Stress in the 21st century
The recent YouGov poll from the Mental Health Foundation, with a sample size of 4,619 (the largest known study of stress levels in the UK), found the following:
1) in the past year, 74% of people have felt so stressed they have been overwhelmed or unable to cope. 30% of older people reported never feeling overwhelmed or unable to cope in the past year, compared to 7% of young adults. 2) 46% reported that they ate too much or ate unhealthily due to stress. 29% reported that they started drinking or increased their drinking, and 16% reported that they started smoking or increased their smoking. 3) 51% of adults who felt stressed reported feeling depressed and 61% reported feeling anxious. 4) Of the people who said they had felt stress at some point in their lives, 16% had self-harmed and 32% said they had had suicidal thoughts and feelings. 5) 37% of adults who reported feeling stressed reported feeling lonely as a result.
So what are some causes of this stress? Well, according to the poll they were varied. A friend/relative's long-term health condition, debt, needing to respond to messages instantly, comparing themselves to others, comfort with their appearance and body image, housing worries, and pressure to succeed were all cited.
The Parable of the Sower
But what did (and does) Jesus say about stress? Was he concerned for people with stress, and, then, its cause and consequence? Certainly! For example, on one occasion he highlighted a certain form of stress as a factor as to why sometimes his message did not have a positive effect in people's lives and through them other people's lives. There was no "fruit", as he put it, from his teaching. This was, as many know, in his Parable of the Sower (and the seeds and the soils).
In that parable he addresses a stress that can easily paralyse us spiritually unless we are very careful. This stress, he says, means that people are not like those people for whom his message has no effect at all. Nor are they like those for whom the effect is short lived. No! Rather they are like "seeds" that had fallen "among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them [i.e. the seeds when they had taken root]" (Matthew 13.3). Let me quote Jesus' precise application of the seeds and their four different types of soil (or lack of it) referred to in his parable:
"Hear then the parable of the sower: When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty" (Matthew 13.18-23).
And in the original the word translated "cares" is the word used for "anxious thought" – so implying anxiety or worry.
Secularization and "the cares of the world"
If we are honest, most of us are subject to some of those stresses and causes outlined by the Mental Health Foundation to a greater or lesser degree. But we need to understand what is going on. We need to consider what is a fundamental background cause for modern stress. For in part, some (if not most) stress in the 21st century in modern Western societies is due or related to the process of secularization. But what is "secularization"? Os Guiness defines it as:
"a process through which, starting from the centre and moving outward, successive sectors of society and culture have been freed from the decisive influence of religious ideas and institutions."
Secularization means that references to God and his kingdom have less and less of a place in public life. So secularization forces us to spend too much time and energy on "the cares of the world". But, of course, many of the things we have to worry about are not inherently bad. It is just that there are more and more of them! Therefore, we have less discretionary time for the things of God and his kingdom. Then little by little we can easily change our focus from God to the world and allow our "cares" to take over our lives and they "choke the word, and it proves unfruitful". That then subtly increases this insidious process of secularization. Craig Gay (of Regent College, Vancouver) in his article The Worries of this life, the Deceitfulness of Wealth and Secularization in Modern Society argues (in summary) that this process renders us more …
"… uniquely susceptible to being deceived in the manner that Jesus suggests … The challenge of secularization in contemporary society may not lie so much in the direct threat secularity poses to religious faith as in the subtle and indirect distraction and diversion of religious faith toward things that ultimately do not matter very much. Thus while the temptation to locate our hopes and aspirations in the wrong places is not new, the process of secularization provides exceptionally strong socio-structural support for focusing our spiritual energies on temporal rather than eternal matters."
So our priorities, energy and devotion regarding temporal things becomes like a religion. For some it is their "religion". But as secularization forces us to have a greater focus on "the cares of the world", the secular environment encourages us to think that more money will solve our worldly problems when only sometimes does it do so. So we steward badly such riches as we have. Such is "the deceitfulness of riches" that Jesus especially links with "the cares of the world."
"The deceitfulness of riches"
Gay also makes the point that when the worries of this life are "pursued with something approaching religious intensity … we hardly even realise how thoroughly our spiritual energies have at first been distracted and then finally co-opted by 'this world'." The problem then is "technological affluence". Such "affluence" affects nearly all of us in the West. For most of us do not consider ourselves "wealthy". So we "make the tacit assumption we must be immune to the kind of deceit mentioned in Jesus' parable." But what is affluence?
"the ability to control the environment and to realise our projects and aspirations in the face of various kinds of impediments to them? Along this line, we would do well to recall that even the lowliest member of the middle class today possesses a greater ability to control critical elements of his or her own environment than the wealthiest of citizens in Jesus' day."
The wonders of technology provide us with modern medicine, fast air, rail and road transport and (in the West) amazing food supplies. But then technological affluence leads to all human problems being treated as lending themselves "at least in principle, to humanly calculated solutions." As Peter Berger comments:
"there is the assumption that all human problems can be converted into technical problems, and if the techniques to solve certain problems do not as yet exist, then they will have to be invented. The world becomes ever more 'makeable'. This view of the world is essentially that of the engineer. First expressed in engineering proper, in the systematic manipulation of nature and of machines, it is carried over into multiple forms of social engineering (including politics), and finally into engineering approaches to the most intimate areas of interpersonal experience (including psychology, qua the engineering of the self).
The human condition is seen as a problem that is up to human beings to solve. So in all sorts of ways, modern technology makes it increasingly plausible for us to locate all of our hopes and aspirations in "this world" as opposed to "the world to come". But as many of our problems are moral and spiritual, how foolish that is!
The Sabbath Principle
Craig Gay believes a recovery of the Sabbath Principle is essential for dealing with stress. So one day per week, as much as possible, is to be enjoyably celebrated society wide, for the Lord for rest, worship, godly learning, godly reflection and a godly response to "the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches". But Europe for a long time, and Britain more recently, has lost this provision. That, however, needs another Coloured Supplement.