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Women, Religion & Stress

Women, Religion & Stress

A while back, Tim and I were watching a television segment about a US company sponsoring celebrations of Hispanic culture, especially food.  He mentioned there are holidays and celebrations for Latin Americans, African Americans, women, etc.  “Where’s the celebration of the white man?” he joked (seriously – joking!).  At first the conversation was lighthearted and comical.  It soon became more serious as I asked him the question, “describe for me a time when you’ve been treated as inferior just because you are a white male.”  He could not.  I went on to explain a few of the many times I have been treated as less than because I am a woman, and that sometimes the reason for that treatment is based on a Biblical interpretation.

Woman Pic For Blog
In 2006, I wrote my first book, Life Without the Monsters to provide support to women dealing with anxiety, fear, stress, and depression.  Because much of my healing from stress and anxiety came from Biblical support, I included Scripture-based advice and activities. I researched a great deal before writing, examining religion, psychology, and science.  Since then, I have traveled around the world speaking to women about stress, emotions, communication, and conflict.  Often I’m brought in as a female motivational speaker, sometimes as a trainer, and sometimes as a speaker for women’s church retreats. The point is, lots of women in lots of different settings. I’ve noticed 2 important trends.  First, women in church often express guilt over taking medication or refuse to admit they have too much stress because it means they “don't have faith.”  Second, in business seminars, many confide that being raised in religion has caused them to be riddled with guilt for falling short of fulfilling the roles assigned to women.  This leads me to believe there is a disconnect somewhere.  Biblical advice does not seem to be helping American women, and it should.

Many studies indicate that religion can help mediate the effects of stress. Women use coping resources not only during times of crisis, but also for dealing with daily hassles as simple as traffic or getting a bad grade on an exam.  Those resources might be prayer, worship, or guidance from a clergy member.  Even Freud recognized that religious beliefs and rituals offer some relief from life’s challenges!  Studies also show that within all age groups and within all race and ethnic groups women are more religious than men.  So it’s important to examine how women use religion – what helps; what hurts.   

As I have chosen Christianity as the basis for religion in these articles, I’ll talk about Scripture, both Old Testament and New.  This is a huge undertaking. I am excited about the idea of reexamining my beliefs without giving up my faith.  I will say up front that I’m not offering an absolute answer here, merely an examination and encouragement for you to think more deeply.  I see myself in a constant state of searching, learning, and growing and believe Christians are often only encouraged to do this superficially.  In other words, preachers sometimes say read your Bible every day, but indicate it’s not ok to question what you read.  Faith is not based on knowledge, some say.  It’s belief.  That’s true, but without questioning, how do we really know what we’re believing in?  I once led a study about reading the Bible, during which a woman said, “Well, I’m really not much of a reader.”  It’s inconceivable to me that we would adopt Christianity as a belief system without reading what God wrote.  For us!

Woman Reads Bible

N.T. Wright in his 1991 essay How Can the Bible Be Authoritative, says that by authoritative, the church often really means controlling.  He also describes the Bible as not a place to simply look up answers to key questions.  The Bible is a story, and is meant to be read as one.  “We do not read Genesis 1 and 2 as though the world were still like that; we do not read Genesis 3 as though ignorant of Genesis 12, of Exodus, or indeed of the gospels.  Nor do we read the gospels us though we were ignorant of the fact that they are written precisely in order to make the transition from Act 4 to Act 5, the Act in which we are now living…”   The authority, he asserts, lies with God himself. This is my position.

How can we use the Bible? Is it for rules, to look up information? In his 1969 book Hermeneutics, Richard Palmer describes the difference between Biblical language and information language, such as that in a manual.  In a manual, he says, we don’t have to access our own experiences to understand the information.  “But the Bible is not information; it is a message, a ‘proclamation,’ and is meant to be read aloud, and meant to be heard.  It is not a set of scientific principles; it is a reality of a different order from that of scientific truth.  It is a reality which is to be understood as an historical story, a happening to be heard.” So instead of looking to the Bible for rules and instructions, we should hear the story and seek understanding.

In her book, In Memory of Her, Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza states that “all interpretation of the Bible has been skewed and that all interpretation of the Bible has come from an advocacy point of view, whether that advocacy happens to be patriarchal or feminist or, I might add, black, Asian, Reformed, Wesleyan, liberal or evangelical.” For example, when I read the Bible I am reading it as a 52-year-old white middle-class mother, wife and career woman. I am reading it as a person who has come through mental illness and has relied on the Bible. I am reading it as someone who didn’t really know God until adulthood.  Because of this, my interpretation of the Bible is skewed.  That doesn’t mean interpretations are wrong, but it’s important for women to read for themselves, study, and ask questions of others’ interpretations. When I read the Bible I am typically seeking and searching based on my own life.  And so are you.

