Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Stress as Sin: a Confession

Here are some "theological" thoughts before I continue the long social security debate. I offer these thoughts now both because they are weighing on my mind and because I want to make sure this doesn't turn into a political policy blog.

I took my Tax Exam yesterday. I felt an immense sense of relief at finally being done with a month of intense studying and preoccupation. Law exams (at least at my school) are generally 3 or 4 hours long, and even that is rarely enough time to finish. They count as 100% of your grade. They are specifically designed to test the conceptual "boundaries" rather than the "basics" of the legal rules that you learn, which is another way of saying that they're really hard. You are expected not just to recite the rules you learned, but to try to apply them to factual situations to which they have never been applied before and/or to explain the extent to which the rules make sense as a matter of economic or social theory or policy.

Yes, this is in fact going to be a theological discussion eventually, and the above facts are relevant. Be patient =).

So basically the law examination period is an extremely stressful period. And I had particular trouble with stress this time. I had trouble sleeping, and I was so stressed out about one exam that I didn't sleep at all the night before.

Could this stress, in addition to being unhealthy, also be sinful? Or, if you're squeamish about using the word "sin," is it inconsistent with Christian ethics? I think it might be.

As we've indicated many times, we believe that following Jesus' message requires us to live an other-directed life, and a life directed specifically toward helping "the least of these." The other-directedness portion of Jesus' message means, at least, that we should recognize good for others as equivalent to good for us, and bad for others as equivalent to bad for us. This is what it means for me to love my neighbor as myself. A stranger winning the lottery is as good as me winning the lottery. A co-worker being diagnosed with cancer is as bad as me being diagnosed with cancer. On this blog, we usually focus on excessive personal consumption and other physical, active manifestations of self-directedness as being inconsistent with Christ's ideals. But I don't believe the principles outlined above are so limited. I should feel, as well as act, as if my neighbor is equivalent to myself.

Admittedly, no one can meet these standards ("all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God"). But this is the ideal towards which we should strive if we are to live a Christian life. That being said, I believe that my extreme stress over my exams was a clear violation of Christian ethics as we've articulated them.

Given the nature of law school exams described above, it is understandable from a secular and psychological perspective, that I would be stressed out about them. But from a Christian perspective, the stress was wrong. My stress was (and stress in general usually is) an extreme concern over self in violation of the other-directedness Jesus requires. My comparatively minor troubles and stresses are given extraordinary prominence just because they relate to me. This is not loving my neighbor as myself. I've spent a thousand times more worry on my law school exams in these months than I have on the tremendous destruction and human suffering caused by the Asian tsunami. If I could live in perfect communion with Christ (which no one can), then the precise opposite should be the case. The fact that such outrageous suffering occurred while I was predominantly concerned with myself and my own troubles has "convicted" me (as a Southern Baptist might say) and forcefully brought home to me the fact that stress can be sinful.

Stress is difficult to control. But we must try, not just for health reasons, but for ethical reasons. We must remind ourselves (to steal an insight from someone I can't recall) that the divisions among us are merely illusions. My little stresses about exams and classes are insignificant as compared to the true physical suffering of others. It is to the suffering of others to whom my "stress" (or thoughts) as well as my actions should be directed.


At 2:36 PM, Blogger DLW said...

I know the effects of stress can be both beneficiary and deleterious for someone. Its like asking if pain is sinful. There has been a tragic example of the child who could not feel pain and lost both eyes because of it.

I don't cope with stress that well. Its one of the things I struggle with.

On 9-11, I was meeting with my major adviser for my PhD in Economics for the first time in over a year, because he had been on sabatical(during which our communication had been sub-par) and he had just told me that he didn't think I would be done that year when he was called by his wife to say that the 2nd tower had fallen. I was in my 5th year then and my tower almost collapsed as to take 6 years puts a death-toll on one's career. I couldn't mourn 9-11 as I struggled to learn how to rewrite, something I neglected as an undergrad.

But I did learn to rewrite and did finish in time and got the blessing of being a professor in Mexico at a good university for two years before I became a seminary student/blogger/writer.


At 2:37 PM, Blogger DLW said...

By all of which, I mean to say that don't guilt yourself over not mourning, take some time to mourn and do service for another in what time you have now after your exams before things get busy again.


At 8:38 AM, Blogger jj said...


Thank you for the words of reassurance and validation. Your participation in this blog has made it SO much better, and we REALLY appreciate it. Please stay with us. We love you. Also, now that I have emerged from exams period and have more time on my hands, I am making a committment to spend more time reading your blog. I want to reciprocate and make this a mutual sharing ideas. Right now, you're carrying all the weight.


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