Glenda Simpkins Hoffman
This time of year we see and hear the words “Peace on Earth.” Is it possible? Is peace something real we can experience here and now? Of course, peace will not pervade our lives or the world perfectly until the Lord returns and makes everything right. But we can experience “the peace of God that surpasses comprehension” (Phil. 2:7) in our everyday lives.
As you know, my husband was recently diagnosed with brain cancer, had surgery, and is now undergoing treatment. Someone asked me how I was doing and said I seemed to be stoic (someone who endures pain or hardship without showing their feelings or complaining). Anyone who knows me well knows that I am not stoic. I’m emotional and, yes, even a complainer. But I responded to this friend by explaining I have been through a lot of loss in my life, so this isn’t my first rodeo.
I have learned from experience that crisis can either lead to anger and bitterness and resentment or to a place of deep letting go. I have learned through experience that when you can’t control what is happening to you, the best (and really only) option is to let go and let God do what only he can do. I confess I am sometimes still a little surprised but always profoundly grateful to discover the way God carries me and gives me his peace.
I have to explain this is not my nature. I have said before that I grew up being very anxious and fearful about almost everything. I was shy, introverted, and reserved around other people I didn’t know well. The way I tried to quell my anxiety was through perfectionism and working as hard as I could to do my best. The truth is, I was rather a control freak. But all my efforts to make things better didn’t bring a sense of calm or peace but instead more pressure and anxiety.
My first experience of learning to let go was during college. I had been involved with a campus ministry, had begun to practice spiritual disciplines, and was learning and growing in community with others. I made the choice to step out of my comfort zone to leave home and travel across the country to participate in a summer project. We worked during the day at various jobs, and then in the evenings and on weekends we participated in Bible studies, small groups, and outreach. God used these times to ground me in his word and community but also to stretch me beyond what I wanted or felt comfortable with.
The year following this amazing immersion in community and spiritual growth was followed by a year of darkness when I felt God was absent. The dear woman who was discipling me at that time sat with me, prayed with me, pointed me to helpful scripture. She also introduced me to the language that describes this experience—a dark night of the soul. This was profoundly helpful to me—not only to know what to call my experience but to know that others had been in this place too. I especially appreciated these words of encouragement: “Don’t doubt in the darkness what God has shown you in the light.” I held on to that and chose to walk by faith not by sight. I was learning to let go, but it was not easy, comfortable, or even desirable. This was all preparation for what was to come.
The following summer I was on another summer project closer to home when I received the news that my older brother Britt had died in an Air Force jet crash. Of course there was the shock of the news and profound sadness. But I can remember sitting in the living room with my family and our Episcopal priest talking about our grief and planning his funeral. For the first time I was flooded with a sense of peace I had never known before. It was a work of the Holy Spirit in me—not only in that moment but in the year before that made me ready to let go and let God do what only he could do. When I did, I experienced the Lord holding and carrying me and my family in truly miraculous ways.
Looking back, I know God was using my circumstances the year preceding my brother’s death to prepare me to be better able to deal with the suffering that was to come to me and my family. God was with us even in this loss and crisis, and his Spirit would strengthen and help us.
There have been many other losses and crises through the forty years since then including not only the death of loved ones, but serious illnesses, infertility, loss of jobs, transitions from one home to unfamiliar and new places, financial insecurity, betrayal of friends. As I have said before, transitions, crises, losses, and grief come to us all. They are an inescapable part of life. I am living in the midst of them now, and I know of so many others who are as well.
The promise we have is not that life will be easy or even the way we want or desire. The promise we have from Jesus is with us: “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you” (John 14:18). “And remember I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).
The Holy Spirit is the ongoing presence of Jesus who is not only with us always but indwells, fills, empowers, and enables us to experience the fruit of the Spirit—love, joy, and peace.
The peace the Spirit brings is the peace that Jesus promised. “My peace I give to you. My peace I leave with you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not be afraid.”
Peace is one of the signs of the Spirit’s presence and powerful work in our lives, and hardship is often the vehicle through which transformation happens. But spiritual practices are also means of grace by which God renews our mind through the truth of his word, quiets our souls as we open to him in prayer, encourages our hearts through engagement in community with others, and strengthens our bodies to serve him in the world. God has used these and other spiritual disciplines to equip and prepare me for the challenges of life and the call of ministry. Peace is not just something we are to experience; we are to live in peace with others and be peacemakers in the world.
This Advent, I encourage each of us to choose to live into the peace we already have in Jesus. Make time to be with Jesus in the ways suggested above. Whatever you are facing in your life due to COVID-19 or other struggles, choose to see your life circumstances not as an interruption to the life you want or planned but an opportunity to rely on God’s grace and to experience the presence, peace, and power that the Spirit brings. And find ways to be an instrument of peace in the lives of others and a peacemaker in the world.