The Bible, old and new Testaments, is a story of how much our God loves us. It is a story of how He sent His son to save us. It is a story of kindness, love, grace, and mercy. Are there stories of God’s anger and wrath in the Bible? Yes of course. Are their stories of death and destruction? Yes of course there are. But those are meant to be read and heard in light of how the story ends. With love.

So let me start there.  This post focuses on the Scriptures often interpreted so gently and truly help women to deal with difficult situations in their lives.

In his book Is Religion Good For Your Health?: the effects of religion on physical and mental health, Harold Koenig Religion good for healthproposed three natural mechanisms through which religion may foster improved mental health, including dealing with stress: (1) through beliefs and attitudes that encourage hope and a feeling of some control over one’s future, (2) through greater social support and encouragement of interaction with other people, and (3) by stressing a focus on other people and a higher power, resulting in a healthy, balanced love of God, self, and others.

Thankfully, Scriptures that can support these three mechanisms are abundant and easy to find.  In fact, most Bible studies on stress and related topics are very encouraging. Women of Faith is a non-denominational, Christian-based organization that both puts on live events across the US as well as publishes Christian resources for women through Thomas Nelson Publishers.  According to their website, they had hoped to reach five million women through their 2013 events – I didn’t get an updated number.  Because of its popularity with women, I will use one of their live above worryresources, Living Above Worry and Stress (hereafter referred to simply as Living) to search for Scriptures that fit with Koenig’s 3 pathways.

The first mechanism Koenig identifies as a pathway of coping is through beliefs and attitudes that encourage hope and a feeling of some control over one’s future.  In Living, multiple chapters focus on just this issue.  Here are some examples of verses used:

 1“Give all your worries and cares to God, for He cares about what happens to you.”  1 Peter 5:7

 2. “For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord.  They are plans for good and not disaster, to give you a future and a hope.  In those days when you pray, I will listen.  If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me.” Jeremiah 29:11-13

  3. “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin.  Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.  If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?  So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”  Matthew 6:25-34.

I find these verses beautiful, soothing, comforting, and that my future is bright and with purpose!!

The second mechanism of positive religious coping is through greater social support and encouragement of interaction with other people. Interestingly, although research shows the benefit of healthy relationships to women, this study does not have a section about seeking help and support from others.  One verse does indicate that this might be helpful.

“Share each other's burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ.” Galatians 6:2.

I often use this verse even in business seminars as I talk about not trying to do things alone!

The third mechanism through which positive coping might occur is by stressing a focus on other people and a higher power, resulting in a healthy, balanced love of God, self, and others.  This seems to be the focus of most of the comfort verses.  

1. “Whenever I am afraid, I will trust in you.”  Psalm 56:3

2. “Don't worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done.” Philippians 4:6

3. “Most important of all, continue to show deep love for each other, for love covers a multitude of sins. Cheerfully share your home with those who need a meal or a place to stay. God has given each of you a gift from his great variety of spiritual gifts. Use them well to serve one another.” 1 Peter 4:8-10

4. “Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you.” Ephesians 4:32

As research shows that most women thrive in the context of positive connection and relationships, these are powerful! Verbs like love and trust and pray and serve not only make me feel connected, but also give me something to do!

Scripture can and does provide comfort for women dealing with stress.  The images themselves of comfort even contribute to Protestant hymns.  This 1926 hymn is a common example of the emotional images of a loving God. 

Hymnal

Leaning on the everlasting arms,

Leaning, leaning,

Safe and secure from all alarms;

Leaning, leaning,

Leaning on everlasting arms.

Scripture, hymns, hope, support, selflessness – all comfort to those searching for relief from worry. So there are truly many verses that can help women deal with the challenges of life. Unfortunately, no passages were included that address women specifically.  The Bible has a fair amount to say about women, yet specific verses are strangely absent from this study.  Could this be because they make women feel worse?  Could it be that interpretation of women-specific verses are sometimes used to hurt rather than to help?  In his book The psychology of religion and coping: theory, research, practice Pargament puts it this way:  “Whether this is the whole story, however, is another question.  Religions are far from happily-ever-after storybooks.” (p. 51)

Up next, I’ll write about that less than happy aspect of religion.  But until then, I pray that you do find the rest and comfort you need :) 

Why Do We Judge?

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Thursday, 18 January 2018