for American University Christian Legal Society Weekly Meeting 11/30/2020
I’m honored to be invited to share with you all today!
First, a Few Disclaimers
When I shared with a member of my family who struggles with generalized anxiety disorder I was going to be speaking on the topic of “coping with stress and anxiety,” she said to me, “But that’s not something that you struggle with!” My response (joking of course) was, “well that’s why I’m qualified to speak on the topic! You wouldn’t want someone who struggles with anxiety to tell you how to not be anxious, would you?” (Now you have to understand that this member of my family is currently in a very healthy place after receiving wonderful counseling for many years. And she has a very good sense of humor).
Even though I may not struggle with clinical stress or anxiety, I have faced a lot of stress and anxiety in my life, as I’m sure many of us have. And so my talk today is not really about chronic stress or anxiety, but moreso how to cope with the stress and anxiety that pretty much everyone faces at various points in their lives. And, we’re going to look at a few Biblical truths that relate to how we manage stress and anxiety. (As a side note, if you are struggling with chronic stress or anxiety, I do highly recommend seeking professional counseling. I have experienced firsthand the positive impact that counseling and therapy has had on my friends and loved ones, and I am a big fan. There is absolutely no shame in seeking out professional help or counseling if you need it, and if you’re not sure whether or not you need it, there’s no harm in signing up for a consultation with a licensed professional to see whether it could be beneficial to you!)
The last disclaimer I want to give is that I have never been a law student, and so I can’t tell you exactly how to deal with and manage the stresses that come from attending law school in particular. But I share my story and my testimony of how God has met me in times of stress and anxiety in the hopes that there will be something that you can take away from and apply to the particular situation that you’re currently in.
Now, although I am not a law student, I am a graduate student. I recently finished my coursework for a Masters in Theology, and I’m now working on a Masters of Divinity degree. I’m married with three children, ages 15, 11, and four 1/2. And so we have a high schooler, a middle schooler, and a preschooler, and right now we’re all working and studying from home! My wife and I have been married for 16 years, and I have served full-time in ministry working with college students for the past 15 years. Simultaneously, for the past 2.5 years I have also been pastoring a small church that includes parishioners of all ages, ranging from 4 to 94.
So, although I’m not in law school, I do know what it is like to have a full plate! And so this is a topic that is near and dear to my heart.
When my wife and I graduated from college, we felt called to move into the inner city of Baltimore to participate in the ministry of a local church that we had been involved with throughout our time in college. At the same time we had a vision for helping to connect college students with various local nonprofits and ministries throughout the city of Baltimore and we felt called into full-time college campus ministry.
Going into full-time campus ministry required that we raise our salaries (similar to how many missionaries raise support from various churches and individuals). While we were raising support I was also working full-time, and we had a baby. I found myself running from one thing to the next, leaving work to go straight to appointments with potential supporters. At the same time, money was very tight for us and we often found ourselves struggling to pay our bills. Needless to say, life was stressful.
When we did eventually raise enough money to go full-time in the ministry and quit our other jobs, we found that there were a lot of stresses that came with being in full-time ministry. Being in a position that is sort of like being a chaplain, many students would open up and share their stories with us — which often were painful to hear. We encountered many students who had issues and problems that we didn’t know how to help, and at the same time we were navigating the complexity of the university environment, balancing the administrative affairs of the ministry, communicating with financial partners, and being new parents.
During this time one of the ways that I coped with stress was by eating junk food. Often when driving home from campus late at night I would realize that I hadn’t had time to eat dinner, so I would swing through the McDonald’s drive-thru at 11:00 p.m. at night and pick up a big Mac and fries. Anytime there was free food on campus (it was almost always pizza) I would scarf it down in between meetings.
At the same time I didn’t have any sort of regular exercise routine. I would walk from my house to my car, from the parking lot to campus, and that was pretty much it. Gradually over the years I began to put on weight. Over the course of about 10 years I gained about 45 pounds. I knew that if that trajectory continued it would not end well for me since I have a history of hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol, and heart disease in my family, but I wasn’t sure how to turn things around.
Jesus Loves Me
It was around that time that I took a 6-month sabbatical from ministry. I’d always wanted to go back to grad school, and so I took that opportunity to take a few seminary classes.
The biggest lesson that I learned during that sabbatical was how much my work and ministry had become my identity. In pulling back from active ministry for those 6 months, I discovered that in my mind, my relationship with God had become defined by my service to God and to others. Because there was always more work to do than time to do it, I realized that subconsciously I had always felt that it would be selfish for me to take time to care for myself, when there were so many other people who were in need.
During those six months when I wasn’t in an active ministry role, I began to realize that I didn’t even know who I was apart from my work and the success of my ministry.
During that season I went on a few personal retreats, just a few hours here and there that I devoted to prayer and contemplation, and it was during one of those times that I had an overwhelming sense of God’s presence with me, and I felt like I heard God’s voice speaking to me.
And here’s the deep, profound revelation that I had during that time. Are you ready?
Here it is: I felt like God was saying to me, “I love you.” Yup, that’s the deep profound revelation that I had! “I Iove you. Not for what you’ve done, or how successful you’ve been in your work and ministry. I love you for who you are and for who I’ve created you to be.”
Now, I had grown up going to church and Sunday school and Vacation Bible School. Every time the doors of the church were open, my family was there. And I had heard the song “Jesus loves me” thousands of times. And so I knew in my head that Jesus loved me. But I realized that it wasn’t until that moment that I knew in my heart that Jesus loved me, and that God’s love for me was not dependent on what I did for God or for others, but simply because I am God’s child.
