Stress, Relaxation and the Scriptures

Having been back at work a week now, my mind turns to stress and relaxation.

The cruise we’ve just returned from in the South Pacific was wonderful. I had a “hot stone” massage on the first day which did wonders for all the built up tension in my neck and shoulders, I caught up with sleep, I got in some reading and meditation, and I’m left with warm memories of snorkelling with my eldest son for the first time amongst the tropical fish of Mystery Island and the Isle of Pines.

Yet, though I’ve been back only a week, I already feel my shoulders tensing up again. I enjoy my job, but there are inevitable pressures that come along with it. Having been reminded what relaxation feels like however, I’m keen to get back to a more disciplined mediation practice. But what does that look like?

Most writings on Christian mediation tend to focus on “insight meditation”, on developing greater awareness of God (and relationships to God). That’s all fine if insight is what you’re after, but what if you’re after healing and release from stress? What might a Christian approach to “relaxation meditation” look like?

Like always, I find discernment begins with the scriptures, with the teachings God has already revealed through many people in many ways. 

Initially this may sound like a pointless exercise as “stress” and “relaxation” is never mentioned explicitly in the Old and New Testaments. And yet, as I’ve looked closer I’ve notice that there’s plenty of teaching about “stress” and “relaxation” … just not in those words. Consider, for instance, what the prophets, the apostles and the Messiah said about “rest” and “restlessness”:

Genesis 2:3
Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.

Genesis 4:14
Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.”

Exodus 33:14
The LORD replied, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”

1 Kings 5:4
But now the LORD my God has given me rest on every side, and there is no adversary or disaster.

Job 3:26
I have no peace, no quietness; I have no rest, but only turmoil.”

Psalm 62:5
Yes, my soul, find rest in God; my hope comes from him.

Psalm 95:11
So I declared on oath in my anger, ‘They shall never enter my rest.’”

Psalm 116:7
Return to your rest, my soul, for the LORD has been good to you.

Ecclesiastes 2:23
All their days their work is grief and pain; even at night their minds do not rest. This too is meaningless.

Matthew 11:28
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.

Mark 6:31
Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.”

1 John 3:19
This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence:

Note the holistic nature of this rest. It is rest of body, heart, mind and soul. It is often associated with restoration. And its absence is considered a curse. Rest is not self indulgence, indeed selfishness is the enemy of authentic rest. Rest is a blessing, something to be looked for – and found – in God.

But notice some of the other words associated with rest and restlessness – peace, quietness, turmoil, burdened – these also speak to stress and relaxation as we know it. Consider seaching deeper into the scriptures:

Anxious Mind

Deuteronomy 28:65
Among those nations you will find no repose, no resting place for the sole of your foot. There the LORD will give you an anxious mind, eyes weary with longing, and a despairing heart.

Calm

Proverbs 29:11
Fools give full vent to their rage, but the wise bring calm in the end.

Quiet

Ecclesiastes 9:17
The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouts of a ruler of fools.

1 Peter 3:4
Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.

Contentment

Psalm 131:2
But I have calmed and quieted myself, I am like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child I am content.

Proverbs 19:23
The fear of the LORD leads to life; then one rests content, untouched by trouble.

Philippians 4:12
I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.

1 Timothy 6:6
But godliness with contentment is great gain.

So, as I meditate, I will meditate on these words from the Word.

4 thoughts on “Stress, Relaxation and the Scriptures

  1. Andrew says:

    Just thinking Matt that some slow stretching techniques would also be a worthwhile addition to your list. They are designed to release the stress of tight muscles and to relax them. A must before and after hard exercise, but also good in terms of improving blood circulation and can have positive benefits mentally and meditatively.

