I was a jerk the other day. I sinned against God and my neighbor. And I am under a lot of stress with ministry, seminary, family, lack of sleep, and a half dozen other things. So, when I was talking to a friend today, he said it sounded like I was not taking responsibility for what I did. Instead, I was blaming what I did on the stuff going on around me. And he was right. I was focusing way too much on what was going on around me, and not what was going on in me.
We all do stupid things when we get stressed to medicate ourselves so we don't have to think about the things that worry us. The Bible calls these stupid things sin. Recovery groups call it addiction. Family therapists call it dysfunction. And the doctor calls it sickness. I am not sure that any of these terms fully capture the reality of what is wrong with us, deep down inside, that causes us to make dumb decisions that hurt others and ourselves and our God.
Perhaps sin is the best word. In Greek it literally means "missing the mark". Whatever it is that is inside of us that we freely choose, that destroys us even as it "medicates" our pain, deeply misses the mark of what God made us for. We are made to love God above all and love our neighbors as ourselves as completely whole, healthy, peaceful, harmonious people. Sin screws all of that up. And it seems like the more we get stressed by the world around us, the more we sin.
We get stressed by family, friends, enemies, responsibilities, deadlines, work, school, church, mishaps, good fortune, money, bills, taxes, sickness, health, breakdowns, breakups, and a million other things. I know some people that medicate stress by eating comfort food and porking up. Others medicate through drugs and alcohol that gives them a vacation from themselves. Others medicate by sex, and adult activities displayed on small computer screens and darkened theaters. Still others medicate by gambling and adventure and anything to get an adrenaline rush. And then there are those that medicate by argument and anger and making life hell for everyone around them. We all know people who medicate themselves in these ways and a million others. We may even be these folks.
And all of this stuff is sin. It ALL misses the mark. It all takes a blessing God has given us and perverts it and uses it for selfish gratification.
So, does the stress cause the sin? Can we just blame our actions on the stressors in our lives, and be done with personal responsibility and guilt? Hell: No! I say it that way because this is precisely the philosophy of hell. We can NEVER be healed of our sickness if we take that route. The first step to being healed is admitting you are sick and taking responsibility for the things you do to keep yourself sick. You can't be healed of cancer if you deny you have a problem. The Great Physician cannot heal our sickness so long as we say "It's not my fault. It's my environment. I don't have a problem, Jesus. But, if you fix THEM everything will be OK". That is one of the reasons why Jesus said:
"Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners." (Mark 2:17). Let me elaborate here. Those who think they are well and are living in denial can never be cured so long as they will not admit that the central problem in their lives comes not from what is around them, but what is IN them. Only the people who first and foremost admit this can be healed.
So, what is the relationship between stress and sin?
Here's what I really believe about stress and sin: Stress does not CAUSE sin, stress REVEALS sin. It's like when we are stressed, and we become complete jerks to other people and rip their heads off, and then the next day we say things like "I am sorry. That wasn't me talking. I don't really feel that way, it's just that you don't understand everything I am going through… blah… blah…"
Well, that is just not true. It IS you who did it. The "inner jerk" has been there all along, it just took a "stress test" to find out where he was hiding. For instance, I know that if I was completely whole and healthy inside, I wouldn't sin to "medicate" my feelings. I would instead, be like Jesus, who went deep into prayer when he was stressed, worried, and afraid.
It's just like going to the doctor, or taking your car to the mechanic. The doctor makes you describe your symptoms, and sometimes even puts your through a "stress test" to reveal what is going wrong in your body. The stress test reveals what was already wrong with you, but was hiding in the absence of stress. Likewise, a good mechanic often has to rev the engine and put the car under stress to find out where the grinding and clanking is coming from.
My stress tests show where I am sick, where I am grinding, where I am broken inside- where I need to be fixed. And here is the troubling thing: 19 out of 20 times, I DO handle stress the way I should. I do pray. I find something constructive to do. I do get out of the path of temptation. I mean, for instance: in the last 3 weeks, probably 2 weeks if it has been days where I have worked 12-18 hours, stayed up 'till 2-3am, and gotten 3-5 hours of sleep per night. So, why do I sin on one stressful night and not the other nights?
It's that 20th time that reveals that something is wrong on a deeper level.
I am not really trying to excuse myself by describing my stressors (but I can see how it looks that way). I am trying to figure out what is broken. I take full responsibility for what I have broken, but I can't fix it on my own. I need Christ to heal me. And after he heals me, I need to follow "doctor's orders" and stay away from stuff that will get me sick again, and do exercises that will make me healthier.
I KNOW that… I just don't know why I don't DO it consistently. I feel like I am constantly living in Romans 7 where Saint Paul says "I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me… For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing… For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?"
But I don’t want to live in Romans 7. I long for Romans 8. I long to say that "In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord!"
To all of us who are living in Romans 7 but long for Romans 8, may we have the courage to admit that we are sick inside, and that Christ is the only one who can save us. May we have the patience to be his patient. May we surrender ourselves to his cure, rely on his strength, exercise our spiritual muscles, live in his family, listen to doctor's orders, and learn to steer clear of those things that make us sick. Amen+