Four Ways to Destress When Missions is Distressing

Health and longevity on the mission field depend upon regularly surrendering burdens to the Lord.

As we serve the Lord in cross-cultural ministry, we are going to face problems—lots of them. Learning to de-stress is vital for our quality of life.

However, there’s an even greater reason for learning to destress. When we face problems, others are watching. How we deal with stress either glorifies God or makes him appear weak.

When problems arise, my natural, emotional response is to worry. But what does this communicate about God? If I trust him with my eternal salvation, then how much more should I be able to trust him with my daily anxieties?

Problems are opportunities to respond in faith or fear, to worship or worry. If I respond in faith, it shows that God can be trusted because he is bigger than the problem. If I respond in fear or worry, it indicates that God can’t be trusted, because the problem is outside of his control or concern.

The Burdens of Stress

When our kids were younger, they wanted to “help” carry things when we moved or traveled. But everything was too heavy for them to carry alone, so we would do it together. Occasionally they would try to carry something alone, which usually ended with a panicked cry for help before they dropped it and broke the object (or were crushed by it).

Although simple, this picture illustrates what stress is like in life. Like children, we often forget our weakness and that “apart from me you can do nothing.” When faced with a difficult situation, we try to carry the heavy burden in our own strength. However, we don’t want to drop it because it will either break (our ministry might fail) or it will crush us (our health, marriage or family might fail). We need our heavenly Father to help us carry the weight.

Right now, you may be feeling the stress of carrying something that is too heavy. Or, you might be carrying something that you don’t realize is too heavy because it isn’t crushing you—yet. Wait until you get to the stairs of life. Like a child that starts carrying something and then realizes half-way up the stairs that it is too heavy, we are slow to realize when our burdens are too heavy.

We may be carrying burdens that aren’t meant to be carried alone. Our Father wants to help. Many times, I think I am “casting all my anxieties on him” (1 Peter 5:7), but I have a tendency to try to carry too much.

I need my heavenly Father to “search me” and “know my heart” so that he can speak truth into my life (Ps. 139:23).

Consider these four heart-searching questions to help us destress when life and ministry are distressing.

1. Stillness in Work: Am I putting worship before work?

“‘Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!’ The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress” (Ps. 46:10-11).

“Be still” may be one of the hardest commands in the Bible for those of us who like to “do.” I like to serve God, but it is important to notice why we are called to stillness: “…and know that I am God.” In stillness, we are remembering that God is God, and we are not.

Some time ago, I faced one of those problems that left me feeling defeated and discouraged. I have a tendency to try and work more when problems arise—to push until I fix it. This time I didn’t. I remember realizing, “I don’t actually need to do more right now, I need more of God!” So, I took extra time with him to just be still before the Lord. I wasn’t even praying about the problem; I was just spending time with him.

As I took time to be still, God used some ants to show me more about himself. He reminded me that just as he provides for the sparrow, he even provides for insects. Day in and day out since the beginning of time, everything has been under his power and control.

Do you know what my response was as God reminded me about his greatness? Worship. My heart worshiped him for his greatness. What flowed out of that worship was faith. I had no reason to worry because my problems were all under his control.

But I needed to stop trying to fix my problems in order to hear his still, small voice. I needed to be still and know that he is God. The situation hadn’t changed, yet everything had changed. I moved from feeling defeated to having confidence in his power to bring about his plan. In that strength I was able to face the situation before me.

Stillness must come before service, worship before work. I am always reminded of this priority from the story of Martha working for the Lord and Mary listening to the Lord (Luke 10:38-42). Jesus responded: “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion”. Why was Mary’s choice the “good portion?” Because she chose the Master above the ministry.

Being still to worship is also an act of faith. When I face huge tasks or problems, it is tempting to do more and to worry about all that still needs done. When this happens, I am forgetting that the true work is done by God, not me. When I stop working to worship and pray, it requires faith because I must trust God to work in ways I cannot. It also honors God because it shows that I love being with him more than I love serving him.

I used to feel guilty about taking more time to pray because I somehow felt lazy or like I wasn’t being busy enough. Then God reminded me of the example of Jesus. Even though he only had three years to minister and meet endless needs, he still took time for stillness. “And when it was day, he departed and went into a desolate place” (Luke 4:42). “But he would withdraw to desolate places and pray” (Luke 5:16).

If Jesus took time to be still, I can follow his example.

