December 2011 Know-how
How to find that “peace that passes all understanding” this Christmas
How to find the peace God promises
Christmas can be one of those times when the gap between what we long for and what we actually experience can seem very wide indeed. Ann Spangler suggests a practical approach to finding that “peace that passes all understanding”
It had been a stressful day, preceded by a difficult week. Little wonder my back was aching. I gave thanks for strong hands rubbing out the pain. After the massage, the therapist asked if I was a swimmer. “Why, yes,” I said. Delighted by the implied compliment, I concluded that I must be in better shape than I had thought. Otherwise, how could she possibly have pegged me as a swimmer?
I decided to probe a bit. Perhaps the therapist would express her surprise that a woman my age was in such great condition. But when I asked how she knew, she simply said, “Oh, it’s always easy to tell the swimmers. I can smell the chlorine!”
With that, I slunk out of the salon, embarrassed by my short-lived fantasy of being in fantastic shape.
The truth is, had I been exercising more faithfully, I probably wouldn’t have had to spend the money on a massage, nor would stress have been able to settle into the weakest spot in my body.
If we want to experience more peace and less stress in our daily lives, it makes sense to look at a few practical methods for doing so.
Make exercise a regular habit
Watching The Wizard of Oz with my children one day, I couldn’t help but wonder if even the Wicked Witch of the West would have been kinder to Dorothy and Toto had she only been keeping to a regular exercise routine. Seriously, regular exercise can reduce our anxiety and make us easier to live with.
The physical and mental health benefits of regular exercise have been well documented. Most of us know we need it. But perhaps we have failed to realise the spiritual benefits of exercise. Rejecting a sedentary lifestyle in favour of one that is more active may help us become better disciples of Christ, as our anxiety levels are reduced and we are able to respond to life’s challenges with greater peace and trust.
So get out there and chop that wood, take that run, sign up for a dance class, or join a health club. Do something you enjoy with people you enjoy so that you can take care of the body and mind God has given you.
Pray every day
Would you be surprised if I told you that the most practical thing you can do to increase your sense of peace is to pray? Praying, I have learned, is a lot like eating. Skipping a meal or two makes me ravenous. Likewise, skipping prayer causes my faith to wither, making me feel anxious and empty. Fortunately, regaining the habit of regular prayer restores my sense that God is with me. Even 15 or 20 minutes given to God in this way can produce a life of much greater peace.
Don’t hide your feelings
Most of us make the mistake of thinking that peace comes from avoiding discomfort, frustration, fear, anger, and pain. But every life, to a greater or lesser degree, is fraught with such feelings. One of the keys to developing a greater sense of peace is learning how to deal with them. Feelings, of course, are neither right nor wrong. They just are. What we do with them, how we respond to them is what matters.
How should you approach the feelings you’d rather not have? Begin by allowing yourself to feel them. Are you feeling suddenly depressed? Develop some curiosity about what is causing you to feel that way. Did someone say something? Did you say something? What is creating the hollowness and sadness inside you?
Sit with your sadness for a while rather than trying to stomp it out or run away from it. You needn’t indulge it, but you do need to acknowledge it in order to learn from it and move on.
As you begin to investigate your feelings and reactions, try to do so without adopting a critical attitude toward yourself or others.
Ask God to help you remember that you are the child of a father who both understands and loves you. Extend to yourself the compassion you have already experienced from him.
Francis of Assisi famously called his body “Brother Ass,” a term that blends self-deprecating humour with a certain amount of affection. Though Francis treated himself harshly, he later asked pardon from his body for the extreme forms of self-discipline he had subjected it to. Sometimes we make a similar mistake by judging ourselves too harshly, castigating ourselves not physically but mentally.
Take a deep breath
Another practical way of easing your stress is to engage in deep breathing exercises. You don’t have to be a Buddhist to recognise the benefits of breathing deeply, which can be explained by physiology.
Chronic stress activates the sympathetic nervous system, which kicks into action automatically whenever you face or think you are facing an emergency. It releases adrenaline and other chemical messengers into your system, putting your body on high alert, preparing it for a fight or flight response.
It’s what caused my youngest daughter, Luci, to jump with fright last night when I leapt out and shouted “Aaaagh” as she rounded the corner of the stairway (bad mummy!)
The sympathetic nervous system is great for dealing with emergency situations, but terrible for dealing with long-term stress. A chronically activated sympathetic nervous system disrupts the brain, causing depression, insomnia, and fatigue.
By contrast, the parasympathetic nervous system plays an opposite role. It takes over when the body is at rest. So when I looked in on Luci after she had gone to bed last night, I saw a young girl, who despite her earlier ordeal, was sleeping calmly while her body was quietly restoring itself.
An activated parasympathetic nervous system can help your heart rate decrease, your muscles relax, and your lungs to take in more oxygen. Deep breathing helps to activate the parasympathetic system, thereby increasing your sense of calm and well-being.
Ultimately, the peace we desire, the peace God promises transcends whatever techniques we may employ to diminish the stress and tension of modern life. In the end, only a life that is surrendered to God will discover the deep peace that he alone can give.
This article has been adapted from The Peace God Promises: Closing the Gap Between What You Experience and What You Long For by Ann Spangler (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011). Ann Spangler is an award-winning writer and the author of many bestselling books. She and her two daughters live in Grand Rapids, Michigan. For more information please click HERE.
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