If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all people (Romans 12:18).
Let your reasonableness be known to everyone (Philippians 4:5).
Our battle is not against flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12).
“My personal question,” my friend Lisa said, “is how do you stay in the process without losing heart?” We were discussing the tug-of-war of our cultural moment—the divides, generational, political, or denominational, that can leave us exhausted as we grapple with the challenge of how to love when disagreement feels fraught. How to be both faithful and compassionate when the script of the world and the thrust of online speech is that difference equals threat, that capitulation equals love. Maybe you’ve experienced the conflict too. Difficult conversations. Broad mistrust. Political and religious division where we didn’t expect it. Or, even where we did expect division, acrimony out of proportion to the disagreement. Does this sound familiar?
What is the “more excellent way” here? How can we pursue peace without being doormats? Can we somehow ground ourselves so deeply in the truth, so firmly in the things of primary importance, that we can listen with love, security, and an openness to how the Lord might shape us through friction to look more like Jesus?
What Is Our Foundation?
Let’s step back for a moment and consider the ramifications of our beliefs. If the Father is powerful beyond comprehension, and without limit, and He made the world with a hair-numbering level of attention; if the Son lived sinless, died for our sins, rose as the promise of our own future resurrection, and awaits in heaven the day of His return to judge the living and the dead; and if the Holy Spirit is guiding His Church through this age’s imperfect fellowship toward the new creation, when we anticipate perfect communion with God and with each other— what does this mean for how we approach the world? How we live our lives?
Defining Peaceful Courage
Much has been said recently in these pages about courage: courage to resist lies, courage to fight injustice, courage in the tumultuous gloom of a polarized and information-overloaded culture. Amen. Faced with trials of various kinds, we’d all do well to cultivate the courage of David and Daniel. At the same time, let us be on guard against inadvertently stoking fears with our calls to courage.
Consider the effect of this sentence: “We don’t need to fear the conniving Swedes because God is sovereign.” Is… is it true? God is sovereign, yes; we don’t need to fear, absolutely; but are Swedes conniving? I use a (hopefully) humorous example to make a point (I trust no reader really thinks Swedes are inherently sly), but what if we switch out the object of fear to something a little subtler, more debatable, and perhaps more likely to be feared? “Anchoring our hope in a just and merciful God, we needn’t fear Democrats.” Well, we also needn’t fear Republicans, socialists, capitalists, Marxists, libertarians, rich people, poor people, LGBT activists, reporters, politicians, immigrants, statisticians, Chinese spies, police officers, gun control advocates, gun control opponents, Joe Biden, or Donald Trump.
But it’s a funny trick of the mind that “Don’t think of pink elephants” is approximately as effective as “Do think of pink elephants” in prompting consideration of rosy pachyderms. Shouting “Don’t be afraid of the impending nuclear war that will probably start tomorrow” may soothe your listeners, but if your listeners are like me, it may not.
Closer to home, “Don’t be afraid of the lying, fear-mongering media” is not just a call to bravery but also, at best, an accusation both explicit (“The media are lying fearmongers”) and implicit (“The media are fear-some”) and a generalization that lumps many good reporters and publishers in with many bad ones. At worst, it pours fuel on the very fears it tries to extinguish.
I hear such exhortations with concern that they will promote the kind of courage Peter displayed in Gethsemane. In the moments leading to Jesus’ arrest, when an armed crowd was bearing down on the garden, Peter is the one disciple who we know confronted the situation with a semblance of courage, drawing a sword and hack-ing off a nearby ear. But his was a reactive courage—a fearful bravery—not, I think, rooted in a deep, peaceful confidence in Jesus. Rather, his courage seems rooted in panicky confidence. “OK, Jesus, you’re the Messiah, right? These people are ruining everything… I’m fighting. When are you going to start fighting, Jesus?” Peter’s courage dissolved completely when Jesus didn’t endorse his belligerence. “‘Put your sword back in its place,’” Jesus said to him, ‘for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.’ … Then all the disciples deserted Him and fled” (Matthew 26:52, 56, NIV).
We post-Pentecost followers of Jesus can certainly do better than pre-Pentecost Peter. Guided by the Holy Spirit and bolstered by a picture of God’s plan for history informed by the Resurrection and the New Testament, we can embrace the sort of courage that doesn’t lash out at today’s Malchuses. We do not want to find ourselves watching Jesus tenderly mend the gashes we’ve inflicted in a collective attempt at bravery.
The good news of God’s sovereignty and power should give us the peace and freedom to adopt a species of courage that for many of us is naturally more difficult than the courage to draw our swords and flail about. It provides a rational basis for a courage that refuses to feel threatened, convinced that the story of the world remains firmly under the direction of the God who works all things together for good.
So what does this kind of peaceful courage look like?
Like this: “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience” (Colossians 3:12, NIV). This wardrobe doesn’t go out of style when the surrounding culture is antagonistic. If we are firmly anchored in our confidence that God will guide us and that He is sovereign, we can afford to wear these virtues:
To hold compassion for those we might otherwise fear.
To do those we disagree with the kindness of seeing them as individual bearers of God’s image rather than generalizing them into an easily dismissed or hated bloc.
To humbly hear the arguments of those we disagree with politically, doctrinally, or morally, and, accepting that we surely have our own blind spots, to hold our challenged ideas up against the higher standard of the Word of God.