If I am depending on God’s strength, then prayer will be the foundation of all I do. This is because activity and busyness not rooted in prayer is fruitless spiritual work. God can accomplish more in a minute than I can in a decade.

Being still in worship demonstrates that we recognize the power of God. Stillness doesn’t make sense to the world around us but that is why God uses it. When life is distressing and I’m not worried, people notice.

2. Stillness in Body: Am I taking time for rest and replenishment?

I need to be still in body. I am in a constant state of self-experimentation to find what helps my body handle stress. Sometimes, I may have mentally overcome some stressful problem, but my body may still be distressed—or depressed. Figuring out what replenishes and energizes me physically helps to prioritize key activities in my schedule.

I minister in body and soul. If my body burns out, I have nothing left to give. If I take time for regular replenishment, I will endure longer.

When I won’t slow down for rest and replenishment, it is often an indication of pride. Pride makes me think that my part of the work is so valuable that ministry would cease if I were to rest. But God doesn’t need me to accomplish his work. That is why God commanded Israel to keep the Sabbath—he wanted them to trust His work, not their work.

3. Stillness in Mind: Am I following God one step at a time?

I also need to be still in mind. It can be easy to be still in body but have my mind still thinking about all I need to do. I may not be physically moving, but my mind is still carrying the weight and burden.

One of my tendencies when facing a problem is to try to figure out all the next steps. I want to figure out step 1-37. Like one of those “choose your own adventure” books, I run different scenarios in my mind until I think I have the right steps to get to the desired end. But when I do this I am trusting in myself to fix the problem. If I am worrying about it, I am carrying it. If I am resting, I have relinquished control.

Recently, God challenged me to face problems differently. Instead of trying to think through every step to fix the problem, I just ask one question: “What is my next step?” This clarifies what my responsibility is and what God’s responsibility is. Often after taking my next step, God works in a way that I would have never planned and fixes the problem! Sometimes, when I take time to be still, I come back to my work to find that he has already resolved a problem. If I try to figure out every step to fix a problem I can become paralyzed in indecision and fear. Taking one step at a time relieves incredible stress because I’m not carrying the burden that God is meant to carry.

One litmus test for me is sleep. Do I wake up thinking about solutions to problems? These verses always challenge me: “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain. It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep” (Ps. 127:1-2, emphasis added). Sleep is a gift from God, but it is an act of faith to receive. Letting my mind be still in sleep demonstrates that I am relinquishing control over a problem because I trust that the God who needs no sleep is still at work. It is my heart saying in faith, “God’s got this.” It is completely giving something over to God, and then not trying to take it back to micromanage the situation.

4. Stillness in Heart: Is my heart at peace?

I need to be still in heart. Why is God always at peace? Because He is never frustrated. His plan always works out! God says: “I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!” (emphasis added). That is an absolute promise. God is far more committed to his glory and his plan than I am.

Why is my heart not always at peace? Because things don’t always go according to my plan. I do want my plan and God’s plan to both be about him getting glory. But here is the problem, my plan also involves Kyle being comfortable, while God’s plan doesn’t always include this.

I must continually remind my heart that God’s ultimate goal is to bring glory to himself. When God allows problems; his plan is still accomplished. Problems affect my comfort, not God’s plan. If I love God’s glory more than my comfort, then I will be able to look at troubles and weaknesses through this lens: they are being used by God to highlight his glory.

Not only am I never outside of God’s plan, I am never outside of his presence. “The Lord of hosts is with us” (Is. 46:11). He promises to “never leave us” (Heb. 13:5). No matter how big the storm or problem of life, God is bigger and he will carry us through.

Paul says to “let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts” (Col. 3:15). But if worry is ruling in my heart, Christ is not. When Christ’s peace is ruling, it is because he is on the throne. Every problem is under his control. He is Lord of the storm and the sea, so I need not worry.

When we allow “the peace of Christ to rule in (our) hearts”, we can face life and ministry with unwavering confidence.

We can destress even when life is distressing.

Why It Matters

Is all this easy? Not at all! It is tempting to stress and worry instead of trust, complain instead of worship, and overwork instead of being still in prayer. I know it is a daily battle for me, and I am sure it is for you.

But the battle is worth the effort. If our goal is to serve God in a way that glorifies him, how we deal with stress is very important. Our peace glorifies God by showing others that he is in control, even in the midst of problems.