The Word Among Us

November 2009 Issue

The Call to Gentleness

A new book gives strategies for dealing with stress.

By: Mary Ann Russo

The Call to Gentleness: A new book gives strategies for dealing with stress. by Mary Ann Russo

Most nights I fall in bed exhausted,” lamented Lindsay.

“Lately I’ve realized that my husband and I have barely communicated during the day. I’m thinking we’re gradually losing touch with each other. The pressures of my days seem to leave me no options.”

My young neighbor poured out her anxious concerns as we savored a few quiet minutes on the deck after dinner. Her litany of daily obligations—keeping up with the house and laundry; getting food on the table; supporting each child’s academic growth, sports teams, and religion classes; and much more besides—seemed insurmountable. I could relate to her frustrations, recalling similar circumstances in my own life years ago.

We prayed together, and then I encouraged Lindsay to begin reading a new book I had just finished—Surrendering Our Stress: Prayers to Calm the Soul and Strengthen the Spirit. Its one hundred brief reflections—each including a Scripture verse, short meditation, and prayer—are specifically aimed at bringing hope and fresh perspective into the stressful areas of life.

Stressed Out? Stress is a hot topic today. According to a 2008 American Psychological Association report, nearly half of Americans surveyed said that their stress level had increased over the past year; not surprisingly, eight out of ten listed money and the economy as the main reasons.

Our minds and bodies are amazingly designed by God to withstand a great deal of stress. Research shows, however, that individuals respond differently to the same stressors, depending on variables such as temperament, physical health, upbringing, age, and life experience. If stress persists for too long or is extreme and intense, our stress-management systems become overwhelmed, and illness results. If we turn to unhealthy coping behaviors—overeating, drinking, compulsive shopping, and the like—we experience the consequences. Indeed, it seems that every day’s news presents the tragic results of unresolved stress in someone’s life.

In our pressure-filled culture, we need effective ways to gain perspective on the purpose of our lives, on God’s love for us, and on his plan to bring us his peace. Surrendering Our Stress speaks directly to these needs. Reading it, I experienced a sense of tranquility, as though God was reaching deep inside to calm me with the truth of his love while his Spirit helped me to examine my life.

A Question of Attitude. Author Joan Guntzelman, a retreat director with a nursing degree and a PhD in counseling psychology, offers this book as a means to “help us examine our own lives and discern how we may be stumbling blocks to ourselves.” Some of her reflections did, in fact, help me to recognize how I put up stumbling blocks in my own life and then call those blocks “stress.”

Several of the book’s recurring themes were especially helpful to me. For example: Learning to redefine personal struggles and stresses as testing, rather than considering them afflictions, provides an opportunity for growth. I thought of Job, who lost his children and wealth, and had to endure the discouraging counsel of his wife and friends, but reframed his devastation by thinking on a higher level. His proclamation, “I know that my Redeemer lives” (Job 19:25), reveals a heart yielded to God and focused on ultimate reality. I also thought of Corrie ten Boom, imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp: Every day, she redefined her horrible circumstances as an opportunity to evangelize and draw others to the Lord.

Surrendering Our Stress urges us to make a special effort to find God within us, to create an internal environment where we can hear him speaking and receive his direction for reframing the external stressors we face. As one prayer says: “Even in dealing with difficult situations, help me go inward and imagine your radiance as you flow out to others through me.”

Call to Gentleness. Another helpful theme is the encouragement to periodically step back from our busy lives and make time to be alone with God and be refreshed. Jesus set the example when he dismissed the crowds and went up to the mountain by himself to pray (Matthew 14:23). “We each need a ‘mountain’ where we can be nourished and restored,” Guntzelman writes, and should schedule appointments with the Lord, just as we would for any important contact. In these times of retreat, we are more likely to discover “areas in our lives where we could align ourselves more readily with what we know are God’s ways.”

This suggestion goes to the root of some of the stress experienced by my young friend, Lindsay, and all of us who attempt more than we have time and energy to manage. We multitask, which “has us going in all directions at once,” and allow little time for rest and recuperation. “We show minimal gentleness with ourselves, not to mention others, but we keep pushing,” Guntzelman observes. And she asks an insightful question: “Can we begin to welcome gentleness into our lives? Imagine the blessed relief experienced by ourselves and others if we do so.”

It got me wondering: What might a dose of gentleness do for Lindsay’s faltering relationship with her husband? What if she recognized her need to slow down and made a daily effort to put herself in a setting conducive to quietness and prayer? “Even if we go there only five minutes a day, we will be giving ourselves a chance at peace,” Guntzelman writes. And our spouses and other family members will benefit.

Diagnosis and Antidote. I like this book. Its reflections expose human faults and distorted ways of reasoning and behaving that tend to aggravate stress. At the same time, the reflections build confidence that God has made us resilient, resourceful, and creative in finding ways to live and cope with difficulties. And every reflection offers a calming, stress-dissipating truth.

In a typical “exposé” observation, the author states that “worrying is often directed toward all the ‘what ifs’ in our lives.” But then she gives an effective antidote to worry: “Tell God what we need and be confident that he will answer our prayers.” That’s the kind of direction that brings divine peace and power into my heart. n

Mary Ann Russo lives in Mt. Airy, Maryland.