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Escaping the Stress Trap

  • Mary Southerland
  • 2006 12 Dec
Escaping the Stress Trap

“The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters. He restores my soul; He leads me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; My cup runs over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the LORD Forever.”

Psalms 23


While waiting for the red light to change, I noticed a bumper sticker on the car in front of me. “Just when I thought I was winning the rat race, along came faster rats!”  My thoughts immediately drifted to the absurd schedule through which I had hurled myself that day. It was a schedule without margins or boundaries, every moment assigned to something or someone. My stress level grew with every task. My head pounded and my stomach churned.  I couldn’t wait to get home, change into my comfort clothes and escape to a quiet, peaceful place.


Stress, however, was eagerly awaiting my arrival at home! Children needed clean clothes, clamored for hot food, required transportation to various activities, begged for help with homework and longed for a listening ear and the loving attention of a mother’s heart.  Right!  I was ready to hand them off to my husband but he had experienced the same kind of chaotic day I had experienced and desperately needed peace and quiet for his own frazzled soul. 


Stress is a familiar and faithful companion, an unavoidable part of life.  It doesn’t matter where life takes us, we will encounter stress. Unless we learn to manage and deal with that stress – God’s way – we will surely find ourselves trapped, an easy target for the enemy.


A friend recently told me the story of a farmer who, as the owner of a large piece of land along the Atlantic seacoast, constantly advertised for hired hands. Most people were reluctant to work on farms along the Atlantic because of terrible storms known to plague the area.  As the farmer interviewed applicants for the job, he received a steady stream of refusals. Finally, a short, thin man, well past middle age, applied for the job. “Are you a good farm hand?” the farmer asked. “Well, I can sleep when the wind blows,” answered the little man.  Although puzzled by this answer, the desperate farmer hired him.


The slight man worked hard, to the delight of the farmer. Then one night, the howling wind blew in from offshore, signaling the approach of a monstrous storm. Jumping out of bed, the farmer grabbed a lantern and rushed to the hired hand’s sleeping quarters. “Get up! A storm is coming!” he yelled.  The man rolled over in bed and firmly responded, “No sir. I told you, I can sleep when the wind blows.”  Furious, the farmer was tempted to fire him on the spot. Instead, he hurried outside to prepare for the storm. To his amazement, he discovered that all of the haystacks had been covered with tarps. The cows were in the barn, the chickens were in their coops, the doors were barred and the shutters were tightly secured. Everything was tied down. Nothing could blow away. The farmer then understood what his hired hand had meant.  He, too, returned to his bed to “sleep while the wind blew.”


Stress management is a spiritual discipline that begins with diligent preparation in every area of life – mental, emotional, physical and spiritual. We must be ready to deal with stress before we are required to deal with stress. Psalm 23 describes the intimate, personal and trusting relationship between sheep and shepherd, between child and father, and is not only a beautiful portrait of God’s complete and faithful provision, but an arsenal of stress-busting truths that, when embraced and applied, will empower and equip us to live a life of peace and victory.


Know whose you are. I grew up in a Christian home, attending church every time the doors were open.  I sang all of the right songs, spoke all of the right words and did all of the right things in front of all the right people. I fervently prayed that my works would validate my faith and desperately hoped that by following the rules, I would please the Ruler. It wasn’t until middle school that the authentic life of a dynamic youth pastor made me hunger and thirst for something more. I wanted to know God. During an evening church service, I sat in my usual spot, clutching the back of the pew in front of me while wrestling with God over the condition of my soul and my eternal security.  I argued that I knew all about God – and then the deeper truth of that argument hit me. Yes, I knew about Him but I didn’t know Him.  That night we met.   While the course of my life was changed forever, I quickly discovered that I still had to face stressful situations. The difference was that God's love and presence now preceded me, went before me and surrounded me each day.


Recognize your source.  I really believe that a large part of stress is the result of misplaced expectations, requiring the people and circumstances in our lives to meet needs only God can meet. Most people who know me well would tell you that I’m a very strong woman. It took a complete physical, emotional and spiritual breakdown for me to realize that I was only as strong as my human personality and abilities would allow me to be.  I was, in short, looking in all the wrong places for the deepest needs of my heart to be met. When all was stripped away by a two-year battle with clinical depression, I was left with nothing but broken dreams and unanswered questions. There, in that dark pit, surrounded by the meager remains of a shattered life, I discovered that God is enough. “The Lord is my Shepherd.  I shall not want.”  Just as the shepherd meets every need of his sheep, God meets our every need.  Just as the sheep totally depend upon their shepherd’s care, we must depend totally upon God.  He is our Source and in light of that reality, stress flees, leaving only peace.


Learn to rest.  I am terrible at this “rest” thing, forever walking the thin line between being productive and my life spiraling out of control. I have repeatedly tried to defy my God-given need for rest, thinking that I’m somehow “above” both the occurrence and consequences of exhaustion. Stress shouts, “Get busy!  There’s so much to do!” Stress applauds and dances with delight as I keep on “doing” instead of “being”.  I’ve discovered that when I’m tired, it’s much harder for me to handle stress.  Just as ninety percent of income goes farther when we tithe ten percent of it, so does our energy when we tithe it in rest.


Manage your fears.  It is not God’s plan for us to dwell in fear or for fear to rule our lives.  He has already set in motion the fall of every giant we will ever face.  Our responsibility is to step through our fear, confronting those giants in God’s power instead of our own, while counting on the promise that God really is the same yesterday, today and forever. We have nothing to fear, not because we are clever or self-sufficient, but because we are his sheep. Through him, we can learn to manage fear and stress instead of allowing fear and stress to manage us.


Take the long look.  We must be very careful to choose the right backdrop against which we live. Our backdrop is eternity – not the daily tyranny of urgent demands made by a relentless world.  Our backdrop is an old rugged cross, not the condemnation of our own heart or the judgments of others. Our backdrop is an empty tomb – not the stress filled prison of despair. When stress threatens and it seems like you can’t go on, rest in God’s truth.  Take the long look at life, knowing that he will provide your every need and fill your heart with peace. 


Stress is tenacious in its quest to derail and destroy us.  Marriages and homes teeter on the brink of disaster because we’re too busy. Personal and family needs are consigned to the bottom of our priority list.  Distractions are rampant because our lives are not rightly focused - and the enemy laughs in the shadows, applauding our foolishness. Stop.  Get off of the merry-go-round.  Come into God’s presence and rest there until stress has gone and peace has come.

Taken from Mary’s latest book, Escaping the Stress Trap, Harvest House Publishers, used with permission.
Mary Southerland is the author of “Coming Out of the Dark”, “Sandpaper People”, “Experiencing God’s Power in Your Ministry”, and “Escaping the Stress Trap.”  Mary is the founder of Journey Ministry, member of Girlfriends in God (featured proudly among Crosswalk.com's Devotional offerings) and is a popular international speaker for conventions, retreats, and conferences. For more information, contact Mary by emailing her at: journeyfriends@cs.com or visit her website at: www.marysoutherland.com.