Take one mother or father with four children, add a Relief Society or elders quorum calling, throw in music or gymnastics lessons for the children, yard and house work, daily exercise, regular scripture study, and perhaps extra deadlines on the job, and the total can add up to stress.
Stress is one of the hot topics in our modern society. As Latter-day Saints, perhaps we need to take a new look at stress as seen from the gospel perspective. Understanding stress is not a guaranteed way to free ourselves completely from it. But when we try to understand why there is stress in our lives, we can take steps to keep it from being a powerful negative influence.
By considering stress in three categories—the stress of sin, worldly stress, and the stress of refining ourselves—we can learn to understand the impact of stress on our lives. This understanding affords us choices; we can choose to stop being victims of our situations and to start acting according to eternal, spiritual values.
The Soap Opera Syndrome: The Stress of Sin
When my husband began his graduate studies in Oklahoma, I was four weeks away from the birth of our third child. A few weeks later, exhausted by the aftermath of pregnancy, our cross-country move, and several other burdens, I found it easy to sit on the couch in our little apartment watching television, holding our new baby while our other two children played nearby. The television became a convenient companion. First I watched one soap opera, then three, around which I started scheduling my day.
About four months into my addiction, three-year-old Adam, our eldest child, looked at the screen and asked, “Mommy, why is that man yelling at that lady?”
Early in my career as a mother, I had made a personal vow to answer my children’s questions accurately and completely. So I paused to consider how I could answer truthfully without going into all the sordid details. Finally, I said, “Those people are making bad choices. They are not doing what’s right, and it makes them miserable!” Adam asked, “Then why are we watching it?” We turned off the soaps for good.
These many years later, my answer to Adam’s question comes to mind as my definition for the stress of sin. The stress of sin is the consequence of our own bad choices.
The scriptures teach clearly that God’s commandments are not simply arbitrary standards by which we are judged, nor a series of hoops through which we must jump to qualify for the celestial kingdom. It is true that they teach us our Father’s will, they point the way to salvation and exaltation, they mark the path to a better life for mankind. But stories about people in the scriptures show plainly that commandments also offer us as individuals advance information about which behaviors will bring joy and which will bring sorrow.
While we may not face all the consequences of sin during the probationary period of this life, it is not difficult to see that breaking the laws of God does, sooner or later, bring numerous negative results—the stresses of sin. Breaking the Word of Wisdom, for example, brings physical stress, illness, even premature death. Breaking the laws of morality causes injured hearts, damaged relationships, broken families, and sometimes the physical consequences of disease.
The solution to this stress is one of the most repeated admonitions of all the scriptures: Repent! (See, for example, Alma 39:8–9, Acts 3:19.) When we abandon physical addictions, health improves and emotional freedom increases. Living virtuously frees us from many kinds of suffering. When we change a sinful behavior to a righteous behavior, we eliminate the stresses—the negative consequences—that are attached to the sin.
The “Cumbered About” Syndrome: Worldly Stress
In the tenth chapter of Luke, we read of the Savior’s visit to the home of Martha and Mary. While Martha worked in the kitchen, Mary sat at the Savior’s feet, feasting spiritually. Martha, “cumbered about” serving her guests and feeling that she had been left unfairly to do all the work, asked the Master to send Mary to help. Jesus responded: “Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things,” and gently taught her that it was more important to concern herself with that “which shall not be taken away.” (Luke 10:40–42.) For us, worldly stress is feeling troubled over temporal concerns.
Mortgages, bills, home and car repairs, taxes, jobs, and other necessary concerns are just the tip of the iceberg for most of us. To those, we add optional involvements—music lessons or sports for the children, community service. Baby books and family histories must be assembled and kept current. We feel an obligation to become active in our political party. We volunteer to organize the family reunion. And in our efforts to meet the standard of some ideal Latter-day Saint, we must make bread, sew clothing, and preserve the harvest of our orchard or garden. And in addition, we need to be physically fit!
