If God is real, and if the scriptures are truly the word of God, shouldn’t the scriptures be filled with tips to help us navigate our sometimes stressful and challenging lives? If such tips are provided, would it be reasonable to believe that such tips would hold up under scientific scrutiny? This post explores the concept of stress, the science of building resilience against stress, and related scripture teachings. For a more thorough discussion of the science of resilience, I examine current research in my post “Resilience Against Stress: Genetics or Lifestyle?”
Stress in our modern era
Our ancestors crossed oceans in wooden vessels, fought in trenches, forests and fields, suffered persecution, famine, plagues, and natural and man made disasters throughout history. Obviously, stress is nothing new. In our modern era, the American Psychological Association (APA, 2019) notes reported stress sources among Americans to be related to health care and costs, fears of mass shootings, concerns about the climate, political future uncertainties, and economic future uncertainties.
In the workplace, personality, personal resources and job characteristics interact to determine the level of emotional exhaustion experienced by workers (Parent-Lamarche, & Marchand, 2018). Long hours, low levels of control over one’s work environment, lack of supervisor support, having neurotic personality traits (characterized by fear, anxiety, irritability, insecurity, impulsivity), introversion and lack of social connections are associated with increased emotional exhaustion (Parent-Lamarche, & Marchand, 2018). According to a Gallup study published in 2018, more than 1 in 5 workers report feeling burned out “very often” or “always” at work (Wigert, & Agrawal, 2018). Nearly half of the 7,500 full time employees surveyed reported feeling burnt out “sometimes” at work.
So stress and a sense of burnout are highly prevalent in our modern era. Many of our stressors are beyond our control. How many of us can control the economic and political future of our nation? A sense of job burnout is common among many workers. If we can’t escape the stresses of life, how can we build resilience against these stressors?
Resilience: What is it?
Resilience is described by researchers as the ability to experience significant negative, stressful circumstances, yet maintaining a sense of well being, and preserving health and successful functioning in spite of these circumstances (Goodman, Disabato, Kashdan, & Machell, 2017). Early on, researchers believed resilience to be an inherited personality trait. These perspectives have shifted now as further studies have demonstrated individuals may demonstrate resilience at one time or circumstance, yet lack resilience at a different time or in different circumstances (Goodman et al., 2017).
Rather than an inheritable personality trait beyond our control, resilience is now viewed as the overcoming of a particular stress through a combination of personality traits, resources available to the person under stress, and the nature of the stress (Goodman et al., 2017). In other words, if a person reinforces various personality strengths and enhances their available resources, these in turn can help them overcome greater amounts of stress with less negative impact to their health and sense of well being.
Can we all become Navy Seals? Obviously not. Some aspects of resilience and mental “toughness” are attributable to inherited traits (Goodman et al., 2017). However, many aspects of resilience ARE within our control, allowing each of us the opportunity to foster greater resilience against stress in our lives.
A great book on the science of resilience can be purchased here.
Keys to resilience are found in the scriptures
Scientists are beginning to unlock the keys to human resilience. We can’t control our genetics (though research is indicating we can influence how our genes are activated, inactivated and expressed) (Alegría-Torres, Baccarelli, & Bollati, 2011). As adults, our formative childhood years are behind us. Depending on our career choice, exposure to high stress in the workplace may be unavoidable. Finally, life itself is filled with uncertainty. We are all bound to experience loss and health challenges with ourselves and loved ones at some point. We can’t change these realities. We can however use scriptural principles, backed by science, to build our resilience to stress.
NOTE: the following segment describe scriptures that provide tools for resilience, NOT immunity against mental illness. While many church groups readily embrace the reality of genetic illnesses, heart disease, cancer and other illnesses, they fail to recognize in practice that our brains and thoughts are also influenced by organic, genetic, biological and chemical processes. A great article on the need for church members and leaders to embrace concepts around mental health treatment and support can be found in the article “The church is uninformed when it comes to mental illness and why that’s insane” (Carter, 2020).
Resilience builder: Hope and optimism
Optimism is characterized by a belief that good things will occur in the future, a true hope for better things, with a belief that such is possible (Terte, Stephens, & Huddleston, 2014). Optimism is a trait that can be practiced, learned and is associated with resilience against stress as well as improved overall mental and physical health (Terte et al., 2014). In fact, a sense of hope was found to be the largest factor predicting resilience in an international study of nearly 800 adults analyzing factors of resilience and reactions to adverse life events (Goodman et al., 2017). For me, scriptures offer the best source of optimism.
