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One day a father was sitting in his study, attempting to work while keeping an eye on his young son. Looking around for something to occupy the boy, he tore a picture of the earth from the pages of a magazine. Ripping the picture into small pieces, he cupped the shredded blue and green papers in his hands and offered them to the boy as a gift. "Here's a puzzle for you to put together," he said.
Trotting out of the room to reassemble the puzzle, his son seemed happy with his new assignment. Turning back to his work, the father smiled, confident that at last he could count on some uninterrupted work time. But his sense of satisfaction vanished when the boy walked back into his study, triumphantly announcing the successful completion of the puzzle. "How," the surprised father asked, "did you put it together so quickly?"
"It was easy," the boy replied. "There's a person on the other side of the page and when you put the person together, you put the world together."
The boy's unintended wisdom cuts to the heart of our quest for peace.
Perhaps you are reading this book because you wonder what life would be like if you could find a way to banish your anxiety or to let go of the peace-destroying thoughts that plague you. Or maybe you are hoping to rid yourself of memories that control and disturb you. Or perhaps you are sure you will explode if one more thing gets added to your harried schedule. Whatever the circumstances, you want the peace God promises to become more evident in your life.
There was a time in my own life when I thought (but did not admit) that money would make me feel secure. At other times, I was sure life would calm down if only I could find a way to exert more control over my circumstances and the people who were causing me difficulty. Perhaps you've been drawn to other strategies, building your life on the assumption that peace will come as soon as you find the perfect relationship, the perfect vacation, the perfect job. Of course there's nothing wrong with a good vacation or a great job. And finding someone who loves you is one of life's great gifts. All of these can add happiness to your life. But none is capable of producing the peace God promises.
The problem is not so much that we are searching for a kind of peace that does not exist (more about that later) but that we are looking for peace in the wrong places. It's like searching for New York City in Florida. No matter how many times you drive from Jacksonville to Key West, you will never find it.
So what should we do? Perhaps it is time to ask God to teach us about the kind of peace he promises to give, to let him "put us back together" as persons made in his image. Maybe the best way to pursue our dreams of peace will be to focus first on God's dreams for us. Who does he want us to be? What does he want us to believe? One thing we can be sure of. The peace God promises isn't a solitary, selfish kind of peace, like gold to be hoarded and kept. His peace is more like leaven. It can make us into people whose lives can touch the world, transforming it with grace and truth.
For most of us, the word peace has a certain wistfulness to it, an "if only" quality. "If only I could get a better job"; "If only I could afford a vacation"; "If only I had married someone who was easier to get along with"; "If only my kids would listen"; "If only I could retire." This sense of wistfulness arises because we can think of countless things that prevent us from experiencing the peace we desire. Always, the peace we long for seems just out of reach.
This is especially true during certain seasons in our lives. Several years ago, I began thinking about how I would celebrate a milestone birthday when it was yet a ways off. As the mother of two young children, I longed for a little peace, for time to get away from the incessant demands that children inevitably make. I wanted to do what I wanted to all day long for an entire week with no one tugging at me, no one needing me, and no one making any demands.
A full two years before that birthday, I decided I would celebrate on some island paradise. Perhaps the Cayman Islands. Just thinking about it made me feel more relaxed, anticipating the warm sand caressing every step, the blue-green water stretching out to the horizon. One year out, I thought it might be more practical to plan a trip to Florida. There are lots of gorgeous beaches in Florida. Six months in advance of my significant birthday, I set my heart on a weekend in Chicago. Then, a week before the big day, I thought, "If only I could get out to the mall!"
Each of us can come up with our own list of "if onlys"— of the things or the people who make our lives feel fragmented 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. But what happens when our circumstances remain frustratingly the same, as they so often do? Can we still find the peace God promises? Or are we the grand exception, the one person to whom his promises do not apply?
Listen, for a moment to a few of the promises God makes to us in Scripture:
You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in you. (Isaiah 26:3)
The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (Galatians 5:22–23a)
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. (John 14:27)
Did God really mean it when he said these things? If so, what kind of peace was he talking about? And what exactly did Jesus 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. Was Jesus only a foolish dreamer and they his gullible disciples?
The Hebrew phrase Jesus probably used to greet his astonished friends was this: Shalom aleikhem—"Peace be upon you." This is the traditional greeting by which many Jews still greet each other today. But instead of wishing his disciples peace in an ordinary, everyday kind of way, Jesus was actually delivering peace in person. 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. To understand the full import of Jesus' words, it will help to ask what the biblical word shalom means and what it reveals about the nature of the peace God promises to give.
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Comparing the English word "peace" to the Hebrew 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. The idea of 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 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.
