~ Thomas Cole, “Angels Appearing to Shepherds”
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased” (Lk. 2:14).
Other than a few proper names, there is no word in my vocabulary more important to me than the word 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 it’s worth.
But defining peace is nearly impossible. This is evident the moment you try to think of its opposite. There’s happy and there’s sad. There’s hope and despair. There’s joy and sorrow, good and evil, heaven and hell, dogs and
devils I mean cats. But what is the opposite of peace? Is it war or is it worry? Is it Hostility? Restlessness? Angst? Anxiety? Fear? Bitterness? Hatred? Rage? Violence? Revenge? Discord? Division? Divorce? Chaos? Where is peace essentially located, or not? Is it in the heart or in relationships or in nations or between nations? Is it within or without? Is peace the natural state of affairs or do we, and does our world, default to its opposite, whatever that opposite may be at bottom?
Peace is such an all-encompassing word that there is no single word that can describe what it is like not to have it. Nor is it clear how to get it. There are no guaranteed paths that lead to peace, even though everyone is searching for it in one way or another, or perhaps running from its opposite, but there simply is no predictable profile of a person who has it or does not. We may have all been able to guess that Kurt Cobain struggled to find peace, but Robin Williams? Those at the top of the ladder are just as potentially bankrupt as those at the bottom.
Perhaps, then, there is no definitive opposite of peace to speak of, only its definitive absence. It is surely the case that no matter how many things a person might have, to have no peace is in a certain sense to have nothing. I do not mean to not have anything but to have precisely nothing: an inescapable void right at the center of everything else, like the billions of stars in our galaxy that all have a supermassive black hole churning at the center. It is indeed the absence of peace that sets much of our world in motion, into commotion. Everyone is searching for its presence (or running from its absence) but more often than not search (or run) in vain. The absence of peace cannot be filled with any substitute presence any more than a black hole can be filled with starlight. It’s like the absence of a person. The only thing that can fill the absence of a person is that same person’s presence. There is no replacement for peace.
In the Bible the absence of peace is, in fact, a personal matter. There is a hole churning at the heart of the world. God made the world to be especially present to it, in it. After breathing the universe into being and hanging the stars and planets up like nursery mobiles on natural laws, he picked one planet to fill personally with his presence. Apart from his presence “the earth was without form and void and darkness was over the face of the deep” (Gen. 1:2). The formless void is creation with no particular reference points, no special order, no governing Lord, like the raging the storms of Jupiter or the searing surface of Venus–character without face. The laws of nature may be able to loosely hold things together but they cannot put life together in the least. Special attention is needed. A Person is needed to make persons. The world apart from God is utterly indifferent to life. Indeed, the popular atheist writer Richard Dawkins is at least partially write:
The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.
River Out of Eden, A Darwinian View of Life
Except that down here, at bottom, on the ground from which we observe the apparently lifeless, though unspeakably beautiful, universe, life is teaming and sprawling in a messy abundance. The world is given its daily bread—indiscriminately, not indifferently—because God has intervened, bringing order and giving form, separating seas from trees and shaping up mountains from the mantle, filling the void with his presence calling forth sea urchins and seagulls, petunias and pomegranates, and finally breathing his Spirit into a creature filled with a unique blessing of life in the form of love, completing his work by entering into on the seventh day, his first day off and our first day alive. The table was set and we were born into a feast, born at rest (Gen. 1:1-2:4). The world with God is utterly at peace.
God had given dominion to human beings to govern the world in his image with his presence under his guidance. But they abused their power, seeking to become gods in their own image, and thus turned away from the presence of God (Gen. 3). It was not long before all creation all but returned to a formless void: “In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life…on that day all the springs of the great deep burst forth, and the floodgates of the heavens were opened” (Gen. 7:10-11). It wasn’t that God caused something unnatural to happen so much as it was that he allowed nature to take its course. He had separated the waters in ordering creation to make an oasis of life (Gen. 1:7). Judgment was simply a matter of withdrawing his sustaining hand.
And in the book of Revelation, the rider on the “fiery red horse” did not bring judgment by wielding his own sword. He was simply sent “to remove peace from the earth, so that men would slay one another” (Rev. 6:4). Men apart from God are utterly indifferent to life. The natural world and all that is in it defaults to chaos in God’s absence. There is no more terrible a prospect of God’s wrath than God’s absence.
Perhaps, then, peace does have a definitive opposite in that it does have a definitive absence. The opposite of peace is godlessness, in a literal sense. In the words of Karl Barth, “The enterprise of the No-God is avenged by its success.” So if you want to find peace, you have to go straight to the source. There is no replacement for 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. I tried to convince her that staying in this relationship was like holding on to a ticking time bomb. I’ll never forget her response: “I’d rather die with someone who hurts me than be left 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.
A few years later I got a text from the same girl. It’d likely been a year since I had talked to 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 Jesus. 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 personal presence of God. The presence of God has come to us in the Person of Jesus Christ and comes to dwell within us in the Person of the Holy Spirit. Jesus himself said,
“The Spirit of truth…is with you, and he will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you…Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid. You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I will come to you…I have told you before it takes place, so that when it does take place you may believe'” (Jn. 14:18-29).
Jesus gives us his peace not as the world gives. That means, you don’t have to keep chasing empty promises and following false pursuits. Perhaps the best thing you could do is acknowledge the fact that you’re likely not running to something so much as you are running away from something. Perhaps you could face the absence square in the eye and fill the void with the Name of Jesus, calling on him to do what only he can do: to fill the absence in your life with the Person you are running from. There simply is no replacement for Peace.
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of Peace
there will be no end” (Isa. 9:6-7).