One pastor led a healthy, small town church, but faced a little resistance when he lengthened the worship service by fifteen minutes. It now ended at 10:45, not 10:30.
One man who sat near the back of church seemed especially unhappy about the change. Each week, he stood up at precisely at 10:30, straightened his jacket and pants, and walked out of the service as the sermon neared its conclusion. The pastor told me, “He never said anything, but I could feel his displeasure over the longer services. Sometimes I had to stifle my anger at his weekly display.”
Then one week, the pastor changed the order of worship and put the sermon first. The man’s wife called the pastor later that day and said:
Pastor, you can’t imagine how happy my husband was today. You see, he has to report to work at 10:45 on Sundays. He waits until the last possible minute each week and it grieves him that he can never stay till the end of your message. Today he heard the whole sermon and he is so pleased. I just had to tell you.
Clearly, self-damaging guesswork is a common way to subvert our peace. Paul states his general but nuanced principle for peace in Romans 12:18: “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”
We can lose peace in many ways. Without sin, accidents, diseases, and misunderstandings cause stress. Sin does too, through theft, slander, manipulation, and meanness. We can forfeit peace unnecessarily by dwelling on non-existent problems or exaggerating the tiny missteps that plague us all. We rob ourselves of peace through our insecurity, discontentment, and vain attempts to assess other people’s motives (see the pastor’s story above).
The double limitation on peacemaking is also essential. The statement, “If possible, so far as it depends on you,” necessarily leads to the conclusion that no one can fix every problem or heal every relationship. Jesus is the deliverer; we are not. Certain people reject the way of peace and there is a time to stop trying. Paul said, “As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him” (Titus 3:10).
So we need to hold two messages in tension: Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” and Paul told us that peace-making is not a solo act. Impenitence makes peace impossible, apart from the Spirit’s renewal.
Even so, the objective peace that believers have with God should lead to substantial internal peace. Romans 5:1 says, “Since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God.” Thus, Paul calls his message “the gospel of peace” (Rom. 15:33; Eph. 6:15). So, we have objective peace with God, even if subjective peace, the feeling of peace, comes and goes.
When we pursue peace, let’s be sure we do it the right way. The crowds seek peace through entertainments, vacations, new jobs, even new relationships. We also feed ourselves fictions: “I’ll feel better when things get back to normal.” But life is never exactly normal. That is, a certain level of chaos is normal. So peace isn’t the absence of stress; rather, it’s wholeness despite stress. That said, we should remove needless stress wherever we can. So, we strive to live peacefully with everyone, even as we recognize that we can’t solve every problem.
We may also examine ourselves for habits that undercut peace. May we never think of a friend, “He did it on purpose.” Nor should we take light-hearted jibes as insults and forgotten birthdays as disrespect. Let us rather pray for peace: “Lord, help us put aside self-centered thoughts. Grant us thick skin, a tender heart, and a memory that is porous enough to forget little slights. And help us live according to the gospel of peace.”
Dr. Dan Doriani is Professor of Biblical and Systematic Theology and VP at Large for Covenant Theological Seminary.