Stress is a fact of life. Everyone faces challenges that tax our ability to cope. Moreover, people vary tremendously in terms of the pressures they face and the coping skills they possess.
For years, I’ve been teaching what’s known as family stress theory in my courses and using it as a basis for my research with pastors’ families. The earliest and most basic version of the theory is the so-called “ABCX model,” developed by sociologist Reuben Hill back in 1949. Simply put, Hill proposed that how much stress families experience (the “X”) depends on a combination of three factors: the intensity of the stressor or demand (the “A”), the availability of resources (the “B”) to meet the demand, and family’s perception (the “C”), or how they make sense of what’s happening.
Think about what happens when a new baby is born into a family. Typically, it’s a joyous occasion. But it also puts a drain on a family’s resources. Some babies are easy to care for, while others are more fussy and difficult (A). Some families have more resources (B), like good health insurance and pediatricians, nearby grandparents, and the money to hire sitters. And new parents may interpret the new arrival differently (C). Was the baby planned? Did one parent want children and the other one not? And so on. The complex mix of such factors predicts how much stress families will experience (X), and whether they fall into crisis and become unable to cope.
New variations and additions to the basic model have been proposed over the years. The ABCX was modified into the Double-ABCX model. Then came the T-Double-ABCX, and even the ABCD-XYZ model (I’m not making that up). But I still like the simplest one for the straightforward way it helps us think about families and their environments.
And, as it turns out, for how it helps us think about prayer.
We often pray for divine help when we’re under stress. One of our kids gets into trouble. Or someone gets laid off. Or the doctor quietly confirms our worst fears.
What do we pray?
Sometimes we ask God to change the demand: “Lord, take it away!” Straighten our kids out. Heal the disease. Defeat our enemies.
Sometimes we ask for resources: “Lord, give me strength.” We need a new job. We need people to come alongside and help us in some way. We need wisdom or endurance.
And there’s nothing wrong with such prayers. Indeed, there’s biblical precedent for them.
But I wonder how often we pray for God to change how we think about the situation that’s troubling us? How often do we pray for perspective?
Yes, there are times in which God answers prayer by intervening miraculously to solve the problem, parting seas and opening prison doors. And there are times in which God strengthens feeble arms or sends companions to help.
But the coping strategy typically emphasized in the Bible is a theological one. It’s called faith.
By that, I don’t mean “name it and claim it,” as if faith only meant really really really believing that God will give you what you whatever you ask, in spite of what anyone else tells you or even evidence to the contrary. What I mean is the God-given ability to see the world and our own lives from a heavenly perspective: “Lord, help me see the situation the way you do.”
There’s nothing wrong with praying that the baby will sleep through the night or be healed of her ear infection. There’s nothing wrong with praying that we might find a sitter we can trust. But sometimes what we need is to pray that God would help us love the child the way God does, to be able to embrace her as a gift.
There’s nothing wrong with praying that the person who’s annoying us will stop. And it’s fine to pray for patience in the face of their irritating behavior. But sometimes we need to pray that God would help us see beyond how that person’s behavior is affecting me, to see the person behind the behavior. Might she be someone in need of our compassion and understanding? Is it really possible to love someone who feels like an enemy?
Of course it is. Sometimes all we need is a little perspective. And if we lack it, we can ask for it.