Turn away from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it. | Psalm 34:14
Last week, I was swimming and completely in the “zone,” when I suddenly collided with another swimmer who had entered the lane without alerting me first. Honestly, this is a surefire way to get me upset. I am confident in my knowledge of lap swimming etiquette, which dictates that you must first get the attention of all swimmers in a lane before joining them. My indignation was fueled even more when she suggested that I was at fault and should be more aware. The nerve! After the tense moment passed and we started swimming again on our own sides of the lane, the confrontation continued to run through my head, and I felt convicted. Convicted that my first response was to be angry, instead of gracious. Convicted that my pride and certainty of being right made me feel justified in telling her so. Convicted that I was more bothered by my workout being interrupted than by my lack of love and Christ-likeness. Though I managed to keep my cool, I knew my heart response had been wrong.
Situations like the one I described occur daily—they might look different for each of us, but we’re all faced with choices and opportunities each day to pursue peace in our relationships with others. Social media alone abounds with opportunities to engage with friends, and even total strangers, on all sorts of topics ranging from religion and politics to sports and music. What’s more, the impersonal nature of social media seems to invite discourse that often violates normal boundaries of civility. It can be really tempting to get carried away by our passionate opinions and beliefs, especially when we feel justified in voicing them.
In the midst of the cultural pull to put ourselves and our opinions first, God’s Word is clear: We must pursue peace with others. Even when it isn’t convenient or easy. In an increasingly divided and conflict-ridden world, what does it mean to pursue peace in a biblical context? The world offers many definitions of peace, but they all fall drastically short of the standard God sets forth in His Word: “Turn away from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it” (Psalm 34:14).
Peace is More Than an Emotion
Peace in a biblical context is not a fuzzy, warm feeling you get when everything is right in the world. While peace may involve emotions, it is so much more than that. As a fruit of the Spirit, it’s rooted in action and in our relationship to others—most importantly, to God. We have been reconciled to God through Jesus Christ, and that reconciliation came at great cost to Jesus the Son and God the Father. Pursuing peace with others will often be costly, requiring humility and willingness to lay aside our pride and step outside of our comfort zone. In comparison to what Jesus endured and sacrificed for us, the cost to us is minimal. When we have peace with God like Romans describes—“Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God”—we have access to the peace of God, through the Holy Spirit.
Ultimately, true peace is not possible if you are not at peace with God. Eternal peace requires a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, but that relationship can be marred by sin in our lives, which robs us of the peace of God. If we lead a life characterized by conflict with others, we won’t experience the peace of God like we can and should. Inner peace is not possible in the absence of external peace, but external peace is superficial without inner peace. As with most things in the Christian life, true change starts with inner heart transformation, which then leads to genuine and heartfelt external action.
Peace is Active
The very use of the word pursue in Psalm 34 demands action. We’re not told to sit back, relax, and wait for peace to find us; rather we are commanded to go out and find it, and run after it if necessary. We are to be the pursuers, and that requires initiative and perseverance. This doesn’t mean that we wait for the other person to approach us or just hope that everything will be okay. Instead, we must go out of our way to ensure that our relationships are characterized by peace. Paul confirms this in Romans: “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men” (Romans 12:18). It means that if I am in the wrong, I reach out and apologize to the one I wronged, but it also means I still reach out, even if I am not to blame.
Similarly, Matthew gives guidelines for how we should proceed when we are wronged by others within the Church. (Matthew 18:15) We are to approach them first, making every effort to bring reconciliation. The burden lies with us, regardless of who is the offender or offended. Furthermore, when Peter asks the Lord how often he should forgive, Jesus tells him to forgive as often as necessary. The pursuit of peace—more specifically forgiveness in this context—is a commandment and should be a way of life; it’s not something to be withheld or dispensed selectively. Just as our Heavenly Father has forgiven us, we are to forgive others freely and liberally. Matthew says:
For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (Matthew 6:14-15)
A failure to do so reveals a disconnect in our understanding of the depth of our own sin and the scope of God’s forgiveness of that sin. Christ’s pursuit of peace with us required great action on His part, so we should not think it will come easily for us.
