During Easter each year, we read the Gospel of John. Several times, we hear Jesus say that he gives us peace and joy. He makes these promises before he dies and again after he is resurrected. Does Jesus promise peace and joy so that we can sit at home and watch TV without worrying? How should I approach times in my life when peace and joy seem to be exactly what I do not have? Is this an empty promise?
Do I get peace and joy so I can sit back and take things easy?
Some preachers today proclaim a “gospel of prosperity” – serve God and you get money and success, maybe even ease. But let me give you two absolutely iron-tight reasons this simply cannot be the message of the Gospel.
First, you cannot find a single hero of the faith in the Bible or in the Church’s saints who lived that way. Who you gonna name? The apostles? Nope, they all died as martyrs, except John, and he was exiled on an island. King David? He had trouble almost every day of his life. Isaiah or Jeremiah or Ezekiel or any other Old Testament prophet you want to name? Nope, nope, and nope. Some of them suffered horribly, others were discouraged and ignored. Abraham or Isaac or Jacob? Are you kidding? Go read and you see their life was full of challenge, even suffering.
The same goes for the Saints and Doctors of the Church. They did not receive peace and joy in order that they could just take it easy. The overwhelming majority of them led lives of difficulty.
Second, even though Jesus says we receive peace and joy, he specifically says it won’t be easy. Look at two passages from Mark’s Gospel.
And these are the ones sown on rocky ground who, when they hear the word, receive it at once with joy. But they have no root; they last only for a time. Then when tribulation or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. Mark 4:16,17
Jesus said, “Amen, I say to you, there is no one who has given up house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands for my sake and for the sake of the gospel, who will not receive a hundred times more now in this present age: houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and eternal life in the age to come. Mark 10:29,30
Jesus doesn’t say “if” persecutions come – the Lord says “when”.
So is the promise of peace and joy an empty promise?
No, it isn’t empty – it’s deeply significant in a Christian’s life when properly understood.
The main thing in responding to Jesus’ promise of peace and joy is to distinguish what these things are and are not. “Peace and joy” is not the same thing as having plenty of money and good health and children who never give you trouble and the admiration of the people around you and good bone structure and great hair.
Peace and joy is the abiding conviction that you are doing God’s will, which is precisely the confidence that all is well with you. You are in agreement with God, who is the great Ground of all there is and can be. The focus of your being lifts from current conditions and a short-term future, onto a horizon linked to eternity. God is your friend.
Let me offer an example from Father Robert Barron’s Catholicism dvd series. (By the way, the dvd series is a triumph. You can learn more here.
Here is Father Barron’s example. In the Beatitudes, Jesus speaks of the happy person as one who does not look for happiness in economic wealth or in power or in experience. The happy person hungers for God and for the qualities that belong to God. Jesus even says in the final Beatitude “Blessed are you when men… persecute you… on account of me.” Father Barron then goes to Matthias Grunewald’s Isenheim altar depiction of the Crucifixion and says this painting of Jesus nailed to the cross is a picture of a happy man. Why? Because this is a man who does the will of God and knows it, a man who is motivated by what motivates God. Thus, this is a man who is at peace and one who has joy, despite his suffering.
St. Paul speaks of much the same thing.
Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus… I know indeed how to live in humble circumstances; I know also how to live with abundance. In every circumstance and in all things I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry, of living in abundance and of being in need. I have the strength for everything through him who empowers me. Philippians 4:6,7,12,13
Paul’s peace did not depend on whether he was hungry or well-fed. His peace was not a function of whether he was in abundance or in need. He lived by the strength of Jesus. His peace came from Jesus.
The oddly logical link between joy and peace and suffering
God in his wisdom and forbearance has allowed our world to continue, even though so much of this world is controlled by people who are evil. Somehow, it is the will of God that hurtful people nevertheless retain the freedom to exercise their hurtfulness. It is his will that even natural forces have power to cause physical suffering for his children.
He gives peace and joy to you and me who serve him – he does this in order that we may endure suffering in this world, yet remain bound to Father and Son and holy Spirit. It is odd, isn’t it? For now, it is necessary that there be pain and hunger and persecution and all the rest. So God holds me close, he “guards my heart and mind in Christ Jesus” so that when I suffer I am not in danger of separation from him. Romans 8:28-39 is another passage that describes this process.
Far from being an empty promise, God’s peace and joy are what make it possible for me to imitate Jesus in his suffering, even Jesus on the cross, “who for the sake of the joy that lay before him endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God”. Hebrews 12:2
Suffering and persecution are inevitable for God’s people.
To endure suffering, God gives his people peace and joy.
When the suffering is ended and we are in the presence of God, part of our perfection will have come from the suffering we endured with God’s help.