The definition of stress: a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances.
In the story that we just heard it’s hard to avoid the impression that Jesus intentionally places his disciples in a highly stressful situation — a situation with significant danger that was likely to evoke fear within them.
As night falls, Jesus sends the disciples out in their primitive boat alone to cross the sea of Galilee. Since it’s night, they won’t be able to see very well, if at all — making it hard to tell if they’re headed in the right direction, and how far they have to go till they reach land. The drop in temperature that happens at night would mean that the winds would likely blow harder, and the waves break higher.
On top of the very real possibility of drowning, in the ancient world the deep, dark sea was believed to be the abode of evil spirits — the place on earth where the primeval chaos still reigned — which is why the disciples were initially so creeped out when they saw Jesus walking on the water — they thought he was a ghost. So sending the disciples out at night on the sea was a little like sending a group of children out into a cemetary at night for a sleepover. If they weren’t already, they probably would all become bedwetters.
So Jesus seems to be intentionally raising the disciples’ stress level, which I would suppose is not what we would imagine Jesus doing to people he supposedly loves. Why would Jesus do such a thing?
Perhaps part of the problem here is that we have come to view stress as strictly a bad thing. “I’m pretty stressed today,” we say, implying that it would be better if we weren’t stressed. Stress, we’ve heard, damages our health, and harms our relationships.
We long for a stress-free life. Oh to win the lottery and be able to spend the rest of our days relaxing in a beach chair.
But an altogether stress-free life is another word for death. If we’re going to live, then in some sense we’re going to have to embrace stress.
So the question becomes, how will we respond to the stress of life?
I once heard that the Chinese character that means the word “crisis” is made up of combining two other characters: the character for “danger” and the word for “opportunity.” Which is to say, in every crisis there is both danger and opportunity.
To some extent, the same is true of stress.
For sure, there are stresses in our lives that need to be lessened.
If a particular co-worker is habitually treating you in a way that raises your stress level, leading you to feel fear regarding what the future of your employment there will be like, a kind of danger is present. You can respond to this danger by either avoiding the threatening person, or by going out of your way to please that person, both of which might in the short term diminish the level of anxiety you are feeling. Or you could quit your job altogether.
But all of these responses view the stress only in terms of danger and have the outcome of diminishing your life because all you are doing is retreating from danger — retreating from the stress.
But what if there is some kind of opportunity in the stress to create a better work environment, or at least to discover more strength inside you than you thought you had? For this to happen you would have to intentionally raise your stress level in the short term by confronting the co-worker about the situation.
Now it’s important to recognize that the things that raise stress levels vary from person to person. There are some people for whom office conflict creates relatively little stress — they almost thrive on it — and others for whom it makes their blood pressure go through the roof.
It’s wrong to judge other people’s stress levels by our own standards, although we do this all the time.
For an extrovert to go to be invited to a party where a lot of strangers are present will probably cause very little stress at all; the same party invitation to an introvert may feel like entering a den of lions. The extrovert might look at the introvert and say, “What’s your problem?”
But let’s say a situation arises that requires a person to be alone with his or her thoughts for several hours — the sort of situation Jesus chose for himself at the start of our story when he went up on the mountain alone to pray — well then things would be reversed. Extroverts would probably find themselves stressed out of their minds, while the introverts would likely say, “This is great!”
A tough, macho guy might have little trouble walking down a rough city street at night, or negotiating the price of a car, and judge those for whom this is stressful as wusses, but tell the same guy he has to go sit at the bedside of his dying mother in a hospital room, and maybe his heart suddenly becomes paralyzed with fear.
So we would do well to avoid judging others in the way they handle stress; because we’re not them. Where the stress lines fall are distinct for each person.
But the point is, in every person’s life, there is what we could call our “comfort zone” — the place where we feel relatively stress-free – and then there is everything else that is outside of our comfort zone.
Often it makes sense to choose to stay in our comfort zone — a life of constant threat and anxiety is a pretty awful life indeed. But if we always choose for our comfort zone, then the result will be that our lives shrink — that we shrink. The meaningfulness of our life will be connected to the ways in which in the course of our lives we were willing to embrace the opportunities inherent in ours stress and step out of our comfort zones.
So, in our story, Jesus challenges the disciples to move out of their comfort zones when he tells them to get into the boat at night and cross the sea of Galilee. Though it raises their stress level — causes them anxiety — they embrace the challenge. And for this they deserve credit.
