March 6, 1996
Our culture is fixated on relieving the stress that plagues us, yet this obsession is met with little success. What does the Bible say about it, though? Alistair Begg reminds us that while Christ didn’t die so that we could have a carefree life, much of our anxiety comes from the sin of seeking security and peace apart from Jesus. God offers everyone an invitation to enjoy lasting peace amid life’s chaos—an invitation that requires a response.
Sermon Transcript: Print
Well, good afternoon. It’s nice to see you. I’ve provided on the table today a sheet which has three separate quotes from the New Testament. It’s there for your reference. And if I were to ask you what might be the one connecting theme which is here between these three passages, I would make you feel as though you were back doing your SATs all over again. I have never done an SAT, having been educated—well, yeah, educated—in the United Kingdom, but I’ve started to do it now with the computer program, and I’ve logged on, and it’s really pretty salutary stuff. And they have these things in the English section where they give you a list of words, and then they say, “Can you suggest two words that tie all these words together?” You, perhaps, remember that. And you suggest the two words, and then it comes up, you know, like, “Dummy,” you know, and you just want to smash the little computer thing up right there in front of you. And I’ve actually found it to be quite a stressful experience.
And that actually is what I want to talk to you about this afternoon, is about stress. And the reason that I’ve put down these three passages is because they are all somewhat indirectly linked in response to the whole issue of stress. I thought that I might choose a subject that some of you may know just a little about.
I’m quoting now from my files, from an article taken from the American Management Association publication in, actually, 1983—November of ’83. And this is an article about litigation that was beginning to break in the early ’80s in the workplace of American industry, particularly in business, as it related to the employee claims for damages to their lives and to their home directly related to stress. And here are three of the ones that were coming before the courts around that time:
On the morning of January 31, 1979, Roger left for work early as usual, drove into the city to his office. Instead of putting in his customary long day, however, he left the office abruptly during the morning, he drove home, closed the garage door, and remained seated in his automobile with the windows down and the engine running. The autopsy report listed carbon monoxide as the cause of death, but Roger’s widow doesn’t agree. She has filed a six-million- dollar lawsuit, claiming that Roger’s job caused his death. She claims the employer, number one, failed to respond to his repeated complaints about overwork and, number two, displayed a callous and conscious disregard for his mental health.
An Atlanta air traffic controller is claiming stress from a fatal plane crash caused him to become insane and kill his wife. The controller was in control of an airplane when it ran into a hailstorm, lost power over Georgia. The plane finally crash-landed on a highway, and sixty-one of eighty-one people onboard died.
The Michigan Supreme Court granted lifetime workers’ compensation to a GM Corporation parts inspector who was considered to be a “compulsive perfectionist.” He suffered mental strain when assembly line workers kept installing parts labeled “defective.”
And I wanted to save the third one for the third one, because that just really cracks me up, you know. You can just see these guys who are trying to deal with the stress in their lives by slipping in parts labeled “defective” so that five guys down the assembly line, they can just totally drive one of their colleagues bananas.
And the point of the article, of course, is that because of the judicial trend—and I’m quoting now—
to look seriously at employee-initiated lawsuits, organizations are now being forced to take some form of action to deal more effectively with the onslaught of stress-related claims. The manager is in the forefront of any organizational response to the increase in these claims. Managerial ability to assess stress symptoms before they manifest themselves in the form of illness, reduced performance, or even suicide is now almost an obligation and responsibility as more and more employers find themselves facing their employees in court. Many now realize that to effectively deal with stress in the workplace, we have to look to managers as the first line of prevention.
Now, the reason that it struck me so forcibly was because ironically, the managers are unable to manage their own stress. I spend a lot of my time dealing with people who are at the level of management—upper management, many of you. And in fact, it only adds to your stress to have to watch out for the stress of other people. And so the whole thing is an amazing continuum that, like a runaway train, seems to be hounding us down. The problem is obviously widespread.
One of the significant factors of our particular period of time in our culture is the vocabulary of what we might refer to as “the vocabulary of human deficit.” There are all kinds of words which, in the last fifteen or twenty years, have become common parlance. They were previously kind of psychobabble words known only to certain individuals who used them. But they have now become equally usable by just about anyone, representing the depth of stress and related anxieties which people feel. For example, words like depressed. You hear it from even your children at a very young age. Stressed out, burned out, anxious, bulimic, alienated, suffering from low self-esteem. And that’s only just a smattering of them. And this whole vocabulary of a “diminishing self” or of a “lost self” is something that is just so pervasive that even for me to point it out in these moments is for you to say to yourself, “Well, yeah, I never really thought of it like that before, but you know, he does have a point.”
