I wonder how many millions of cards are being exchanged this month with the words “Peace on Earth.” I wonder also, how many millions of people consider the sentiment foolish – and the faith behind it misguided – when even a cursory look at the news shows that there is not peace on earth.
People’s real reasons for rejecting Christianity are certainly not always the same as the reasons they give – even to themselves. But I know that for some people, the fact that our world is still so plagued by wars and strife, two thousand years after the coming of the “Prince of peace,” is a strong argument against it.
For me, the traditional theological explanation that the time is still future when “the lamb will lie down with the lion,” after Jesus returns in power and glory, is satisfactory. Until then, those who follow Jesus have peace with God and with one another. (That is, they have peace with one another to the extent that they follow Jesus; examples abound of people who claim to follow Jesus fighting amongst themselves, unfortunately.) Once He returns, there will be outward peace as well as inward peace.
Perhaps this is at least part of why I find it hard to get as excited about the idea of peace as I do the idea of hope (see last Sunday’s post). Hope is by definition oriented toward the future. Peace is something that we experience to a certain extent now, and expect to more in the future – but we have no idea how far in the future that may be.
Christian eschatology teaches that the return of Jesus is imminent, meaning that it could happen at any time, but not necessarily soon. When I was a teenager, I went to churches where a lot of people were convinced that it had to be within the next few years (because they believed that the founding of the state of Israel was a key to fulfilled prophecy). I really was not too keen on losing the chance to live at least long enough on earth to feel I had served God effectively before meeting Him face to face, but I didn’t dare admit to not wanting Jesus to come back soon.
These days, I’m not sure just how effectively I have served God, but I am no longer bothered by the idea my life on earth could end anytime, whether by death or the return of Jesus Christ. After decades of hearing people predict that His return was not just imminent but must be soon, however, I find it hard to expect them to finally be proved right.
In my head I accept the idea that Jesus could come back at any time. In my head, I also accept the idea that, any time I drive my car, I could end up in a serious car accident. In practical terms, on any given day, I probably think of the latter as far more likely.
So “peace on earth” ends up being primarily an ideal state that I don’t expect to see realized in my lifetime. And my own sense of peace with God tends to come and go based on the extent of my efforts to cultivate my relationship with Him.
As for being at peace with other people, I’ve never tended to encounter much overt conflict. It puzzles me sometimes how other people I know seem to get upset with each other so often, while I seem to get along fine with each of them. I simply find it easy enough, most of the time, to do what people would like me to do, or occasionally to respond with an acceptable reason why not.
My difficulty tends to be in those times when what one person wants me to do conflicts with what someone else wants. Or, even more difficult, when I realize that while I’m willing to do what someone wants, I’m not happy about it, and I wonder if I should be saying no, which has always been quite difficult for me.
I’m sure the Christmas message of peace has relevance for those times, but I find it difficult to figure out, in practical terms, how to apply it. Churches tend to have plenty of practical advice for people who have trouble controlling their temper or getting along with other people. I find it much harder to find practice advice for how to speak up when it’s so much easier (at least in the short-term) to do what someone else wants.
And that is why I find myself turning back to the idea of hope. For now I continue to muddle along, avoiding most outward strife but tolerating a certain amount within. But I hope for God’s patient work in me to teach me how to both seek peace with others and sometimes say “no” when it needs to be said.