Last month we heard a lot about “peace on earth.” Now of course most of us have moved on to our hectic, non-peaceful lives. I’ll admit, “peace on earth” is not a concept that meant much to me when I was young; only recently have I recognized that “peace on earth” does not only mean peace from wars and violence and political debates, but also peace in my soul and in the souls of those around me. Peace from anxiety, peace from sadness, peace in the midst of busyness and stress. How can such peace be achieved?
Peace is perhaps the virtue which I crave the most, and the one that most often seems to elude my grasp. It is a multi-layered concept; it is not a state of mind one can reach by trying to be calm and get along with others. Superficially, peace is defined as freedom from disturbance, but a more Christian definition would be that peace is all things being in right relationship with each other. This means that your soul must be in right relationship with God, with yourself, and with the world. To be at peace with the world and those in it, we must first be at peace with ourselves, and to be at peace with ourselves we must first be at peace with God.
Step 1: Achieve Peace With God
Peace with God is achieved by abandoning ourselves completely to his will. To abandon means to leave behind, and this is what God asks of us: we must leave ourselves behind in following God; we must live a life centered around the words of Jesus: “Not my will but thine be done” (Luke 22:42).
Often I find myself wishing to become a better person for my own sake, offering prayers asking God to help me to be holy because I want to possess the personality of a holy person, but this is not complete abandonment to God. There should be no me in following Christ. If I give myself up to God and expect him to return to me myself, made perfect, it is not abandonment to him, it is wanting to get something out of my relationship with God: a very good something, to be sure, but there is a note of selfishness and pride at the root. Selfishness and pride are not to be found in complete abandonment of self. And only with complete abandonment is true peace to be found.
Step 2: Achieve Peace With Yourself
Peace with yourself stems from self-awareness. Lack of self-awareness and self-knowledge can lead to great anxiety in your soul. If you don’t know yourself—if you don’t know why you do certain things, why you feel certain things, why you want certain things—then it is not surprising that you feel a sense of anxiety. Fortunately, the first step in gaining self-awareness is easy: it is simply coming to know that you do not know yourself well. About a year ago I realized that this “not knowing” about myself was contributing to the absence of peace in my soul. Lack of self-awareness was also causing me to continually and erroneously place blame on circumstances or other people for things which I did, and this only led to anger and frustration. But in cultivating self-awareness, I came to know my own weaknesses. Once you can face your weaknesses, you are able to work on conquering them. Once you come to know yourself, you will understand your thoughts, actions, and how to change them, and this is true freedom.
Chase after self-awareness in your life. Don’t be afraid of silence. We live in a noisy world, and sounds are constantly stimulating our brains, making it difficult to really be alone with ourselves. And perhaps that is what you want—perhaps you are afraid to be alone with yourself, perhaps you are afraid of who you really are. But you cannot avoid knowing yourself and at the same time achieve real peace. Take a few minutes every day, at least, to be in silence. Ask yourself questions. What are your fears? Why are you afraid of these things? What are your desires? Why do you want these things?
“Peace” is a biblical term. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word for peace is shalôm. Literally, it means “to be complete or whole”. How can you be whole and complete if you don’t completely know your whole self?
Step 3: Achieve Peace With the World
So far I’ve addressed only internal peace, which is foundational. But we also need external peace. External peace is peace with the world and with those around us. “The fruit of justice will be peace” (Isaiah 32:17)—justice and peace are intrinsically linked. The virtue justice is achieved when all have their rightful due; when all possess what they are rightfully owed, peace will naturally follow. This is what social justice works for: while Christian charity has always sought to alleviate the symptoms of social issues, true social justice works to eliminate the causes of social issues. To work for peace and justice in the world, we must ask, “How can we work to remove the obstacles that prevent people from living in accordance with their human dignity?” Once the value of human life and dignity has been restored, peace will follow as all have the freedom to live in accordance with their true value.
The world is full of anxiety and death, but God offers us peace and life. Let’s remember the lesson of Christmas year-round: accept the gift that the Prince of Peace has come down to offer to you, and carry in your heart the words that the angels sang over Bethlehem over two thousand years ago—Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people of goodwill.