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How to Have Inner Peace, Even Now

How to Have Inner Peace, Even Now

Years ago, I learned an essential lesson that has application across every relationship: Becoming someone who can remain present to oneself and to another, especially in times of  disagreement  or  distress,  is  one  of  the  most  important  things we can do to become whole.

Some have called this lesson self-differentiation. For our purposes, let’s call it calm presence. (By  it,  I’m  referring  to  self-differentiation.) It’s to be the natural outflow of a life that  is  marked  by  humility  and  contemplative  prayer.  It’s  how love is formed in us.

I’m  convinced  that  the  most  important  skill  needed  in  our world today is learning to cultivate calm presence. The cultivation  of  calm  presence  is  the  conscious  and  courageous decision to remain close and curious to ourselves and others in times of high anxiety. It’s a concept birthed out of family systems theory.

In the 1950s, a psychiatrist named Murray Bowen sought to understand the ways our families of origin shape our lives and our connection—or lack thereof—to the world. One of the core tenets of family systems theory is the natural tendency  people  have  to  anxiously  attach  to  someone  on  the  one hand and anxiously detach on the other. The respective forces  of  togetherness  and  individuality  foster  certain  personal  and  interpersonal  dynamics  that  hurt  relationships.  Songs are written all the time about this.

Cultivating Calm Presence: Examples from the Bible

There’s much we can learn from the Bible about cultivating calm presence. Although we won’t find a chapter and verse in the Bible that speaks directly to the concept, there are a few instances that serve as helpful examples. Let me highlight three of them.

David and Saul

The interaction between David and King Saul in 1 Samuel 17 is a wonderful case study in calm presence. David demonstrated  closeness  to  himself  and  closeness  to  Saul  in  a  time of extreme anxiety.

In  this  story,  the  Israelites  were  once  again  in  a  battle  with their noted rivals, the Philistines. The Philistines had the renowned giant warrior Goliath on their side. Goliath mocked  the  warriors  of  Israel,  trying  to  lure  them  into  a  gladiatorial battle. But no one from Israel was saying yes to this invitation. (I wouldn’t either.)

At  this  point,  David,  a  young  shepherd,  came  on  the  scene to deliver lunch to his brothers. As he distributed the cheese and bread, he overheard some of the soldiers of Israel.  They  reminded  each  other  that  whoever  fought  Goliath—and wins, of course—would receive great wealth, the king’s daughter in marriage, and exemption from paying taxes. David’s eyes grew large. He was willing to risk his life for this prize.

It’s  at  this  point  we  see  an  important  moment  of  calm  presence. King Saul heard of this courageous teenager and wanted  to  help  him  succeed.  He  gave  his  armor  to  David  for  him  to  put  on  before  fighting.  David  did  so  but  soon  realized  that  it  didn’t  fit.  He  prudently  took  it  off  and  searched  for  stones  to  place  in  his  slingshot.  As  everyone  knows, he went on to defeat Goliath.

The  armor-wearing  moment  is  key  for  our  purposes  here.  David  didn’t  mindlessly  go  the  route  of  distancing  himself from Saul in the name of individuality. He was not callous toward Saul but tried on the armor. It was an act of openness,  curiosity,  and  humility.  David  stayed  in  good  connection with Saul. But if David went to battle in Saul’s armor, he would have been slaughtered. So far, David had the “Remain close to others” part of calm presence down. But he also remained close to himself.

David  had  a  history  of  fighting  with  his  slingshot,  so  after trying on the armor, he realized that he stood a better chance if he fought the way in which he was accustomed. To remove Saul’s armor in front of everyone was a courageous act that could potentially embarrass Saul since David was rejecting Saul’s idea. But he was not controlled by the anxiety of the moment or by Saul’s attempt to help. He was thoughtful and decisive.

The story ended well (for David and Israel), but things don’t always look like this in the real world. Saul could have become  defensive,  angry,  and  embarrassed  that  David  would take off his armor. Similarly, when we remain close to ourselves, in a principled, unanxious manner, the people around  us  might  not  respond  well.  But  remember,  calm  presence is marked by low reactivity. 

Aaron and Israel

In a less healthy example, Aaron, Moses’s brother, demonstrated the lack of calm presence. God told Moses to go up the mountain to receive clear instructions as to how the people of God were to be formed (see Exodus 24:12). While up there, the Ten Commandments were given. Moses was away from the people for about forty days. During that time, they got very anxious. Perhaps they were thinking that Moses lost his way. Maybe his phone ran out of batteries or he slipped and fell. (He was more than eighty years old, after all.)

In their anxiety, they went to Aaron, looking for leadership.  They  demanded  a  god  they  could  worship  and  put  their  trust  in.  Aaron  said,  “Okay.”  Just  a  few  days  prior,  God had given them a command that said, “You shall not make any graven image; you shall not create an idol” (see 20:4). But anxiety will make you do some irrational things.

Aaron instructed the people to give to him their “gold earrings”  (32:2).  The  gold  rings  were  to  be  used  for  furnishing the Lord’s tabernacle as a home to the Lord’s presence  with  Israel.  Instead,  Aaron  decided  to  bend  to  the  people’s  demands  and  use  the  gold  to  make  a  statue  of  a  golden calf for them to worship (see verse 4).God heard about this and was furious.

Later  on  in  the  story,  Moses  approached  his  brother  Aaron and said, “What did these people do to you, that you led them into such great sin?” (verse 21).

Aaron replied, in one of the more humorous responses in the Bible,

You  know  how  prone  these  people  are  to  evil.  They said to me, “Make us gods who will go before us. . . .” So I told them, “Whoever has any gold jewelry, take it off.” Then they gave me the gold, and I threw it into the fire, and [boom!] out came this calf! (verses 22–24)

Aaron demonstrated anxious presence by his emotional fusion with the crowd. He was overtaken by their anxiety, leading  to  a  serious  lapse  of  judgment.  He  thoughtlessly  acquiesced  to  their  demands.  Much  of  the  conflict  and  lapses of judgment we experience are influenced by the anxiety  of  the  system  we  are  part  of,  whether  it  be  a  family,  work, or church system. In the process, we don’t live from a discerning, whole place.

Jesus and the Crowds

No one cultivated calm presence better than Jesus. He remained close to the Father, himself, and others in times of great anxiety. Although he consistently made decisions that puzzled people around him, he never asserted himself without also remaining close to others. He was clear about his call but compassionate with those who didn’t understand, he was decisive in his decisions and forgiving toward those who couldn’t stomach his ways, and he was resolute in his truth telling but opened his heart to all. Yes, it is true that Jesus reserved  some  of  his  harshest  criticism  for  the  religious establishment for the ways they disregarded the poor, but even in his words of rebuke, he wept over a city that had not discerned the presence of God among them. We need his example to navigate the most difficult, polarizing issues of our day.

Adapted excerpt from “Good and Beautiful and Kind” by Rich Villodas. Copyright © 2022 by Richard A. Villodas, Jr. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.\

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