To respond with gentleness when we might be tempted to defensiveness. To lament evil, yes, and to fight for what is good, but to do so with the patience that comes from knowing that God Himself is “immensely” patient (1 Timothy 1:16), that no purpose of His can be thwarted (Job 42:2), and that “the coming of the Lord is near” (James 5:3).
Supporting a Colossians Mindset with Philosophy
There is a long tradition in Christian teaching that argues something like this: Since God created the world good (Genesis 1:31), and since nothing exists that He did not make (John 1:3), and since God is perfectly just (Deuteronomy 32:4) and therefore could not create injustice, therefore evil must be not a creation of God but a distortion of His good creation. Augustine of Hippo wrote in the fifth century, “Evil has no positive nature; but the loss of good has received the name ‘evil’” (The City of God, XI, Chap. 9).
J.R.R. Tolkien draws on this idea in The Return of the King when he has Frodo say that the power of evil could not create, so it twisted elves into orcs: “The Shadow that bred them can only mock, it cannot make: not real new things of its own.”
When we encounter evil—including in ourselves!—it can be helpful to understand what good the evil was supposed to be. What elves got twisted into orcs? What good desire or good need was behind the ache that turned into watching porn, or aborting a child, or snapping at a spouse, or slandering a political rival? Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, an influential Christian philosopher who lived a hundred or so years after Augustine, goes so far as to say that even the worst evils come out of misdirected good desires: “And the very man, who desires the very worst life, as wholly desirous of life and that which seems best to him, by the very fact of desiring, and desiring life, and looking to a best life, participates in the Good” (Divine Names IV.XX).
That is, God created us to live and to live well. So the man who desires to live well is still pursuing some thread of goodness, even if he is so deceived that he thinks living well means living a life of cruelty, betrayal, and debauchery. (It’s easier to see this evil-as-perverted-good connection in lust, which the 14th-century allegorist Dante Alighieri imagines near the top of hell because, as sins go, it is not so far from love, and which Dionysius calls a “very obscure echo of union and friendship.”)
Of course, evil is no more justified by its post-goodness status than a shattered sheet of glass will make a weatherproof window. Our cruel, traitorous, debauched friend from two paragraphs back will face an uncomfortable justice: “The one who sows to his own flesh will reap destruction from the flesh” (Galatians 6:8, NASB). My point is certainly not to make evil more palatable. Nor is it to temper a vigorous pursuit of justice. Far from it.
Where am I going with this philosophical romp, then? Two places. First, seeing evil as a distortion or deprivation of good can help us respond to bad things by contemplating the injured good, and yearning for (and maybe working for) its restoration instead of wringing our hands. Operating out of fear, on the other hand—even fear of legitimate evil—can quickly lead to believing all kinds of lies. And it’s easy to fear what we do not understand. I’m not advocating a deep dive into understanding evil, but understanding that evil is always ultimately futile can help us to be compassionate and to love our enemies—two actions that the Bible explicitly requires of us.
Second, this framework can help protect us from the danger of conflating evil with “things we disagree with.” If even evil people are striving for some good end, how much more kind-hearted people of integrity who come to different conclusions? I’m thinking more politically here. I have friends far to the right and far to the left of me on the political spectrum. Both camps advocate policies, rhetoric, and actions that I see as deeply misguided. And you know what? Both sides are terrified of and despise each other.
But God has not given us a spirit of fear (2 Timothy 1:7), and He commands us to bless those who curse us (Luke 6:28). How might you obey? Blessing specifically those who categorically curse you might be a good place to start, perhaps befriending a person or two with drastically different political opinions or antipathy toward Christianity. Even if that opportunity doesn’t present itself, you can presume good intentions by default. Ask your new friends, if you have them, what good are they seeking? There might be more overlap than you’d predict. You might find it a bit easier to disagree without fear and with respect. You might find your own opinions shift.
Practical Advice for Grounding Ourselves
Does this sound destabilizing? Well, it might be. A little destabilizing is good if our stability is grounded in the wrong things. So let’s make sure we’re grounded in the right things. Let’s shore up our most crucial convictions (primary things) even as we hold lesser convictions (secondary and tertiary things) with open hands, humbly, and without defensiveness.
How do we do this? And, to revisit the question Lisa and I were considering, how do we not lose heart? I have a few ideas:
• Don’t listen to fearful voices.
• Practice spiritual disciplines, individual and communal.
• Dive deeply and often into the surest truths, bathing your soul in the beauty of God’s goodness.
• Study Jesus Himself and seek the Holy Spirit’s help in becoming like Him.
• And keep revisiting our foundation. “Remember the signs,” as Aslan said.
There’s a reason I wanted to start this discussion with an abbreviated paraphrase of the Apostles’ Creed. The beauty of who God is in His three persons—Creator, Savior, Guide—and His inexorable plan to redeem the world is the rationale for the kind of courage I’m cele-brating. How should we live in the light of the “tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun [has] come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace”? (Luke 1:78-79, NIV).
“Without fear” (Luke 1:74). Not even the brave sort. ■
—An alumnus of Fairwood Bible Institute and Hillsdale College, Aaron is a self-employed graphic designer, attending Missio Dei Church and renovating his ninety-one-year-old Tudor-style house.