April 2002

Troubled Hearts ©

Perhaps what is most bewildering about our Christian faith is the promise of peace. How can we still be gripped by so much violence some two thousand years after the birth of the Prince of Peace?

After all, did Jesus not say he gave us his peace?

How can there be peace in the midst of grudges among friends, of jealousy among siblings, of bitterness among spouses, of pettiness among colleagues, of violence among races, of animosity among religions, of rivalry among communities, and of aggression among nations?

How can there be inner peace in the midst of guilt about the past, of anxiety about the present, and of fear about the future?

Knowing about all of these threats to peace, having seen them all first hand, how can Jesus say to his disciples in an apparently offhanded way: Do not let your hearts be troubled.

This is not a trivial statement. Apparently the phrase “Do not be afraid” appears 365 times in the Bible – once for every day of the year. Yet at the conclusion of his three years of public ministry, there was still strife between families, communities and nations.

The reason for this apparent dichotomy is that what Jesus intended when he asked that we not let our hearts be troubled was to deal with a far more insidious enemy, which we experience as perpetual guilt, generalized anxiety and random fear.

In fact, Jesus did say that his peace is not as the world understands the word. The peace he promised is not the absence of threats that would challenge our peace, but the capacity to enjoy his peace despite these challenges.

In effect, God’s peace is perfect because it is not dependent upon what is going on around us.

How is it to be achieved? The answer lies in the words that followed his call to not let our hearts be troubled: Believe in God, believe also in me.

If ever we have doubts about the efficacy of the peace that comes from faith and trust in God, we need only think of the passion of our Lord.

No doubt, he experienced tremendous fear in the Garden of Olives. But his unassailable belief in the oneness of the Father’s will and his own gave him the ability to deal with the agony and brutality leading to his death on Calvary with equanimity. And it is this impermeable peace that is available to those who truly believe in the fullness of God’s love for us.

Still further he adds the clincher: I am the way, and the truth, and the life. It’s a very familiar verse, and one that we easily undervalue.

The life we experience without seeing ourselves as children of God is but a mirage. It is the illusion of vitality when in fact it is disconnected from the Creator and sustainer of all life.

On the other hand, to actively experience the new covenant he made with us through the death and resurrection of Jesus is to experience authentic life because it is the life of Christ who is the life. With this life comes the joy of his Resurrection, which is vastly more potent than anything that might assail us… perfect joy, which cannot be rusted by rain.

Unlike the genuine peace that Jesus offers, the counterfeit peace that the world offers is never very satisfying, because it is neither profound nor enduring.

For starters, it is not based on love, but rather on fear. Since we sometimes come to our senses long enough to appreciate the devastating effect of unbridled greed and hatred, we apply awkward “peace-keeping” strategies to defer, diminish or deflect the destruction. Individuals arrive at convoluted compromises, communities set complicated rules, companies negotiate letter-perfect contracts, and nations sign non-aggression treaties.

Yet the greed remains. And the injustices persist. Every cell in our body trembles with the knowledge that at any moment, explosive hatred could ignite… shattering our fragile tranquillity.

Jesus knew this when he said that his more resilient form of peace is of a different nature. It is permanent and profound because it is rooted in things that are eternal rather than ephemeral. It is grounded in the love of God, rather than a cowardly flight from those that might hurt or harm us.

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In his first letter, Peter describes Jesus as “a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight.” He goes on “Like living stones, let yourself be built into a spiritual house”, so that we may “walk out of darkness into his marvellous light”.

In a manner of reverse logic, this house of living stones contains this light. Outside is fear and darkness.

The evangelist John reminds us that this is the Father’s house, and that it contains “many dwelling places” or rooms. Jesus tells us that he has gone to prepare a place for us in our Father’s house, signifying paradise after our earthly lives.

But as with so many other references to heaven in New Testament writings, it is possible to see in these references the partial experience of heaven that is accessible to us during our earthly lives.

The Father’s mansion may be seen as our own living in Christ… doing the will of the Father. God’s will is for us to be one in Christ, yet singular and unique. Each of us was called individually by name at baptism to participate in the grand scheme of continuous creation… in the creation of God’s kingdom.

Each of us is as unique as the room Christ has prepared in the one heavenly mansion. So, in the safety of our Father’s fortress of Truth, we come to know a love that is so complete that we begin to blossom for the first time in full freedom. Each room is unique, yet each is part of one house.

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In the end, the only sedative for a truly trouble heart is hope, the hope that faith provides: Believe in God, believe also in me.

In the Gospel, we read the accounts of two troubled apostles: Peter having renounced Jesus three times and Judas having denounced Jesus – both in the face of fear.

Aside from the obvious contrasts between these two men, there are a great many similarities. Yet they stand apart in one key way: in anguish, Peter clung to hope, while Judas gave in to despair. One chose life; the other chose death. One was crowned; the other was cursed.

It is said that where there is hope, there is religion. Hope is both the cause and the product of most belief systems. Christian hope, a learned hope (spe docta), has the power to withstand even the most brutal blows to the believer’s body and mind.

Psalmists, prophets and evangelists were all buoyed by learned hope. The well-known Psalm 23 is a classic of trust in providential care: “In the house of the Lord, I fear no evil”.

Jeremiah tells us that true wisdom consists of trusting in God, not in human beings: “I will bless the person who puts his trust in me. He is like a tree growing near a stream and sending out roots to the water. It is not afraid when hot weather comes, because its leaves stay green; it has no worries when there is no rain; it keeps on nearing fruit”.

Luke invites us to trust in God: “Don’t be concerned about what you will eat and drink … Your Father knows that you need these things, and will provide you with them.”

Paul, in his second letter to the Corinthians, writes: “We are often troubled, but not crushed; sometimes in doubt, but never in despair; there are many enemies, but we are never without a friend; and though badly hurt at times, we are not destroyed. At all times, we carry in our mortal bodies the death of Jesus, so that his life may also be seen in our bodies”.

In the midst of pain and confusion, the notion of hope may seem illogical or illusory. Yet we must be careful not to throw overboard the provisions we need to continue on our voyage, no matter how contrived these may at times appear.

Hope is what gives the fragile craft of our soul the buoyancy it needs to stay afloat.

Within Christianity, hope lies between and, therefore, binds the other two enduring theological virtues, namely faith and love.

Because it is an integral part of this sacred trilogy, hope shares many qualities with love, particularly patience. Yet hope anticipates and can, as a result, be inclined toward impatience. Such a tendency – which is understandable – must be resisted for it may result in stressful anxiety, which serves no productive purpose.

Hope is an elemental part of the human psyche. It incites the will to move forward despite the many setbacks of life.

In the face of such trials, we do well to recall the hope contained in the words of the nineteenth-century American essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who observed: “When it’s dark enough, you can see the stars.”