I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men

And in despair I bowed my head
“There is no peace on earth,” I said
For Hate is strong, and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men

Then peeled the bells more loud and deep
“God is not dead, nor doth he sleep”
The Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men

– Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The poem is more true today than ever, right?

There is (no) peace on earth.

The cause of your despair is your own to name, but there are lots of choices:

  • The terrorism in Paris, San Bernardino, and across the globe
  • The race rioting in the streets and police brutality
  • The fights at home between you and your spouse or kids
  • The raise you didn’t get but deserved
  • The friendship that betrayed you
  • The busyness and chaos of life that wakes you up at 2am
  • The job that stresses you
  • The cancer that threatens you or the ones you love

There’s no shortage of roots for despair.

And so you’ve bowed your head: “There is no peace on earth,” you’ve said.

Me, too. I’ve said it.

Sitting on my bedroom floor folding laundry a couple of weeks ago, I was overcome by a massive wave of grief–completely out of nowhere. Thought after thought about every hard circumstance that my family has been challenged with in the last 18 months came like barrage of bullets all at once. Like a wave of negativity, frustration, fear, anger, sadness, rage, disbelief–and then numbness.

That’s what despair does.

It’s a dark shadow that threatens to block out all view of hope, until we feel everything and nothing at the same time.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow writes this poem in response to the tragic losses he experienced–the death of his wife to illness and the wounding of his son in the Civil War. Longfellow pens these words, beautifully encapsulating the “dissonance in his own heart and the world he observes around him.”

And this is the arc of the poem:

Superficial pollyanna-ism to sardonic despair to genuine hope.

This is the irony of Christmas. How many times have you heard a Christmas song, and the lyrics feel so disconnected from the reality of your life?

Chestnuts roasting over an open fire? I have no fireplace. Also, I have kids. So anyone that sings about “walking in a winter wonderland” or “dashing through the snow” doesn’t know what it’s like to play in winter weather with small children. It’s thirty minutes of attempting to make a lame snowman followed by sledding until someone starts to cry. Then you go inside and attempt to get the feeling back in your now-numb legs since the snow unceremoniously crept it’s way down your pants during said sled incident.

Sardonic. Yes. I know.

But these songs don’t push us back towards genuine hope. They start and end with superficial pollyanna-ism and it turns people like me into Scrooges.

But I came across a video of this song/poem, and I totally teared up. Longfellow felt me. He got me. He understood that carols singing of “peace on earth” feel like false, mocking witnesses to the truth of real life on this planet. Yet the poem manages the shift. It doesn’t end spouting off more pollyanna nonsense about yuletide cheer. Instead Longfellow speaks a simple but powerful truth in two lines:

“God is not dead, nor doth he sleep.
The Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail.”

Indeed.

Then came the refrain “with peace on earth, good will to men.”

This triggered something in me; the need to dig in to the refrain. This is the call of Christmas, right? The angels declare it in Luke 2:14, “Peace on earth, good will toward men.” Right?

 

I’ll spare you the nerdy details of my research into the verse, but I feel compelled to give you the conclusions. This verse unlocks the key difference between pollyanna holiday cheer and a genuine hope for peace:

Peace comes for the righteous.

The promise latent in the verse is that Christ brings peace to those who have been made righteous. The converse, then, is also true. Those who have not been made righteous should not expect peace. This is the power of Longfellow’s bold proclamation: “the Wrong shall fail.” The promise is not peace on earth for all people, but for those on whom God’s favor rests–or who have been made righteous.

Experience peace through grace.

Righteousness comes by faith. This is why the Angel declares “good news of great joy” for “all the people.” The righteous aren’t those who strive harder, do better, have it together. The righteous are those who surrender their fears, faults, and failures to the Savior that was born in the City of David, who is Christ the Lord. There is no need for you to get your act cleaned up before you can be declared righteous, and gain access to the “peace on earth” promised in Luke 2:14.

There’s no excuse for you to not experience peace… today.

Despair has no welcome home in the heart of a believer. Yes, despair knocks on the door. You, too, may find yourself innocently folding laundry and then get the wind knocked out of you by the bully of despair. But despair ought not be able to take firm roots. What trouble in your life can stand up to this truth? “God is not dead, nor doth he sleep.” All of your pain is working for you a narrow path to life; not because God is a sadist, but because he is in the business of redeeming brokenness and making it beautiful. This long view of our reality must give us the pause that leads to peace.

Why let the stress of your life rob you of your joy?

Is God not sovereign and good? Does he not know the end from the beginning?

Believer, have peace today.

Why let the guilt and shame of your past force you to think you have no future?

Has God not forgiven you? Did Christ die in vain?

Believer, have peace today.

Why let the pain of sickness, betrayal, and loss overshadow your heart?

Does God not promise to renew all things and bring justice? Is the resurrection of Christ not evidence enough of the victory to come?

Believer, have peace today.

When you turn on the radio today to the all-Christmas, all-the-time station and another song promises what feels like a false hope of “peace on earth, good will to men,” don’t let your heart slip into scornful cynicism.

Turn it up louder, like the bells in Longfellow’s poem and hear the truth that God has been shouting out through the ages:

“I am not dead. I do not sleep. The Wrong shall fail. The Right shall prevail with peace on earth, good will to men.”