The Pursuit of God's Peace in an Anxious World
By Fr. Joshua Makoul
The world in which we live is an anxious one, rife with fear and doubt. Economic markets rise and fall, employment fluctuates, conflicts erupt in unexpected places, and each year seems to bring a threat of some new virus that threatens mankind. We are all continuously faced with events outside of our control. As time passes the future takes on greater uncertainty. Indeed, it is often our struggle with uncertainty that plagues our spiritual life and gives birth to fear and worry,
Our society today has seen a dramatic spike in what psychologists call anxiety disorders. Many who struggle with these conditions wrestle with trusting, with uncertainty, with not having control. Not all who struggle with fear and worry, however, have a “disorder,” for such struggle is universal and comes with living in the world. There are many secular treatments and potential remedies for anxiety. As Christians we have all these, and much more, at our disposal in our fight against fear and anxiety. To the challenge of not having control, we have the ultimate answer and solution: God is in control. Those who deny God’s existence or who do not turn to Him in their lives, deny themselves the greatest treatment for fear, anxiety, worry and doubt. Our God offers us something that the world cannot give us, and that is His peace.
In the Gospel of John, our Lord tells us during the Last Supper, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; . . . not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid” (John 14:27). God’s peace is real and tangible. It is there for all who desire it. Jesus posits His peace as the opposite of fear, and says that His peace counters fear and a troubled heart. We also know that God’s peace has protective qualities to it. St. Paul writes in Philippians 4:7, “And [may] the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your minds and hearts through Jesus Christ our Lord.” God’s peace is a gift of God and part of His grace. The peace of God is more than just a mere feeling, it is something given to those who genuinely desire God and a life in communion with Him. The peace of God comes from continual awareness of God, of His presence, and from communion with Him through prayer. It is a quiet contentment and joy that comes from knowing that God is present. To define God’s peace completely, however, would be an impossible feat, as confirmed by the Apostle Paul.
The peace of God, and fear or anxiety, cannot coexist. Fear, doubt, and mistrust are of the devil. As Christians, we may fluctuate with having and preserving God’s peace inside us, only to lose our focus on God and become filled with fear and doubt. It is a struggle, but there are steps one can take to obtain and preserve the peace of God in our hearts. Indeed, the peace of God must be desired, pursued, and maintained.
Prayer is the single most important activity we can do to obtain the peace of God inside of us, and to reacquire it if lost. When we go into our room, close the door, and genuinely seek God, we are opening ourselves for an encounter with the peace of God. Our God is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. The events in the world and at times even in our lives may seem chaotic and out of control, but they are not, for there is a beginning and an end. He is in control. When we bring ourselves into contact and dialogue with God, we are bringing balance and stability into our lives.
That balance and stability, however, must be maintained. St. Isaac the Syrian often made analogies between how a ship sails from island to island, taking on supplies, and how we pray. We go through our lives sailing from prayer to prayer until we reach our destination. Each time we pray, we are taking on the peace of God which gives us balance and stability. Archimandrite Sophrony, a student of St. Silouan the Athonite, speaking of prayer, said, “Prayer affords an experience of spiritual liberty of which most people are ignorant. The first sign of emancipation is a disinclination to impose one’s will on others. The second is an inner release from the hold of others on oneself.” It could be stated that Archimandrite Sophrony is speaking of the effects of the peace of God on one’s soul. The peace of God has a liberating effect, for to allow oneself to fear what others think or to be driven to impose our opinion or will on others is to lose our spiritual and emotional balance. Indeed, the peace of God has a balancing effect on our lives as well.
One step we can take to preserve the peace of God in us is to be cautious about what we expose ourselves to. As a society, we have become increasingly dependent on the media to keep us informed. We are depending, however, on a media that exploits our fears in order to boost ratings. It is to the media’s benefit to create fear, doubt, and worry. To be dependent upon an institution that encourages fear and uncertainty is disastrous for our spirituality and brings us much unnecessary struggle. It is good for us as Christians to be informed, yet we must stay balanced, and beware falling into fear and worry and then repeatedly returning to the news for reassurance. Those who do this will only find more reinforcement for their fear. If we find ourselves in distress about something on the news, it is important only to give ourselves small doses, remembering always to turn it over to prayer. If a potential danger is resolved, the media will not offer reassurance, but will often simply cease to report on the topic, as it has then become insignificant. As part of maintaining God’s peace, we do not want to feed our fear.
Another step to preserve the peace of God in us is to walk and live according to God’s will, not just following His commandments, but also walking the path that He calls us to walk. As we hear noise when a car starts going off the road, so in our life we “hear noise” when we stray off the path that God has prepared for us. The noise in this case would be the loss of God’s peace. We then reacquire it once we have corrected our straying or wandering. Our work here is twofold: first we do our best to flee from sin moment to moment in our life; and second. we keep our life on the path that is according to God’s will. When we sin, it is like the car going off the road; however, we can also lose our way completely and begin heading down a path that can lead to us becoming entirely lost. Such is the case when we try to live a life that is other than what God called us to live. We need to strive to live in a state of being attuned genuinely to God’s will. Such an open heart would readily become a dwelling place of the Holy Spirit, and not be subject to any distress from a lack of direction.
Finally, and especially in today’s world, we need to recognize the source of our anxiety, and consciously give up control, trust God more, and tolerate uncertainty, being at peace with not knowing all the details. Sometimes we try to control even the events in our life that we clearly can have no control over. Indeed, the more we try and control things we cannot control, then the more out-of-control we may feel. This is one of the fastest ways to lose the peace of God in our hearts. Many feel that, by worrying, they are somehow doing something about the problem, and as a result get a false sense of control. In the end, however, the worrying exhausts them and leaves them void of God’s peace.
The peace of God is a beautiful thing; it is there for each of us if we desire it. Assuredly, just as we miss the sound of a gentle wind blowing through the trees during a busy day, so we miss and take for granted the peace of God that is all around us. Pray in silence, flee from sin, stay on the path that is according to God’s will, guard your senses, and allow yourself to give up control and trust God. Truly then we can have the peace of God which surpasses all understanding, and which will fill our minds and hearts.
First published in The Word Magazine, October, 2011.