By Matt W. Sandford, LMHC
Financial stress is about as common as Geico commercials, just much more annoying. The commercials are short and sometimes funny. Not so with most financial challenges and the stress they produce. However, I’d like to propose that there are three types of stress responses associated with financial difficulty, based not on someone’s situation as much as on their perceptions about their situation. I’m going to break down these three types and then offer my take on how to address each one.
The first type looks over the basic situation of amounts coming in and going out. They tally up the numbers and see the shortfall. They also look around at all the things that are missing from their homes or lives or environment and they compare to what the other families around them have. “Wow, my kids don’t have those new phones, or that new thing that they’ve been bugging me about. They say everyone has one. And it probably would help them with their school work.” Or maybe they’ve been persuaded by some commercial. “Yeah, that Omi-zoomi ap actually would be preparing my kid better and what kind of parent would I be if I don’t want my kid to get ahead!” And then there’s the things that we parents want, too. And we focus on our deficits and we feel bad. We feel that there is something wrong that we aren’t able to have what other people have. We may reflect on the occasions or the people that we feel have ripped us off or made our life harder. Or we may sulk about our rotten situation and how we feel stuck financially and how it is not fair.
The second type gravitates instead towards worry. They have done the tallying and see how they are coming up short and their mind goes into overdrive. They start working through possible scenarios – could I this, what about that, maybe if this or that… They carry this with them and it affects their sleep and maybe their eating patterns. Where can we cut back and where can we make more? This type gets caught up in obsessing about their needs and may transfer their stress into medical issues like back aches and digestive problems. And likely everything feeds their worry.
The third type may begin in much the same way; calculating their situation and struggling with much the same feelings or stuckness, anger, and anxiety. But at some point it dawns on them to go to God with their emotions and their situation. I’m not suggesting that type one or type two folks don’t run to God. Sure they do. Although I think that many of type ones or twos run to God not to resolve their anger and anxiety, but either to demand or plead with God to rescue them and resolve their financial difficulty.
You see, I think that we struggle culturally with the sense that God loves us. What I mean is that we have been conditioned to understand God’s love as a sense of favor that is expressed through protection and comfort. From our perspective America has been so blessed and we interpret this to mean that God has favored us. Or we learned somewhere that love means to be sheltered and so we project this onto God. And when we struggle we feel that God has disappeared and removed his care and may even feel abandoned by him. When we interpret God’s love and care for us in this way we will inevitably struggle with great anxiety or resentment when things go badly for us. Jesus spoke of this struggle in his parable of the sower, which you’ll find in Matthew 13 and in Luke 8. Jesus describes a farmer sowing seed and he says that some falls on rocky ground, but since there was no depth of soil the plants had no root and withered away. And he says that some seeds fell among thorns and that the thorns choked them. He later interprets the parable and explains that the seeds that fell on the rocky ground are those who “endure for a little while, but when tribulation or persecution arises”, he falls away. As for the seeds who feel among the thorns he says, “the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.” I believe that the seeds that fell on rocky soil parallel the type that gravitates towards anxiety and the seeds that fell among the thorns parallels the angry, resentful type.
I used to read this parable and analyze it to discern which seed I was and then worry about my not being the “right” seed. However, I have grown to believe that the parable can be interpreted as conditions that are changeable. That is, that if I am at some point on the rocky ground that I don’t have to stay there. The parable is not representing determinism, such that these denote destinies that are programmed. They represent attitudes or maybe even stages of growth.
That brings me back to the third type. I believe the third type has grown; grown through their financial struggles and so when they encounter them they are drawn to run to God to depend on him. They have grown to see their heart and their tendency towards either anxious fear or angry control. And so they surrender their inclinations and they acknowledge God as the wise provider who is in control. As they practice this they find that their anxieties diminish or their resentments are resolved by a love that doesn’t provide comfort and ease but instead comforts them with what they really needed – God’s presence.
You see, no matter what we are lacking situationally there is always something we need more. Let’s learn with the Apostle Paul how to be content whether in plenty or in want.
That’s the way to manage financial stress.