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Advent, Week Four: The Peace of Pierced Souls

“He wants us to have peace. Happiness. Not to bring suffering on ourselves.”

In the film A Hidden Life, a village priest offers this counsel to Franz Jägerstätter, an unassuming Austrian farmer who comes to believe he cannot pledge loyalty to Hitler.

Something in me recoiled at hearing the words in this context, but in them I also glimpsed my tendency to conflate the three concepts: peace, happiness, and the absence of suffering. Yes, situations free of pain and conflict are one way to have peace. This awareness has given rise to many a prayer request in my own life, and it’s the reason that the priest and other officials in the film urge Franz to capitulate.

Yet these men cling to a sinking ship, trading mast and rudder and hull piecemeal for a few more minutes of sanctioned survival. “God doesn’t care what you say, only what’s in your heart. Say the oath and think what you like,” the same priest asserts. His very words betray the tenuousness of his dearly bought peace, and they reawaken the question I have asked in my darkest, most fear-steeped hours.

Where is the peace that will not disintegrate when anxiety throttles, when a child falls seriously ill, when once-friendly faces turn venomous, when the world goes to pieces?

The answer has come quietly to me again in the readings for this season.

“Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38, ESV). The steadfastness in Mary’s reply, even as she ponders the mystery of her role in the story of redemption, has echoed elsewhere in history: through Elisabeth Elliot’s maxim “In acceptance lieth peace,” taken from a poem by Amy Carmichael; in Betsie ten Boom’s “The center of His will is our only safety,” spoken as WWII dogfights seared the night sky overhead.

This kind of peace isn’t an embrace of fatalism. It is predicated on at least two truths: that God is a good God, a sovereign, omniscient, and trustworthy God; and that, therefore, the greatest good I can imagine in a given situation may not be the greatest good possible. This is the kind of peace, I believe, that allowed Mary to treasure up the events and words around her in her heart, even as the prophecy came that a sword would pierce her own soul (Luke 2:35, ESV). The piercing would come, the suffering would be unavoidable—but these were not the end of the story. The blow to her soul would, in fact, be evidence of the love of Christ that no sword would ever be able to cleave (Romans 8:35, ESV).

The greatest good I can imagine in a given situation may not be the greatest good possible. Amy Baik Lee

And that love is the mainstay of the peace I seek. The reconciliation I have with God because of Christ (Rom. 5:1, ESV), the peace that now allows me to bring every request to Him and be shielded in heart and mind (Phil 4:7, ESV), is not a peace of tranquil earthly circumstance. No suffering or trial can shake loose the fact that I belong to Him, and that all things shall be worked together for my good. From my perspective, it is as if I’ve been informed that the enemy has been attacking the wrong target all along, and that this is the most he will ever be able to do. My Home, my heart, and the Source of my steadiness are forever out of his reach, even in the moments when I am exhausted and my vision is clouded from the fight. Franz Jägerstätter reflects the same surety later in the film when, as a prisoner, he is directed to sign the oath: “Sign, and you will go free.” “But I am free,” he responds simply.

In the end, the village priest is right; God does want us to have peace. But He does not give to us in such paltry measure and frail security as the world gives. The peace He gives makes us able to get up morning after morning in a world thick with argument and opinion and fear and disease, and sing previously unthinkable words. “What though my joys and comforts die? The Lord my Savior liveth.” It is a peace of relinquishment and of safekeeping guaranteed by a Word far stronger than the offers of man. And it is the peace of pierced souls who are enabled to go on with their scars and wounds, like the One who has gone before them, to love.

He said, ‘I will forget the dying faces; The empty places, They shall be filled again. O voices moaning deep within me, cease.’ But vain the word; vain, vain: Not in forgetting lieth peace. He said, ‘I will crowd action upon action, The strife of faction Shall stir me and sustain; O tears that drown the fire of manhood cease.’ But vain the word; vain, vain: Not in endeavour lieth peace. He said, ‘I will withdraw me and be quiet, Why meddle in life’s riot? Shut be my door to pain. Desire, thou dost befool me, thou shalt cease.’ But vain the word; vain, vain: Not in aloofness lieth peace. He said, ‘I will submit; I am defeated. God hath depleted My life of its rich gain. O futile murmurings, why will ye not cease?’ But vain the word; vain, vain: Not in submission lieth peace. He said, ‘I will accept the breaking sorrow Which God tomorrow Will to His son explain.’ Then did the turmoil deep within me cease. Not vain the word, not vain; For in Acceptance lieth peace. —”In Acceptance Lieth Peace,” Amy Carmichael

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