“Peace” was a consistent theme this last General Conference. Elders Cook, Eyring, Scott, Christofferson, and Uchtdorf all spoke on this topic in various ways (I’m probably missing some others who also addressed the theme of peace). Here, I specifically want to focus on Elder Cook’s talk, “Personal Peace: The Reward of Righteousness” and President Uchtdorf’s address, “The Hope of God’s Light.” I’m not going to summarize the entirety of either of these talks, which, of course, will be fully available shortly on lds.org. Instead, I want to comment on a common theme in both these talks, which is a particular response to the problem of evil and suffering.
Both men provided two opening examples of suffering to preface their words. Elder Cook talked of speaking at the funeral of little Emilie Parker, one of the many children killed in the Newtown, Connecticut shooting last December. (My own response to that tragic event is here). He noted that Emilie’s father was able to forgive the Newtown shooter because the peace of the Savior had eased his suffering and was binding up the broken hearts of him and his family. President Uchtdorf spoke of a woman (Jane) who had been so severely abused as a child that she had taught herself to stop feeling. At age 18, she found the restored gospel and began to move from perpetual darkness toward the light. But she was haunted by her past, which threatened to consume her in despair. Significantly, counseling and medical assistance provided some much needed perspective. Note that these were not substitutes for thorough healing, but were tools to help her gain understanding about herself–they helped her to see that darkness would always exist but that it was not the only place she had to dwell. Eventually she became a schoolteacher, becoming a “tireless defender of the weak, the victimized, and the discouraged.”
Elder Cook makes a distinction between the peace that “is not just a temporal tranquility” and “an abiding deep happiness and spiritual commitment.” Nevertheless, he observes that “the heavenly aspiration of good people everywhere has, and always will be, for peace in this world. We must never give up on achieving this goal.” I can see where a distinction might be drawn between these two kinds of peace, but ultimately I see them as intimately interrelated. The peace that comes from righteous living can manifest itself in peace-making in the world. Thus, Jesus would say that he would give his followers peace but not as the world gives (John 14:27), but in addition, blessed are the peacemakers (Matt. 5:9). It is hard not to be cynical and violent when suffused with inner turmoil. One seems inevitably to follow the other. In fact, both are varying forms of violence. But that also means that the reverse is true: Inner peace, a gift of the atonement of Christ and righteous living, as Elder Cook emphasized, will lead to more sustained and passionate efforts at making worldly peace, peace with ourselves, our families, our neighbors, and beyond. In this way, the Savior is not simply the provider of spiritual peace, but the author of ALL peace, the true Prince of Peace.
Perhaps the most crucial common element in both Elder Cook’s and President Uchtdorf’s addresses is what philosopher Paul Ricoeur called “the task to be accomplished.” Even believers–especially believers–do not escape the questions, Why? Why me? Why my loved one? Faith and spiritual conviction do not remove the burdens of these cries in the midst of suffering. In spite of all we know and believe about suffering and evil and the power of the deliverance of God, there is no final “solution” that dispenses utterly with those questions, ridding ourselves of them forever. Instead, we respond to evil through a task to be accomplished, an act that allows us to see the urgency of fighting against evil rather than burrowing into an endless loop of asking why and having to re-assert doctrine over and over again as a way to think or believe ourselves out of our predicament.
In the case of Elder Cook’s example, we see this subtly but, I think, clearly. Elder Cook says that Emilie Parker’s father had received strength and comfort from his faith and understanding of the atonement. But his peace was not whole until he had forgiven the one who had given him his pain. His spiritual peace had created a space for a task to be accomplished, an action to be pursued in the world–in this case, that of forgiveness of another. When we suffer we feel empty, devoid of life, hopeless, and worst of all, enclosed in ourselves. The task or the act helps us to break out of ourselves and reinsert ourselves back into the world in a hopeful way.
This especially becomes apparent in President Uchtdorf’s example. Jane had received the gift of the peace of the Holy Spirit, but her healing was not in full force until she had become the “tireless defender of the weak, the victimized, and the discouraged.” Pres. Uchtdorf noted, “Healing comes when we move away from the darkness and walk toward the hope of a brighter light. It was in the practical application of faith, hope, and charity that she not only transformed her own life but forever blessed the lives of many, many others.” (Emphasis mine).
The inner transformation of our own lives through the gift and light of the Savior is directly coupled to our willingness to bless the lives of others, to engage in those tasks that banish the darkness in the lives of others as He banished the darkness in us through the light of his love.