All of us age (if we are fortunate enough to escape a premature death), all of us will encounter changes in our health and wellness. Wealth and success can’t change these unavoidable truths. Scriptures offer us a hope in this life and after death.
Scriptures that foster optimism and hope
Anyone familiar with the scriptures knows they do not promise us a life of ease and comfort. Instead, we are instructed that suffering is an expected part of life. However, the scriptures abound with hope and, ultimately, deliverance from sorrows.
“But the God of all grace, who hath called us unto his eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after that ye have suffered a while, make you perfect, stablish, strengthen, settle you.” (1 Peter 5:10, KJV).
“But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.” (Isaiah 40:31, KJV).
“The righteous cry out, and the Lord hears, and delivers them out of all their troubles. The Lord is near to those who have a broken heart,and saves such as have a contrite spirit. Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord delivers him out of them all. He guards all his bones; not one of them is broken. Evil shall slay the wicked, and those who hate the righteous shall be condemned. The Lord redeems the soul of his servants, and none of those who trust in Him shall be condemned.” (Psalms 34: 17-22, NKJV).
“For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind. Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord, nor of me His prisoner, but share with me in the sufferings for the gospel according to the power of God, who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began, but has now been revealed by the appearing of our Savior Jesus Christ, who has abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel,” (1 Tim 1: 7-10, NKJV)
“Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippeans 3: 13-14)
The above are just a small sampling of a tremendous number of scriptures that offer hope and deliverance in the face of sorrow, and ultimately, in the face of death. True optimism does not deny the existence of sorrow, rather, it looks for a path through the sorrow and towards a future, better state here and beyond. Routine readings and meditation on such scriptures can embed them in our conscious and impact our thinking during difficult times. As Proverbs 23:7 (NKJV) states: “For as he thinks in his heart, so is he…” For more scriptures on hope, click here.
Resilience builder: A bias towards positivity
Researchers have noted people who demonstrate resilience are more likely to have a disposition for viewing life with a positive perspective (Li, Eschenauer, & Persaud, 2018). Similar to optimism, a bias or inclination towards positive perspectives can be fostered through intentional practice (Southwick & Charney, 2012). By CONSCIOUSLY choosing to focus on positive occurrences, even if small, as opposed to ruminating continually on negative thoughts, research shows a person can actually change a pessimistic bias to one of positivity (Southwick & Charney, 2012).
Scriptures that encourage a positive bias
“Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things. The things which you learned and received and heard and saw in me, these do, and the God of peace will be with you.” (Philippeans 4: 6-8, NKJV)
“My son, do not forget my law, but let your heart keep my commands; For length of days and long life and peace they will add to you. Let not mercy and truth forsake you; Bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart, and so find favor and high esteem in the sight of God and man.” (Proverbs 3: 1-4, NKJV)
“And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God” (Romans 12: 2, NKJV)
“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies. Test all things; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thess 5: 16-22, NKJV)
Mercy, truth, dwelling on things that are pure, lovely, of good report, virtuous and praiseworthy, transforming and renewing your mind…this advice was provided by Paul and other authors in the scriptures. Paul was no stranger to hardship–facing beatings, attempts on his life, imprisonment, defamation and ultimately, martyrdom. However, Paul provides tips on resilience that sustained him and as we now know, are supported by science conducted on resilience.
“Not that I speak in regard to need, for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4: 11-13, NKJV)
The above passage is essentially the very definition of resilience!!! For more verses on harnessing a positive mind frame, click here.
Resilience builder: Helping others, purpose and social support
Research has demonstrated that when people feel like they are making a contribution to society, they experience lower amounts of psychological distress (Ozaki, Motohashi, Kaneko, & Fujita, 2012). Warm, mutually supportive social relationships have repeatedly been linked to better function of the immune system, cardiac function, and reductions in various chronic or stress related illnesses (Lee & Dik, 2017; Post, 2005; Southwick& Charney, 2012). Research of similar groups of people matched for various demographic factors noted that those who volunteered spent less days in the hospital, experienced less physical symptoms of illness and had lower reports of depression and anxiety (Post, 2005). Biologic mechanisms that may explain the apparent improved health status for those cultivating supportive and positive relationships involve reductions in stress hormones and byproducts that otherwise increase the rate of biologic aging (Post, 2005).
