Righteousness And Peace

Righteousness And Peace August 4, 2021

St. Poimen Greek Orthodox : Saint Poemen / Wikimedia Commons

The desire to be righteous is good, but we must understand that the way we might seek it out is not. This is because we often seek external forms of righteousness instead of righteousness itself. Thus, we never let holiness take root inside ourselves, inside our heart, and without that holiness, we will find ourselves constantly agitated and without peace. For how can there be peace when we do not have peace within? If all we do is perform works of righteousness, not to be transformed by them, but rather to present ourselves to others as someone to be glorified by them, we will not attain true righteousness and so we will not attain peace. Instead, we will be like whitewashed tombs, unclean and unrighteous within (cf. Matt. 23:27-28)? When we pursue righteousness with the wrong intention, we do not truly pursue true righteousness but only its simulacra, and so the peace which true righteousness brings will not be ours; this is why we, like Abba Isaac, might need to hear someone tell us that we must give up a small part of our pursuit in order to find peace: “Abba Poemen said to Abba Isaac, ‘Let go of a small part of your righteousness and in a few days you will be at peace.’” [1]

What we must understand is that the problem is not with righteousness, but with sham righteousness; when we expend all our energy in pursuit of a sham, even if elements of the shame might be justly said to be righteous within the right context, we will never find peace because even  the good contained in the shame is misdirected and leads to further avoidance of the holistic good. The pursuit of various external representations of holiness  often hide the lack of holiness within. Without such holiness, and the grace which is necessary for that holiness to be maintained, there will be no true peace, no matter how much external forms of righteousness one has engaged. It will be set upon the wrong foundation, meaning, in the end, it will come tumbling down. Realizing the way we pursue holiness is part the problem, we sometimes have to let everything go so that then we can be open for the grace which we need to build us up from within. Only when the foundation for righteousness has been established by such grace can we work on external refinements.

We should, therefore, not trust in ourselves. Sadly, we do so when we pursue all the external forms of righteousness without focusing on our need for grace and humbly accepting its central place in establishing our righteousness within. If we have forgotten this, we risk ending up trusting in ourselves and developing such ungodly pride that we despise others who do not meet our own expectations. Jesus, understanding this problem, indicated that we should be humble, so that we can receive grace instead of assuming too much of ourselves and not receiving the grace which we need:

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, `God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, `God, be merciful to me a sinner!’  I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Lk. 18:9-14 RSV).

When we are not humble, things will fall apart all around us, and with everything going to ruin, we will not find peace. Seeking righteousness is important, but we must seek it in the right way, seeking first grace through humility and then always remembering all that we do  should build upon that grace, keeping humble, so we do not  begin to act as if we no longer need it. When we become distracted by externals, we lose sight of grace, and so the grace which we have received will be all that we have;  once it has been expended, all the heartaches of life will take root and make sure we have no peace. When we find ourselves losing out on peace, we must return to the simple basics, to humility, if we want to regain the peace which we lost. This is not to say we will find life easy. There will be difficulties. But we will have a peace within which will allow us to handle it properly. Peace is a state, so that we can find ourselves at ease and without peace, even as we can find ourselves in the midst of great pains and sorrow and still be at peace (which is why so many martyrs, despite all they experienced in t martyrdom, showed themselves as being at peace to the annoyance of their persecutors).

Peace and holiness go together, which is why to depart from evil, we are told to pursue peace:

“For “He that would love life and see good days, let him keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking guile; 11 let him turn away from evil and do right; let him seek peace and pursue it.” (1 Ptr. 3:10-11 RSV).

To pursue inner peace, then, is important. We find it in and through grace. Once we have it, we can lose it if we neglect the humility necessary for us to continue to receive the grace which we need to sustain ourselves throughout our lives. We must pursue humility so we can continue to find ourselves at peace, for it is in such humility we will find ourselves open to the Spirit and the peace which the Spirit brings us.  We must not cast it aside thinking we can make ourselves good without it. We can’t. Whenever we find ourselves straying so that we think we can, we must pause what we are doing, humble ourselves, and open ourselves to grace so that we can continue to receive the Spirit which brings peace and through that Spirit, and not ourselves, find the way we are to live and build upon the peace which we have been given so as to truly be holy instead of merely appear to be holy through external forms of righteousness.

[1] The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. trans. Benedicta Ward (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1984), 187 [Saying of Poemen 141].


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