What, then, are the underlying factors that create stress in so many of our lives? Well, we can’t delve into all of it, but I would suggest that there are three in particular: one, the absence of what I might refer to as settled values; secondly, the absence of stable hopes; and thirdly, the absence of established beliefs. The absence of settled values, stable hopes, and established beliefs. These things are in flux in the minds of the late twentieth-century dwellers, and largely because the underpinning fabric of our culture is also itself in flux, and in three particular areas: in the realm of family, in the realm of geography, and in the realm of industry—or, if you like, in the people factor, in the place factor, and in the purpose factor.
As it relates to people and interpersonal relationships, many of us are significantly affected by fractured relationships, either in our immediate lives as it relates to children, or as it relates to a spouse or a brother or a sister or a parent, or certainly in our extended realm. And every day, into the fabric of what makes us us is poured this element as it relates to the people relationships.
Also, the whole question of our location is involved in that. We live in an increasingly rootless culture. People move with tremendous rapidity. And whereas, at an earlier point in the history of America, people knew where they lived, why they lived there, largely how long they’d be living there, and who was the postman and the baker and the candlestick maker, etc., and there was a measure of security that attached to that. But today, by and large, few people have the luxury of the security that is represented in those relationships. And it adds to the issue of stress.
And then, of course, in the realm of industry or in business. People’s lives are increasingly affected by the fluidity of the business and industry world. Many people, for example, in production lines are being replaced by machines. People who had hoped to work to the age of sixty, or perhaps even sixty-five, are now waiting for someone coming knocking on their door, even in their late forties and certainly in their early fifties. And all of these factors, without them being on the forefront of anybody’s thinking, relate to this issue of stress.
Now, those are simply underlying features of life. What about some of the surface issues that create stress? Oh, for example, just the routine of life itself, or as some have referred to it, “the rat race.” I have in recent weeks—and this is quite honestly so—in recent weeks, I’ve been told on a number of occasions by gentlemen, “If it were possible for me to step outside of my life right now, I would do it.” Now, these are not unsuccessful people. These are highly successful people. These are not dumb people. These are highly intelligent people. And what they’re saying to me is this: “Alistair, I am absolutely tyrannized by the treadmill of my existence—the routine of getting up, going through it, coming home, getting up, and going through it all over again.” And it is creating stress within their lives.
The stress of the routine, the stress of the unusual. Facing bereavement, relocation, divorce, loss of employment—they all add into the mixture of stress.
The sense of having missed it. You realize how many people live with a great sense of having missed it? “You know, I just wasn’t there when he came, and I missed the one opportunity I believe I had.” “I just missed by a whisker the opportunity of that promotion or that relocation.” “I just missed the opportunity to buy Ameritrust stock at 5⅞. And if I had done what I was going to do—those ten thousand shares—I would have been retired today, you know. I just missed it!” “I just missed the chance to ask her out. And doggone it, he asked her out! And I see them every day, and they’re happily married.” There are people who live with that all the time.
Or the treadmill of financial irresponsibility: those who have taken the waiting out of wanting by the constant use of plastic credit cards, and the sense of stress that that individual feels when they lie awake in the middle of the night or awaken early in the morning absolutely overwhelms them. And they respond to all kinds of advertisements. One that I found in a national newspaper in Britain—I couldn’t believe my eyes, but this is what it said: “Now you can borrow enough to get completely out of debt.” Can you imagine somebody saying to his wife, “Hey, we’ve hit on it! Look at this!” You get to that level, you know you got a deep problem.
Now, that’s enough by way of background. The question is, what are we going to do about it? What are we going to do about it?
Every time you travel on the plane—not every time—but often as you travel on the plane, if you get the United magazine, USAir, Northwest, whatever it is, the chances are that somewhere in all of that literature, somebody will be telling you how to deal with stress. Because it is very topical, and it is very obvious in people’s lives.
And so they’ll tell you, for example, you can deal with your stress by “finding yourself.” Nobody really knows what “finding yourself” is, which is one of the reasons it’s so much fun, presumably, to try and look for yourself. And that will… If you’re spending so much time looking for yourself, you won’t be able to worry about some of the other stuff, you know, that you’ve been concerned about before.
Or, “Why don’t you drop into a life?” This was a phrase that was used just the other day—in fact, yesterday, by a young lady, married lady, and she said that she and her husband had just recently dropped into a life.
“Oh,” I said, “tell me about it!” I said, “This is intriguing to me.”
“Oh, yes,” she said, “it’s wonderful! You know, my husband was on the plane every week. He was gone 70 percent of the time, and he was driven in the corporate world. He was a vice president with”—whatever it was. It’s somewhere here in Cleveland. “And he just came home one day, and he said, ‘That’s it! We’re gonna deal with all of this stress and all of this rigmarole,’ and we have just dropped into a life.” And now she was sitting with another girl.
