Most stress workshops explore the flight and the fight alternatives. And there certainly is a right time to do one or the other. Joseph ran from the seductive Mrs. Potiphar (Gen 39); Moses confronted Pharaoh (Exod 5-11). But there is a third alternative: lean into the stress! Don't run away from it. Don't even try to "resolve it" (probably it cannot be harmonized). Maybe it shouldn't be smoothed out. There is no such thing as a "balanced Christian life. "We live it on the cross?with God's strength made perfect in weakness?with rhythms of work and rest/reflection. Tension is a spiritual discipline. [This article, which originally appeared on the Christians at Work website [used with permission, see original article] looks at how keeping 'Sabbath Principles' can be vital in busy workplace settings. Otherwise, there will be stress and mental ill health.]
God is most likely inviting us in the tensions to know him and to know ourselves?that combination of knowings that Calvin said is the essence of true religion. Luther said there is a cross to be taken up in the workplace (hardly a symbol of tranquillity, like folded hands). So one way of growing through tension is really to get into the work, not to seek religious escapes or neatly compartmentalised protective zones for yourselves. But that is not all.
Critical to growing through stress is keeping sabbath. As I will show, in reality we do not keep sabbath; sabbath keeps us?keeps us focused on the really real, keeps us being renewed in holy priorities, keeps us from defining ourselves by what we do, keeps us looking toward heaven. Indeed taken together, work and sabbath are a way of playing heaven; they are a foretaste of the new heaven and new earth (Rev 21-22).
The idea behind sabbath is that we cannot really get into our work in a healthy and holy way unless we get out of it. The word "sabbath" simply means "to stop" or "to cease." Sabbath is full of rich meanings in Scripture (see Stevens, 862-870) It means rest from work (i.e., to rest in God Gen 2:3), celebration of creation (i.e. to restore your relationship with creation?Exod 20:8-11), celebration of redemption (i.e., to remember how and why you were saved-Deut 5:12-15), renewal (i.e., so even your servants, employees and animals will be refreshed?Exod 23:12), a sacrament to renew your relationship with God ("This will be a sign between you and me for the generations to come, so you may know that I am the Lord, who makes you holy"- Exod 31:12-13, 17). It is also, along with our work, a foretaste of the new heaven and new earth where the true three-fold sabbath rest of God, creation and humankind will be consummated.
Rabbi Abraham Heschel notes that the first mention of holiness in the Bible refers to time (Gen 2:3). "There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord."
Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things in space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world.
So daily sabbath (Rom 14:5), weekly sabbath and a sabbath lifestyle are essential to putting work in its proper place?as a piece of the whole, but not everything. Some people supposedly die from overwork but really die from failure in sabbath-keeping. In addition to the physical death that often ensues from stressful work without sabbath, is the equally devastating spiritual death from non-sabbath-experiencing people; they are dead to life, dead to family, dead to friends, dead to self and dead to God.
In One Minute Wisdom Anthony de Mello relates the following conversation:
Said the Master to the businessman: "As the fish perishes on dry land, so you perish when you get entangled in the world. The fish must return to the water, you must return to solitude."
The businessman was aghast. "Must I give up my business and go into the monastery?" "No, no. Hold onto your business and go into your heart" (cited in Dreyer, 89).
Walter Hilton (14th century Augustinian canon), in Letters to a Layman, says something similar:
You ought to mingle the works of an active life with spiritual endeavours of a contemplative life, and then you will do well. For you should at certain times be busy with Martha in the ordering and care of your household, children, employees, tenants, or neighbours...
At other times you should, with Mary, leave off the busyness of the world and sit down meekly at the feet of our Lord, there to be in prayer, holy thought and contemplation of him, as he gives you grace. And so you should go from one activity to the other in maintaining your stewardship, fulfilling both aspects of the Christian life. In so doing, you will be keeping well the order of charitable love (8-9).
How can you keep sabbath? Every way you can!
A weekly sabbath - one day dedicated not to religious activism but contemplation. A daily sabbath - starting the day with reading the Bible and praying. Only then do we see the moral content and spiritual value of even the smallest deed.
But what about a continuous sabbath, keeping sabbath on the job - or as I now suggest, with serenity?
Serenity: - One of the greatest joys in parenting and grandparenting is reading to your children. I remember reading to our children one of the Arch children's stories from the Bible. What I recall is a single picture, a powerfully evocative image: Jesus in the middle of a storm totally enclosed in an enveloping calm. That is serenity?calmness, quietness within, a holy calm in the soul even while "taking up the cross" that comes from faith in the one who "for the joy set before him endured the cross."
Almost twenty years ago James Houston wrote a Crux article on "The Serenity of Christ." He showed how the eight beatitudes are the true principles of Christian serenity, revealing a penetration of God-given light into our souls that is timeless, imperishable, ordered, appropriate and invincible. This is the true meaning of the term "happy" or "blessed," not the superficial happiness that depends upon circumstances, such as too much alcohol, or too little sorrow, or a too superficial life.
The poor in spirit recognise their inadequacy before God and look to God in everything. Those who mourn discover that serenity "actually comes through sorrow, pain and distress, and not just in spite of them." The meek are not weak, but those who yield to the grace and will of God in all things and so have more real power than the "elbow-pushers and go-getters."
Serenity does not come from evading the tension, or succumbing to it. Rather it is comes from a hearty trust in the God who can make all things work for the good of those who love him (Rom 8:28). It is the holy perspective for the one who has truly found the treasure in the field and "sold all" (Matt 13:44). For such loss of money, career, prestige and position will not be ultimately unsettling. Serenity comes from knowing our identity is not in what we do but in Whose we are. Our vocation is not simply a call to do something but to be someone. We are loved. Held. Purposed. We are safe in the everlasting arms of God. God is at work in our lives to will and work his own good pleasure (Rom 8:28). It is God's work that makes sense out of our work and brings serenity even in the thick of it all.
References and Resources:
Robert Banks, "Stress, Workplace," in The Complete Book of Everyday Christianity (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1997): 970-974.
Elizabeth A. Dryer, Earth Crammed with Heaven: A Spirituality of Everyday Life (New York: PauUst, 1994).
Abraham Heschel. The Earth is the Lord's and The Sabbath (New York: Harper and Row, 1951).
Walter of Hilton. Towards Perfect Love (Portland: Multnomah Press, 1985).
lames Houston, "The Serenity of Christ," Crux (Vol XV, No. I March 1979): 3-7.
R. Paul Stevens, "Sabbath," in The Complete Book of Everyday Christianity (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1997): 862-870.