What is love?
Is it the opposite of hate? Is it God? Is it the thing that makes the world go round?
What is joy?
Is it a feeling or a state of mind? Is it a divine gift? If it’s different than happiness, then how so? Is it found in a sense of purpose or optimism?
What is peace?
Is it the absence of conflict? Is it epiphany and self-actualisation? Is it serenity in the midst of crisis? Is it an emotion or an escape?
Love. Joy. Peace.
These are well-wishes on a holiday card, a lofty goal to achieve, like world peace. They are the prizes to be sought and still they continue to defy definition, although countless works of art, songs, books, poems and movies have been produced, crafted by talented artisans, in an attempt to define the ethereal-yet-substantive nature of these words.
– Christians believe that these are the first three in the infamous “Fruit of the Spirit” list in Paul’s letter to the Galations: But the fruit of the spirit is Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Gentleness and Self-Control.
– Hindu’s believe they are present in stages of enlightenment and the quality of Nirvana.
– Atheists believe they are conjured through free-thought and goodwill.
I believe that love, joy and peace are more easily defined in what they are not.
Though my life has been lived in first-world comfort, I have seen enough of the lack of love, joylessness and chaos to know what I don’t want.
I may be confused about how to define love but I cannot question hate.
I have felt rage within myself, I have seen it in others. I have felt the tense bristling of a hateful person suck the energy and life out of a room. I don’t question the reality or existence of hate.
I have seen despair and depression rape the beauty and steal the lives from loved ones.
I have seen its shadow creep, felt the nothingness of joylessness consume. It is very real. I have friends who live with the pain of living after a loved-one has capitulated to sorrow and ended life in suicide. No, I cannot question the reality of sadness unchained.
And I have witnessed the wreckage of confusion and disordered thinking and a live of striving.
I’ve seen the generational destruction of this madness. I’ve watched relationships crumble in frustrated confusion, miscommunication.
Many of us hope that we leave the world, or our little corner of it, a more loving, joyful, peaceful place than we found it, yet how do we create something tangible out of these intangibles?
Many say love is a verb, love is a choice… it’s more than a feeling or emotion. And, that’s true somewhat.
I say, in order to have a life marked by love, and joy and peace, too, one must be subscribed to the idea that we are beings capable of loving, joying and peacing as much as we are capable of hating, hurting and yielding to confusion.
Could this capacity be the very proof that we are created in the image of God?
What love, joy and peace are not clearly define in my experience and comprehension what, in fact, they are.
Late in his life, King David’s son, Absalom, incited a rebellion in an attempt to take the reign of the kingdom from his own father.(2 Samuel 15-18) Talk about rebellious kids!
David has always been an enigma to me. The Bible calls him a “man after God’s own heart” yet he spent most of his years on the battle field, many years spent running from his predecessor, Saul, and some even in hiding from his own son.
How could this man who wrote the psalms that shaped the memories of the nation of Israel, the verses that carried comfort and prophesied the coming Christ, raise a child so rebellious that he raped his own sister and another who rebelled so strongly against his father that he tried to take away the kingdom? (Not to mention the mess with Uriah the Hittite and his beautiful wife, Bathsheba.) David’s life was messy and scattered with a slew of hate, hurt and confusion.
But David knew the One who possessed all love, all joy and all peace. He knew at which throne to kneel for forgiveness and healing, for real love, true joy and peace.
And I think it’s for the absence of all good in David’s life, the dark corners of caves, the starving days and nights in the wilderness, the depths of remorse and the terror of pursuit, that he came to fully comprehend all the goodness in God.
In the middle of a small psalm written while he was on the run run from his murderous son, David declared:
“Because your lovingkindness is better than life, my lips shall praise you.”( Psalm 63:3)
Consider the scene:
He rises early.
The mist of night still clings to the desert and he finds his soul as dry and empty as the land around him. Perhaps he sat his old bones on a rock, felt the stiffness of years grip his joints and the exhaustion of all this running bear down on him like a weight. And he looks around him and sees the evidence of death. Looks at his hands, the instruments of praise and murder, blessing and destruction and then looks to the pale, dawn sky:
1 O God, You are my God;
Early will I seek You;
My soul thirsts for You;
My flesh longs for You
In a dry and thirsty land
Where there is no water.
When there is nothing left, where do you look?
When there is no one else, whom do you call? David knew full the cost of his erring. He knew the indulgences and neglect that he was guilty of in Absalom’s life. He felt the burden and blame as a millstone. His family life was a wreck. His nation was hanging by a thread to the mercy of Jehovah and there was no clear answer before him. Only God. David would have to return from hiding and face whatever would come of this recent war, the war within his own home, this humiliation and undoing. But here, in the infant morning the desert became awash with truth, the truth that comes from ashes and emptiness:
2 So I have looked for You in the sanctuary,
To see Your power and Your glory.
And he found that God was the source of everything worth living for:
3 Because Your lovingkindness is better than life,
My lips shall praise You.
4 Thus I will bless You while I live;
I will lift up my hands in Your name.
If it was hunger, only God could satisfy:
5 My soul shall be satisfied as with marrow and fatness,
And my mouth shall praise You with joyful lips.
If he faced fear and loneliness, God would be a present source of comfort and protection:
6 When I remember You on my bed,
I meditate on You in the night watches.
If it was danger, God would always come to his aid:
7 Because You have been my help,
Therefore in the shadow of Your wings I will rejoice.
So there is but one choice whatever the day brings. One choice:
8 My soul follows close behind You;
Your right hand upholds me.
9 But those who seek my life, to destroy it,
Shall go into the lower parts of the earth.
10 They shall fall by the sword;
They shall be a portion for jackals.
11 But the king shall rejoice in God;
Everyone who swears by Him shall glory;
But the mouth of those who speak lies shall be stopped.
David was willing to rejoice in God even if Absalom’s sword struck through him.
God had proven himself in David’s life. But he had proven himself through the mess, through the testing and warring and selfishness. So an old man (a king who remembered well the day Samuel’s oil ran through his hair and down his chin and declared him the chosen one) stood in the desert and knew joy, love, peace, because he knew the depths of absentia. He knew the devastating apartness that is living disconnected from God.
And that made the love purer, the joy richer, the peace surpassing and enlivened a tired, beaten down man to shout songs of praise: because God’s lovingkindness was better than life itself.
I like comfort. I like the way it feels when the baby is soft in my arms, the sun is shining and the bills are paid. I want to feel like “all’s right with the world”. But when it isn’t? Then what?
If you are battling disease, your past, your teenager, your credit debt, your spouse, you might, like David, look out at the wasteland and cry: there is nothing here!
But the disaster holds the gift. God’s lovingkindness is his grace faithfully extended toward you, and me, always. He is always working on our behalf and will work things out. We can choose to embrace that reality, or not. But like David, I want to rise and face whatever may come knowing there is something better than life: God’s love. That is joy and peace and strength and goodness and everything I need and more, to face the future. There’s enough for you, too.