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How to Handle Stress 

There’s the story of a teacher who one winter was helping a kindergarten student put on his cowboy boots. He had asked for help, and she could see why. Even with her pulling and him pushing, those little boots didn’t want to go on. By the time they got the second boot on, the teacher had worked up a sweat.

Then she almost broke into tears when he looked down and announced, “Teacher, they’re on the wrong feet.” She looked, and sure enough, they were.

It wasn’t any easier pulling the boots off than it was putting them on. She managed to keep her cool as together they worked to get the boots back on, this time on the right feet. He then announced, “These aren’t my boots.” She bit her tongue rather than get right in his face and scream, “Why didn’t you say so?”

Once again, she struggled to help him pull the ill-fitting boots off his little feet. No sooner had they gotten the boots off when he said, “They’re my brother’s boots. My mom made me wear ’em.”

Now she didn’t know if she should laugh or cry, but she mustered up what grace and courage she had left to wrestle the boots onto his feet again.

Helping him into his coat, she asked, “Now, where are your mittens?” He replied, “I stuffed ’em in the toes of my boots.”

It’s time we talk about stress. 

We don’t get to choose which stresses come and when, but they’re part of life. And God cares about every part of your life. So what would God have us do when the pressure amps up? How would he have us think about stress in distinctly Christlike ways? That’s what we go after today from the New Testament letter by James, the brother of Jesus and leader of the church in Jerusalem.

If you will open your Bible or Bible app to James chapter one, we’re going to unpack three mind shifts for how to navigate life’s pressures, challenges, and hardships. Here’s the first, the first Christlike mind shift about pressure:

Pressing forward proves our faith.

James chapter one and verses 2-4 he writes…

“Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing.” 

James 1:2-4 

When someone is in the thick of it—just lost their job or feeling terribly lonely, someone is hurting from a friendship that’s been wrecked—they need empathy, and they need help seeing beyond the stress of the moment. That’s what James does here. He lifts our sights to see that perseverance, pressing on through difficulty, proves that your faith is genuine. You really do trust God.

Someone else has said it this way: suffering times are a Christian’s best-improving times. 2

Think about this with me: where personal trainers take you through resistance training, troubles take us through faith training. They develop our perseverance muscles. By contrast you hear of how astronauts in zero gravity lose muscle tone; their muscles atrophy because there’s zero resistance.

All kinds of negative experiences, James says, function like resistance training if you let them, if you press on and don’t quit.

Respected Christian leader J.I. Packer talks about how he saw this in Joni Eareckson. Paralyzed from the neck down at 18 in a diving accident, Joni has become an inspiration not just to paralytics but to the able-bodied, because of her perspective on difficulties. Packer said this:

“Twice it has been my privilege to introduce [quadriplegic] Joni Eareckson. … Each time I have ventured to predict that her message would show her to be the healthiest person in the building–a prediction which, so far as I could judge, came true both times.” (J.I. Packer in Rediscovering Holiness)

The ways she has pressed forward prove the depth and strength of her faith. Or Terry Waite. When he traveled to Lebanon to negotiate with the Islamic Jihad Organization for the release of four hostages, he himself was taken hostage and held in solitary confinement for four years. That experience designed to break him actually strengthened his faith in Christ. Here’s what Terry says: “I have been determined in captivity, and still am determined, to convert this experience into something useful and good for other people. I think that’s the way to approach suffering. It seems to me that Christianity doesn’t in any way lessen suffering. What is does is enable you to take it, to face it, to work through it, and eventually to convert it.” James would agree. Pressing on through hardship develops perseverance, and perseverance in turn shows you and those who know you that your faith is genuine, the real deal, more than mere words. (Terry Waite, quoted in Church Times, Dec. 27,1991) 

Let’s keep going. Pressing forward proves our faith, James says. Second…

Praying for wisdom gives voice to our faith.

In verses 5-8 he explains…

“If you need wisdom, ask our generous God, and he will give it to you. He will not rebuke you for asking. But when you ask him, be sure that your faith is in God alone. Do not waver, for a person with divided loyalty is as unsettled as a wave of the sea that is blown and tossed by the wind. Such people should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Their loyalty is divided between God and the world, and they are unstable in everything they do.” 

James 1:5-8 

When you hit a hassle and can’t see how to get through it, drop to your knees. Have a little talk with Jesus. Let him know you don’t know what to do. And God promises to give you wisdom. Flat out promise. Pray believing that your heavenly Father knows what you need and is glad to give the wisdom to make it through.

  • The worst thing in life isn’t not knowing what to do.
  • The worst thing is not having God with you to guide you through life.

You don’t need to pretend to know exactly what to pray for when you’re shaken. This passage reveals what you can pray for with complete confidence that God will answer: ask for wisdom. Not a way out, not a way around the problem, but wisdom to advance through the problem. That prayer, James insists, 3

God will answer. Praying for wisdom might not get you what you think you want, but God will give you what you need. That’s the promise.