Scriptures that encourage altruism, provide purpose and encourage social support
“So let each one give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity; for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound toward you, that you, always having all sufficiency in all things, may have an abundance for every good work” (2 Cor 9: 7-9, NKJV).
Note: the scriptures here do not advocate forced giving, but giving according to as each person chooses and feels led to in their heart. Further, the scriptures instruct followers to give to those who truly need it. This is something many Christians seem to forget in my view–donating to wealthy mega-pastors and palace-like buildings as opposed to the poor.
“For the poor will never cease from the land; therefore I command you, saying, ‘You shall open your hand wide to your brother, to your poor and your needy, in your land” (Deut 15: 11, NKJV)
“Let him who stole steal no longer, but rather let him labor, working with his hands what is good, that he may have something to give him who has need.” (Eph 4:28, NKJV)
The above passage is really interesting. Criminal behavior is to be replaced with purpose driven honest labor and effort…with the intent of producing so as to be able to then help others. Purposeguides.org (n.d.) explores this very concept, citing research finding that providing job skills to prisoners results in lower re-incarceration rates. Along with job skills, former prisoners cite a newfound sense of purpose as being major driver for them in achieving a new successful life after prison.
“Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal 6: 2, NKJV)
“Therefore if there is any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and mercy, fulfill my joy by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.” (Phil 2: 1-4, NKJV)
Living for short term fixes and selfish gains leaves behind a trail of emptiness, sorrow and brokenness. Working, producing, and providing for others in need on the other hand contributes to a sense of purpose. Here again, principles taught in the scriptures play out in science and life to the benefit of adherents to these principles. For more scriptures on helping others, click here.
Resilience builder: Quietness, contemplation, meditation
Mindfulness meditation, yogic meditation, relaxation exercises and other forms of quiet contemplation have been shown to produce changes in brain structures correlating to reductions in feelings of anxiety and psychological distress (Singleton, Hölzel, Vangel, Brach, Carmody, & Lazar, 2014; Snijders et al., 2018). Research showing positive impacts of meditation on mental and physical health is noted to lack consistency in terms of what method is used, but the results on mental and physical well being tend to be consistently promising (Snijders et al., 2018). In other words, it appears various forms of meditation produce mental and physical health benefits. Christians are often suspicious of meditation, concerned that such practices demonstrate embracing of non-Christian religions or philosophies.
Having practiced mindfulness meditation, in my view the practice is helpful in producing a state of relaxation and slowing down racing thoughts. As a philosophy, however, in my opinion it comes up empty in that it offers no real hope for the future. “Focus on the breath, return to the breath, you always have the breath…” This is true, until you don’t.
We all face our mortality at one point or another. Mindfulness offers little promise for when we face the other side of this life. Mindfulness proponents and practitioners frequently advocate for a spirit of loving kindness and compassion, but fall short on the “why” behind why we should do such. Further, with such a focus on strictly the present, a sense of purpose, a desire to make a difference, to look for a better, brighter future in this life or the next (optimism)–these aspects of resilience in my view are undermined.
As noted, I do find mindfulness meditation relaxing, just inadequate on its own. Christians, fortunately, do not have to ignore the benefits of quiet reflection, prayerful meditation, and appreciation of God’s creation and its beauty. In fact, meditation and reflection–when layered onto the belief of an accessible Creator, with the presence of hope, purposeful labor, and a belief in the final deliverance from the sorrows of life–can be quite soothing.
Scriptures that encourage quiet reflection, contemplation and meditation
“And Isaac went out to meditate in the field in the evening; and he lifted his eyes and looked, and there, the camels were coming. Then Rebekah lifted her eyes, and when she saw Isaac she dismounted from her camel; for she had said to the servant, “Who is this man walking in the field to meet us?” (Genesis 24: 63-65, NKJV)
“This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate in it day and night, that you may observe to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success.” (Joshua 1: 8; NKJV)
“Be angry, and do not sin. Meditate within your heart on your bed, and be still.” (Psalms 4: 4, NKJV)
“I remember the days of old; I meditate on all Your works; I muse on the work of Your hands.” (Psalms 143: 5, NKJV)
Christ, during his time of distress prior to his crucifixion spent time in prayer in the natural settings of the Garden of Gethsemane as recounted in Matthew 26: 36-46. In Matthew 14: 22-23, he separates himself from the crowds to pray on a mountainside alone.
