“Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this” (Isa. 9:7).
“All humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone” (Blaise Pascal, Pensées).
Other than a few proper names, there is no word in the world more important to me than peace. I suppose it is because for a long time I lived without it. Anyone whose world has been stripped of peace knows just how much its worth.
But defining peace is nearly impossible. This is evident the moment you try to think of its opposite. There’s belief and there’s unbelief. There’s happy and sad. There’s hope and despair. There’s good and evil, heaven and hell, holy and unholy, books and Instagram. But what is the opposite of peace? Is it War or is it angst? Is it Chaos? Hostility? Worry? Restlessness? Anxiety? Bitterness? Hatred? Rage? Violence? Revenge? Discord? The Middle East? The nightly news? Divorce court? The human heart? Where is peace located—within or without?
Peace is such an all-encompassing word that to not have it is to be both engulfed by and filled with the “formless void.” The formless void is existence with no reference points, not coordinates, no order. To be in a formless void is to be restlessly lost. It is to live in world of darkness that both covers the face of the deep (Gen. 1:2) and hides its face in the dark (Gen. 3:7-8). It is the void within and the darkness without. In fact, in the book of revelation, the second of the so-called four horsemen of the apocalypse was not instructed to impose violence in an otherwise peaceful world, as is sometimes suggested. He was simply “permitted to remove peace from the earth, so that people will slay one another” (Rev. 6:4). There is no more terrible a prospect of God’s wrath than God’s absence. If perfect peace has an exact opposite, it is pure absence. (See this footnote for explanation). In the words of Karl Barth, “The enterprise of the No-God is avenged by its success.” Indeed.
But this is counterintuitive. In our culture, we actually tend to think of peace as a kind of absence. If I could just get some peace and quiet! By that we mean we need a halt, a ceasefire, a break—we need to be absent from all the activity and noise we are surrounded by to find peace. But the real question isn’t why we need some peace and quiet every now and again. The real question is why we need activity and noise all the time. Why are we more compelled to return to the chaos than retreat from it? Why are 63% of Americans stressed, a quarter of which addicted to stress, while people on the other side of the cultural pole are addicted to distraction? Why is it so hard to not fill the void with the noise?
Is it that our abundance of activity contributes to our lack of peace or that our lack of peace contributes to our abundance of activity?
How long can you sit in a room alone?
I can’t help but think that a “culture of more” is the inevitable product of culture that has poured its foundation in the void. I can’t help but think that in such a culture more can never be enough–because the void wasn’t for us to fill; it was created for God to fill. It is there so that we will come to know our need of God.
About five years back, Keldy and I were meeting regularly with a young gal helping her through some of life’s regulars, a few irregulars as well. One evening we had one of those rare “come to Jesus” moments, because it was pretty clear Jesus had come to her. There were tears, confessions, a white flag slowly being raised from her heart. But I could tell there was still some white in her knuckles as it related to one very destructive relationship she knew she needed to let go of. I tried to convince her that staying in this relationship was like holding on to a ticking time bomb. Her response: “I’d rather die with someone who hurts me than be alone. I just don’t want to be alone.” For this girl, it wasn’t a presence she feared, no matter how destructive, but an absence.
I can’t say that I blame her. I know what all sorts of pain feels like, and there is no pain that hurts more than loneliness. Indeed, “it is not good for man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18), so we would rather die with the ones who hurt us than be left to live alone.
But that’s not our only option.
On October 1, 2014 (an easy day to remember: my mother’s birthday, the day I got my second DUI–I was 18), I got a text from the same girl. It’d likely been a year since I had talked her. She was off to college and I had, quite frankly, given up on her. But Jesus hadn’t.
I saved our conversation:
G: [Her opening line:] “I am ready to give my life to Christ. I’m not sure what to do, so I need your help.”
Me: “Did something happen? What changed?”
G: “I was lying in bed in my dorm room, by myself, and suddenly I just felt at peace. It felt like my room filled up with peace.”
Me: “What do you mean?”
G: “I mean I didn’t feel alone anymore, and the only thing I could think about was Jesus.”
Me: “Go and tell three people what just happened. I’ll call you tomorrow morning.”
Jesus has a special holiday name, Emmanuel, which means “God with us.” The Gift of Christmas is the nothing less than the presence of God. It is God’s gift of God’s self. The King of Kings comes to us as Prince of Peace.
At the second Advent of Christ, Isaiah says there will be no end to peace, no empty dorm rooms, no empty high school girl hearts, no empty void selling endless fixes for to a culture of more. Jesus will establish a government based on the peace of his presence. But Jesus’ presence is available today. Immanuel really means Immanuel.
The question we all must confront is whether our lives are based on a presence or whether our lives are based on an absence. Have you dared to pray for God’s peace?