Near Queenstown in the South island of New Zealand an old bridge spans a deep gorge through which a river rushes with prodigious force. It was on this bridge that Jill and I recently watched people engaging in a peculiar craze called “bungee jumping.” A “bungee” is a length of elasticized cord which is attached to the jumper’s ankles. The jumper then launches himself or herself off the bridge into the air trusting that the bungee will stretch but not snap. Tens of thousands of people have risked their necks in such an adventure and lived to tell the tale, but recently a nurse assaying to do the same escaped within an inch of her life when the bungee frayed and she hit the ground with a glancing blow. Bungees are supposed to stretch and not snap.
As I watched the bungee jumpers, I was reminded of something the Apostle Paul said, - I know, don’t say it - I’m a typical preacher who can’t see anything without thinking of an illustration! Describing the particularly difficult time he was having in his ministry he said, “We are hard pressed on every side but not crushed; perplexed but not in despair; persecuted but not abandoned; struck down but not destroyed” (2 Cor. 4:8). He was far from denying that life was stressful but he was adamant that he was not about to go under. “Hard pressed” certainly “but not crushed;” “perplexed” absolutely “but not in despair.” Actually what he said in Greek was something like “whelmed but not overwhelmed,” or if you prefer, “stretched but not snapped.” There was something of the bungee in the venerable apostle!
Now it’s no joke being “whelmed” or “stretched”, and life and ministry are the places it happens all too often. That’s the bad news, but the good news is, like Paul, we can be “stretched” without “snapping,” or be “whelmed” without being “overwhelmed.” But how? That’s a question I’m often asked.
Well how did Paul cope?
1. He came to the conclusion that stress is normative. Ministry involves engaging the “god of this age” in a mighty struggle for the hearts and minds of those whom he has blinded and blighted. It would be ludicrous to imagine that such a struggle could be won without spiritual capital being exhausted and physical resources being depleted. Stress comes with the territory; being stretched is part of the calling! To recognize this and to embrace it goes a long way in surviving it. The tension that comes from resenting or resisting the stretching only adds to strain and exacerbate the stress. To think that we should not be subject to such unpleasantness can engender feelings of frustration and self-pity, which do nothing to help and much to hinder. But to recognize that Paul was stretched, not to mention the Lord Jesus Himself, helps us recognize that our expectations of immunity from such things is naïve to say the least, and to embrace the experience as not out-of-the-ordinary for Christians can take away much of the sting.
2. Paul was convinced that stress could be positive. He told the Roman believers, “We know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character hope. And hope does not disappoint us” (Rom. 5:3-5). I am well aware that excessive stress can be totally debilitating, but there can be no doubt that in the divine way of doing things there is a place for the right amount of stress to help us grow and mature. In the same way that the athlete develops endurance from training and stamina from being stretched, so the believer develops spiritual qualities through divinely ordained stress, which serve to further the work of grace in our lives.
3. Paul regarded stress as productive. He was not being at all morbid when he exclaimed, “We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be revealed in our body” (2 Cor. 4:10), adding “So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you” (2 Cor. 4:12). He was rejoicing in the fact that when he bore up well under stress, this demonstrated that he was a man called of God and empowered by His Spirit in such an obvious way that people would be attracted to what he had to say and come to faith. Let’s face it, everybody experiences stress but not everybody handles it well, and when Christians do, as they should, they stand out as something special and stake a claim to authenticity. Death may be their portion - but life is what others are gaining through it.
4. Paul was quite certain that stress is creative. Granted our first inclination is to see stress as destructive, but listen to the apostle’s words, “Our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Cor. 4:17). The “light and momentary troubles” to which he refers are, of course, the stresses and strains of which he spoke earlier. But far from bemoaning them he sees them as the means of creating for him “eternal glory.” Without stating exactly what he means, he points away to the glory to which all believers aspire and to which all those who minister point men and women. Therefore, it is most appropriate to be reminded in the midst of stress that God uses it to store up for the stressed ones that which will abide forever.
So there are four ways in which the great Apostle responded to stress, which may prove helpful to us in our day, too. Of course, getting adequate rest, being sensible about saying “no”, taking time off and having fun occasionally all help, but underlying all our living must be the spiritual principles that have stood the test of time and will bear fruit in eternity. These are the things that will enable us like bungees - and the Apostle - to stretch and not snap.