The week before last at the hospital I gave two workshops on, “Responding to Stress with Creativity and Kindness,” and that’s had me thinking about the importance of balance ever since. Over the last couple of decades, we’ve learned more and more about what living with stress can do to us, inside and out. That’s one of the reasons why I lead mindfulness and guided imagery groups; both of those techniques help us learn how to relax our minds and envision the outcomes we want to experience, instead of continually being caught up in worries and concerns and the threats and conflicts our world is so good at creating. And when our minds calm down, our bodies follow, as our brains release the neurochemicals that let us know—physically and emotionally—that all is well.
Research has shown that living with high levels of stress, over time, adds to the likelihood that we’ll develop chronic and maybe even dangerous health conditions. And, what might be worse, living with stress takes a toll on our minds and our emotions, too, causing us to develop a kind of “tunnel vision”—literally neuropathways in our brains–where we think the way we’ve always thought and act the way we have always acted. That’s actually a helpful part of the way our minds function—they make patterns—but in this case, that tunnel vision can cause us to forget there we have other options, that things can change. On an emotional level, we might give up and resign ourselves to living with stress and stop believing that something better, lighter, more peaceful, more joyful, is possible. That weighs heavily on our ideas for the future, our sense of optimism, our hope. I think God wants something happier for us, no matter what our age or capacity. God creates abundant life—we see it all around us—and we—the physical, mental, spiritual us—are not an exception to that rule. We can be part of that too. But we need to find a way beyond the stress so we can rediscover balance.
Balance may not feel like an easy thing to find in normal life—we often have too much time or too little, too much to do or not enough, too many demands or a feeling of purposelessness. Our emotions swing from high to low, depending on how we feel, whether we’ve slept, what we’ve eaten, what the other people in our lives do or don’t do. But somehow, the natural world around us stays in balance—ecosystems flourish, day cycles into night, seasons turn around the globe, gravity works, our planet holds its spot in this galaxy. There is an order, a gentle rhythm, to everything living and growing in this world. Why do we human beings have such a hard time being part of that?
The writer of Proverbs tells us that God himself delights in balance and has strong opinions about a balance that is contrived or made up or forced. A natural balance—just the way God created it—is what delights the Maker of the universe. God put this all into play, after all, and God knows it works. Proverbs 11:1 says, “A false balance is an abomination to the Lord; but a just weight is his delight.”
We Quakers often talk about “right order” as the balance or easy harmony that results when Spirit is leading. In the Quaker Jargon Buster, a collection of Friends’ terms put together by Fairfield Friends Meeting, the definition of right ordering is, “done in the correct manner by following the leading of the Spirit, in keeping with Quaker tradition and practice. A body of wisdom and insights that has evolved over three hundred plus years of seeking the guidance of the Spirit, it is captured in part by Faith and Practice, but only in part. It has also been called gospel order.”
Lloyd Lee Wilson, the author of Essays on the Quaker Vision of Gospel Order and a recorded Friends minister in North Carolina Yearly Meeting, defined it this way:
“Gospel order is the order established by God that exists in every part of creation, transcending the chaos that seems so often prevalent. It is the right relationship of every part of creation, however small, to every other part and to the Creator. Gospel order is the harmony and order which God established at the moment of creation, and which enables the individual aspects of creation to achieve that quality of being which God intended from the start, about which God could say that “it was very good.” 1 The spirit of the believer, opened to the Truth of Christ and about Christ as were George Fox and his fellow Children of Light, is opened to the perception of the gospel order as well as the gospel, and empowered to attune one's life to it. As one comes more closely into harmony with the gospel order, one's life is filled more and more with the peace that passes understanding, and one's relationships reflect this peace and harmony. Relationships outside the gospel order, in contrast, are full of tension and conflict, and lead not to greater peace but greater anxiety and clash.”
I love that Wilson begins with the idea that God’s right order is already present with us—we see it, in nature all around—and that it is our mistaken view that takes us out of sync with it. “Gospel order is the harmony and order which God established at the moment of creation,” he writes—these are the moments before the fall, when all was well in the Garden of Eden, when man and woman and snake weren’t yet toying with an idea that would lead them away from God. In God’s realm—and Jesus would back us up here—there is no division, no chaos, no anxiety—no such thing as stress and conflict. All that pain and struggle is human made, not part of the right order of God’s perfect gift of life. What God created still offers us harmony and order, balance and peace, and it simply awaits our noticing.
