In the hands of God18 Jan 2023
If we trust in God and pray, we will be blessed with a peace that lasts.
‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword’ – (Matthew 10:34)
We call Jesus the Prince of Peace. Yet, there are several passages in the Gospel where Jesus is quoted dismissing peace, seemingly in favour of division. Elsewhere he tells the disciples, ‘Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.’ (John 14:27).
What are we to make of this apparent contradiction? Can we pray to a God of peace, whose self-revelation is the Prince of Peace? Or do we worship a God who is like so many of the gods of old, and of now too, gods voraciously seeking power through division?
A beginning of an answer is to be reminded, as through the apophatic tradition, that we cannot contain God by human categories. God might be said to have the attribute of peace,
but to an extent that is beyond our comprehension. Further, God cannot be said to have the attribute of peace in all the ways that we humans use the term.
DIFFERENT KINDS OF PEACE
Jesus lived at the beginning of a period later described as the Pax Romana. Though not described as such until 55CE, the notion of a peace held by force was likely to have been part of the Roman occupier’s self-justification in the towns and cities through which Jesus travelled. Peace by force. Peace for the gain of some and not others. Peace without justice.
We can find peace in our own prayer life founded on such shaky ground. St Ignatius of Loyola developed a way of discerning what to do based on the discernment of spirits. We should make choices, St Ignatius suggested, when in consolation because such a state is of the good spirit, and so from God. We should not make choices in desolation, when the bad spirit is overwhelming us, and so leading us away from God.
Usually, consolation is experienced in feeling good, desolation in feeling bad. But not always. Those states of consolation and desolation are not totally analogous to feeling good or bad. There are times, for instance, where we will feel good, at peace with a situation, and yet this will be a movement of the bad spirit, drawing us away from God. This is an experience of ‘false consolation’.
How so? Well, if I have engaged in some behaviour that is wrong, but I’ve managed to convince myself there’s some justification for that behaviour my feeling of peace is inappropriate. If it forms the basis for allowing me to justify continuing a behaviour, making a practice of something that damages self, others, or my relationship with God, then my feeling of peace is actually destructive. In the same way, we can feel bad about something, and be in consolation. Grief or righteous anger might be the appropriate feelings in response to loss or injustice.
The purpose of prayer is not, primarily, to make us feel good. It is to bring us into deeper relationship with God, recognising his movement and call in our lives. If we cooperate with this movement and call in our lives, prayer may well become a place of consolation through good feeling.
We will be consoled by feelings of peace. That said, we know of cases where objective goodness does not give rise to this experience of prayer.
The decades long struggle of St Therese of Calcutta is a palpable example. There will also be times in prayer where we feel peace and a confirmation of our inherent goodness even as we are struggling along the way of living in the way of Jesus.
Still, we need to be open to the possibility of that feeling of peace which is letting us off the hook. This might tip us into feelings of disquiet. We might experience ‘the sword’ Jesus promises. If we are willing to sit with this, we will be growing in closeness to God even as we might experience a difficult to cope with wretchedness. If we can allow this experience to open out an openness to putting ourselves in God’s hand, we will grow in humility. In humility our experience of peace will be consonant with an experience of abiding goodness.
DOING AND BEING GOOD
Spiritual consolation, according to St Ignatius, is the space where we can do and be good. The space we can use to co-labour in building God’s kingdom.
Sometimes building that kingdom will elicit feelings of frustration, dejection, and depression precisely because of all the ways we have failed to live out of God’s love for us. The claim of our Christian faith that sustains our commitment to trust in God is that peace which will last.
A peace not held by violence or confected by self-justification, but a peace that comes from being at home in relationship with our God.