I cannot pinpoint the moment when stress first descended from atop Mt. Adulthood and became common jargon in the vernacular of my adolescence. If I had to guess, it was somewhere between ages 8 and 14.
Now a college student, I have had years of training in the artful rhetoric of stress-speak, and the many subtle nuances it implies. For example, the saying, “I’m stressed,” is not as simple as the innocuous construction would indicate. It can mean everything from, “Please help, I’m overwhelmed with work and I don’t know what to do,” to “I am very involved on campus and this is my way of broadcasting my success.”
Mostly, “I’m stressed” serves as a statement of solidarity with a shared struggle; the populist scapegoat for the trials of the everyman; the shibboleth that proves your membership with the normal, the relatable, and the accepted.
We hear about stress a lot as college students, and lots of university resources are extended to provide educational workshops and other types of relief. In one of my classes first semester, we had an entire mini-lecture series dedicated to discussing and dealing with stress. The professor brought in a guest speaker to tell us things like: “close your eyes, breathe deeply, and watch your thoughts float by like clouds drifting through the sky.”
My intention isn’t to denigrate any of these resources (or the good hearted work of people who facilitate them). I also don’t want to conflate basic stress with other forms of serious mental illness like depression or anxiety disorders, which require the care of serious mental health professionals. I am talking about that ubiquitous and perennial encounter with stressful feelings like, “what am I doing, where do I go, how do I make this happen, how do I not fail?” and how the gospel can change the way we think about it.
In my view, there are two types of actual stress, one much more insidious than the other. The first and less worrisome type arises from just the sheer over-accumulation of work. The second is the first type, augmented by what is often called an “existential crisis.” To illustrate the difference between the two situations, imagine a student who has seriously procrastinated studying for a major exam until late the night before. If he or she belongs to the first category, he or she might think, “how can I possibly finish reviewing this entire textbook in one night? I might fail my test tomorrow.” Someone in the second group would extend that thought to, “If I fail, what will my friends think of me? What will my parents think of me? What if this means I’m not as smart as I think I am and I’ll never be able to get into med school and become a doctor? If I can’t be a doctor, then who am I?”
The first person makes a calculated, albeit gloomy, prediction about a single event, whereas the second person extrapolates from that thought a cutting analysis of their worth as a person. This is where stress is most debilitating, and it’s also when the gospel can be the most edifying.
Clearly not all stress is created equal, but I think if there is a single factor in determining whether someone will more likely fall victim to the first version of stress or the second version is a sense of spiritual certainty. Spiritual certainty is a confidence in the character of God and a profound belief in the notion that once you are accepted as a child of God through faith in Jesus Christ, nothing can separate you from that heavenly union.
You can fail every calculus exam, and get rejected from every medical school, but the truly important fact about your life that justifies your value as a person cannot be stripped or even blemished.
This is amazing news.
As Christians, we are free from the oppressive uncertainties of performance and we can approach work from a perspective of joy. Yes, there can be joy in stress. The opportunities afforded us on Earth that allow us to go to school, to make friends, to play sports, to hold jobs, and to have families are not only the origins of stress but also reflections of God’s desire for us to “have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). Our stress therefore is a manifestation of the fall – where previously, we were allowed to enjoy the abundance of life without the possibility of failure. Because of the grace of Jesus Christ, that continues to be true.
We proceed encouraged by God’s statement in Jeremiah 29:11, “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’”