What is peace in the heart?
I know one thing it is not. It is not an absence of bad things happening to us, such as suffering, conflict, betrayals, misunderstandings, and the whole gamut of woes that are part and parcel of life. If true peace depended on the absence of such things, then true peace would be unobtainable in this life, because few among us, if any, go through life without some element of suffering and woundedness. In fact, for those who live in love, pain and suffering are never far away, simply because to love others is to make yourself vulnerable.
So, if peace in the heart is not acquired by an absence of bad things (and was simply a result of a life of contentment and self-centred ease) just how is it possibly attainable for good folk, and is it in any way something that we can aspire to in this life?
The message of Jesus’ Gospel of Good News is yes, true peace in the heart is attainable, and attainable here and now. If it were not then it would be quite valueless for us – mere pie in the sky. God’s gift of peace – it is His gift – is precisely for here and now, in the midst of our real lives of joy and sorrow. How so? It seems contradictory.
The simple answer is that peace in the heart is based, not on an easy life, but in trust in God. It’s as simple and as difficult as that. Easy to put into words, not so easy to embody in daily life.
Those of us who are Christians may feel that we already trust God – after all, we pray, go to church, do our best to love one another, etc, etc. That’s wonderful, but if I say peace comes through trusting in God, then the acid test of our trust is precisely when things are dark and difficult. We can easily fool ourselves that we are truly trusting God when everything is great, but how deep is that trust and will it endure when things go wrong?
Many years ago, I preached on peace and afterwards a woman came up to me, blazing angry! When she cooled down she explained that her son was in the British army and had just been posted to Northern Ireland, which at that time was a very dangerous place for a British soldier. How could I talk about peace when she was frantic with worry? We prayed together and I tried to explain to her that peace was still possible for her, but she had to really put her trust in God. She had to trust that no matter what happened to her son, even injury and death, God would not lose him. She had to believe in God’s promise that nothing in this life, not even death, can separate us and our loved ones from His love. For God was not about to promise that her son would be kept safe but He did promise never to abandon or lose her son. As much as she loved her son, God loved him even more.
She came back a few days later and said that she began to understand but it was so very hard, and yet some degree of peace was already growing in her heart.
We’re not playing at games here, and neither is God. Life can be hard and God doesn’t promise to spare us from suffering, but He does promise to be with us with all the grace we need to endure. The secular world has nothing to offer – it can only suggest we avoid trouble – that is not peace! God’s gift of peace is of an entirely different order – Jesus is quite clear on this (John 14: 27).
Two very practical suggestions for gaining true peace in the heart!
~ pray every day with sincerity the beautiful prayer of Cardinal Mercier:
Oh, Holy Spirit, beloved of my soul – I adore you. Enlighten me, guide me, strengthen me, console me. Tell me what I should do; give me your orders. I promise to submit myself to all that you desire of me and to accept all that you permit to happen to me. Let me only know your will.
~ take St Paul’s advice to the Philippians to heart (4: 6 – 7):
do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
I have emphasised two phrases:
~ accept all that [God] will permit to happen to me;
~ with thanksgiving.
Yes, God must permit even bad things to happen to us in this life, but that doesn’t mean our peace can be shattered if we keep trust in His purpose and faithfulness.
And thanksgiving – if you can thank God in all things, then you really are a person who trusts in Him, and His peace is yours for the taking,