If you’re a pastor or church planter, then you know stress (2 Cor. 11:28). And if by some good fortune you are in a peaceful season, then you have folks in your church who are stressed. The pressures of life push in; the anxiety bleeds out.
At this very moment, you either need to care for your own stressed soul or you need to care for someone you know. So, we must understand the nature of stress and the way out of it.
Thankfully, Jesus speaks into our stress with profound insight.
The Nature of Stress
Jesus tells us in Matthew 6:25, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?”
Jesus says what most counselors would frown on: “Stop it!” (We can hear Bob Newhart’s voice at this point, can’t we?) Jesus says, “You’re anxious about your life; so, stop being anxious.”
The first wave of Jesus’ attack on anxiety is a call for us to recognize that we have a responsibility to fight it. Our natural instinct is toward stress; our supernatural instruction is to overcome it.
Thankfully, Jesus doesn’t leave us there, but continues in verses 26-30:
Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?
Notice Jesus doesn’t speak to the rationale but the imagination. Isn’t that different from what we do with our stress? When we’re anxious about finances or a relationship, our answer is to put together a logical defense for why we should not be stressed.
Jesus doesn’t do that; He says, “Look at the birds…Consider the lilies.” Imagine! We begin to see that the world of anxiety germinates in the world of our imagination.
Stress then is imagining a world where God is not present to love and provide for us. Stress is the imagination gone wild—the imagination shrouded in doubt.
You’ve experienced this. An unexpected bill pops up. You’re not sure how you’re going to pay it. Before you know it, your imagination is running away from you. You imagine missing one bill after another. You imagine snowballing into debt. And in the blink of an eye, you’re imagining being homeless.
It sounds ridiculous, but we’ve all been there. In fact, this lack of imagination in the goodness, character and powerful provision of God is where most of us naturally live.
The Way Out
After stirring our imagination, Jesus reassures us in verses 31-32:
Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.
As a Christian, you don’t have to be anxious because God is your Father. How interesting that Jesus didn’t start with that. Jesus could have said, “Don’t be anxious because God has promised that he will never leave you nor forsake you” (see Deut. 31:6). Instead, Jesus places that promise in the context of a story to stir the imagination.
If stress is imagining a future where God is not present to love and care for us, then faith is imagining a future where God is present to love and care for us. The way out of stress is to acquire the promises of God for ourselves, letting them transform not only our intellect but our imagination as well.
This lines up precisely with what the author of Hebrews tells us: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1).
In this way modeled by Jesus, the promises of God mingle together in concert with our imagined future to kindle a faith that trusts our Father to do what He does best—to take care of us. When our head and heart join together to fully trust God, we can choose with God’s help to “not be anxious.”
Let me give you a couple examples of how truth plus the imagination work together to take truth from our intellect into our experience.
David describes in Psalm 131 the truth that our souls need to rest in the Lord. Rather than simply state that fact and move on, David gets our imagination involved. “But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me” (Ps. 131:2). David isn’t afraid to give imagery to something as abstract as his soul, and this picture of rest helps David to calm down and put off stress.
Here’s a corporate example: We utilize our imagination in corporate worship every Sunday. Think of the great truth of justification—that Jesus took our sins and gave us His perfect life. Listen to how the hymn “Jesus paid it all” directs our imagination toward the truth of justification:
When from my dying bed
My ransomed soul shall rise,
“Jesus died my soul to save,”
Shall rend the vaulted skies.
Jesus paid it all,
All to Him I owe;
Sin had left a crimson stain,
He washed it white as snow.
Every time we sing this song together, we combat the anxiety of death by stirring our imagination to rehearse the second coming, that Jesus died for us and that our staining sins will be washed as white as snow. Corporate worship is good medicine for stressed souls.
Here’s a relational example: In relational conflict, we can imagine a lifetime relational rift as impassable as the Grand Canyon. Instead of letting that imagined future control us, we can pray for reconciliation and assume with God’s help the best response from that person. We can expect the Holy Spirit to go before us, working in the conflict to bring about the unity He tirelessly works for (Eph. 4:3-6).
Don’t hear me saying in these examples that you simply need to illustrate more. Illustrations are not just a tool that help you better understand truth at an intellectual level, but illustrations get our intellects working together with our imagination in order to know truth holistically—both objectively and subjectively (another way to describe this mingling of the intellect and imagination is the age old practice of meditation on Scripture).
Maybe you’re wondering why all this matters. You understand that stress is bad for your health, and of course that’s not good. But what lasting impact does stress really have on our souls?
It’s no coincidence that Jesus finishes this sermon on stress with a call to Kingdom-living: “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Mt. 6:33).
When we imagine a future where God is distant and disinterested, we do the only reasonable thing (at least we think it’s reasonable): we get busy trying to figure out how to provide and care for ourselves. We become fixers of the problems of our life. We attempt (no matter how poorly or comically) to sit on God’s throne and rule our own lives.
No wonder we’re stressed! We are terrible at playing God. We’re like little children making castles out of cardboard boxes, and our kingdom ends up becoming a kingdom of stress.
And so Jesus calls us back to the only Kingdom and King who can provide and care for us. He calls us to seek God’s Kingdom first and to surrender our stress to a Father who cares more about His children than we’ll ever know.
Is a sea of stress churning in you? Are friends and family around you drowning in anxiety?
You are not equipped to provide for yourself, but God is. Learn and rehearse the promises of God: promises of who He is and what He’s done. Memorize them; know them. And then, with the Scriptures fresh on your mind, turn your imagination away from a future where God’s not good or present so that you can re-envision what your worst-case scenario would look like if God were present in all His goodness and power.
With the Spirit of God redeeming and reforming our imagination, let’s live for God’s Kingdom first and find all our deepest stress addressed and our deepest needs met by our Father-King.