Imagine a tomato sitting on your counter. You go to the garage and get a vise and then put the tomato inside it. Then you start turning the handle, and the vise starts tightening. It gets tighter and tighter, and the tomato gets thinner in the middle and fatter on the ends until it looks like it’s about to burst.
It’s an image that reminds me of stress. Circumstances come into our lives, and inevitably, stress comes with them. It could be that you feel stress from work, from home, from church. It might be that a particular relationship is stressful because of what it demands of you, that you feel like you might buckle under the weight of some responsibility you’ve been given, or that you simply don’t think your paycheck is going to last long enough to cover the doctor bills. Tighter, tighter, tighter—until you feel like you’re going to explode.
It’s like Bilbo Baggins said to Gandalf: “I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.”
Of course, if you kept tightening the vise around the tomato it would eventually burst. And maybe you, too, know what that bursting feels like. It’s when something small, that ordinarily shouldn’t have bothered you as much as it did, just sets you off. And you find yourself overreacting to that single incident because of the accumulated pressure from the other circumstances.
Back to the tomato, though. It’s important to notice in this illustration what comes out when the tomato does burst. It’s tomato. That’s what comes out—the stuff that was inside all along. Nothing new. Nothing foreign. And the same thing is true of us.
Stress doesn’t cause anger, or frustration, or doubt, or worry, or whatever—those things have been in our hearts all the time. The stress only reveals what’s always been there.
Perhaps that’s one of the redemptive purposes of this pressure. It’s that when we find ourselves reacting to stress, we are able to see a clearer picture of our hearts. So what might stress reveal in us? At least these three things:
- Stress reveals our basis of security.
One of the reasons we feel stressed is because we feel threatened. Our livelihood, our comfort, our future—these are weighty things. And circumstances that threaten our security in these matters cause us to feel no small measure of fear and anxiety. When a circumstance is causing us stress, then, it ought to make us question where our true security lies. What we might find is that we are trusting more in our 401K than the Lord who owns cattle on a thousand hills.
- Stress reveals our secret sins.
If you visit Web MD, you can find all kinds of coping mechanisms for stress. Things like exercise, breathing techniques, and games that occupy the mind. Those are good things, I think, but most of us don’t turn that way. Instead, we just react. We get angry. Or frustrated. Or bitter. Or we turn to something else that makes us feel better in the moment. In any case, the lure toward specific sinful habits and behaviors has always been in our hearts. Stress only focuses the image for us to see them more clearly.
- Stress reveals our source of joy.
It’s a tough thing to be happy when you feel stressed. You are constantly thinking about that circumstance that’s making you worry. It occupies your field of vision, and it’s like you can’t look away even if you want to. But, joy is not rooted in circumstance. Not really. It’s rooted in Jesus. So, if we find that periods of stress are robbing us of our joy, then we have an opportunity to remind our souls that true, lasting, sustainable joy can only flow from the true fountain of living water that doesn’t run dry.
You’re going to feel stress. Probably today. We all are. But, as the old saying goes, what’s down in the well comes up in the bucket. God is at work, even in these moments of difficulty to show us our hearts. And when He does, we can be sure that we can turn to Him in repentance and faith, knowing we will find a Savior whose yoke is easy and burden is light who stands ready to have our cares cast upon Him.
Michael Kelley lives in Nashville, TN, with his wife, Jana, and three children: Joshua, Andi, and Christian. He serves as Director of Groups Ministry for Lifeway Christian Resources. As a communicator, Michael speaks across the country at churches, conferences, and retreats and is the author of Wednesdays Were Pretty Normal: A Boy, Cancer, and God; Transformational Discipleship; and Boring: Finding an Extraordinary God in an Ordinary Life. Find him on Twitter: @_MichaelKelley.