It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? But we know from living these lives that that kind of harmony in this realm seems unrealistic or at best, fleeting. Our minds are a continual whirlpool of plans and lists and judgments and memories; our fight-or-flight reactions are always on alert; our bodies develop aches and illnesses that demand our attention. When relationships get added to the mix, things get even more complicated. Now we’re trying to balance what I need with what you need, the individual good and the greater good, struggling with how we can be ourselves—unique and independent–and still be a part of all that is, including God. We try to balance our inner and outer lives, so our inward faith flows outward into our actions each day. We work to find the tricky balance between activity and rest, between giving and receiving, between accountability—I need to do this because I said I would—and grace, which is more like, I guess it would be okay to take a nap first.
Similar to Lloyd Lee Wilson, who pointed us toward God’s original harmony as the way to bring balance to our lives, Paul wrote to the Romans that getting caught up in the pattern of the world was a trap. Over and over again, the world presents us with unsolvable puzzles that stir our emotions and poke at our fears—to prove this we don’t have to look any farther than this week’s headlines—but there is another choice, a better choice, if what we want is harmony, right order with ourselves, with each other, and the world.
“Be transformed by the renewing of your mind,” Paul wrote, “Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing, and perfect will.”
Paul’s letter to the Romans was meant to encourage them and serve as a guide for these first Christians on how to live their daily, ordinary lives by following the teachings of Christ. The entire book tells us how spirit forms us—first as individuals and then as a community, as Richard Foster’s commentary says, “a congregation of souls, men and women who are called upon to repent and believe, obey and love, pray and forgive as [we] go about our daily lives…preparing meals, raising children, and going to work.”
Paul wanted those who heard his letter to understand that God’s harmony was always available, always near, always within reach. By allowing their minds to be made new in Christ, they could let go of the stress and bother that humans create and once again attune to God’s divine order of balance and peace–his good, pleasing, and perfect will. You may remember that Paul mentioned in a later letter to the Corinthians that he himself had a “thorn in the flesh,” something that bothered him that he struggled with throughout his life. Scholars are divided on what his “thorn in the flesh” might have been—it could have been a physical ailment, a struggle with limiting beliefs, or a temptation of some sort. But whatever his challenge was, he understood that there was a way to overcome it. And that way was to let go of struggle with the human things of this world and turn instead toward God. Remembering what God created—not what we did–is the key to finding balance in our loud and overstimulating world.
In closing, I’d like to share a section of one of George Fox’s epistles to Early Friends, in which he wrote quite clearly on how we can find–and keep–that balance that restores us to God’s peace. He writes,
Stand still in that which is pure, after you see yourselves;
and then mercy comes in.
After you see your thoughts, and the temptations,
do not think, but submit;
and then power comes.
Stand still in that which shows and discovers;
and there strength immediately comes.
And stand still in the light, and submit to it,
and the other will be hushed and gone;
and then content(ment) comes.
And when temptations and troubles appear,
sink down in that which is pure,
and all will be hushed, and fly away.
Your strength is to stand still, after you see yourselves;
whatever you see yourselves addicted to,
temptations, corruption, uncleanness, etc.
then you think you shall never overcome.
And earthly reason will tell you, what you shall lose;
pay no attention to that,
but stand still in the light that shows them to you,
and then strength comes from the Lord,
and help contrary to your expectation.
Then you grow up in peace, and no trouble shall move you.
- OT Proverbs 11:1
- NT Romans 2: 2-8
- Fox, George. A Collection of Many Select Epistles to Friends, #10. https://www.hallvworthington.com/Letters/gfsection1.html
- Quaker Jargon Buster: https://www.fairfieldfriends.org/Documents/Quaker%20Jargon%20Buster.pdf
- Wilson, Lloyd Lee. Essays on the Quaker Vision of Gospel Order. https://quakerbooks.org/products/essays-on-the-quaker-vision-of-gospel-order-7231?variant=31709317890180