The gospels use the Greek word eirene for "peace." One commentator says that peace "is a state of being that lacks nothing and has no fear of being troubled in its tranquility; it is euphoria coupled with security." I don't know about you, but I would gladly settle for a little bit of "euphoria coupled with security." 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 Paul, writing from prison, says that he has "learned the secret of being content in any and every situation" (Philippians 4:12). Paul seems to be saying 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.
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 shalom. 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. Shalom is life as it should be. Bent things are straightened. Hurt things are healed.
The Bible locates shalom in only one place—in God himself. Early in the history of his people, God instructed Moses to extend this blessing to them:
The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace. (Numbers 6:24–26)
We find peace by living in harmony with God. 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.
I admit that I have yet to meet anyone who seems perfectly at peace. But I do know some who seem closer to that ideal than others. Mr. José is the janitor at my daughter's school. Even without a high status job he is one of the most admired men I know. Parents and students love Mr. José because he is kind to even the most difficult children. The peace he radiates helps set the tone for the entire school.
I know a pastor and his wife who have experienced extraordinary things in their ministry. Whenever I hear about their next venture, my stomach begins to churn because of the risks they take. I have watched them as they have listened to God and then made decisions that can't possibly work unless God comes through. And he does come through, often in remarkable ways. Maybe you know people like that, people who are able to take on challenges with an underlying sense that no matter what happens, God is still with them.
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All of us come to our longing for peace from slightly different places. I confess that one of my least favorite Scripture passages is from 1 Peter. In it, Peter urges the Christians of Asia Minor, specifically the women, to develop a "gentle and quiet spirit" (1 Peter 3:4). This has always rubbed me the wrong way, perhaps because, though I am neither loud nor brash, I would not characterize myself as particularly gentle. And why, I wonder, does Peter address only the women? Are men off the hook then, free to behave in rough and brutish ways? Couldn't a case be made that men in particular have a need to reign in their aggressions?
I have been tempted to conclude that Peter preferred women who were passive and weak rather than strong and confident. Such a preference would seem to fit the stereotype of many Middle Eastern males even today. But is that entirely fair? I have recently begun to wonder whether I have been misreading the advice Peter was giving the early Christians. What if, instead of urging them toward weakness, Peter was urging them toward strength, saying, in effect, that they were capable of becoming people whose peace was so strong that it radiated a kind of steady calm to everyone around them?
As I have thought about Peter's advice concerning a gentle and quiet spirit, I have realized that some of my own worst interactions, especially with my children, have happened when I have felt anything but gentle at the core of my spirit. Instead of radiating calm, I fear I have sometimes radiated anxiety in the form of nagging comments, irritation, or anger. In the light of such self-recognition, gentleness and the peace from which it springs suddenly begin to look more appealing.
My need to become a more peaceful parent has been my own entrée to the subject of peace. I want to stop worrying so that I can help create an environment where trust and faith can grow. This is what makes me want to explore what the Bible means when it talks about peace, especially as it applies to the human spirit. Are there disciplines, ways of living that lead to peace? And conversely, are there ways of looking at the world and responding to it that lead to anxiety and a conflicted life? This book represents my search for answers to these questions. I approach the topic not as an expert, nor as someone who has mastered the things that lead to peace, but as a fellow explorer, drawn to the subject because of my own need. As such, this is not primarily a book about world peace but about personal peace, which can in turn affect the wider world in which we live. To quote Wendell Berry, "One must begin in one's own life the private solutions that can only in turn become public solutions."
Though I approach the subject with my own needs in view, I realize that others will be drawn to it from different directions. You may, for instance, be sensing your need to repair a strained relationship. Or perhaps you have been frustrated by past hurts that will not heal. Or maybe you are bothered by the pace and insecurity of modern life. You want to find ways of both slowing down and calming down.
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There are, of course, countless obstacles to discovering the peace we seek. For instance, though we live in the richest nation on earth, many of us are plagued by financial insecurity. During the recent economic turmoil, I confess to many sleepless nights, wondering if my life savings were going to be washed away by an economic tsunami. How would I send my children to college, what if I couldn't pay the bills, how could I follow the biblical injunction to tithe when business conditions were so depressed? I wish I could tell you that I have come through with flying colors, trusting God to provide. But that would not be entirely true. Nor perhaps would it be true of many others who have lost far more than a good night's sleep. Is it possible to experience shalom even in the midst of so much tension and difficulty?
And what about psychological ills like anxiety and clinical depression? Though medicine and therapy may help, they cannot always vanquish our fears.
Remember the movie Psycho? I have a friend who refuses to take a shower if she is the only one home, just in case Norman Bates happens to be in the neighborhood. Apparently, she isn't alone in her fears. Here's what a few more self-confessed neurotics had to say about taking showers. Their comments are posted on a website entitled "I am neurotic."
Excerpted from The Peace God Promises by Ann Spangler Copyright © 2011 by Ann Spangler. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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