I learned through that experience that God cares about me, that I am valuable in God’s eyes.
And my takeaway from that experience was that it is not selfish to take care of ourselves, because God cares about us. It’s not selfish to exercise, to eat healthy foods, to find ways to manage our stress and anxiety, because we have inherent worth and value. Because God loves us.
Our Lives Have Worth
In the book of Matthew chapter 10, verses 29-31, Jesus is speaking to his disciples. And he says to them,
“29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. 30 And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. 31 So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”
It’s so interesting to me that Jesus doesn’t say to his disciples, ”do not worry about your life, because the things of this earth don’t matter.” He doesn’t say, “don’t worry about life, because life has no meaning anyway.” No! Jesus tells his disciples not to worry. Why? Because our lives are valuable to God.
God cares so much about each and every part of God’s creation, so much so that God even cares for the sparrows. Earlier in the book of Matthew, Jesus even said that God cares for the flowers of the field! (see Matt. 6:30)
And so Jesus is saying, if God cares about the sparrows of the air, how much more does God care about you, since we are worth more than many sparrows!
Loving God with our Body, Mind, and Soul
Repeatedly, throughout the Bible, we are told to love God with our bodies, our minds, and our souls. And so if we have value to God, and if God cares for us, then I believe that caring for our bodies, minds, and souls is one way that we love God.
About a year after my sabbatical experience (when I received that affirmation of God’s love for me), a friend of mine invited me to do a 24-day challenge. 24 days of not eating any processed foods or fast foods, and exercising on a regular basis.
Prior to my sabbatical experience I would have said “no I don’t have the time or resources or money to do that!”
But because of the transformation that God had done in my heart over that past year, I realized that this was something that I could do. And so I signed up to participate.
During those 24 days I found that I felt better, had more energy, and could think more clearly. I decided to try running on a regular basis, which I discovered was much easier to do when I was eating healthy foods and drinking plenty of water than when I ate junk food all the time! In the beginning I could only run for about a mile or so so it wasn’t like I was spending a lot of time exercising. But even just getting outside for 10 or 15 minutes on a regular basis I began to notice a difference in my physical health and wellbeing.
I found that I could often think more clearly when I was running than when I was sitting in front of my computer. Often when I was running I would gain clarity and perspective on whatever issues or problems I was facing, and this would often lead me into prayer.
Even after the 24 days I decided to continue running regularly and eating healthy foods, and after about 6 months I had lost 35-40 pounds. But for me it wasn’t about losing weight, it was about getting to a healthier place in my body, mind, and soul. And so, even though I’ve loosened up on the dietary restrictions, I have kept up the running. Over the past 6 or 7 years I’ve logged over 4,000 miles. And in October I ran my first marathon — about two weeks before I turned 40!
Valuable to God
I share all of this, not to try to guilt you into exercising on a regular basis or spend time alone with God, or to eat healthy foods. What I really want you to take away from this talk is that you are valuable to God. Not because of your skills or abilities, not because of how hard you work, not because of what you do to serve God or to serve other people, and not even because of your successes. Your inherent worth is not even tied to whether or not you succeed in law school! You are valuable to God because you are God’s child.
I said in the beginning of this talk that I’m not going to try to tell you how to deal with the stresses and anxieties that come with being in law school in particular. But I will say that, as much as you might think that life will get easier after you finish law school, life after law school will come with it’s own unique challenges. It may be tempting to think that after law school you’ll have so much more time to take care of yourself, to tend to your physical, mental, and spiritual health. And while it might be true that you will have more time later on, I want to tell you that even here and now, it is not selfish to take care of yourself.
It is not selfish to take time to invest in your health and well being. It is not selfish to take time to be with God. Because you are valuable to God. You are of worth to God. And because you have worth and value to God, when you tend to your physical health and your mental and spiritual health and well-being, you are working in conjunction with what God has for you — not in opposition.
And so I would encourage you to ask God to show you what you can do even here and now, in the midst of the busyness and the stresses of law school, to prioritize your health and well-being.
I’ll end with a few practical suggestions that have helped me:
- Wake up at the same time everyday, and develop a morning routine.
I start my day by drinking 8 oz of a caffeinated energy drink and 16 oz of water, before I do anything else. I also eat every 3 hours. In between breakfast and lunch, and between lunch and dinner I eat a 200 calorie snack that includes protein, and I drink water throughout the day.
- Aim to exercise every day — even if it’s just taking a walk around the block.
I used to make it a goal to exercise three times a week. But things would come up, or I would get busy or distracted, or it would rain or snow, and so it was really hard to get into a regular rhythm. Now I make it my goal to exercise every day. That means that even if I miss a few days here or there, I still exercise about 4 to 5 times per week.
- Spend a few minutes connecting with God each and every day.
Your prayer life doesn’t have to look the same as everyone else’s. You can pray while you exercise, or while you’re cooking. You can even pray while you wash the dishes! But disengage from your work for at least a few minutes every day to listen to God. Pray while you walk around the block! Listen to a worship song. Read a verse or two of Scripture. You don’t have to always pray intercessory prayers where you pray for all of the missionaries around the world. Just take a few minutes to listen and be still. It’s ok if you don’t hear anything profound. In fact, you might simply be reminded of a truth that you learned a long time ago — that’s OK! (In fact you should be more worried if what you hear is something that doesn’t line up with truths that you already know about God!) But find something that works, and stick with it. Even if you don’t experience a radical connection with God each and every time, the important thing is to be open and available to what God wants to say to you.