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Is Stress a Gospel Issue?

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Although I often hear that society is becoming less religious, I don’t believe it for a second.

Yes, people are less inclined to believe in God or Jesus, and they’ve forgotten the old theological lingo. Hollywood shapes their worldview more than Nazareth. But people are just as religious as they’ve always been. And worse, they’re just as committed to works salvation.

To understand how secular people see things, pay attention to their language. For example, isn’t stress one of the most popular words today?

Stress is up.

Way up.

A recent survey of Americans concluded:

“The majority of adults reported the future of our nation (81%), the coronavirus pandemic (80%) and political unrest around the country (74%) as significant sources of stress in their lives” (see here).

Clearly, most Americans are stressed about those big issues. (Even the billionaires are building doomsday bunkers.)

But if you included all the little stresses of life—the bills, expensive groceries, kids falling behind at school, trying to find a job, sick pets, angry in-laws, an uncertain economy, and a sinking 401K—everyone is stressed.

Have you ever considered that stress might be a religious issue? To put it in theological terms, have you ever considered that it’s fundamentally a question of justification? Paul Zahl explains:

“This question of justification is the root cause of what we today call stress. Stress is the experience of having to do (or believing one has to do) more things than one thinks one possibly can do, and having to do them perfectly, or ideally, or however you want to say it—just right! When you feel stress, you are asking yourself, How can I be justified? and you are answering the question for yourself in the negative. I can’t be!” (Paul Zahl, The Protestant Face of Anglicanism, p. 111).

In other words, people feel stressed because they feel the pressure of meeting hundreds of demands in life, but like hamsters spinning on a wheel, they never seem to get anywhere. And even if they meet a need for now, they have no assurance they’ll meet it forever. The demands keep coming, and we keep trying to meet them and get stressed when we don’t.

And what lies behind that seemingly non-religious expectation?

“How can my personal existence amount to anything that endures? How can I be legitimatized? How can I be recognized, evaluated, valued, in such a way that my life will add up to something? What will prevent me, on the basis of the life that I have lived, from being found wanting, from being regarded as a failure in comparison to someone else, from being left out and judged unworthy of praise?” (pp. 110-111).

If that’s the underlying motivation behind stress, can you see how deeply religious it is?

That deep desire to be legitimized and valued by the world is not something the world can ever give because you can never meet its demands. You’re just one personal, economic, or health blow away from proving your life doesn’t add up to much of anything at all. Not in the grand scheme of things.

As grace believers, we should know better. We should be able to spot that secular attempt at works salvation a mile away. Instead of trying find peace in the world’s approval, we’ve learned to believe the good news about Jesus and what that means for us.

God tells the truth about you, calls a spade a spade, and identifies you as a sinner (Rom 3:10) who could never be justified by meeting the demands of any law (Gal 2:16). Instead, the good news is that, when you believe in Jesus, God accepts you, adopts you as His own (Eph 1:5), imputes righteousness to you (Rom 4:5), forgives you (Rom 4:6-8), and reconciles you to Himself (2 Cor 5:18). And He does all of that for Jesus’ sake, and not because you were worthy of it.

Instead of being stressed at failing to meet the world’s demands, be comforted that Jesus satisfied God’s demands for you.

Send your questions or comments to Shawn.

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