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How Christians should stress

Fr. Lou DelFra | Thursday, April 22, 2010

Let’s take “What Would Jesus Do?” and apply it to finals week. Let’s also eliminate the possibility that, as the Son of God, he already knows everything. Let’s assume that, fully human like us, this would be a stressful week for him. And that we look to him as a model. So, then, what does Jesus have to teach us about handling the pressures of finals week?

I’ve always found it hard to pray during stressful days. I often find myself, on days when the heat is on and I’m behind, sending up anxious prayers of desperation — prayers that ultimately only feed my stress, and of course produce no paper-completing miracles.  Days of performance-induced stress offer a particular spiritual challenge, and the way to meet that challenge is hardly clear.

Why is it so hard to glean from the life of Jesus how he handled stressful times? Perhaps because, though Jesus does offer us a way of peace, it is not a simplistic way. On the one hand, throughout his life, and especially when his disciples were losing their grip, Jesus continually offered words of comfort, like “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You trust in God. Then trust in me.” Or, “Come to me all you who are burdened, and I will give you rest. For my burden is light.” And many other consoling words and actions — Jesus calms the storm, or — a ready-made finals week miracle — quiets the lunatic.

These words and acts of consolation, however, are not the entirety of Jesus’ response to stress. For every image of peace and calm we glean from his life, we also have record of Jesus’ sleepless nights, arduous itinerant preaching and the daily self-sacrifice he asks of us: “If you wish to find you life, you must be willing to lose it and to take up your daily cross.” While Jesus says, “follow me, and I will bring you peace,” he seems simultaneously to warn, “if you follow me, be prepared for a life of burden and self-sacrifice.”

So, where does it all leave us in finals week? How do we encounter Jesus during stressful days? How to take Christ’s words of consolation seriously — “Do not fear, for I am with you always” — allowing his presence to calm our hearts? While also, at the same time, hearing his call to the work and self-sacrifice that is the part of every meaningful life — “Take up your cross and follow me” — allowing our hearts to rise up to embrace the challenges of our daily lives?

Perhaps one answer is to try not to allow either of these two realities — Christ’s consolation or Christ’s call to sacrifice — to blind us to the other. The overemphasis of Christ’s consolation, without any recognition of his call to work tirelessly on His behalf, leads to escapism (“God will take care of everything”), and often procrastination. Which, of course, leads to more stress, rather than breaking us out of the stress cycle. On the other hand, the overemphasis of Christ’s encouragement to sacrifice, without any experience of Christ’s constant presence and unconditional love for us, can lead to an over-exaggerated sense of the work before us, a distorted view of why this work is important, inner anxiety, a paralyzing fear, and even eventual burn-out. So, neither emphasis on its own seems to bring true peace.

Where is the realm of true peace-in-stress? We need to search for prayer that both reassures and provokes. Prayer that both calms and inspires. Relieves and emboldens. Puts our work into a proper perspective, and also enkindles our desire, and galvanizes our energy, to engage the work. This is not easy or straightforward prayer.

As always in prayer, our primary image of God is extremely determinative here. If we see God primarily as the Great Escape, someone to whom we run to make our troubles disappear, we set up the near-certain result of disappointment and increase of stress. Jesus constantly searches in prayer for the presence and consolation of his Father, and we can see the peace and confidence with which this Presence fills Jesus, especially at stressful moments. Yet, in these prayers, Jesus rarely asks His Father to do things that make his life easier. Rather, He asks for the reassurance of God’s presence and clarification of God’s will, or often asks the Father for the ability to complete works that relieve other people’s sufferings. This understanding of his work as fitting into the plan of God, and as ultimately benefiting others besides himself, seems to bring Jesus true peace.

If, on the other hand, our primary image of God is a Divine Taskmaster, who demands and accepts only our continual excellent performance while contributing little to the endeavor — and for my fellow perfectionists, this is always a temptation — we run the risk of praying to a God who is merely a projection of our own ambitions, or the ambitions of other authority figures in our life. That our stress is not relieved by such prayer is hardly surprising. But this God too is not to be found in the prayers of Jesus.

Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane is a beautiful example of a true prayer of peace-in-stress. For it seeks peace without escapism — “Father, if this cup can be taken from me…” Yet, it also asks for the perspective and hope that makes the sacrifice asked of him meaningful: “Father, reassure me that all that is happening is of your will, and will give life to others, and that will be enough to give me peace and strength to carry it out.” Here, perhaps, is a finals week prayer that can bring us true peace.

This week’s column is written by Fr. Lou DelFra, CSC, chaplain in Campus Ministry and the ACE Program. He can be reached at delfra.2@nd.edu
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.