chair is built to be sat upon. It is designed to bear a certain amount of weight. If it is used properly, it will last forever, but if it is overloaded, it can crack or even break. In the same way, we human beings were designed to face adversity, to bear a certain amount of challenge in this world. The problem comes when we face more weight than we can carry.
The word stress was not used in Jesus’ time. Nevertheless, in the teachings of Jesus, there is a clear message about stress. Jesus teaches his followers to behave in a way that completely reverses the messages of this world and results in the ability to rise above stress. Jesus intended for his followers not to operate in the same way as the people of this world. If we could only understand what he was telling us, we would no longer suffer from stress. We would know peace. Jesus taught us how to rise above all stress.
In the Book of Acts, Peter is called to the bedside of a woman who has died. Her name was Tabitha but people called her Dorcas and she was something else. Wealthy and powerful, she was well-respected in the early church and had been instrumental in helping the poor. At her deathbed were widows who were dressed in clothes that Dorcas had made for them. She was a generous, devout woman who believed in Jesus.
Peter is called to her bedside and Dorcas is already dead. Peter speaks to her body and says the same words that Jesus used when he raised the daughter of Jairus from the dead. He says her name, “Tabitha, get up.” Or literally, “Tabitha, arise.” And she opens her eyes and gets up.
It was Peter’s voice speaking in the same way that Jesus did. Tabitha just obeys his voice and her obedience carries her from death to life. If obedience to the voice of the Good Shepherd can carry her over the threshold of death, surely it can help us with stress?
In Peter’s words, Tabitha heard the voice of Jesus. Jesus says that he is the Good Shepherd. His sheep hear his voice and he knows them and they follow him.
The Good Shepherd gives us the key to release us from all stress. Obedience. Listen and Follow. That is all. It is so simple. Listen to the voice of the Good Shepherd and you will overcome everything. You will not suffer under stress, you will rise above it. Sure, the world will continue to be chaotic and full of challenge and injustice, but you will be able to arise above the fray and follow Christ with peace in your heart.
So how do we do this? How can we listen and follow the voice of the Good Shepherd? Most of us think that this means some major alteration of our lives immediately and this thought scares us and makes us hide from God. But I have found that most often the Good Shepherd speaks gently and in the very moment. The Good Shepherd prompts. The Good Shepherd nudges. The voice of the Good Shepherd operates in each moment, simply reminding us of what is right and true and good.
Think with me about how a shepherd operates. I know that most of you have never actually seen a shepherd but they are all over the Sea of Galilee today just as they were in Jesus’ time. They mostly nudge in the moment. No, don’t head that direction, they poke with their staff, they redirect. And the whole point is to keep the sheep safe, right? God does not want you to walk off a cliff. God wants to take care of you and lead you to the fullness of who you are. The Shepherd does not ask the sheep to run a marathon or cook a five course meal. The Shepherd wants the sheep to be themselves and to be safe.
In order to combat stress, begin to invite God into the everyday aspects of your life, into the small stuff, into each and every decision that you make. Ask God, “Should I go to the grocery store? Should I rest? Should I write that letter now?” I know it feels petty, but obedience begins with the moment to moment, with the small stuff. And you may not always be clear on the way that God would want you to go, but the very fact that you asked will lift you above your stress. You do not need to begin by asking monumental questions about the direction of your life. Instead simply begin with the moment to moment decisions that need to be made.
God nudges and prompts. God operates in the fruits of the Spirit that Paul so beautifully articulated: in patience, kindness, joy, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. If you are operating in these ways, you are walking with the Good Shepherd. If you find yourself short-tempered and frustrated, you have gotten lost. When you are able to yell at a loved one or do something stupid, often there is that small nudge, that inner voice that tell you to slow down, to stop talking, to pause. Just do what it says. Follow the Good Shepherd one step at a time, one moment at a time.
My sheep hear my voice, Jesus says. Let every decision that you make be made with God and for God. Ask God every time you can, consult God, speak to God. God will lead you in the small stuff that can one day amount to the big stuff. After all, sheep don’t operate with long-range plans. They need to be nudged every moment.
Ignatius of Loyola was born in 1491. He was a ladies man and a great soldier but in battle he was wounded in the leg. He had to lie in bed at his brothers house for months and the only books that his brother had were religious books. He felt a nudge to read the religious books. And he was captivated. Ignatius began to imagine himself saving people in battle or winning the heart of a beautiful woman. But soon he felt the nudge to imagine serving God and when he imagined this, he felt this peace. So he would pick up another book and another. The peace came with each small decision that he allowed God to make for him and with him. Eventually, he would found the order of the Jesuits. All from following the nudge to pick up a book.
What is stress? It is fear disguised. It is the feeling that you don’t deserve what you have to do or that you are overburdened. But all that you have to do is give it all over to God. It is God who made you. Your life belongs to God. Get up, says the Good Shepherd. I will live in you and you need not be afraid. I will lead you through every little moment of every day if you would only follow me. Let it be my life living in you and you will in turn find peace.
Who would have known that the antidote to stress is obedience? Who knew?