None of these activities or ambitions is unworthy. On the contrary, much of our problem stems from the fact that these goals are all worthwhile. So we may juggle time and resources frantically, and then, because no one—no one—can do it all, we end up feeling guilty. We think painful thoughts that begin with phrases like “If I get up a little earlier” or “If I try a little harder.”
Let’s consider an attractive, but false, remedy—money, or, to be precise, more money. It would be easy to maintain beautiful homes and yards if we could afford to hire someone else to do it. We could pay someone to fix the plumbing or install the sprinklers, to cook, clean, garden, or sew for us. We would have all kinds of time for family history, journals, developing our talents—and even exercise!
What’s the problem? Well, most of us will never have the funds to greatly reduce our worldly stress. This is partly because of the economic facts of life and partly because of human nature. I once saw this motto written somewhere: “All I want is a little more than I’ll ever get!” It seems that the amount of money people “need” to achieve financial security increases along with their income.
Another problem with seeing money as a true answer to worldly stress is that money cannot buy happiness. None of us has to look very hard to find a wealthy person whose life demonstrates this truth.
We are really much better off putting our trust in a scriptural solution to worldly stress. Mosiah 4:27 tells us: “See that all these things are done in wisdom and order; for it is not requisite that a man should run faster than he has strength.” With regard to worldly stress, this means: Simplify!
My mother-in-law once told me that when she feels overwhelmed, she gauges the things that are stressing her by the statement: “A man running for his life would never notice something like this.”
At times we may all need to apply this kind of philosophy liberally to our own temporal concerns. No one knows better than you the things that cause you worldly stress. Make a list. Then get out the red pencil and (this is the tricky part) be ruthless! Cross out the items that don’t pass the running-for-your-life test.
Of course, most of those items are on your list in the first place because you, or someone important to you, cares about them. But if we cannot learn to let go of worldly things, the eternal results may be disastrous. When we moved to Las Vegas, I hoped to enroll my children in a community gymnastics class similar to the one they had enjoyed in Chicago. But we were short on money and time. I felt guilty about not working out some way for them to participate, until I took a realistic look at the stage of life I was in. (My red pencil did its job.) I realized that many children have survived to adulthood without gymnastics lessons, and that if any of my children had Olympic-level ability, one of their gym teachers would spot it, and then would be the time to decide if gymnastics deserved a higher priority! In this instance, letting go gave me significant relief from worldly stress.
There are many worthy but nonessential temporal goals that we may have, without having the time or means right now to accomplish them. We may need to let them go. Perhaps as we move into different stages of life, we will be able to dust off some of those goals and interests and put them back on the list. If not … well, eternity will be time enough.
A cautionary note: As we simplify, we must consult those whom our plans will affect. Certainly in a marriage, some adjustments require the agreement of both husband and wife. I might decide, for example, that cooking is too big a hassle, but crossing it off my list would not really be fair to the rest of the family unless they were willing and able to take my place in the kitchen.
The Wilderness Syndrome: The Stress of Refining Ourselves
It may seem strange to associate stress with righteousness. But consider the idea of a wilderness experience. In the scriptures there are several examples of individuals or groups that had to go through a wilderness in order to reach a promised land of temporal and spiritual security. Moses and the children of Israel, Lehi and his family, Alma the Elder and his people, and the latter-day pioneers are familiar examples. Even the Savior spent vital preparation time in the wilderness before beginning his ministry.
Certainly, crossing a literal wilderness is not a requirement for achieving salvation in the kingdom of God. But all who desire to reach the promised haven must pass through what pleasure-seekers will see as a wilderness, for the salvation-seeker will voluntarily forsake the world’s egocentric activities and rewards, rejecting its standards.
Many scriptures extend a call to leave the world behind spiritually and enter a figurative wilderness: “Come out from among them, and be ye separate.” (2 Cor. 6:17.) “Whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God.” (James 4:4.) “Forsake the world.” (D&C 53:2.) The people of Zion—the Lord’s people—will live a higher standard, a more fulfilling life. But as we look to that goal, we will inevitably see in ourselves the need to improve.
Striving to improve brings a certain kind of stress. Consider Nephi’s lament: “O wretched man that I am! … My soul grieveth because of mine iniquities.
