Many Christians feel the Church has a corner on the market when it comes to inner peace. Many see it as the mark of the abundant life that Jesus came to bring. But did we miss the message of Jesus as the suffering servant, showing us the way to life?
If the Gospel is continually comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable, we need to understand pain and its place in our lives. At times, I wonder if our hunger for peace has allowed us to neglect our own pain as well as the pain of others, and so miss the road to freedom and redemption that we are all aching for (Romans 8:22-25).
I remember activist and author John Perkins one talking about pain, suffering and the will of God with a group of curious students. He said, “God either calls us from pain or to pain to minister to others in our calling.” To some of the folks around the table, this was bad news—and certainly the opposite of where a college degree is “supposed” to take you-a passport to the American dream.
If most of us are honest, we tend to believe that God will give us a special peace before we discern what His will is. We say things like, “I just didn’t have a peace about it,” or, “I’m really waiting on God’s peace before I make that decision.” I fear that this approach is more closely linked to our deceitful desires than we are willing to admit. We want to believe that God is good, but have a hard time hearing him when we’re not at peace. C.S. Lewis says it this way in The Problem of Pain,
“We cannot therefore know that we are acting at all, or primarily, for God’s sake, unless the material of the action is contrary to our inclinations, or (in other words) painful … the full acting out of the self’s surrender to God therefore demands pain.”
It’s not wrong to long for peace, but it is theologically incorrect to use it as a compass to discover God’s will. We cannot follow Christ faithfully unless we are following Him into the world’s pain, tension and aching complexity. We must remember we follow a King who enters a broken world, then willingly chooses the Cross (John 10:17-18). And for us, this means tension is normal and comfort may be concerning. Living in the hard places of life exposes one’s faith and character, and can allow it to deepen or cause it to die away. Sometimes waiting for peace can keep us from where God is asking us to be.
The paradox of peace is that if you long to have it you may never find it without walking through some uncomfortable terrain. And actually, when we stop desperately and idolatrously longing to find peace and fulfillment around every corner, in every relationship, and in all aspects of our work, we will be free to healthily engage the troubles, problems and pains in our life. We need to develop the wisdom for living a life that is comfortable with being uncomfortable, and accept the fact that it sometimes doesn’t feel good to be a Christian on the straight and narrow.
I have found that no matter how firm or unstable our faith foundation is, we are constantly trying to make sense of what it means to follow Jesus who brings abundant new life amidst the harshness and pain of reality. As Christians who worship a God of hope, it can be frustratingly difficult to understand how pain and discomfort play into our journey of faith. We tend to rush past our discomfort and forget to discern what God may want to show us in an effort to find the “peace that passes all understanding.”
Longing or praying for peace isn’t wrong, but sometimes we forget wrestling with God—like Jacob—and the hard issues of life is often where we find blessings (Genesis 32:24-32).
Current research about the spiritual lives of teens and young adults has found that most self-identified Christians could be accurately characterized as “moralistic, therapeutic, Deists.” Simply put, this means many people believe God wants us to be good or at least better than bad people like Hitler and we’ll go to heaven if we are (Moralistic), God’s main job is to make us feel good about ourselves and remain happy on our journey (Therapeutic), and God is not actively involved in the world (Deists).
This worldview keeps one from owning their depravity, trusting in grace and justification through Christ alone, and recognizing the painful process of sanctification. In this approach to following Jesus, there is no place for ambiguity, tension, struggle or any sense of anxiety. It’s a lot easier to believe that abundant life comes without pain and struggle. This mentality, however, directly opposes the type of self-denying life Jesus lived (Luke 22:42), and the inward dying and external pain Paul wrote about (2 Corinthians 4:7-12, Romans 5:3-5).
This is exactly why a life spent in pursuit of peace can be dangerous. C.S. Lewis explains in Mere Christianity, “Comfort is the one thing you cannot get by looking for it. If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end: If you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth—only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin with—and, in the end, despair.” In other words, pain may get in the way of our pursuit of peace in the answers we seek, but it is paradoxically the way to which we are called.
And if we run from tension and pain, we may just miss our calling. Living in the center of life’s tensions in our faith journeys, relationships and workplaces will help us cling to and find hope, while fighting off despair. This tension field is a hard place to live in, but of one thing we can be sure: God is at work in both your peace and your pain.
Zac works with college students at a Christian institution outside of Pittsburgh, Pa. He enjoys spending time with his wife and daughter, roasting coffee beans, and playing any type of sport. You can follow him @ZacNorthen.