It’s not that I’ve left all my stress behind.
Actually, I think it would be tempting failure to say so. I am certain, actually, that I will always be a person who approaches change with reticence, fights the darker abilities of my imagination to catastrophize everything that goes wrong, and too easily falls into frustration and irritation over perceived hurts, dismissals, and injustices.
But my approach to my job, to my stresses, to my life has changed dramatically in the past couple of weeks, all because of a subtle shift in my thinking that I hope to share here.
To do that, I want to tell you about my work desk.
I have a pretty Celtic-style cross sitting on my desk, front and center, between my two computer monitors. I put it there as a visual reminder that, when I am stressed or upset, I should return my focus to God. I also have a list of reminders that I wrote out to myself: “When I feel ______, I must remember [verse]. I have also placed a small Bible there as a reminder to take a break and read Scripture during my work day.
If you’re thinking that my work desk sounds like it was designed to ward off Satan, you’re right.
The change to my work desk came as, since my stress and work frustration has been increasing over the past few months, I decided to—appropriately!—turn more to the Lord. I knew that He was the answer to my problems and, therefore, I decided I would integrate Him into every aspect of my work life. I would pray and read Scripture at morning and at noon. I would keep in mind a list of Scriptures relevant to my circumstances. I would pick up the cross and breathe and say what I was grateful to God for when something at work made me want to scream.
It did not work.
And by “did not work” I mean that in spite of doing all of those things, in spite of the reading and the prayer and the taking-breaks and all the rest of it, about a month ago I was leaving work every day with a mood foul as a beast, actively dreading the start of every work week, radiating hurt.
I took my frustrations to God. I don’t know what more you want me to do. I’m doing the best I can here to behave more like You want and it is clearly not working.
And then, a few weeks ago, we had a nice summer rain. I felt compelled to walk out on the porch and sit and enjoy the sound and the scent of it, and so I did. I just sat there and absorbed the experience, and I felt calm and completely at peace. I did nothing, made no effort, just sat. And it occurred to me how very bad I am, sometimes, at receiving things.
American Christianity has a strong DIY ethos. In fact, it is tempting to believe that we are the ones doing the work of relationship and growth. If I read the right verses and study Scripture with consistency, if I pray consistently, then I will grow spiritually, we think. But while it is vital to study Scripture and to pray, it is only the work of the Holy Spirit in us that renders growth. What we understand of Scripture, or what is revelatory to us, is aided by the Spirit. What we pray and how it is received—and how we understand God speaking to us—is the work of the Spirit.
And we are so very, very good at neglecting the Spirit.
My desk had become emblematic of my Christian striving. In my desire to fix myself, I depended on…myself. I amped up the Bible verses, added habits, changed patterns, and waited, assuming that my actions would produce a desired result. But Christian faith only grows in partnership with Spirit.
I could spend a while discussing why I think we are uncomfortable, sometimes, dealing with the Holy Spirit—the Spirit is by nature mysterious, alien, and deeply supernatural to our perception—and yet the Spirit is absolutely vital to carrying out anything and everything we do as believers.
So I prayed, directly to the Holy Spirit, which surprisingly it occurred to me I had never done. (I have prayed to the Spirit in concert with the Father and Son, but somehow never alone, though I have addressed prayers to both Christ and the Father independently with no issue at all). And my inelegant prayer went a little something like this:
So this…*gestures at desk* I think I am depending on myself too much. I think I need You to….*more vague gestures* I need You to transform me in ways that will help me meet these moments in the way You would like me to, because I don’t seem to be able to manage it.
The Holy Spirit responded quite powerfully.
Nothing changed, and everything changed. Literally overnight. Like a switch-flick. My work circumstances are the same, the people are the same, the irritations and problems are the same. And yet.
I suddenly feel deep empathy for the people I deal with who used to upset me. Something hugely irritating happened the other day – something that might have ruined a day otherwise – and it broke over me like water. I never even felt a ripple. I no longer feel rushed, even when I am being rushed. It was though as I was caught, shaken like a snowglobe, and then when I was sat back down properly everything resettled where it ought to be.
The cross is still at my desk—and the reminders, and the verses. I have not stopped the changes to my routine. These things are all vitally important, and in light of my renewed dependence on the Holy Spirit they have all become rich and pleasant reminders of God’s presence. But it was as though I had to re-remember I cannot save my own soul. I cannot even obey God on my own. What I can do is what He has asked of me: turn to His word, try to obey it, remain in prayer and relationship with Him, confess my sins—
–and ask, perpetually, daily, consistently, of Him to do the rest of the quickening work.