“I am encompassed about, because of the temptations and the sins which do so easily beset me.
“And when I desire to rejoice, my heart groaneth because of my sins.” (2 Ne. 4:17–19.)
Why does Nephi, a prophet, feel this kind of stress? This stress of refining comes as he rejects the yardsticks of the world and measures himself by a new standard, his Savior and Exemplar. In comparison with his brothers or other people in his world, Nephi is undoubtedly a front-runner. But as he journeys through his wilderness, the standard of the world is not enough. He wants to be like Christ. Thus, Nephi’s anguished question: “Why am I angry because of mine enemy?” (2 Ne. 4:27.) Certainly his enemies had given him ample reasons for anger, based on the standards of the world. But Christ would not react on that basis. (See D&C 121:43.) Nephi, reaching for the Savior’s standard, felt a kind of stress when he fell short.
Another aspect of the stress of refining ourselves is illustrated by the prophet Joseph’s experience in Liberty Jail. He prayed: “O God, where art thou? …
“How long shall thy hand be stayed, and thine eye … behold from the eternal heavens the wrongs of thy people and of thy servants, and thine ear be penetrated with their cries?” (D&C 121:1–2.) Like Nephi and other prophets before him, Joseph Smith was traveling through a wilderness. He had forsaken the world’s standards, and the rejected world took revenge. As persecution was heaped upon the Saints, he struggled with the stress of refining.
We can also experience this kind of stress in our lives. We may get discouraged, as did Nephi, when we struggle to break bad habits, to stop yelling at our children, or to love our enemies. When experiencing significant trials such as serious illness, the loss of a loved one, or dealing with a rebellious child, we may echo the Prophet’s anguished cry: “O God, where art thou?”
What is the solution for the stress of refining ourselves? The scriptures speak clearly. What they say, however, may not be our favorite scriptural message: Endure to the end.
This counsel, taken alone, suggests a “grit your teeth” approach that seems inconsistent with a loving Heavenly Father. Much more understandable is the context in which the “endure to the end” counsel is found. “He that endureth to the end shall be saved.” (Matt. 10:22; emphasis added.) “If ye shall … endure to the end, … Ye shall have eternal life.” (2 Ne. 31:20.) The counsel to endure to the end is given in the context of hope.
Gospel hope is not a vague, wishful desire, but a powerful expectation, a conviction, that Jesus Christ will save us. This hope in the Lord Jesus Christ includes the expectation of a glorious resurrection, indeed, hope that all of God’s promises will be fulfilled in our behalf. Paul wrote: “Hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and stedfast.” (Heb. 6:19.) Despite tremendous stress, Job testified with power and conviction: “For I know that my Redeemer liveth. …
“And though … worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God.” (Job 19:25–26.)
In Liberty Jail, Joseph Smith, feeling the stress of refining, could receive comfort and hope in these words: “My son, peace be unto thy soul; thine adversity and thine afflictions shall be but a small moment;
“And then, if thou endure it well, God shall exalt thee on high.” (D&C 121:7–8.)
And Nephi, after anguished concern that he might fall short of the standard of Christ, expressed hope in these words: “Yea, I know that God will give liberally to him that asketh. … therefore, … my voice shall forever ascend up unto thee, my rock and mine everlasting God.” (2 Ne. 4:35.)
With this tremendous gift of hope, yet another wonderful gift is offered to those suffering the stress of refining. Christ told his faithful disciples: “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” (John 14:27.)
As we suffer the stress of refining ourselves, we may wonder what we are doing wrong. Like Joseph Smith, like Nephi, we may be living lives of obedience and service and yet still need to endure. Enduring is a refining process, teaching patience, increasing our eternal perspective, softening our hearts, strengthening our conviction, molding our will to the Father’s.
Although the Lord does not remove this kind of stress—indeed, for our sakes, cannot remove this stress of refining ourselves—the faithful receive this beautiful promise: “But learn that he who doeth the works of righteousness shall receive his reward, even peace in this world, and eternal life in the world to come.” (D&C 59:23.)