Full of Peace

Early in their seminary training, many pastors-to-be learn a curious phrase. Their professors instruct them that they are called to be a “non-anxious presence,” that is, the one person in the room who maintains a peaceful presence when everyone around them is losing it. When a child has died, when a couple is on the verge of divorce, when someone is in despair, when the church is threatening to split, they are to be present in a way that reorients the emotional and spiritual atmosphere.

Instead of becoming enmeshed in the emotional atmosphere, getting sucked in by the frustration, fear, or anger that may be swirling around them, they are able to maintain their equilibrium. They tend to solve problems not by trying to fix others but by focusing on how they can improve themselves. For instance, instead of instructing people to “stay calm” in a difficult situation, they put their energy into remaining calm themselves. Even one such leader at the helm of an organization can turn the tide.

A look at how the Gospels portray Jesus reveals that Jesus was the master of the non-anxious presence. Sleeping in the boat in the midst of a storm, feeding the five thousand with a few loaves of bread, responding to the hypocrisy of religious leaders, raising a dead girl to life despite the taunts of those who thought it couldn’t be done — Jesus was often the one peaceful person in the room. He was also the one who consistently challenged his disciples to peace-filled lives of greater maturity.

Jesus gives us a hope that is grounded in him and empowered by the Holy Spirit. Trusting in Christ and relying on the Spirit, we cannot help but overflow with the joy, peace, and hope that God provides. The peace that counts, the peace that is real, is the peace that emanates from our relationship with Christ, not from the fact that our circumstances at any given moment happen to be favorable or pleasant. As we grow in his likeness and are transformed by his Spirit, we begin to experience his peace in greater measure.

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Following the Rabbi

My brother Jim has a way with dogs. We call him the family dog whisperer. In addition to curing our pets of their various bad behaviors, he has helped other people’s dogs. His secret weapon comes from the fact that he knows dogs are pack animals in search of a strong pack leader. Without one, dogs often become anxious, neurotic, or aggressive. So he becomes their pack leader. Once the dogs sense that he has taken this role, they begin to calm down and get into line. Sensing his energy, they become both peaceable and teachable, and it is amazing how well they get along with each other and how quickly they change.

Though humans are not dogs, we too need a leader whose energy can lead us toward greater peace and freedom. In the Jewish world of Jesus, it was customary for disciples to follow their rabbi so closely that they got covered in the dust from his footsteps as he walked up the sandy path ahead of them. They wanted to hear every word, to understand every instruction, to stay close to their rabbi as he led the way. Following him continuously, they not only listened to what their rabbi said. They watched what he did and the way he reacted. Their goal was to become as much like him as possible because they believed he was living a life that pleased God.

That’s how we should think about our relationship with Christ. Jesus is our Rabbi, the one who shows us what it means to live the God-blessed life. Remember his words to his disciples: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

When we follow Jesus, our Rabbi, and stay close to him, we begin to calm down. We become more peaceful because we let go of our pretensions to rule the universe. We stop trying to do the impossible, such as seeing the future or controlling every circumstance. We leave what belongs to God in God’s hands. We also listen for his voice because we know that Jesus can help us navigate our present. Following him makes us peaceable and teachable, even in the most unpredictable and frightening of circumstances.

The Peace Giver

When they think of experiencing peace, most people assume it includes feeling peaceful, tranquil, secure. But is this what God promises in the here and now? History does tell of martyrs who went to their death gladly and peacefully. And the apostle Paul, writing from prison, says that he has “learned the secret of being content in any and every situation” (Philippians 4:12). He indicates that it is possible to learn to be peaceful regardless of our circumstances.

Still, it would seem that even Jesus did not always experience emotional peace. Witness his anger at the way the temple had been turned into a marketplace, or his tears at the death of his friend Lazarus, or his agony in the garden of Gethsemane. Perhaps neither Jesus nor his Father are promising that we will always feel peaceful, at least while we are here on earth. Maybe they are more concerned that we learn to base our lives on the peace that Christ has won, experiencing ever-deepening shalom as we follow after him.

That peace has been won by the person we know as the Prince of Peace, or in Hebrew Sar Shalom. Though Jesus spoke of bringing a sword (Matthew 10:34), he also brought shalom to all who embraced the gospel.

  • To the woman bleeding for twelve years, he said: “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.” (Mark 5:34)
  • To the woman who washed his feet with tears, he said: “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” (Luke 7:50)
  • To the disciple who doubted, he said: “Peace be with you! … Stop doubting and believe.” (John 20:26-27)
  • To his disciples before his death, he said: “My peace I give you.” (John 14:27)

In these scenes and many others from the Gospels, we see Jesus restoring what is broken, healing what is bent, saving what is on the brink of destruction. If we want peace, we must embrace the one who brings it. Living as his disciple is the only way to experience all that Christ has for us.

Special Delivery

The world loves the peaceful Jesus: the Christmas baby in the manger, the wise and humble teacher of the Sermon on the Mount. Gentle Jesus meek and mild … or so we think. But a careful reading of the Gospels reveals someone who seems at times to go out of his way to provoke his listeners. Did Jesus really mean it when he said he came to bring peace? If so, what kind of peace was he talking about? And what exactly did he mean when he spoke of “my peace” and of giving it “not as the world gives”?

Furthermore, how could Jesus say these things on what must have been the most troubled night of his life? Just a short while later he would fall on his face in Gethsemane, praying to his Father about the fearful events that would soon overtake him. To his lethargic and prayer-less disciples, Jesus described his soul as being “overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (Mark 14:34). He knew, though they did not, that in just hours he would suffer arrest, abandonment, and death. How, then, could he speak of peace and of having so much of it that he could give it away?