Peace Takes Priority
Pursuing peace with others is so important that Matthew stresses the significance of addressing conflict with others before worshiping the Lord:
If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. (Matthew 5:23-24)
Again, notice the text says nothing about the other person or the guilt or innocence of the offeror. If the Holy Spirit brings to mind a person you have offended, the burden is on you to go to that person and make peace, regardless of who is in the right. Continuing to worship without first making an effort to reconcile is hypocritical and unacceptable to the Lord. God desires our obedience more than our sacrifice. (1 Samuel 15:22) The external act of worship is meaningless if the heart is not in the right place, and willful disregard of conflict is indicative of an unrepentant and unforgiving heart. It’s easy to be complacent when it comes to pursuing peace, but this makes it clear that God takes the issue very seriously. And so should we.
Peace Requires Confrontation
For many, peace is simply the avoidance of conflict and confrontation. Yet, from a biblical standpoint, pursuing peace actually requires the opposite. Avoidance is the antithesis of pursuit. Avoidance is passive and driven by fear, while pursuit is characterized by relentless intention towards something. They can’t coexist. In fact, the act of pursuing peace will most likely require confrontation. Although that word often conjures up negative emotions, confrontation can and should be constructive and respectful. It simply means that you’re addressing a misunderstanding, conflict, or problem, and if motivated by love, it can bring resolution and remove tension.
Peace doesn’t mean that we are a doormat that lets others treat us however they want to treat us. There are times when we must and should speak up for ourselves and others. Again, the motivation for doing so is key here. Are you feeding your pride and your desire to be right? Or are you fueled by love and a desire to bring clarity and understanding to a situation? Of course, pursuing peace also doesn’t mean that we take every opportunity to confront others or defend ourselves. Discernment that is guided by God’s Word, prayer, and ultimately the Holy Spirit, is the only way to ensure that we are truly seeking peace in a way that aligns with God’s Word.
In Joshua, we see an example of a godly pursuit of peace. When the eastern tribes had fulfilled their obligation to fight with their brothers settling in the Promised Land, they headed back to their claimed territory on the other (eastern) side of the Jordan River. Before they crossed over, they built an altar as a symbol of unity with the western tribes and a reminder that they served and worshiped the same God. This simple act of faith caused much confusion amongst the other tribes, who feared they were building an altar to offer sacrifices to pagan gods. Their hasty judgement could have escalated quickly, but they had the wisdom and love to approach the eastern tribes first, before rushing into war. After realizing they had misjudged the intentions of their brothers, they reconciled and avoided battle. Just as remarkable, however, is the response of the eastern tribes—instead of responding in anger or becoming defensive, they first appealed to God, Who knew their hearts and motives. Their response was gracious and empathetic. How do you respond when falsely accused or misjudged? Do you seek the Lord’s approval first or that of men? Do you graciously and lovingly seek peace and reconciliation?
The pursuit of peace will require copious amounts of love and restraint. Love as the compeller to pursue peace. Restraint of selfish motives and harsh words and actions. We are called to speak the truth in love, but it’s important to recognize that we can fundamentally disagree with someone and still pursue peace. Peace does not require that we see everything in the same way as our brothers and sisters in Christ, our family members, our friends, or our coworkers.
Peace Won’t Always Lead to Reconciliation
Finally, while reconciliation should always be the aim, it will not always be the reality. Regardless of the outcome, we are called to persevere and do our part in reaching out to others and responding with love. When that’s not enough, we have the comfort and peace of knowing that Christ is interceding on our behalf and working for our good and His glory in all things—even our broken relationships. Only God can change someone’s heart.
This Christmas, as we celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace, the One who came so that we could have true and lasting peace, let’s take time to reflect on what the peace of God looks like in our own lives. With whom do you need to pursue peace? You may just have your first resolution for the new year!