As Vic Pentz says:

“I asked God to take away my pride, and God said no. He said it was not for him to take it away, but for me to give it up. I needed that wisdom. 

I asked God to make my handicapped child whole, and God said, “No, her spirit is already whole. Her handicap is only temporary.” I needed that wisdom. 

I asked God to grant me patience, and God said no. He said that patience is shaped through hardship. I needed that wisdom. 

I asked God to spare me pain, and God said no, we need pruning in order to become fruitful. I needed that wisdom. 

I asked God to help me love others as much as he loves me, and God said, “Ahhh, finally! Now you have the idea.” I needed that wisdom. (Vic Pentz, “A Twinge of Nostalgia”) 

So when your marriage is in a cold patch or your work environment is confusing or in any number of unsettling experiences, give voice to your faith by praying, asking God for wisdom to keep moving forward. And realize that usually, the work God wants to do is in you, rather than in the other person. He can handle them. You pray for wisdom for you to see where you can change to make it through. When you do that, God gladly answers, generously gives the wisdom you need.

Okay, quick review. James says that pressing forward proves our faith. He says that praying for wisdom gives voice to our faith. And third, he reminds us that…

Life’s impermanence prepares us for faith’s reward.

He explains in verses 9-12…

“Believers in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position. But the rich should take pride in their humiliation—since they will pass away like a wild flower. For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich will fade away even while they go about their business. Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.” 

James 1:9-12 

We don’t talk much about after this life. 99.9% of everything thrown at us is about this life. James reminds us to aim higher. Live in light of eternity. And it is the challenges and hardships that prepare us for the reward God has awaiting all who have loved him, who have pressed on through pain and loss, who have prayed for wisdom and kept your eyes on Jesus who has gone before us. This is the distinctly Christian mindshift on pressures and difficulties—that this life is the dress rehearsal for the life that will never end.

Helen Keller says the same thing as James, in her unique way. Both blind and deaf, Helen described her experience as like being “at sea in a dense fog.” She went on to become the first such person to earn a Bachelor’s degree. She became an author, lecturer, and political activist. 4

And she lectured on…happiness. Let that sink in. Someone who lost both sight and sound, who struggled to learn to understand others and communicate her wishes became a lecturer on happiness. In one talk she gave that I found, Helen Keller spoke of the joy that life gave her! She also spoke of the joy of service and the happiness that came from doing things for others … Keller imparted that “helping your fellow [man is] one’s only excuse for being in this world and…in doing of things to help one’s fellows lay the secret of lasting happiness.” She also told of the joys of loving work and accomplishment and the happiness of achievement. And she added this that so firmly squares with James. Helen Keller wrote, “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired, and success achieved.”

Her story reminds us of the challenge C.S. Lewis points out in his classic little paperback Mere Christianity, writing, “If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. The apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English Evangelicals who abolished the slave trade, all left their mark on Earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world [heaven] that they have become so ineffective in this.”

As we look to relaunching gathered worship in the Fishers YMCA Sunday, September 12, this is key to our mindset. It will take a choice, a commitment, to come back to worship in-person. But now that it’s safe to do so, this is a key part of what Christians have always done: we gather to Celebrate, Connect, and Contribute. Keep heaven in mind by regularly gathering with your brothers and sisters in Christ. Put it on your calendar, and take your place as we come back together following the challenge of the pandemic.

What the past year and a half have proven is that what James wrote 2,000 years ago is true: people have no control over what trials and tribulations may come, or when they will come. What we do have control over…is our mindset, and the call to shift the three distinctly Christian perspectives that

  • Pressing forward proves our faith. Suffering times can be a Christian’s best-improving times. So plan on coming as we resume gathered worship September 12. We need each other. The second distinctly Christian mind shift with regard to difficulties is that…
  • Praying for wisdom gives voice to our faith. The worst thing in life isn’t not knowing what to do. The worst thing is not having God with you through life. And the third distinctly Christian mind shift toward challenges is that…
  • Life’s impermanence prepares us for faith’s reward. The Christians throughout history who have done the greatest good for this present world were those who kept their eyes on heaven and lived their days in light of eternity.

And so James concludes, “Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.” (James 1:9-12)

Jesus has done everything necessary, friends, for you to be at peace with God, and connected to the extended family that is the local church. They’re gifts that Jesus won for us by his death and resurrection.

So let’s press on together, until we receive the crown of life the Lord has promised to those who love him. Let’s pray. 5

Our Father in heaven, I pray for each one listening who is feeling pressure right now, for any who find themselves in a tough spot. I pray that you will give them the strength to persevere. I ask you to strengthen their faith in you. I ask that you grant wisdom to navigate hardship wisely and well. I pray that you will lift their eyes to see beyond the moment, to the eternal reward that awaits. And I pray that each one will recommit to gathering in-person as we return to the Y. Thank you for bringing us through the strange time of pandemic. Now bless us, we pray, with a new season of ministry one to another, and to those you have placed us among in our neighborhoods and workplaces. For your glory and our good we pray, in the mighty name of Jesus. Amen!