But it’s out on the sea around 3 a.m. when the winds and the waves have picked up that things get interesting. Their fears have probably already risen when Jesus comes walking towards them on the water, which initially raises the fear level even more, because out there in the realm of evil spirits, who knows what kind of ghost this might be?
Jesus says to them, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid!” If we take Jesus literally when he says, “Don’t be afraid,” I think we have a problem because fear isn’t something we can just “will” away — we can’t turn it off like a light switch. Fear is beyond our control because it arises from primitive place inside us.
So what I think Jesus means to say is, “Don’t let the fear you’re feeling run the show. Try to tolerate the fear; don’t just automatically flee to your comfort zone.”
At this point in the story the disciple Peter takes center stage. He deserves some credit because of all the disciples, he seems to be the only one that grasps the opportunity that is present in this intensely stressful event, which involves Peter quite literally stepping out of his comfort zone — stepping out of the boat. For a moment, he actually stands out there on the water with Jesus.
Notice, though how Matthew describes what happens next: “But when (Peter) noticed the strong wind, he became frightened,” and then he begins to sink.
Before Peter sinks, he begins to worry about sinking, and the worry itself brings him down. The worry about sinking becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.
I think this is easy to identify with. Feeling stressed, we look to the future and all we can see are the dangers — we begin to worry about all the “what ifs” that could go wrong. We work ourselves up into a frenzy, and in a strange sense our worries become a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. Our mind works to conjure up a world that is out to get us; we imagine that it’s totally on us to keep afloat, and obviously we’re not up to the job.
In that office conflict scenario, perhaps we get it in our mind to confront the person with whom we’re having a problem. But as we anticipate the conversation we’ll have, we begin to obsess, assuming the worst in the other person, imagining the conversation going badly, and sure enough, the conversation does go badly: we argue, and we just end up pushing each other further apart, and afterwards perhaps we say to ourselves, “See, that person is just as bad as I imagined them to be, I knew this was going to go badly,” when in fact the conversation just played out according to the script our obsession and worry had written.
So Peter begins to focus on the wind, imagining the worst, and sure enough the worst obliges, and he begins to sink.
And he cries out to Jesus, and Jesus gets him back to the place of safety.
Jesus does not reject Peter with his doubts, but he does rebuke him, saying, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’
So there’s faith and there’s doubt, which are related to the two ways of relating to stress. Doubt sees only the danger, and faith sees the opportunity, and trusts that there is help to get us through come what may.
Throughout the Gospels we see Jesus pushing his disciples out of their comfort zones so they can learn to develop the faith response.
He sends them out two by two without money or weapons — out of their comfort zones — and lo and behold they are amazed by the good things that take place — that God’s grace was abundant, showing up most commonly in strangers who offered them hospitality and kindness.
In last week’s story: Jesus and the disciples go off in a boat by themselves to a deserted place, only to be followed along the shore by 5000 poor people. Jesus comes ashore and has compassion on the crowd. As the day goes on, the disciples start to worry. “With all these poor hungry people here and very little food, this could turn ugly. We could lose our food and go hungry. What if the people start to riot? We’re getting uncomfortable here, Jesus; take us back to our comfort zone. Send the people away so they can buy food in the villages.”
But Jesus doesn’t anticipate a riot happening; he imagines having a kingdom of heaven moment. It requires, however that they take a risk, like going out in that boat at night. It requires they offer up the little bit of food they have brought. And lo and behold, everybody ends up sharing, and they’re given a taste of heaven on earth.
Now, it’s really a good thing that Peter sank. If he, and perhaps the other disciples had managed to walk on water till the cows come home, it would have been an interesting story, but it would have been a story about us. Because that’s how it is with us humans, we have faith and we doubt — we take risks that take us beyond our comfort zones, and we play it safe, clutching to the side of the boat. It’s a life-long process to learn to trust Jesus out on the dark waters.
The important thing is to try and identify those moments of stress that arise as we go through days, and to begin noticing how we respond to them.
To become aware of our tendency to judge the ways others prefer to stay in their comfort zone, and to overlook our own, unquestioned preferences for playing it safe.
To become aware of the ways in which we are prone to obsess about the “what ifs,” and in some sense create self-fulfilling prophecies.
And to remember that Jesus is there when we do sink, and he does not reject us.
Try again, he says.