Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid. . . . I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.
John 14:27, 16:33
We are well acquainted with stress. Abiding peace—not so much. That’s in part why Mark spoke of the spiritual fruit of peace last Sunday. We may be so unacquainted with abiding peace that we’ve concluded it is an unrealistic condition.
Driving through Colorado last summer in an attempt to relieve some stress, my curiosity was piqued by an article by Jonah Lehrer in Wired magazine about an experimental vaccine against stress.
Robert Sapolsky, a neurobiologist about whom we’ve written before, first noted the impact of stress on health in his observation of baboon groups in Uganda. Only much later did he find the same phenomenon occurring in humans, a finding which other scientists corroborated—and a finding from which also Lehrer developed a couple noteworthy points.
One, the effect of stress is more calamitous than we might’ve imagined, and in part due to how our bodies respond to it. Heart disease tends to skyrocket in those with prolonged exposure to stressful situations. Neurological degeneration accelerates, too. Even children in utero demonstrate physiological changes in the brain as if they’d experienced the stressful circumstances themselves.
Though the anxieties that proceed from stress have never spawned a disease, they are to diseases what lighter fluid is to fire. Under stress, our endocrine system secretes something called glucocorticoids—a hormone salutary in the short term, but toxic if in the bloodstream for a prolonged period. They amplify production of glucose needed for the energy to defend ourselves in stressful situations. But they also suppress the immune system, impair the production of new neural cells, and contribute to muscle deterioration if left unabated. Stress degrades even if it isn’t the foundational cause.
Secondly, Lehrer argues the more damaging consequences of stress derive from a particular source of stress. One might assume all stress was the same—all equally debilitating. Instead, Sapolsky found that not only was there a correlation between stress and health, but that the most debilitating kind of stress correlated with a sense of one’s status. Baboons low on the pecking order of their group experienced greater tribulation in securing the necessities of life, thus creating more stress for them. Those baboons tended to be sicklier. A British sociologist found similar phenomena in U,K, government employees who were rigidly stratified into “classes” according to complexity of work and the ability to control their situation. Even controlling for other variables that might account for differences in health, those at the bottom of the social scale experienced a higher mortality rate. What you believe about yourself and your condition has a profound effect, not just on your mood, but on your health.
What solution does Lehrer (and the scientists he cites) offer? Since they all submit to the notion that all things have a material cause, their remedy is confined to the material sphere. Though human trials are years away, Sapolsky believes the most promising form of stress-relief comes with a vaccine that would limit the effects of prolonged glucocorticoid production. Others insist the best way to reduce your stress is to improve your station—your occupational or social status; the corresponding increase in respect and control it may afford will, they believe, resolve your anxieties.
We shouldn’t be surprised to find the effects of the fall in our physiology or in our society. Jesus was no stranger to the calamity wrought in both those dimensions of human existence. He relieved physical suffering and overturned entrenched notions about status (cf. The Good Samaritan as one example). But I suspect he would say to the Jonah Lehrers and Robert Sapolskys of the world that we have to go deeper than our social dynamics or our endocrine systems to address the root of our anxieties.
Say my work becomes more aligned with my uniqueness. If I find my ultimate peace in my work, haven’t I set myself up for a profound disillusionment should circumstances require me to resign from that work—whether because of loss of work, health issues, or retirement?
Or what if my glucocorticoid production comes under control such that it no longer suppresses my immune system, or degrades neuron production. Won’t at some point in life medical manipulation no longer be effective, thus forcing me to find a source of stability and peace independent of my physical condition?
Jesus’ peace goes to the heart, because our hearts were made for His peace. They need nothing less and crave nothing less. For His peace speaks to us at a level even more fundamental than our station or our cells. Jesus gives not as the world gives in part because the peace He gives does not depend on what the world provides.
Jesus’ peace derives from His promises. That by His work we shall be eternally loved by the Father (Jn 10:27), and though we die yet shall we live (Jn 11:25) are but two examples. Those promises endure even when our bodies refuse to cooperate with treatment or our circumstances remain intractable. There’s no harm in obtaining aid from those with aptitude in anatomy and pathology—no sin in seeking work more suitable to your design. But unless you dig for the peace that He promises and provides, you will try to satisfy your soul with what is too shallow.
You can’t tell a baboon he’s not second-class. But you can hear from God that you’re the child of a king.
Have you gotten to the root of your anxieties—whatever they may be—or are you digging too shallowly?