by Caleb Borchers
“Do you grind your teeth at night while you sleep?”
Recently I have had to deal with a new challenge for me. I found out that I had a cracked tooth. Needless to say, I figured this out rather quickly and painfully! It was a bit of a shock for me, as I had never had any sort of major dental issues in my life. The pain I experienced was a constant drag and has been far more disrupting to my ability to function than I would have guessed. Overall, the experience has given me new found sympathy for the people I have served in church who deal with issues of chronic pain. It is so hard to function when you are hurting.
The thing that took me off guard, and got me thinking, was the way that the pain was related to stress. In my case, when I get stressed out I tend to tighten up my neck and jaw muscles. The pain that was happening at the root of the tooth was close enough to those neck and jaw muscles that when I started getting stressed out there was a domino effect that caused my teeth to hurt. I would start to get worked up and next thing I know, zap, there comes the pain!
This domino effect of suffering was hardly enjoyable but it made me aware of myself in a way that I normally am not. My tooth pain became sort of an early stress alarm system. “Ow, my mouth hurts, what is going on…oh, I’m stressed.”
Doctors have been warning the American public for decades now that our lifestyles of poor diet, too little exercise, and excessive stress are killing us. And far too often the stress goes unnoticed and is not dealt with properly. My wife is a massage therapist and other people’s stress damage literally helps us keep the lights on! So much of her work is overcoming the destruction stress is doing to people’s bodies. What I became aware of was something I should have already known: stress was creeping into my life all over the place, with shocking frequency.
I am pretty disturbed by the ways in which the Christianity that I see practiced around me (and even in our church and my own life) is so distant from the spiritual life that Jesus describes. “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?” “For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” Jesus describes a life where stress and worry do not have a place. Where we can rest easy. And then I look around at Christians who all seem to be haggard. Tired. Worn out. Burned out. Exhausted.
We are so tired that even these promises or offers by Jesus feel like guilt trips. “Well Jesus, I am worried! The yoke doesn’t feel light! So what? Now I need to add the burden of not feeling the way I’m supposed to feel to my back?! It isn’t enough to live this hard life, but now I need to be ashamed that it feels hard!” I do not think that is what Jesus means to offer us by any means, but I understand why people feel that way. There is some sort of disconnection between our experienced reality and the way Jesus talks in these passages. Why is there the gap? What can we do about it?
The simple, but frustrating, answer is that a lot of the yokes we carry are not in fact Jesus’ yoke. They are yokes of cultural expectations, issues from our family of origin, structures churches foolishly put in place, unresolved personal issues, and a bunch more. This is why Jesus asks us for a totality of our life, to let him be lord over all of it. Because as long as we keep control we pile our plates quickly with all the things that break us down. As churches we need to be really aware of this. What are we asking of people? I worked as a volunteer board member at a local non-profit. They would thank us profusely for the time we were giving to the organization. By my math, it was less than 5 hours a month. I grew up at a church that asked a minimum 16 hours a month, if not 20 to 25. Here at The Feast Church we try to balance those things out. While we want opportunities for spiritual growth and service, we know we have to maintain a calendar that doesn’t wear people out. Our structures too often do not appreciate the challenges of the modern family. Obsessing over continuing programs, upholding tradition, and boosting attendance numbers while also grounding our people into emotional dust is counterproductive.
Our personal lives are also a piece of this puzzle. Many of us are not really stressing about the current situation in front of us. Instead, we are re-experiencing hurt from decades ago or playing defense against a tragedy that will never come. Understanding our own mental health is important. I have appreciated the work of someone like Pete Scazzero, who has been urging the church to realize that all the spiritual programs in the world are not going to be able to move the needle if our emotional and psychological health is broken. We are whole people. As such, we need to see healing in all aspects of our lives.
We have to consider, as Christians, better ways to live. Ways to live more lightly. I am convinced a major part of this is a stubborn refusal to accept that we are less important than we think we are. Many of us have a mental complex, born out of good intentions, that if we do not carry something it will fall and break. The world is full of sacred eggs, flying precariously through the sky, and it is only our own strength and courage which will manage to catch them before they become sunny side up messes all over the floor. My friend Jacob Parnell had excellent advice at the Pepperdine Bible Lectures for those who work in ministry, particularly at small churches. Let some of them fall. And break. If they do and people are distraught, they will take up the cause of rebuilding that thing. And if no one notices, it wasn’t that big of a loss. Simplifying our lives is essential. Cutting back on the things we feel compelled to do for the things that are fruitful is something we all have to tackle.
I certainly do not think being stressed out is a sin. It helps nothing to feel guilty about your stress. Still, I wonder if our underlying stress issues are a lot like any other health problem we have. If we suffer various ailments we eventually ask, “What is going on here?” We might change our diets, exercise routine, lifestyle, schedule, etc. It is not a sin to have achy knees, but that does not mean that there are not things one might do to try to deal with the issue so they can live a more joyful, pain free life. My guess is a lot of us are suffering from our stress and we do not even know it.
For me, that obnoxious tooth sort of became a heavenly messenger. A really annoying angel. Each time it flared up I considered if the thing I was getting tense about was worth the pain. The answer was almost always no.