During a recent trip to Kochi, India, I visited an interesting modern art exhibit called the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, which premiered on 12/12/12. Amid all of the creative and highly symbolic paintings and sculptures and photographs, I stumbled upon a plain white piece of paper that was stuck to the wall, and simply had the following message printed on it (the thing caught me so off guard, I forgot to take a picture of it…):
“Try thinking nothing but positive thoughts about people for 24 hours.
Then try it for 72 hours.
Then for a week.
Then for a month.
See how that attitude changes your life for the better.”
I have to admit, one of the first thoughts to cross my mind was something a bit negative about whoever posted that piece of paper on the wall. I thought – “is this person really serious?” Do people actually believe that consciously avoiding all negative thoughts will bring something positive into their lives; that tuning out the negative realities of our world will transform them into living beacons of peace and happiness? The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized how common this attitude was, and how many people would probably stroll by the piece of paper and take its “wisdom” to heart. It is a modern take on Eastern philosophy that does tremendous injustice to historic Western AND Eastern thought.
We often witness a similar effect when very distressing things happen in the world and make it into the mainstream news outlets. When I was visiting relatives in Bangalore, India later on in the trip, I made a few remarks to them about a brutal gang-rape that occurred in December in New Delhi, in which the 23-year old female victim had subsequently died of her injuries. It had certainly left the country in a somber mood before and after the New Year. I wanted to know how such depraved crimes affected them personally and intellectually, but I found that most of my relatives didn’t want to think about it. One of them even remarked, “it’s better not to think about such things”.
This attitude of focusing on the good and tuning out the bad seems to be just as common where I live in the United States as well. One thing I’ve noticed about the immediate politicization of the recent mass shootings in America is that it serves as a rather convenient way for people to ignore the dark realities and details of what is happening in our culture of violence and alienation, while focusing all of their intellectual and emotional capacities on general political issues of gun control, big government vs. small government, etc. Why is this our natural response to these horrendous events? The events themselves will be swamped under various political issues until they are dimly remembered artifacts of American history.
What is most clear to me is that this attitude of “tuning out the bad” or “sweeping the bad under whatever emotionally-charged rugs we can find” is in direct opposition to what we are taught by the Bible and historic Christianity. As is so often the case, the Bible provides us with a revolutionary, yet surprisingly level-headed analysis of our situation. We are reminded of simple truths in a world that consistently obscures them from view. Perhaps the best and most concise statement of “Christian peace” comes to us from Paul’s letter to the early church of Philippi.
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:4-9)
The “peace of God” transcends all understanding. Therefore, it cannot be thought of as being synonymous with our traditional definitions of what it means to experience peace, i.e. being in a state of extreme tranquility, stability or detachment from worldly concerns. That is not the type of peace that we are offered in Christ while we remain in the period of probation, or the period before final judgment and renewal of creation. There is certainly nothing in scripture about tuning out negative events or thoughts that occur in our lives or the lives of others. Instead, we are given a three-fold emphasis on the peace of God that emanates from the God of peace.
First, Paul tells us to be thankful to God – not for having perfect lives, or abundant material blessings, but for having a life at all. A life in which we have the glorious opportunity to know Christ our Lord, and the Father through him (John 14:9). It is similar to the old proverb – “happiness is not getting what you want, but wanting what you have“. Taking this a step further, there is only ONE thing that we have which will remain constant in our lives no matter what, and that is the love of Christ. We must sincerely want to embrace this loving relationship that Christ has offered, and we can actualize the fruits of this relationship through prayer and petition. Our prayers will not always be “answered” (although we often fail to recognize the answers), but Christ’s personal love is eternally guaranteed – and that should be enough to quell our anxiety.
Second, Paul tells us to think about all that is true and righteous in the Universe and in our lives. That might seem like a simple piece of advice, but it’s a nugget of wisdom that typically goes unheeded in our lives, especially for those of us living in relatively wealthy societies. How often do you actually take time out of your day to simply think and reflect on the truth, the nobility, the purity, the beauty and the loveliness of God’s word and his creation? This process is the opposite of ignoring the evil and suffering in the world – rather, it is actively comparing the evil and suffering to the true and righteous aspects of our world and also God’s kingdom; putting the evil into the proper perspective, and thinking about how we can go about offsetting it in our lives and the lives of others.
Some skeptics may ask whether “thanking and thinking” actually provides the followers of Christ with any productive inner peace; whether Paul’s advice is just another way for people to zonk out and be satisfied with the terrible circumstances that surround them. This is a legitimate question – does the “peace of God” turn us into passive agents who are unwilling to be critical of worldly people/events, question human authority and decry injustice? Are followers of Christ unwilling to act to improve their situation and that of others because we only look forward to the afterlife? The reason it may seem that way is because skeptics refuse to ask those questions in the context of the historical Jesus Christ who now lives and reigns.
There is very little chance that the Christian faith would have spread so rapidly if it were not for the peace discovered by the early martyrs of the first three centuries. These early Christians were persecuted heavily by Jewish and Roman authorities, as they refused to acknowledge any final religious or political authority apart from Christ, who was crucified and raised around 33 AD. The range of torturous methods developed by the persecutors were almost as creative as they were gruesome and depraved, yet there are reports of martyrs facing imminent peril from fires, crucifixes, wild beasts, etc. with hymns of praise to God and peaceful expressions on their faces. These martyrs knew that their fellow Christians and potential converts would only become more receptive to the truth in Christ by their unmatched courage, sacrifice and faith.
We see similar expressions of courage, faith and hope in the “negro spirituals” that were developed by African-American slaves over several centuries. These enslaved Americans took Paul’s words to heart – “…but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart” (Ephesians 5:19). They refashioned Biblical hymns and passages to communicate Christian ideals and their ongoing struggle with the depraved culture of slavery in a unique, glorious and beautiful way. This was not a means for them to ignore their circumstances or give up on attaining better lives, but to express their courage in the face of brutal oppression and their living hope for coming justice. The spirituals reflected a peace of heart and mind that is truly worth calling peace.
So, instead of following the cues of modern culture to find peace through a contrived “positive” attitude, wiping our minds clean of all troubling thoughts and circumstances, perhaps we should look to the peace of God recognized in the earliest years of the Christian faith and by the many courageous followers of Christ that have come after. Perhaps instead of consciously avoiding negative thoughts about people and events, we should put them into a spiritual perspective and learn from them; we should use them to grow and mature in faith, and help others by serving as living examples of Christ’s love. Paul finally emphasizes how we can receive the peace of God by telling us to take what we have learned from Christ and his disciples, and to put it all into practice.