And I said, “So, how is it working out?”
“Oh,” she says, “it’s wonderful!”
“Oh,” says her friend, “no, it’s not!”
“Oh,” she said, “why do you say that?”
“Well,” says her friend, “because when I called you at eight o’clock last Sunday morning and I asked you if you were still in bed, you said, ‘Oh no, I’ve been up for ages.’ And I said, ‘Where’s your husband?’ And you said, ‘He’s been at the office since seven o’clock’—on a Sunday morning!”
He just dropped into a life! He just dropped into a hole, and she dropped into it with him! They only are replacing one set of external factors for another set.
And so you read all these little things. They’ll tell you, you know, you can deal with stress in your life by telling a joke, you know, by smoking a cigarette, by brewing a cup of tea, by planting a flower, by maximizing your potential, by smoking dope, or whatever else it is—by blowing up balloons, you know, all this kind of nonsense. And some of you have been subjected to this in your corporate world. There are people that I know, who will remain nameless here, who are making significant six-figure salaries on the strength of some of you crazy corporate executives, if you’ll pardon me. ’Cause you are so bedeviled by what’s going on that you are prepared to pay significant money to have stressed-out people come and address your stressed-out staff and make you do stupid things in the middle of your stressed-out day, such as blowing up balloons and writing your name on them and doing all kinds of nonsense. And it speaks to the depth of the issue.
The American Management magazine quoted another fellow that I had noted down not so long ago. This chap is giving a talk to executives about stress. And he reaches a high point in his dialogue—in his monologue—and he says to them, “I am now going to give you a most important tip.” Pregnant pause. “Everyone needs an unconditional listener to unload on.” Pregnant pause. “Unfortunately, there is no human being who is an unconditional listener. So this is what I recommend.” Pregnant pause. “Talk to your dog.”
Talk to your dog? Now, can you imagine it? You go to school, and you go to graduate school, and you pull your socks on or your tights on in the morning, and you’re trying to make a go of life, and some yahoo comes in, and he finally ends up telling you to talk to your dog. And you don’t even have a dog! So you are in the worst of predicaments, right? This guy is stressing you out while you sit there listening to him.
“Well,” you say, “so where do we go?” Well, you go to the sheet that I just gave you. Because this sheet comes out of the Bible. And unashamedly, this is what these Table Talks are about. It’s not about the talking head, you know, from Scotland. It’s about whether the Bible would talk to us, whether the Bible speaks into our lives at the most practical of levels. Does the Bible have anything to say to the issue? If there are underlying factors as it relates to geography and family and industry, and if there are surface factors as outlined, what’s the bottom line?
Well, listen to what God says through his prophet Isaiah. I don’t have it here in front of you. This is the Old Testament reading from Isaiah 57:20, from the Living Bible paraphrase: “Those who still reject me are like the restless sea, which is never still, but always churns up mire and dirt. There is no peace … for them [says my God].” “Those who still reject me are like the restless sea …. There is no peace … for them.”
Now listen, then, to the directive from the dungeon that comes here in these first two paragraphs that’s on the sheet in front of you. This is a gentleman writing from a dungeon in Rome. He is imprisoned in Rome. He’s not writing from an island in the Caribbean where he’s just sipping drinks and having a pleasant afternoon. No, no, he’s in deep difficulty. The prospect of him getting out is remote, and if he does get out, it may simply be to have his head chopped off—a fairly stressful situation, wouldn’t you say? So what does he say? This is the apostle Paul. He says, “I want you to delight yourselves in the Lord.” “Delight yourselves in [the Lord].”
Now, what does that mean? It means to find all our joy in him, all our peace in him, all our hope in him, all our dependence in him. And if we’re finding it all in him, then we’re not finding it in material, we’re not finding it in finance, we’re not finding it in accolades, we’re not finding it in our waistline or the amount of miles that we can run. We are finding it in him.
Delight yourselves in [the Lord], yes, find your joy in him at all times. Have a reputation for gentleness, and never forget the nearness of your Lord.
Don’t worry over anything whatever; tell God every detail of your needs in earnest and thankful prayer, and the peace of God which transcends human understanding, will keep constant guard over your hearts and minds as they rest in Christ Jesus.
Now, I don’t know if you’re familiar with the four little chapters of Philippians. The picture in Philippi, as a garrison city of Rome, was that the Roman soldiers would always be on the perimeter of the city walls of Philippi, so that the people who lived in Philippi would waken in the morning and go to sleep at night looking up onto the walls and seeing there the sentries on guard to protect from war from without and chaos from within. “Now,” says Paul, “as you think about those sentries on guard around the walls of Philippi,” he says, “I want you to think about the peace of God being on guard around your mind and around your life. And you may discover that,” he says, “when you learn not to worry about anything, to tell God about everything, and not to forget to thank him for his answers.” Have you ever done that?