The very first words Jesus speaks to his disciples after his resurrection, when they are gathered together, are these: “Peace be with you!” (John 20:19, 21), as if he knows precisely their need, terrified as they are by the Romans and by the religious leaders who conspired to murder their rabbi. They are in profound turmoil because everything they believe has been called into question by his death.

Noting the wounds in his hands and side and seeing him alive again, his disciples would have known that this was no dreamer. Truly he was the long-awaited Messiah. This shocking realization must have produced in them a new and deeper kind of peace, one they could never have imagined. Instead of wishing his disciples peace in an ordinary, everyday kind of way, Jesus was actually delivering peace in person. He continues to deliver this same kind of peace to us today.

Shalom

We know that the world’s original harmony was wrecked by sin. Like a Molotov cocktail thrown into a backyard garden, sin exploded the world that God had made, fracturing and dividing it. Instead of wholeness, brokenness; instead of health, illness; instead of friendship with God, alienation; instead of peace, strife.

Because we live in this fallen world that is yet to be fully redeemed, we can only glimpse the fullness of God’s peace. Scripture tells us, however, about God’s original intentions for the world he made. Consider the Hebrew word shalom, which is often translated “peace” in English translations of the Bible. While such a translation is accurate, comparing the word peace to the word shalom is like comparing a twig to a log or a boy to a man. When we think of peace, we tend to think of an inner sense of calm or an absence of conflict.

Shalom, however, means these things and more. It means “wellness,” “completeness,” “perfection,” “safety,” “soundness,” “success,” “wholeness,” “health,” and good relationships between people and nations. When there is shalom, everything is as it should be, our lives are as God meant them to be, our world is in the order he intended. To experience such peace in its fullness is to experience healing, satisfaction, prosperity. To be at peace is to be happy, fulfilled. It is a sign of the blessed life of the new creation. Peace has a whiff of paradise about it. It offers us a taste of the world to come.

Sometimes we sense this kind of peace as we worship with others, or as we pray quietly, or when forgiveness is asked for and received. Bent things are straightened. Hurt things are healed.

The Bible locates shalom in only one place — in God himself. We find such peace by living in harmony with him. As we do, our divisions, both external and internal, start to heal. We become fulfilled, complete. The harmony we have with him in turn produces harmony with others and harmony within ourselves. This is peace beyond our circumstances or feelings. This is shalom—life as it should be.

Lasting Peace

Remember the story of Dorothy, the young girl from Kansas, who followed the yellow brick road in search of the Emerald City and the great wizard of Oz? At one point in her quest, she and her companions wander into a field of poppies. Though Dorothy doesn’t know it, she is standing on dangerous ground because the flowers exude a scent that can lull unwary travelers into a sleep that will last forever.

Our own world can sometimes function like that gorgeous field of poppies, lulling us by its pleasures and seducing us by its comforts — a nicer house, a better job, a thinner body. We become consumed with pleasant distractions instead of focused on our spiritual journey. Like the flying monkeys Dorothy later encountered, trouble, too, can ensnare us. The stock market plunges and fear proliferates. Our children struggle and anxiety takes over. Our career disappoints and depression sets in.

Of course God can use our difficulties, as well as our desires, to advance his plans. It is sometimes true, as the saying goes, that the obstacle itself is the path. A sickness can lead to deeper prayer and greater empathy. A difficult child can lead to greater faith and patience. Nothing is wasted in the lives of those who belong to God. Even our pleasurable pursuits can help us discern his will. The mistake comes from pursuing or resisting desires and difficulties on our own, without seeking God’s help and guidance.

Think for a moment about the things that upset you most in the past week as well as the ones providing the most joy. Do any of them have the whiff of eternity about them, or do they merely carry the scent of this world? Is the power and presence of God the driving force of your life, or are you constantly buffeted by the winds of success, comfort, fear, or anxiety?

If pursued or resisted without reference to God, both our struggles and desires can obscure not only the path ahead but the fact that we are even on a path. If we want to experience lasting peace, it is vital to keep walking on the path of faith, to continue to follow the one who loves us, God our Father.

The Search for Peace

For most of us, the word peace has a certain wistfulness to it, an “if only” quality. This sense of wistfulness arises because we can think of countless things that prevent us from experiencing the peace we desire. We think, “If only I could go on a vacation,” or “If only I could get a better job.” This sense of wistfulness arises because we can think of countless things that prevent us from experiencing the peace we desire.

Each of us can come up with our own list of “if onlys” — of the situations or the people we would like to change so that our lives wouldn’t feel so rushed and anxious and stressful. Such lists, of course, imply that peace is situational. We will experience peace once our troublesome circumstances are resolved, once that difficult person moves on, once we find a new job.

Circumstances do, of course, affect our sense of happiness. There are often countless obstacles to discovering the peace we seek: financial stress, strained relationships, poor physical health, as well as psychological ills like anxiety, phobias, and clinical depression. When our circumstances remain the same and various obstacles appear insurmountable, can we still find the peace God promises? Is it possible to experience peace even in the midst of so much tension and difficulty?

If your experience is anything like mine, finding peace is not a destination as much as it is a journey. Making progress on such a journey toward peace may be hard to measure sometimes. You may even feel as if you are taking one step forward and two steps back. Like life itself, our progress toward peace does not follow a linear path.

But as you base your peace on the character and personhood of God — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — you will find that in the end, even the least peaceful times in your life will have drawn you closer to the one who is himself our peace. The mystery of how exactly this can happen resides not so much in our own efforts but in God’s grace and in his unswerving desire to deliver on the promise he has made.