Can We Get ‘Peace of Mind’?

Every normal person wants peace of mind. If any were to say that they did not want peace of mind, we should either not believe them or conclude that they were mad. People covet thrill and excitement, but never unrest and disquietude; it is normal in our nature to want poise and peace of mind.

The number of books published on this subject points the same way, for publishers do not publish books unless they believe that people will buy them. Many of these books are best sellers, outstripping fiction in popular favor and all pointing to the great hunger today for the secret of inward peace.

Nevertheless, he would be a bold man who said that people are finding the secret of inward peace. Some are, no doubt. But not the mass of people! Stand at a busy street corner at any time, and study the faces of the people as they pass! The face that is serene with peace, or aglow with happiness, or quiet with content is the unusual face—the very unusual face. How is it that people should want inward contentment so much, seek it so earnestly … and find it so seldom?

This, I think, is the answer.

PEOPLE GO ABOUT IT THE WRONG WAY

The method which many people follow in the pursuit of peace leaves them too engrossed with themselves. “I want peace! Give me the secret of contentment. Tell me how I can be happy.…” Observe the stress on the “I, I, I” and the “Me, Me, Me.” Self is central and self is engrossing.

Now, if you raked over the whole universe, you could not find a surer way of missing peace than this engrossment with yourself. Engrossment with oneself is the most debilitating thing imaginable, and it doesn’t cease to be debilitating because it is a good thing that one is seeking. The end doesn’t take the danger from the process. Self-obsession is bad, though you aim to be a saint, a genius, or a hero. However high the end, if self is first and self is demanding, the enterprise is poisoned from the start.

Who has had anything to do with neurasthenics but has been impressed with their utter engrossment with themselves? It is, indeed, the badge of their tribe. Their thought, their conversation, their letters are all of themselves. No thought in them goes out to stay out. If it heads out, it comes back immediately. It feeds on themselves. Their thought life is a kind of mental cannibalism. It returns to eat on itself.

One day a charwoman was talking about her neighbor who was a neurasthenic. This simple woman, who scrubbed floors for a living, said to me, “She’ll never be better till she gets away from herself.” No psychiatrist or spiritual director could have put it more plainly or more accurately. The most they could have done would have been to explain how one might get away from oneself, and only one close to God could do that.

When people are completely self-centered they are mad.

When Peter Gynt went to the lunatic asylum he found it hard to believe that the people who were there were mad. They talked so sensibly and discussed their plans with such precision and concern, that he felt sure they must be sane. He spoke to the doctor about it.

“They’re mad,” said the doctor. “They talk sensibly, I admit, but it’s all about themselves. They are, in fact, most intelligently obsessed with self. It’s all self—morning, noon, and night. We can’t get away from self here. We lug it along with us, even through our dreams. Oh, yes, young sir, we talk sensibly: but we’re mad right enough.”

People who set out for peace of mind, and go for it directly, because “It is what I want,” are going about it the wrong way. Indeed, the way is so wrong that it can never lead there. It is running the opposite way. It is the basic fallacy beneath much writing on the subject. Anybody who suggested that inward peace was a thing that a man could “up and make himself,” would be as plainly self-exposed as the author of the article, “Humility—and how I attained it.” Peace of mind is not an achievement; it is a gift. Peace can never be a direct aim; it is a by-product. No one can make it. That is why St. Paul said, “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts.” Let—not make. You can’t make it. Those who aim at peace of mind directly are doomed to disappointment. They are going about it the wrong way.

Here is the second reason why so many fail in the quest for peace:

PEOPLE LOOK FOR THE WRONG THING

When one talks with the average man about the inward peace he is seeking, it suddenly becomes clear that he is looking for something that cannot be found in this world at all. There is a great hunger in men and women for a kind of total security: a fortress within which they can live and be utterly untouched by the chances and changes of this mortal life; a place inviolate from all disaster, and subject to variation only as it is subject to growth and greater happiness. Peace, they believe, would belong to them if they lived within that fortress, for then nothing could touch them and there would be nothing to fear.

Looked at in stark honesty, the whole thing is a beautiful dream. It is so completely impossible in this life that one is left wondering how rational beings can be forever seeking what can never be found.

The very conditions on which we have life on this planet make the idea of such total security a plain illusion. The deep craving of middle-aged people in comfortable circumstances that everything should “stay put” can never be realized here. This is a world of development and decay, a world subject to disease and accident, a world in which one generation presses on the heels of another, and nothing “continueth in one stay.” For the comfortable to ask that things should just “stay put” is to ask the impossible, and no more sensible than a child crying for the moon.

No orator speaks to a crowd; he speaks to a procession. Authors long for people to sit and read their books, but every reader is travelling. We do not understand what time is, but we know it does not stand still. If peace is possible only in fixity, it isn’t possible at all.

It isn’t possible, either, if we are to be immune from wear and accident. All life is tainted near the fount. Nothing that lives—trees, plants, birds, beasts, fish, man—but is subject to disease. Sensible people seek to avoid sickness but only fanatics deny the possibility. If people think it morbid to remember that disease is possible and seek peace by denying it, it is a spurious peace they are seeking, and can turn to torment any day. Peace of this character would be possible only in a world where accident was impossible; where all disease was done away; where bubbling life was suddenly frozen still; where no child grew up and no old man felt the hurt of waning powers. But life is offering us something better than that.