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  2. Lucy J says:

    That’s a very topical post for me, Matt. I’ve just almost come through an incredible month… the last two weeks, especially.
    Some of your regular bloggers would probably already have realised that I am a dancer. It has been my habit for many years to practice a sequence of stretches, Scriptural meditation and obeisance “in the company of Christ” nearly every morning. I try to eat quality food prepared in healthy ways, endeavour to make use of my gym membership (though not to the best advantage for several fluctuating reasons), take opportunities for creative dance as often as possible, have a chiropractic adjustment once a month and from time to time consult a Christian Homeopathic health professional, in an overall multi-lateral approach to a holistically healthy lifestyle.
    My experience of utter humiliation (not the embarrassing kind, but the spiritually beneficial kind), acute pain and convalescence over the past month, has impressed upon me the absolute importance of “line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little, there a little” regular practice of physical, mental, and spiritual “exercises” to train and maintain in the various aspects of total human health… especially for those of us living the city “fast lane” lifestyle. My guess is that people more familiar with and attuned to the seasons, cycles and delights of “nature” would be less ignorant in regard to optimum health basics, perhaps.
    I have to say that it was PERSONALISATION in meditation on revealed Scriptures, and hence a heightened awareness of the presence of God which got me through the “world of pain” into a deeper appreciation of the healing and restorative power of relationship and journey with the Lord and Giver of Life. Phew! Sounds very “up myself”, I know, but it’s very difficult to describe an experience which was epitomecally spiritual and physical simultaneously, together and at the same time, LOL! In fact part of the experience was of the “optasia” variety, for those who might like to investigate that further…
    At times, I could not stand up, sit down, or lie down without agonizing pelvic and lumbar pain. At other times, I had to submit to complete bed-rest after several physiotherapy treatments. Even now, I can’t sit on our lounge to watch “telly”. However, I can sit for lengthening periods and have been able to be a “part-timer” at work (a rather sedentary Office Administration role) as I increasingly am more able to function normally again.
    I was advised by the physio that if I had not been as healthy in terms of stretching etc, I would have been a complete “mess”. I can see in retrospect that if I had not been as healthy in terms of “spiritual” stretching on a regular basis, I would have been also in a very sorry state… so I am massively and eternally grateful for the journey, and what I have learnt through the experience.
    During my convalescence, I also read through a brilliant book “The Word Made Flesh” by one of my favourite author’s, Eugene H Peterson (of The Message Bible fame) and highly recommend it for anybody wanting to have their perceptions of Father, Son and Holy Spirit re-imagined, re-aligned and re-invigorated. As this author claims, and after this recent experience I even more heartily agree, there is nothing abstract about the living God… The Life happens with real, named people in real-time places in ordinary and un-religious ways (my expression of the gist of it) and Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and the stories he told that we have recorded in the Scriptures are the best companion teachings and impartation of life and freedom for a human being to be able to have.
    Sorry, but after what I’ve just been through, I can’t not say that!
    We need the wisdom to know how to work and play hard as appropriate, relax, enjoy and care for ourselves, each other, and the rest of creation… meditation on and with the written and the living Word is sure to put us on the right path to get that kind of wisdom.
    Off my soap-box for a break, now 😉

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  3. Matt Stone says:

    @Andrew. I have nothing against stretching exercises, in fact I sometimes use some myself, but I was specifically focussing on scriptural teachings on peace and contentment for this article and on the subject of stretching exercises scripture is silent. This is not untypical for when it comes to spiritual exercises scripture generally focusses on the who over the how. In thinking through this issues I’d approach it much the way that Christians tyically incorporate medical knowledge within a broader theology of healing. God in his providence endows his creation with self healing potential, but we need to recognize (1) where that potential comes from and (2) that God’s own potential is not limited by the potential of creation.

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  4. Matt Stone says:

    @Lucy. Nah, you don’t sound “up youself” to me. In fact, I find it encouraging to hear how different people work things out differently in practice. Just as Paul speaks of different limbs but one body, we each experience the same God in different ways. This is as it is and as it should be. Given your interests and passions you’re particularly well positioned to explore mind-body links from a Christian perspective.

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