What year in our lifetimes has been more filled with angst and anxiety than 2020? The year, 1968, might be a close rival, politically and socially. Add to the political and social tensions a global pandemic, widespread unemployment and growing economic uncertainty caused by our response to it, and 2020 is easily the most difficult year in my lifetime.
The political anxiety and uncertainty has overflowed into tensions within families, among friends, in communities and even within churches. Collective and personal anxiety is even higher, now, with the Presidential election coming up. Hope is mixed with fear. What if the right person doesn’t get elected?
Everything seems to ride on this election, but there is that nagging doubt that even an election – even if it goes “right” (whatever you happen to believe that means) – will not calm the tensions and bring peace where current circumstances are boiling on the edge of overflowing.
We know in the pit of our stomachs that the “others” will not go down without a fight. A presidential election may shift the leverage (or not), but the fight is going to continue. It isn’t going away. COVID isn’t going away. The economy teeters on brink of failure.
The mantra during the 1960’s – the closest thing to our present circumstances – was peace and love. We don’t even dare hope for peace and love anymore. The hope held out in the ’60’s has been been replaced with anger, condemnation and unkindness. The peace has been replaced with rioting, gun violence and looting.
Not that the 1960’s didn’t see its share of violence and unrest. It’s just that we don’t pretend anymore that peace and love are achievable (or even laudable) goals. We will settle for an authoritarian dictatorship or equality forced by the arm of the law and reparations wrested from the clinging hands of people who inherited privilege.
It’s easy to feel that our generation faces difficulties that are unlike the difficulties faced by others in the past. We may feel that we are alone in these times, facing the anxiety of an uncertain future, but it isn’t so.
The details of our circumstances are unique, but nothing is new under the sun: other generations have faced similar hardships and much worse. Every previous generation shared the experience of angst and anxiety of an uncertain future, just as we do.
Looking back at history in static words written on sterile pages, we may not appreciate the common experience. In the fog of our present struggle, we can’t see as clearly as we do when we look back. Our emotions are in full flight as the noise and chaos happens around us. We don’t have the luxury of viewing the present from a comfortable chair in a quiet library.
On what basis, then, can we hold on to hope? What assurance do we have that peace will prevail?
The predominant view of politics, sociology and culture in academia today is idea of the oppressed ever rising up against their oppressors in an endless cycle of unrest, violence and change. Peace no longer has value. Hope is limited to the immediate future when the currently oppressed can change places – for a time – before the cycle repeats itself.
In the middle of our present angst and unease, I am reminded of a man who wrote about peace that defies that is not dependent on circumstances and hope that lasts beyond the foreseeable future. He wrote of peace that gave him confidence and sustained him in circumstances worse than you or I have ever experienced.
If we compare his circumstances to ours, I think most people would agree they were worse, by far, than anything we have experienced. Yet, he was fed by hope, and he experienced real peace in the midst of those circumstances – despite the circumstances. His story is worth considering.
In a letter written in the middle of the 1st Century, a time more brutish than ours, we get a glimpse of what the world was like for the writer. He faced opposition everywhere he went. He was homeless. He was opposed everywhere he went by people with whom he shared ethnicity, religion and citizenship.
He was whipped “times without number” (including five times with 39 lashes). He was beaten with rods, and stoned. He was shipwrecked three (3) times. He faced danger, hardship and death from rivers, deserts, robbers and other people everywhere he went. He had many sleepless nights, suffering from hunger and thirst, shivering in the cold without clothes to keep him warm.[i]
This man wrote about peace and joy from prison, where he was being held under false pretenses. He wasn’t writing at a time of freedom, safety and security. He wrote the latter at a time when his freedoms were lost, and his future was unknown.
He would never again experience freedom, though he didn’t know it at the time. He would die a prisoner, though he didn’t know his fate, but he wasn’t anxious or fearful.
If you think politics is bad now, consider the political leader at the time this man wrote his letters: Nero, who was known for his tyranny. He exiled his domineering mother and had her killed. He banished his wife, when he realized she was infertile, and had her executed. He forced his mentor, Seneca, to commit suicide. He killed all his rivals.[ii]
Nero was alleged to have kicked a subsequent wife, Poppaea, to death while she was pregnant. Whether that was true, or not, Nero identified a young boy (Sporus) who looked like Poppaea, had him castrated, tried to “make a woman out of him” and married him.
Not surprisingly, many accused Nero of being corrupt, and historians were not kind to him. Pliny the Elder, Suetonius and Cassius Dio all wrote that Nero was responsible for a plot that set fire to Rome that burned for a week and destroyed or damaged 10 of 14 districts of the city. Tacitus tells us that Nero blamed the Christianos, to divert attention from himself, and had them “thrown to beasts”, crucified and burned alive.
This was the political climate and circumstances when Paul, the Apostle of Jesus, wrote his letters. Paul was not on the favored side of those politics, of course, because Paul was a Christianos (a derogatory term coined by the Romans). Paul was put to death during Nero’s reign (according to Clement of Corinth writing about 96 AD) sometime after he wrote his letters.
Yet, Paul wrote in the middle of his long imprisonment, after all the hardship he suffered to that time, with his future fate uncertain, the following words:
Rejoice … always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone…; do not be anxious about anything, but … with thanksgiving …. the peace …, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds ….Philippians 4:4-7
What if you could tap into a source that provides you peace, joy and gratitude regardless of your circumstances? What if you had a source of peace that remained with you despite the turmoil all around you? Wouldn’t you want to know what it is? Wouldn’t you want some of it?
What is “the peace” that Paul wrote about?
If you are anxious because of COVID, the economy, racial tensions, the coming election and your own uncertain future, focusing on what Paul wrote to the people at Philippi should be of great help to you.
What Paul wrote is still applicable today. You, too, can have a “peace that surpasses understanding”, that remains with you despite your circumstances if you know what Paul knew. I will dig into what Paul knew that brought him peace and joy in a follow up article.
[ii] See Wikipedia (Nero is reported to have kicked his wife, Poppaea, to death when she was pregnant with his second child, but some people believe that Suetonius, Tacitus, and Cassius Dio may have embellished the facts out of their dislike for Nero).