Romans 12.18 tells us: “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (NRSV).
If you’ve lived any length of time, or lived any length of time with another person, you know how challenging this command is. Peace with people simply does not come naturally. Competition? Yes. Correction of their mistakes? For sure. Conflict? All too often. Looking for ways to get other people to do what I want them to do to make things better for me in every possible way? That’s what comes most naturally to me.
Peace is a decision. Peace-making is a commitment. Living in peace with others, as Paul recognizes, takes work. It takes work because anyone who comes to you, comes carrying baggage full of the stuff of their life. Sometimes that baggage is obvious to them – a malady, a misfortune, a loss, an addiction, or just the general weariness of life. As Abigail Adams once wrote in a letter to her husband John: “No one is without difficulties, whether in high or low life, and every person knows best where their own shoe pinches.”
But many times what others carry isn’t clear – to you, or even to them. As a result, we find ourselves trying to connect or at least be civil, only to discover that our honest efforts prove more difficult than we imagined. And sometimes they simply get shot down. Where did that come from? we wonder. And we don’t know. And sometimes they don’t either.
Every person you meet comes carrying things you can see and things you can’t. And their “stuff” meets your “stuff” and, sometimes, this means that, well … stuff happens.
So, if we are called to live at peace (and we are), and we recognize that it’s not easy (for it’s not): how can we best do our part to live at peace with others?
First, we can start by understanding ourselves. Do the hard work of looking at your own baggage. Do it with someone you trust, who can be honest and loving – gentle where needed, but firm where required. You will never relate well with people until you understand yourself. Do the hard work of facing your stuff. Show yourself grace, of course – but make sure to be honest about who you are and what you carry.
Then, show grace to those you interact with. If they are new to you, you likely know very little of what they are facing. And even for those you know pretty well, they likely carry stuff they haven’t full processed or fully understand – in ways that may surprise you.
My wife and I recently had friends over for dinner. After we ate, the girls were going through some old stuff we had that their daughter might be able to use in her college apartment, so we boys had some time to catch up, one-on-one. We talked about a job he had in the past that had not ended well. He shared that it still hurts, years later. He has moved on; he has a nice career; he is using his gifts. But the past is still a part of the baggage he carries. I understand; I’ve had jobs that haven’t ended like I had hoped. I’ll bet you have too.
So, grace is essential. You simply don’t know what state of tenderness a person’s soul is in when you encounter them. This goes for the clerk at the grocery store, the guy honking his horn at you, and a good friend who may have some history they just haven’t felt ready to share. Deal kindly with those who come your way; you simply don’t know where they’ve been.
And, as you are able, help build peace by helping them bear their baggage, even if it’s just for a little bit and for a short time. You really do have the choice each day, no matter how you feel: to either bring a bit of kindness to those you meet, or not. You really can share joy when you don’t feel happy, or choose gentleness in response to aggressiveness. With discipline & cultivation, you really can choose peace, even if you don’t feel up to the task with that particular person in that particular moment. That’s why it’s called the fruit of the Spirit. It’s rooted in the work he is doing in your life, not in what you feel like doing in the moment.
E.B. White is best known for his children’s works, but he wrote a lot for grown-ups on how to live together in a free society. About peace, he had this to say:
Most people think of peace as a state of Nothing Bad Happening, or Nothing Much Happening. Yet if peace is to overtake us and make us the gift of serenity and well-being, it will have to be the state of Something Good Happening.” (“Unity,” The New Yorker, June 18, 1960)
Peace is never passive. It takes work – work that is most often done by those who have the maturity and the wisdom to see the work that needs to be done.
At the same time, remember that Paul says that we should live at peace with others as much as it depends on us. For it isn’t all on your shoulders. There will be people who are surly in response to your sweet spirit, and you’re not sure why. There will be neighbors you can’t engage, church members who are more frozen than chosen in response to your overtures, and even family whose hurt you can’t heal.
Show love and patience. Be kind and compassionate. But set boundaries, recognizing that you can’t make everyone face their pain or their demons, or even get them to be pleasant to you when you pass on the street or in the pew. Understand they must be carrying something, but accept that even if you really want to, you can’t carry it for them, and they may not even want you to carry it with them.
While you can’t fix others’ problems or make others find peace, you will find that when you approach others with a posture of peace and a heart of grace, there will be many opportunities for you to share that peace in meaningful ways with others. In the process, you just might find that in sharing peace, you find more of it yourself.