I have to confess: I have conflicted feelings about peace of mind. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a fan of inner turmoil. And while I don’t think it is the intention of those who celebrate peace of mind, at times it sounds like a goal that is self-absorbed and solipsistic. Occasionally I have heard peace of mind promoted as a value that is the end-all-and-be-all of spirituality. That is not something I’m inclined to get behind. As desirable as peace of mind is, sometimes our minds and spirits need to be troubled.
It would be helpful if those who speak much about peace of mind would define a bit more carefully what they mean. If they mean freedom from anxiety then I’m all for it. Jesus urged his followers to remember that God even takes care of the birds of the air and will surely care for us in our needs. So, he said, “Do not worry about tomorrow” (Matthew 6:34). Anxiety about the future steals joy from the present.
If peace of mind means freedom from crippling fear then it is certainly a condition to be cherished. Fear often distorts our perception of the world and the people around us. It causes us to live with excessive suspicion and caution. It hinders us from being bold, taking adventurous risks and living life to its fullest. It stands in the way of love. “Perfect love casts out fear,” scripture declares (1 John 4:18). Peace of mind that puts an end to unproductive fear is undoubtedly a good thing.
Likewise, peace of mind that is the product of an absence of acquisitive desire is to be commended. Envy and greed leaves us unsettled, hungry for things that can never truly fill us. Peace of mind is fostered by minimizing our desires and choosing a more simple life. Scripture repeatedly urges us to “be content with what you have” (Hebrews 13:5; also Ecclesiastes 5:10, 1 Timothy 6:6-10, 1 John 2:15-17). Restful contentment and the passion for more and more are mutually exclusive.
Jesus said, “Come unto me… and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). He assured his disciples, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid” (John 14:27). This peace comes as we faithfully recognize that he is with us “until the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20) and that ultimately “all things work
together for good for those who love God” (Romans 8:28). This peace of heart and mind is a gift of God, one “that passes all understanding” (Philippians 4:7).
Peace of mind is not everything. It is not a spiritual state or value that stands above all others to be protected from everything that might trouble us. Inner tranquility as an end in itself becomes hard to distinguish from self-preoccupied compliancy and apathy. As I read scripture and look at the prophets and Jesus and the apostles, I find peace of mind less in the forefront and more in the background of their faithful lives.
Throughout his ministry Jesus both gave peace and disrupted peace. The very same Jesus who calms the conflicted heart brings conflict to self-satisfied lives. To the prostitute who found acceptance and forgiveness there was peace from Jesus. But for the scribes and Pharisees who resented having their ideas and practices challenged by him, there was a disruption of their peace. To the disreputable tax collector, Zacchaeus, meeting Jesus was an occasion for transformation, giving and peace (Luke 19:1-10). For the religiously observant rich ruler who would not relinquish wealth for the sake of the poor, meeting Jesus became an occasion for resistance and sorrow, not peace (Mark 10:17-27).
“Blessed are you who weep now for you will laugh….Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep,” taught Jesus (Luke 6:21, 25). My mind turns to poor Lazarus and the unresponsive rich man who passed him each day. But I don’t think Jesus was just talking about mourning over personal loss and pain. I think he had in mind “weeping with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). This is solidarity with the sufferers and identification with those in need that disturbs the peace of spiritual individualism. And inner peace is often disturbed further when the step is taken to “speak out for those who cannot speak…[and] defend the rights of the poor and needy” (Proverbs 31:8-9).
Certainly inward peace has importance but not more than a number of other things. As ethicist Miguel De Torre recently said, “Here is the paradoxical truth: in order to achieve the peace that surpasses all understanding, we must first crucify our earthly, comfortable, selfish, complacent and individualistic understanding of what peace is…. Do not deceive yourselves
my sisters and brothers — do not believe for a second that the prophetic and the peaceful can reside in the same house. May God deny you that rose-colored peace.”
There are some very good-hearted people who believe that the best strategy to achieve world peace is to foster inner peace. I confess I don’t think there is a lack of world peace because of a lack peace of mind. Some evangelical Christians have claimed that many social problems would take care of themselves if more people would just “come to Jesus.” They refuse to acknowledge the need for structural changes. All we have to do is look at the Bible Belt to see how well this has [not] worked out. Some of my spiritual-but-not-religious friends trade “come to Jesus” for “find peace of mind.” But they are just as simplistic about the connection between the inner life and the pressing issues of peace and justice in the world around us.
I’m suspicious of any approach to social change that relies exclusively on inner change. It can’t stand alone. In the past progress toward fixing injustices didn’t happen by inward change apart from outward, structural change. For good reason neither Gandhi nor Martin Luther King, Jr. simply taught, “We need more peace of mind.” Instead they insisted, “We need to fix the system.”
Certainly, their motivations were spiritual. But they never suggested that the social changes that were necessary should wait until enough people experienced the spiritual realities they themselves had experienced. In fact much of their work was to disturb the peace, both inwardly and outwardly. They sought to instill inner dissatisfaction and to create outward nonviolent chaos that demanded attention, opening the way for justice.
If peace of mind is cherished more than compassion – which is, after all, “suffering with” others – then it is self-indulgent. If the pursuit of peace of mind leads us to shun thoughts, ideas, images or experiences that are likely to disturb us then it is escapism. If peace of mind is something that needs to be protected from the conflict that is inevitable when needs of the less advantaged are promoted against the interests of the wealthy and powerful then it is not worthy of preservation. Indeed, it is far better to embrace the benediction of Christian philosopher Miguel de Unamuno: “May God deny you peace so that God can give you glory!”