If you have visited a Christian book store recently or browsed through a catalog from a religious publisher you will know that self-help and self-improvement books abound. Some seem to be little more than thinly disguised religious versions of books available on the secular market, but most claim to offer distinctly biblical advice.
One area that seems to be of interest to readers involves dealing with stress and anxiety, both of which are constant complaints in our busy lives. After all, Christians are not only stressed, we have an added burden of guilt which arises from the conviction that for God’s children worry is a sin and peace is a virtue. Doesn’t Paul argue that we should “not be anxious about anything,” but instead be characterized by “the peace of God, which transcends all understanding?” True spirituality, it is believed, will decrease stress; peace is a fruit of the Holy Spirit and so an inner calm will rule any heart sold out to God and his will. Some even use their sense of inner peace as a barometer for reading God’s will. If you feel “at peace,” proceed, but if inner peace is absent, it’s probably not God’s will.
One nationally known Christian psychologist, for example, begins his advice with a paraphrase of Proverbs 23:7: “As a man thinks in his heart, so is he.” He then applies this to our mental health by listing nine things that, he says, if they become part of our thinking, will lead to healthy living and inner peace:
1. Memorize Scripture.
2. Be willing to love.
3. Take time to laugh.
4. Face your fears.
5. Accept yourself as you are.
6. Refuse to worry.
7. Give everyone, including yourself, a break.
8. Give problems time.
9. Watch closely how you allow yourself to be entertained.
Now, it seems rather petty to raise questions about such a list, or about the deep yearning for inner peace and tranquility that so many bear witness to. On the other hand, just because something is commonly accepted within the Christian community doesn’t make it correct. So, let’s be discerning about it.
Questions1. To what extent do you sense a yearning for peace and tranquility? What seems to be the source of your anxiety or lack of peace? How do you know?
2. What is your initial response to the above list? What makes it attractive? Where do you agree? Why? Where do you disagree? Why? What biblical reasons would you give?
3. To what extent would you link true spirituality and inner peace or tranquility? Why? How would you make your case from Scripture?
4. Can the yearning for inner peace ever be problematic? How or when? How do you know? How would you make your case from Scripture?
5. To what extent should a sense of inner peace be used to determine God’s will? Is it ever possible that following God’s direction will result in a distinct loss of or decrease in inner peace? How do you know?
6. Look up and study each biblical text mentioned or alluded to in this article. Are they misused within the Christian community? How? What do they, in fact, teach? To what extent is your interpretation reflected in how the church has understood them over the centuries—especially during periods of suffering and persecution?
7. “The call to ‘seek peace and pursue it,’ has become” Paul Marshall says, “a ceaseless quest for personal tranquility: no stress, no guilt, no ‘unhealthy’ emotions.” What’s the difference between the two? And what difference does it make?
8. Commenting on the list proposed by the Christian psychologist, Marshall has this to say: “The problem is not whether some or all of this may be good advice. It is that this inward focus is all the advice that is given: It leaves the impression that life is about inner peace.” Dr. Marshall addresses this issue in a book on the horrific persecution that fellow believers are suffering around the world today. He asks why the evangelical church has failed to do much about it, or even to be informed enough to pray intelligently. “It is difficult to imagine Christians immersed in this perspective” of inner peace, he says, “being able to get their noses out of their navels long enough to consider whether their peace should be tied to the fate of suffering sisters and brothers around the world. It is equally difficult to imagine such a list giving much comfort to Christians who really are persecuted... Clearly, a positive outlook can have value in dealing with most of our ordinary day-to-day frustrations. But if God is always supposed to provide relief, then suffering Christians seem to make God appear untrustworthy and the product unreliable. Why hasn’t Christianity ‘worked’ for the Sudanese the way it does in America? How can the prayers of suffering Christians in Vietnam remain unanswered?” What is your response to Marshall’s analysis? Why?
9. Rewrite the list so that it better reflects a biblical view of Christian faithfulness in our stressful and bloody world.
10. To what extent is your peace tied to the fate of your suffering brothers and sisters?