Peace is a gift that comes from God; it is something we receive from him. Yet, it is not something we can claim or demand for ourselves as something we merit. Nor can we force it upon ourselves. Rather, it is a gift freely and simply given. While everyone’s journey is different, and each person may arrive at peace in their own way under God’s guidance, we nevertheless share many parts of the journey in common. To begin with, I would say that our road to peace is our lifelong journey to God.
We begin our journey to peace through our obedience. Peace begins, first of all, with a rightly ordered relationship with God. We have the first commandment: “YOU SHALL WORSHIP THE LORD YOUR GOD AND HIM ONLY SHALL YOU SERVE.” At the foundation of our faith and spiritual lives as Christians is our recognition of the primacy of God. We begin our spiritual lives when we realize that without God, our lives are aimless, pointless, meaningless. Scripture refers to this by stating that the “beginning of wisdom is fear of God” (Prov 1:7; 9:10; Psalm 111:10). When we recognize the primacy of God, convert from our sins, strive to live upright lives, and put God first in all our affairs, we begin to allow peace to take root in our lives.
Yet, we are not an Old Testament people of the “law” alone. Righteousness and obedience to the commandments alone do not bring peace. Peace does not come solely by behaving properly. We can strive to be obedient to the law and end up like the Pharisees and Saducees. We can do our utmost to avoid sin and vice and, in the process, end up trying to “earn” God’s love and salvation by believing that it comes as a result of our actions and not from God’s grace. The truth is that we can never be good enough for God. Scripture says, “There is no one just, not one” (Romans 3:10). Or worse, we can end up like the Pharisees judging other non-believers as “sinners” or “non-believers” whom we believe are far from God and God’s ways.
Instead, Jesus preached a Gospel that fulfilled the law and was not limited to behaving properly; instead, it was an invitation to mercy, compassion, and forgiveness. We see this very clearly in the story of the Prodigal Son (cf. Luke 15:11-32). Whenever we fall short -- whether through gross sins of commission or omission, or perhaps through mild venial infractions -- we can always turn to God’s mercy through Jesus Christ. Thus, peace comes not just from moral and upright behavior; it comes from surrendering ourselves entirely to God, accepting his mercy, love, and forgiveness, and living in a relationship with him that flows from the Incarnation and the Resurrection.
Therefore, we can say that forgiveness is at the root of peace. God’s peace penetrates our lives when we accept his forgiveness through the cross. Yet, once we receive, experience, and accept God’s pardon, mercy, and forgiveness of our own sins, it follows that we will forgive those who have sinned against us. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” (Matthew 6:12). As we can all imagine how a person living a dissolute life cannot have peace in their life until they repent and convert; in a similar way, neither can the person who is the victim of such sin have peace in his or her life until they can forgive their trespasser. Yet, this is required of us as Christians. Especially if we want peace. Scripture states quite clearly that we cannot be forgiven our own sins until we forgive those who have sinned against us. “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your father who is in heaven will forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your father forgive you your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15). We cannot turn to God seeking his forgiveness for our sins and then turn around and refuse to forgive anyone who has sinned against us. It is clear that wherever there is hatred, anger, resentment, jealousy -- there can be no peace. To achieve true peace, the gift from God, we must walk the path of forgiveness.
Yet, it can often ties be difficult to forgive -- especially if we have been the victim of great evil. Yet, we must find a way to let go of the very natural desire to hate, punish, condemn, and judge. We must leave that to God. But once we realize and admit that we are sinners, we then understand that the person who wronged us is fundamentally no different from us. Aren’t we all sinners, and haven’t we all sinned. After admitting our condition, we can have empathy for others and we can forgive them. We are all sons of the same Father who is the only one who is good. “No one is good but God alone” (cf. Mark 10:18; cf. also Luke 18:19). When we admit our own sinful condition and truly experience God’s grace and love in our lives, then we become gentler with ourselves. It follows that we will also become gentle with others. When we begin to see others as ourselves, as people who are probably trying to do the best they can, then we begin to view them with empathy. And we can forgive.
