I expect we all know people who often suffer pain or distress. A dear friend of mine has severe arthritis in her feet. When I am with her, I am always anxious that her pain does not become excruciating. I have another friend who is poor and prone to depression, and I am anxious that he remains able to cope.
We not only worry about other people, but can have quite legitimate concerns about ourselves—about our health, our work, even about whether we are serving God as well as we ought.
Should Christians be worried about themselves and others? In our church services we regularly say to one another “Peace be with you.” But peace is not always easy to find.
Jesus warned his disciples that they would experience strife and persecution: “You must not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. I have come to set a man against his father…” and so on (Matt. 10: 34-6) Jesus taught his disciples to expect the same sort of hostility and violence as he received. In his farewell discourse, according to St John, he said: “Remember what I said: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ As they persecuted me, they will persecute you…” (John 15:20)
Then what should his disciples on earth expect? Perhaps they should expect to enjoy peace of mind, peace within, yet a measure of hostility from those without who oppose the values they hold. The Bible seems to endorse this view.
Indeed, according to the Bible we can enjoy the peace of God himself. St Paul promised the Philippians the peace of God which surpasses all understanding (Philippians 4: 7). According to St John, Jesus offered his disciples his own peace: “my peace I give you” (John 14: 27), and again “in me you may have peace” (John 16: 33). Finally, according to St Paul, one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit is peace (Galatians 5:22).
What peace is to be found in God, and how can we find that peace for ourselves? Here are a couple of suggestions.
First, God, being wholly good and wise, is not torn by temptation to act badly or foolishly, as we often are. Rather, his will is always good and right. We can enjoy that single mindedness to the extent that we turn away from the temptation to follow our own desires, and listen to God and obey him.
Soren Kierkegaard wrote a work entitled “Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing.” He points out that it is not enough to seek God’s will for the benefits that might follow from doing so, for that is what he calls “double mindedness.” He also explains that to find God one must be still and listen. He writes that God’s presence in us
is like the murmuring of a brook. If you go buried in your own thoughts, if you are busy, then you do not notice it at all in passing. You are not aware that this murmuring exists. But if you stand still, then you discover it. And if you have discovered it, then you must stand still. And when you stand still, then it persuades you. And when it has persuaded you, then you must stoop and listen attentively to it. And when you have stooped to listen to it, then it captures you.
In this way we can draw near to God, and discover his word for us. Here is one way to find peace of mind.
Another experience of peace comes from discovering God’s love for us. Augustine famously wrote of God: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.” We not only long for God’s guidance, but also for his love. God’s nature is loving. There is the love of the three persons of the Trinity for one another. And there is the love all three have for us, expressed in creation, revelation, salvation and sanctification. We become particularly aware of God’s love for us as He guides and supports us in His service. St Paul was right to identify our peace of mind with our knowledge and love of God (Phil. 4:7).
But does our awareness of God’s word to us and of his love for us ensure our peace of mind? In our love for others, we feel distress when things go badly for them, and anger towards those who harm them. Jesus wept over Jerusalem when it failed to recognize him as its Messiah; and he was angry with religious leaders who failed to love the people in their care. When Jesus knew that his friend Lazarus was dead, we are told, “he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled” and indeed “Jesus wept.” (John, 11:33, 35)
To find complete peace of mind we would have to follow the teaching of the Stoics, who advised people to detach themselves from all their emotions, both selfish and compassionate. Instead, they said, we should act purely rationally, loving others as a matter of duty. Even Bertrand Russell, who was not a Christian, found such teaching abhorrent. He writes of
a certain coldness in the Stoic conception of virtue. Not only bad passions are condemned, but all passions. The sage does not feel sympathy; when his wife or his children die, he reflects that this event is no obstacle to his own virtue, and therefore he does not suffer deeply. …It has not occurred to him to love his neighbour as himself; love, except in a superficial sense, is absent from his conception of virtue. (History of Western Philosophy, Allen and Unwin: London, 1946, pp.278-9).
God puts wisdom in the service of love. He does not call us to a life of emotional detachment, but to a life lived in love of himself and others. As we love others we are bound to be distressed, anxious and sad and times. This is part of the price of love, of the cross we have to bear. But in loving others, our pain matters little to us beside the suffering of the people we love.
We are promised perfect peace only in heaven, where “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Rev. 21: 4)