Stress and Conversion

My brother has been blogging about conversion lately. Today he posted on conversion and stress. Here are my initial thoughts:

Part of the difficulty is assuming we know what we’re talking about, when what we have are, in fact, abstractions. “Stress,” “Hitting bottom,” “conversions,” need more specificity. If my car is hurtling toward a traffic blockage, the thought of having a wreck might produce some stress. It would be highly irrational in that case to reason, “Oh, this situation is stressing me out. I’m going to wait until I feel less stress to convert from pushing the accelerator to pushing the brake.” I suppose the time of less stress might come sometime between coming out of your drugged stupor in your hospital bed and being presented your hospital bill (or being taken to court for reckless driving).

Or hitting bottom. Which bottom? Relative to what? If you’re eating some of that yogurt that has the fruit at the bottom, it would be a good thing to hit bottom as you get yourself a bite.

If we want to keep the abstractions, let’s try looking at it this way. Perhaps when we experience stress (whatever that might be) we find that our analytical faculties tend to weaken. Our minds are focused on other things. In that kind of situation, whether we judge a conversion or change to be good depends on the context of the stress. If we are stressed over the death of a loved one and find ourselves exposed to the marketing message of a car salesman, we might not have as much resistance. Of course it might be that we’ve needed a new car for some time (since our current car is a gas guzzling death trap), but have been unable to do anything about it because of the busyness of life – or the sickness of the loved one.

Or perhaps we’re in the driving too fast behind unmoving traffic. We become stressed over a potential wreck. A passenger in our car cries out, “Hit the brake!” Our foot makes a conversion. Our analytical faculties may not take much time to analyze the options, but it seems like an ok outcome if a wreck is averted.

Can we say that stress is some sort of discomfort manifested in the emotions? If so, can we say that our desire is to alleviate the stress – the discomfort? When Saul of Tarsus was stressed (“kicking against the goads” sounds stressful and uncomfortable), the stress seems to have been a useful instrument of God in his life.

Will the conversion stick? If the problem (stress inducer) is something like a traffic blockage, the conversion from accelerator to brake should be temporary. It’d be pretty silly to say, “I’m keeping my foot on the brae because there were cars stopped in front of me yesterday.

What we’re looking at then, is the nature of the Gospel. While it seems that the Gospel will address some of the discomforts of ordinary life, there are several discomforts it leaves unaddressed AND several stresses it seeks to open our eyes to. “My shoes don’t fit, so my foot hurts.” I don’t think the Gospel says anything about that. But the discomfort of being a sinner in the eyes of a holy God? Ordinary life seems to know little of that stress.

It is in this last area that the current American church has been very weak. Thinking that stress (discomfort) is only bad (like we think pain is only bad), we do everything we can to keep people from feeling it. “God loves you. God is nice. Feel good about yourself. Everything will be ok.” Most of those things can be abstracted from scripture. But if that’s what we preach we’re committing Gospel malpractice, much the way a doctor who suppressed test results (showing cancer) would be.

We have also worked to make sure we don’t challenge people’s analytical faculties. The gospel is purely and simply therapeutic (in this case meaning only “it makes us feel better”), so we don’t need to make people think. All we have to address is the immediate feelings of stress so they can feel better. Don’t think too deeply when you can feel better today. Unfortunately, sometimes feeling better today means you die tomorrow, while not feeling better today may be just what you need to get by.

Finally, if we imagine that the only stress produced by the Gospel is the fear of hell, then we incline people to want to take care of that stress – via a ticket to heaven. But once you have your ticket, why worry about anything else? We who lead Christians need to find ways to identify relevant biblical discomforts and allow them free reign in our lives, so we can then exemplify those discomforts to the people around us. Healthy stress leads to healthy action. It’s only when stress gets burdensome that we find ourselves paralyzed, unable to act.

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