Having too much is rarely a recipe for peace, though it’s tempting to think so. When you have lots of stuff, you need to spend lots of time paying for it and lots of time taking care of it. Our many possessions can tie us down, making it difficult to respond to opportunities God gives. Oddly, having too much often makes us want to have even more.
In his classic book on the Sabbath, Abraham Joshua Heschel points out that when modern people want to emphasize something in print, we often underline or italicize words. The Bible and other forms of ancient literature used a different tactic—repeating words within the text, as if to say, “Listen and listen up!” Deuteronomy 16:20, for instance, says, “Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, so that you may live and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you” (nrsv). Isaiah 40:1 declares, “‘Comfort, comfort my people,’ says your God.”
Heschel points out that only one of the Ten Commandments is proclaimed twice, and that’s the last one, which goes like this: “Do not covet your neighbor’s house. Do not covet your neighbor’s wife, male or female servant, ox or donkey, or anything else your neighbor owns” (Exodus 20:17)(1). By emphasizing the command, God puts a double fence around our tendency to want more, especially if the more that we want belongs to someone else.
You may not feel wealthy compared to those around you, but most of us who are living in the affluent West are rich compared to the rest of the world. No matter how much we have, all of us can fall into the temptation of coveting what we don’t have. If you find yourself stressed out by everything you own, ask God for help and wisdom to begin paring things down. Then listen and listen up so you can experience more of God’s peace in your life!
(1). Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979), 90.
(Image courtesy of sraburton at freeimages.com)
Several years ago a business leader by the name of Michael Hyatt embarked on a three-week pilgrimage to Mount Athos, visiting several Orthodox monasteries. Toward the end of the trip, Hyatt and his companions visited a small monastic community located on the edge of the Aegean Sea. During their visit, one of the monks offered the travelers tea and pastries served up with stimulating spiritual conversation.
When it was time to go, Hyatt stood on the veranda overlooking the brilliant blue sea and remarked to one of the monks, “I hate to leave, Father. It is so peaceful here.”
Nodding, the monk remained silent for a few minutes and then replied, “You know, Michael, anywhere can be this peaceful, if”—he paused for emphasis—“you have God in your heart. But if you don’t, then even a place as beautiful as this can be hell.”(1)
Most of us can relate to Hyatt’s experience. Standing at the edge of a lake, staring up at starry skies, or walking through snowy woods, we sense a peace we wish would go on forever. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the created world has this effect on us, coming as it does from the good hand of God.
Let’s enjoy the beauty of nature, savoring the peace we find there without being seduced into thinking that a villa on the beach or a cabin on a mountaintop is what we really need to be happy. Only God, living within us, can give us what our hearts desire.
(1) Michael Hyatt, “Where to Find Peace in Turbulent Times,” Michael Hyatt Intentional
Leadership (blog), February 28, 2011, http://us2.campaign-archive1.com/?u=52d5c7778a3adfda535c3b349&id=c17029a0c2&e=53afb51cde.
(Image courtesy of kitsos13/freeimages.com)
Ever travel to Amish country? If so, you know what it feels like to be transported to the nineteenth century. In parts of Michigan, not far from where I live, you can see Amish farms dotting the countryside. Most Amish deliberately limit their farms to eighty tillable acres or less since that’s the amount of land a family can work. Instead of seeing natural limitations as something to be overcome, the Amish embrace them. In her book Amish Peace, Suzanne Woods Fisher tells the story of an Amish man “who joked that if he were meant to plow at night, God would have put a headlight on a horse.” The Amish, she says, “respect natural limitations: sunlight and seasons, hunger and fatigue.”
This desire to acknowledge, preserve, and live within certain limitations is one aspect of Amish life that most sets them apart. After all, they live smack in the middle of a culture that prides itself on pushing the limits at every opportunity, overcoming barriers to productivity and play by offering a constant array of new and better gadgets and technologies. Computers, video games, cell phones, and other technological wonders take up more and more of our time. We don’t think twice about the constant flow of electricity that enables us to get less and less sleep so that we can do more and more. We’re like children who don’t want to go to bed, lest we miss something.
But we do miss something. We miss the peace that comes from accepting limits on our time and energy. And then we wonder why we feel so stressed. By hailing this Amish tendency to live within limits, I am not urging us to stop using technology, but we ought to learn from how others have chosen to live. By doing so, our lives will not be diminished but enhanced.
(Image courtesy of SailorJohn/freeimages.com)
Remember the story of the Gentile woman who begged Jesus to heal her demon-possessed daughter? Instead of casting out the demon, Jesus seemed to ignore the request. (Keep in mind that in Jesus’ culture, men did not talk to women they did not know, and Jews did not talk to Gentiles.) Annoyed, the disciples urged Jesus to send her away. He appeared to comply, stating that his mission was to the Jews only. But she would not give up. Then he went further, insulting her by comparing Gentiles to dogs, a common view among his contemporaries. Instead of taking offense, she simply said, “That’s true, Lord, but even dogs are allowed to eat the scraps that fall beneath their masters’ table” (Matthew 15:27).
We are relieved that Jesus finally heals the woman’s daughter, but many of us view the story with unease. It seems to put Jesus in an unflattering light.
But remember that Jesus was a rabbi. And rabbis used various methods to instruct their disciples. Kenneth Bailey, an expert in Middle Eastern New Testament studies, suggests an interesting interpretation. What if Jesus was giving his disciples an object lesson in faith? What if he was testing this woman and in the end commending her as one of his star pupils so his own disciples could learn something, not only from a woman but also from a Gentile? (1)
Here is how Bailey paints the scene, just after Jesus makes the comment about dogs: “Will she reply with a corresponding insult against the haughty Jews who despise and verbally attack Gentiles, even those in pain? Or is her love for her daughter, her faith that Jesus has the power of God to heal, her confidence that he has compassion for Gentiles and her commitment to him as Master/Lord so strong that she will absorb the insult and press on, yet again, with her request?” (2)
We see in this woman’s story an encouragement not only to persist in prayer but to continue to believe in God’s love and compassion in the midst of circumstances that may cast him in an unflattering light. Today, may her story impel us to continue to pray for those we love.
(Image courtesy of melodi2/freeimages.com)
(1). Though this explanation may at first seem improbable, read Kenneth Bailey’s convincing exegesis in Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2008), 217–26.
(2). Ibid., 224.