If we have a particularly difficult time forgiving someone who has harmed us grievously, we can surrender and seek to offer goodness to the other person. A practical way to begin doing this is to take concrete positive actions for the person who harmed you. If you cannot do that, then pray for that person. Consider every good thing you want for yourself in your life -- good health for you and your loved ones, blessings, graces, financial well-being, etc. -- and ask it instead for the person who wronged you. Do this every day for a period of time. After several weeks, you will likely find that your anger and resentments have been greatly reduced or outright vanished. You will know that you have truly forgiven the person who harmed you when you are no longer concerned with the hurt that they caused you, but instead are concerned for the danger they did to their own soul and the grievance they caused God because of their sin.
What about ourselves. Have you ever had a difficult time forgiving yourself? For some it is easy to forgive others, but difficult to forgive themselves. Have you ever tried to make yourself “good enough”? Have you ever suffered from a sense of guilt or shame that you never measure up? Do you feel there is something flawed about yourself? Do you believe that God does not love you exactly as you are? Or, instead, can you accept yourself to be the person you were created by God without feeling that you should be something or someone different? It is difficult to have peace when we have not learned to be loving, compassionate, and forgiving towards our own selves? In fact, in the reconciliation process when we accept God’s forgiveness for our own sins and then, in turn, forgive those who have sinned against us, we must also forgive ourselves. We must learn to love ourselves. Not in an egotistical and self-serving manner, but in a way that is gentle, respectful and kind toward ourselves.
Finally, what about God? Have you ever been mad at God? If you have, or are now, it is okay. God is big enough to handle your anger. He created you (along with the heavens and the earth) and is big enough to take it. It is okay to be angry at God -- for a time. Eventually, however, when you are ready, you can let go of your anger.
The book of Job -- one of the most ancient books in the Bible -- describes well the problem of suffering and one’s relationship to God. The story is well known. Job, a pious and upright man, is suddenly plagued with total loss of fortune: his property, animals, children, and health. Finally, he succumbs to what is probably a clinical depression, and he curses the day he was born (Job 3:1-13). Nevertheless, Job never blasphemes God, which was the temptation of the devil from the beginning of the story. Yet, just the same, Job does not understand why he is being afflicted so harshly. And he defends his innocence against those who accuse him of wrongdoing, which, they believe, is God’s punishment for his sins. Job feels indignant, anguished, and frustrated, and he demands an audience with and an explanation from God himself. Finally, God shows up and challenges Job:
Where were you when I founded the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its size? Surely you know? Who stretched out the measuring line for it? Into what were its pedestals sunk, and who laid its cornerstone, While the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy? [i]
God continues with his pointed questions, which highlight how his ways are so far above our earthly understanding. God never justifies or explains precisely why Job is in his predicament; rather, he affirms his omniscience to Job. Job finally comes to recognize that in the face of God’s almighty power, majesty, knowledge, and goodness, God’s ways are unsearchable. What right did Job have to question God? He realizes that he, the creature, can never know the mind of God, the Creator. Job is finally able to accept his situation, and he reclaims his peace of mind. Then, providentially, the things that Job lost are returned. We, too, may not understand the plans of God, or know the reasons for our misfortunes, trials, tribulations, or losses. Yet, in the mind of God, in a way that may always remain mysterious, they can have their place. In hope and trust, we can surrender our sufferings and frustrations -- even our anger toward God -- and trust “that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” [ii] Perhaps God allows sin and suffering to show us a greater good.
I once heard someone say that we are all given a pile of bricks. We can use our bricks to build either walls or bridges. Our pains can cause us to protect our sensitive hearts by building walls, or else our hurts can be the catalyst that teach us how to use our bricks to build bridges. The bridges will at first be to others who will nurture and heal us. Then, once we are healed, we use our bridge to become a healer of others. We become -- in the words of Henri Nouwen -- a wounded healer. In effect, the bridge is to God. Our pain may never totally go away; but we can use it to help others. Then we have peace.
[i] Job 38:4-7
[ii] Rom 8:28