“He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul; he leads me in the paths of righteousness for the sake of His name” (Psalms 23: 2-3, NKJV).
“Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4: 6-7, NKJV)
“On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer…” (Acts 16: 13, NKJV)
The above verses show believers and Christ himself contemplating God in natural settings of beauty. Prayer, silence, meditation, reflection, thankfulness, requests to God and the peace of God are discussed as a way of life for followers of Christ and the scriptures. Indeed, such reflections offer a more rich tapestry of contemplation than mindfulness meditation alone.
Resilience tool: Self care and moderation
A healthy diet that is heavily plant based has been found to reduce psychological distress and have protective effects against anxiety and depression, as explored in my post Anxiety, Depression, and Diet Connections — Current Evidence. Optimistic and resilient people have been noted to avoid excesses and destructive tools of coping, such as excessive alcohol intake and smoking (Terte et al., 2014). Fascinating research around neuropeptides show that a neuropeptide associated with lower levels of anxiety is suppressed in the presence of hormones released from white fat cells, while it raises during fasting states (Comeras, Herzog, & Tasan, 2019). Finally, physical exercise and fitness have been found to be protective against psychological distress and to improve a person’s sense of well being (Elkington, Cassar, Nelson, & Levinger, 2017).
Principles of moderation and self care can be found throughout the scriptures. Indeed, poor self care and poor coping mechanisms such as smoking and excessive alcohol consumption promote inflammation. Inflammation, in turn can impact stress susceptibility and promote distressing symptoms of anxiety and depression (Lai, Hiles, Bisquera, Hure, McEvoy, & Attia, 2014; Snijders et al., 2018). Interestingly, here again, science backs the scriptural teachings of moderation which in turn, can support resilience.
Scriptures that encourage self care and moderation
“A righteous man who falters before the wicked is like a murky spring and a polluted well. It is not good to eat much honey; so to seek one’s own glory is not glory. Whoever has no rule over his own spirit is like a city broken down, without walls.” (Proverbs 25:26-28, NKJV)
“And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown.” (1 Cor 9:25, NKJV)
“For bodily exercise profits a little, but godliness is profitable for all things, having promise of the life that now is and of that which is to come.” (1 Timothy 4: 8, NKJV)
“Wine is a mocker, strong drink is a brawler, and whoever is led astray by it is not wise.” (Proverbs 20: 1; NKJV)
“Do not mix with winebibbers, or with gluttonous eaters of meat; for the drunkard and the glutton will come to poverty, and drowsiness will clothe a man with rags.” (Proverbs 23: 20-21, NKJV)
It should be noted that the scriptures warn against the abuse of wine, not against the consumption of wine, as noted by the fact that Christ drank wine as did his disciples, along with scriptures that speak positively of wine, such as the following: “He causes the grass to grow for the cattle, and vegetation for the service of man, that he may bring forth food from the earth, and wine that makes glad the heart of man, oil to make his face shine, and bread which strengthens man’s heart” (Psalms 104: 15, NKJV).
“Flee sexual immorality. Every sin that a man does is outside the body, but he who commits sexual immorality sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s.” (1 Corinthians 6: 18-20, NKJV)
“For a bishop must be blameless, as a steward of God, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but hospitable, a lover of what is good, sober-minded, just, holy, self-controlled, holding fast the faithful word as he has been taught…” (Titus 1: 7-9, NKJV)
“My son, give attention to my words; Incline your ear to my sayings. Do not let them depart from your eyes; Keep them in the midst of your heart; For they are life to those who find them, and health to all their flesh.” (Prov 4: 20-22, NKJV)
The scriptures are themselves resilient, having survived the passage of time and distance. Indeed, originating in early Mesopotamia thousands of years ago, the scriptures have survived numerous attempts by various nations, rulers and peoples to undermine or destroy them. Despite this, they are widely taught and read around the world.
Perhaps a reason for their timeless survival and ongoing appeal are the universal truths contained within these sayings. Truths that encourage a lifestyle and mindset that help people weather the storms of life. Hope, salvation, moderation, appreciation of the things that are good no matter how small, fellowship, quiet reflection, purpose, bringing ease and comfort to others through the labors of your own hands, and ultimately…deliverance–these are the timeless tools of resilience.
Thanks for reading!! I hope you enjoyed this post! Feel free to leave a comment below or sign up to receive email notifications when I post new articles! -Donovan
Resilience Against Stress: Genetics or Lifestyle?
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