Living Life Under Stress
Peter has many famous moments in the bible, none more so than his denial of Jesus after his arrest. In this week’s letter, Rev. Brian Wallace offers some thoughts on what Peter can teach us about living in stressful times. And spoiler alert – he thinks most of us would have denied Jesus, just like Peter did.
Peter is one of those figures in the bible that gets a lot of attention. He’s a prominent figure from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and has a central role in some memorable biblical stories. He holds the distinction of getting the answer right one moment and then getting called Satan – all in the space of a few verses (Matthew 16). He also holds the honor of being the only disciple to walk on water and then the dubious distinction of being the only one to sink in front of all his friends. Finally, he is the only disciple who’s three-fold denial is prominently foretold and reported in scripture. I must admit that I don’t feel much connection with Peter. I think he’s wildly impulsive and takes risks that often don’t work out well for him in the end (remember the time he cut off a guard’s ear?). But, I think we have a lot to learn from Peter about living during times full of unrest.
For that lesson, I want you to think about Peter’s infamous three-fold denial of even knowing Jesus. There is a part of this story that is inconceivable. After all – just hours earlier, Peter had professed to Jesus’ face that he would never deny him. But yet, it happens. Peter, following the arrest of Jesus, wholly and emphatically denies even knowing Jesus.
Here’s my unpopular opinion: You shouldn’t be judging Peter for denying Jesus. You probably would have done the same thing. I am almost sure I would have. Why am I so confident in this assessment? Because it’s been my observation that people don’t do their best decision-making while they’re under stress. Peter, in this situation, is unquestionably in a condition of extreme stress. This guy Jesus, who they’ve spent the last few years following, is suddenly under arrest, and barring an unforeseen miracle, will be crucified within a matter of hours. More than just a guy, Jesus had become a friend, teacher, and encourager. He had seen in the eyes of those who followed him potential that others never had. He took a rag-tag group of also-rans and turned them into agents of his Kingdom. In short, in Jesus they found hope – hope for their lives and hope for the world. And hope is a dangerous thing because you begin to believe that things can and will change when you start to hope. Now, in a matter of hours, Peter was watching that hope, a hope he had bet his life on, slip away. To say Peter was under stress is probably an understatement. Heart-broken, anger, sadness, betrayal, and hurt probably only scratch the surface of what Peter was experiencing at that moment. Amid this stress, no one should be surprised that Peter denied Jesus, let alone cast judgment in our minds for that decision.
We know from research and personality assessments that there are predictable patterns in how different types of people respond to stress. For example, people who would usually be described as “considerate helpers” can become resentful and controlling toward the people they most often want to help. Similarly, generally calm and easy-going people can become controlled by their anxiety and begin thinking in worst-case scenarios. While everyone reacts to stress differently, the effects on our instincts, thought processes, and emotions are similar. Stress tends to bring out the worst in us rather than the best. This phenomenon becomes all the more real in seasons of prolonged stress.
You can probably tell where I’m going with this. The combination of a global pandemic, the social unrest following the murder of George Floyd, and a hotly contested election has created a recipe for prolonged stress in all of our lives. At this point, few people – if any at all – are at their emotional and spiritual best. The really depressing part is that “normal” – whatever normal is to become – is a long way away. For me, this reality set in when the “second wave” hit during July. Early on, I realized that COVID wasn’t going to be a sprint; in July, I realized that we had all gotten signed up for a marathon. Since July, I’ve spent some time thinking about what opportunities this season might present for us as disciples of Jesus and for our communities. So far, I’ve come up with three insights and strategies that have helped me adapt to the ever-present season of stress we’re currently in, and I humbly share them with you.
Realizing that no one, including me, is at their best right now. I’ve had to remember in my interactions that no one – including myself – is at their best. The ever-present stress we’re facing is coloring all our interactions – be in family or professional. Conversations that before March would have been relatively routine and easy have become increasingly challenging. I find myself reacting to situations in uncharacteristic ways. I’ve had to work hard to remember that everyone I’m interacting with is probably responding in uncharacteristic ways as well.
This is an excellent season for self-care. This season has been a fantastic time for me to experiment with new self-care strategies. Over the last seven months, I’ve tried a couple of different things and been reminded that certain things are vital to my social, spiritual, and mental health. I’ve set my alarm a half-hour earlier, and that’s helped me get back to running on a more regular basis. I’ve rediscovered my love for legal thrillers. I’ve learned that Chipotle take out for lunch with a friend or colleague in a park is worth its weight in gold. Outdoor youth group, no matter how many sweatshirts it requires, is worth all the hassle.
I know this sounds strange, but there’s never been an opportunity to try out self-care strategies like the present. The “crisis” isn’t going away tomorrow, next week, or even next month. We’ll be living with the effects of COVID-19 for months to come. So ask yourself two questions: 1. What’s given you the most life over the last few months? 2. What’s a new strategy you could try in the months to come for self-care?
We must fully rely on grace – Last, but certainly not least, I have remembered repeatedly that the Christian life can only be lived when it is grounded in the grace of Jesus Christ. Extending grace to others in the difficult moments and reminding myself of it in my moments of failure and defeat has been nothing short of essential. Grace and forgiveness open up new possibilities that might not otherwise exist, and in a stressed-out world, we need as many new opportunities as we can get.
As you probably know, Peter’s story ends with Jesus forgiving and restoring Peter, in spite of his poor decision making under stress. Similarly, may we find patience with one another and ourselves, opportunities for growth, and sense God’s grace, even in the midst of these weird and challenging times.