If people are seeking this false kind of peace (as much honest introspection goes to show), they are irrational, and it should no longer surprise us that they do not find what they seek. They are, indeed, looking for the wrong thing. Peace that can be destroyed any morning by a letter, or by the headlines in a newspaper, or by a motorist’s mistake, or by a doctor’s diagnosis, is too brittle for this rough world. Peace that can begin only when all our problems are solved will not begin on this earth. We have to learn to live with problems in ourselves, in society, and in the wider world. If we cannot have peace in a world of change, unsolved problems, and possible disaster, we cannot have it at all.

And that may be the conclusion which some people will sorrowfully draw: that peace of mind is not possible on this earth, and the very longing for it is an illusion.

Yet every honest evangelical preacher knows that to be a lie. The saints and seers of all the ages have plainly taught that peace of mind is possible, and they have enjoyed it themselves. What was the peace they sought and found? If peace as some state of immunity from all the hazards of life is plain fantasy, what peace is possible, and possible now?

Without exception, the men and women who have claimed and illustrated this peace have believed in God. They have found a Friend behind phenomena. They came in penitence to the Cross and Jesus led them to the Father. They found forgiveness; that God had a will both for the world and the men and women in it. They realized that His will was the wisest and most loving conceivable and that any deviation from His will was deviation from the best. They learned also that He was able and willing to communicate His will to those ready to receive it.

This, then, is what the evangelical preachers through the ages have taught: that if men and women will come to their crucified Lord they can have the peace of God—a peace the world can neither make nor mar. They have taught that peace (as we suspected on other grounds) is a by-product and never a direct aim. Echoing those who spoke before him and anticipating many who came after, Dante said, “In His will is our peace.” With astonishing unanimity, men and women of piercing spiritual insight have said this: “Let a man commit himself to Christ. Let him aim by grace to do the will of God. Let him ask in any situation, What would my Lord have me do here?’ Let him claim the help of God—and do it … and he will find this; that (resting in the atoning death of Christ and utterly absorbed in doing God’s will at whatever cost) he is at peace; deep, filling satisfying peace, lifted above the world’s fret and fever and kept clean from the world’s slow stain. He will know pain (no doubt) and sorrow, and sometimes setback (because in this world they cannot be avoided) but never inward turmoil, and never deep unease.”

Peace, then, as these masters of the spiritual life teach, is not so much a thing in itself as a quietness of the spirit, begotten of the knowledge that Christ is Saviour and resident within. They would deny that there is any such thing as peace in the abstract. Peace, they say, is a gift. It cannot be achieved. God gives it to those who give themselves to Him. It comes upon a man almost unaware. He wasn’t looking for it or bargaining about it. While he was devoted to his Lord and absorbed in his day-to-day task of doing the right thing, peace overtook him and nestled in his heart. Nor, while he remains loyal to his central dedication, can anything dislodge this peace. Men have gone to the thumbscrew, the stake, and the gas chamber with their peace undisturbed—just as their Great Precursor went to His Crucifixion speaking only of His Peace: “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.”

People are missing peace first, therefore, because they are going about it the wrong way; and secondly, because they are looking for the wrong thing.

In the third place:

PEOPLE SEEK IT IN THE WRONG PLACE

Because people have a mistaken notion of what peace is, it is not surprising that they look for it in the wrong place. Deluded by this impossible idea of total security, they seek to build a fortress of fact and circumstances which no ill fortune can breach. They toil for enough money to withstand even an economic blizzard—but nobody seems to know what is enough! They study their health, and—quite sensibly—have regular medical check-ups, but acute anxiety about it reveals in many of them a terrible fear of death. They leave the city and settle in the country, because the country is more conducive to peace. And yet, with every calculated circumstance just shaped to produce peace, the elusive thing passes them by, and without a material want left unsatisfied, they sit in the garden reading a book on “How To Be Happy.”

How strange that, with multiplying evidence that they are on the wrong path, people do not look for peace in some other way! How revealing it is that the higher the economic status of the country, the more furiously people study books on how to find happiness and peace! And this does not prove that a high economic standard of living is a bad thing but only that it doesn’t guarantee the thing people are seeking.

No mould of circumstances can secure inward peace. Circumstances can help or hinder, but they play a minor role either way. Edward Fitzgerald, the translator of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, sought peace in circumstances. He parted from the wife whose presence he found disturbing. He left the city and settled in a small country town. He re-moulded his circumstances nearer to the heart’s desire—and kept doves (because doves are the birds of peace), but peace passed him by! Peace is not found in circumstances; peace is found only in the heart.

Why do people think there is more peace in the country than in the town? Surely there must be some reason for that widespread idea.

There is.

Picture the rural scene of your dreams; the quiet valley, sheltered between the tree-muffled hills, the brook gurgling in the valley, and the sheep grazing on the downs. In imagination, you see the birds flit here and there, and watch the lambs gamboling, and feel “peace come dropping slow.” Surely, it is peace you sense in that picture?

It is indeed!

But not just because it is the country, and not just because it is spring but because everything in the scene (to the extent of its freedom, and so far as you can perceive) is doing the will of God. The harder struggle of nature is not apparent. You see no discord. No strident clash of will and will. No fearfulness, no feverish searching for peace! The birds mate. The lambs gambol, the ewes graze. The purposes of the Creator are prevailing and (as a by-product) there is peace.

All the world is hungry for peace—and much more than half the world is missing it. Let us tell them why.

Peace isn’t the fruit of easy circumstances, nor the simple consequence of a certain kind of thinking … nor this … nor that.…

It is a full recognition of the fact that Christ made peace through the blood of His Cross (Col. 1:20). It is a complete “recumbency” (as John Wesley would say) on all that our Lord did, and it is a yielding of the life to the Rule of Jesus.

The oft-times despised Evangelist is the true purveyor of the peace of God.

W. E. SANGSTER

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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