Or listen to the promise that I’ve then noted for you from the only stress-free individual who ever lived. This is the word from Jesus speaking to his disciples. He says, “I leave behind with you—peace; I give you my own peace and my gift is nothing like the peace of this world. You must[n’t] be distressed and you must[n’t] be daunted.”
Now, I don’t know about you, but I read that and I say, “I want to know this peace. In fact, I’m not going to settle my heart or mind until I get to the bottom of what this is all about.” And that’s really what today is all about. It’s simply a link in a chain. It’s a point along a journey. It’s as if you’re driving down the freeway, and you stopped off for a coffee, and you got a spiritual coffee, and the guy says, “Would you like a donut?” And you said, “Well, maybe.” So you got a donut as well. And it’s just helped you along the journey as you say to yourself, “How can I put the building blocks together here for my life when it comes to the issue of these most essential matters?”
So, there’s a directive from the dungeon, and there is a word from the only stress-free individual that ever lived, and then, finally, there’s an invitation, with which I conclude. The invitation comes from Jesus as well: “Come to me,” he says, “all of you who are weary and over-burdened.” That may speak into your life in a particular way today that I don’t even understand. “And I will give you rest!” he says. “Put on my yoke and learn from me.” That’s a picture from agriculture. It’s a picture from the beasts of burden of the time of Christ, who were yoked, in much the same way that we would still see some oxen yoked in parts of Amish country around us here. In other words, “Get underneath the bridle of my responsibility and of my wisdom and learn from me. And I want you to know that if you put my yoke on you, it won’t chaff your neck. It won’t rub your neck raw. Because I’m gentle, and I’m humble in heart. And you’ll find rest for your souls. For my yoke doesn’t burn the back of your neck. My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Now, I want to say just two things in conclusion.
Every time there is an invitation from Jesus, it has an RSVP attached to it. To simply hear the invitation and do nothing is, of course, to indicate in the negative. And so, we need to understand that.
The second thing I want you to notice is that the invitation of Jesus does not leave open the door to the idea that truth is whatever works for me personally. And I need to make this very clear in conclusion. The baby boom generation—of whom I am a part, and many of you are too—has revealed a sincere quest for spirituality in the last fifteen years. For some, that has meant a return to established religion. For others, it has meant an interest in Eastern religion. For others, it has meant the embracing of New Age philosophies. But at the heart of it all is the idea that we can encounter spirituality without the intervention of anybody telling us about belief or about truth. So in other words, my religious experience, the inwardness of my experience, is what guarantees its authenticity.
So, you listen to me speak, and this is what you hear as a baby boomer, late-’90s magazine reader: what you hear me saying is “I found mine, why don’t you find yours?” And you hear me wrong! Because what I’m saying is Christianity is not true because it works, but it works because it is true. And so the issue is not “Would you like to plug into Jesus as a possible power source to deal with stress?” But the issue is “Is the guy who issued the invitation a megalomaniac, a madman, a liar, or God?” When we have addressed that, then we can come to him and ask him to deal with the matter of our stress. Until we have, then we remain on the outside, looking in.
Perhaps you’d like to take these, fold them up, put them away, take them out and read them, and follow down the pathway that it sets you on.
Let’s pray together:
Father, thank you for your Word and for the clarity with which it speaks to pressing issues of our day. We don’t want to give the impression that if you trust in Jesus, all your stress goes away—because frankly, it doesn’t. And we certainly don’t want to give the idea that you died on the cross so that we could have a carefree life, because you didn’t. But we want to acknowledge that much of our striving after stuff, many of our desires to manipulate circumstances to our own end, are nothing other than selfishness, which is an evidence of our desire to go our own way, which is what your Word says is sin. We find that our hearts are restless, as Augustine said, until they find their rest in you.
So we pray that you would help us to follow down the track and to find ourselves face-to-face with the loveliness of your provision and the wonder of your invitation. And to this end we commit one another lovingly into your care as we return to opportunities and responsibilities which, frankly, are very demanding. We pray that the peace of the Lord Jesus Christ may guard and keep our hearts and minds in a knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.
 Philippians 4:4 (Phillips).
 Philippians 4:4–7 (Phillips).
 John 14:27 (Phillips).
 Matthew 11:28–29 (Phillips).
 Matthew 11:28–30 (paraphrased).
 Augustine, Confessions 1.1.1.
Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.