Calm Under Pressure

Recovering the Grace of Equanimity

I love the old word equanimity. It’s almost fallen out of use today. Perhaps that’s because, in part, the reality has become increasingly rare. Equanimity is a term for composure, for emotional calmness and presence of mind, particularly in trying circumstances.

We’re living in times that condition us to overreact and explode, in a society that rewards outrage and outbursts. It’s never been easy for sinners to keep even tempers in trial, but present distresses summon us afresh to learn composure under pressure, how to “hold our peace” when the moment requires it, and give release to emotion in its proper time and place. Our families and churches and communities need leaders who have learned to keep their heads when others are losing theirs, to not lose control in anger or self-pity but keep a sober mind, and be, like our God, “slow to anger” (Exodus 34:6).

We need to bring equanimity back.

Non-Anxious Presence

The road-tested wisdom of Proverbs 16:32 whispers to those with ears to hear,

Whoever is slow to anger is better than the mighty,
and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city.

“Our families and churches need leaders who have learned to keep their heads when others are losing theirs.”

Count “he who rules his spirit” as a biblical phrase for equanimity and holy composure. Note well, the wise man neither smites his spirit nor takes orders from it. He neither stuffs his emotions nor lets them play king. Rather, he rules his spirit. He learns how to keep his spirit cool, his temper even, in moments when fools get hot, weak kneed, and their passions carry the day.

This is not stoicism. Christians have long called this “self-control.” We aim not to be men without spirits but those who keep “a cool spirit” under duress, when the immature lose control. We do not discard our emotions (as if we could) or suppress them, but by God’s grace we seek to bring our spirit increasingly under the control of his Spirit.

Holy Calm

Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) commends the “holy calm” of godly strength and praises the Spirit-empowered composure to which God calls his people and provides — and all the more in times volatile and easy agitated.

The strength of the good soldier of Jesus Christ appears in nothing more than in steadfastly maintaining the holy calm, meekness, sweetness, and benevolence of his mind, amidst all the storms, injuries, strange behavior, and surprising acts and events of this evil an unreasonable world. (Religious Affections, 278)

Foreign as “holy calm” and equanimity might seem in our frenetic and furious age, we are well aware of the present challenges to our composure — which Edwards names in language we could hardly update more than two hundred years later: “storms, injuries, strange behavior, and surprising acts and events of this evil and unreasonable world.”

Superlative Meekness

Yet Edwards not only commends “holy calm” in Christ’s soldiers. He presses deeper. He celebrates it in our captain and Lord himself. “In the person of Christ do meet together infinite majesty and transcendent meekness,” he writes, which are “two qualifications that meet together in no other person but Christ.”

Only God has infinite majesty; only in becoming man does Christ have meekness, “a virtue proper only to the creature.” In this meekness, Edwards says, “seems to be signified, a calmness and quietness of spirit, arising from humility in mutable beings that are naturally liable to be put into a ruffle by the assaults of a tempestuous and injurious world. But Christ, being both God and man, hath both infinite majesty and superlative meekness” (“Excellency of Christ”).

Who among us has not felt the temptation “to be put into a ruffle by the assaults” of our lives and age? And what comfort might we take that God himself, in the person of his Son, entered into our same “tempestuous and injurious world” and exhibited such an unusual and admirable “calmness and quietness of spirit”?

Sinless as he was, Jesus had his emotional moments as he dwelt among us. We do not presume he was “calm” when he took up a whip and cleared the temple with zeal, or when he wept at Lazarus’s tomb, or when he prayed, in anguish, in the garden, with loud cries and tears. Yet apart from a few exceptions, the Christ we encounter in the Gospels is strikingly calm. A man of equanimity indeed — a model of the kind of composure that we his people want to grow in, and can grow in, by the power of his Spirit.

Severely Injured and Remarkably Calm

For Edwards, such equanimity wasn’t theoretical. It was all too real, in fact. Years of injuries, strange behavior, and surprising acts in this evil, unreasonable world came to a head in the spring of 1750. His trial was his own congregation, the church he had pastored for twenty-five years. His own people dismissed him after a week of painful proceedings. However, from all surviving accounts, he never lost his composure.

Even though the church dismissed him for his spiritual views about church membership, they couldn’t help but commend his “christian spirit and temper.” As biographer George Marsden reports, “Edwards’ demeanor during these proceedings apparently was remarkably calm and helped earn him this affirmation even from his opponents. His supporters viewed him as simply saintly” (Jonathan Edwards: A Life, 361). One observer of the long, gut-wrenching process wrote,

I never saw the least symptoms of displeasure in his countenance the whole week, but he appeared like a man of God, whose happiness was out of the reach of his enemies, and whose treasure was not only a future but a present good, overbalancing all imaginable ills of life, even to the astonishment of many, who could not be at rest without his dismission.

Even as Edwards, before his God, received “these afflictions as a means of humbling him” — and he did suffer deeply, and had his own failings — he held his peace. He showcased an equanimity under strain that could not be pretended, a composure arising from decades of grounding and a happiness “out of the reach of his enemies,” from a treasure that was “not only a future but a present good” — that is, from looking to Equanimity himself, the preeminent man of God, and God-man, seated at his Father’s right hand.

Edwards — like Stephen, whose “face was like the face of an angel” (Acts 6:15) before his accusers — looked to that same face as church’s first martyr, who

full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” (Acts 7:55–56)

Asleep in the Storm

No doubt, Edwards, like John Owen (1616–1683) before him, would have us “study Christ more,” not only to “recover spiritual life” when we find ourselves to have “decayed” spiritually, but also “to have an experience of the power . . . in our own hearts” that would feed composure and produce equanimity in trying times.

As we look habitually to Christ, as we find him communicated to us in the Gospels, we observe a man who is stunningly calm. What composure, what self-control, what holy equanimity he demonstrates again and again when failed by his disciples, interrupted by the infirm, imposed upon by the well-meaning, challenged by the sophisticated, and disrespected by the authorities. He even shows us what calm is possible in our own storms by what he did in a literal storm: he slept.

And when they woke him, he was not frantic but spoke stillness into the wind: “Peace. Be still.” And so the calm of his own spirit settled over the raging sea: “the wind ceased, and there was a great calm” (Mark 4:39).

Face of Composure

So too, as we look to Christ at the right hand of the Father, in glory, we see the one who not only modeled such composure in our own skin and setting, but now, with all authority in heaven and on earth, he upholds us and makes it possible for us to find the feet of composure.

“We cannot study the real Christ too much. We cannot look to him too often. We cannot meditate on him too much.”

Christ, as man, is not only our example of Christian equanimity. Seated on heaven’s throne, he is now God’s mediatorial king who, by his very reign, makes our progress in equanimity to be holy, rather than delusional. We not only follow him, imitating his calmness; we have faith in him as the world’s only unshakable footing for real and lasting composure. We can scarcely even begin to estimate what healing there is for the flighty, ruffled soul, what health and strength and stillness may be found in “the frequent actings of faith upon the person of Christ,” as Owen says.

Beholding the glory of our Lord — in his striking Gospels calmness and his present imperturbable equanimity — we are “transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18). We cannot study the real Christ too much. We cannot look to him too often. We cannot meditate on him too much.

In coming as near to him as we can, and abiding in him as much as we are able, we will in time learn more of that holy stillness of soul, that godly composure, that glorious equanimity, and a thousand other graces besides.