At an interfaith talk in London a few years ago, I heard a Sufi Muslim explain the main meaning of the term jihad in a way that was quite different from what I’d become accustomed to seeing in headlines and news reports. He described it as the inward, spiritual effort to search for God, to shun materialism, and to struggle against the temptation to sin.
Of course, the word has other meanings. Muslims generally would say jihad also refers to self-defence when they are under attack. And there’s no escaping the notoriety the term has garnered through association with atrocities by Islamist militants—both in predominantly Muslim countries and in other nations.
But the idea of the “greater jihad,” as the internal spiritual struggle is often described, is common to most faiths, including Christian Science. And while violent conflict in the headlines can make us fearful and angry, an honest inner struggle—which won’t make the headlines—can enable us to challenge such reactions, until we gain a spiritual sense of “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7, New King James Version). We can do this through seeking and finding God, through rejecting materialism as a lie about everyone’s true identity, including refusing to resign ourselves to accepting the sin we see in others.
To “find God” is to understand God’s true nature. The teachings of Christian Science identify the Divine as Spirit and Love, and deduce from the Bible—which says we’re all made in God’s likeness—that we’re each the loving, spiritual expression of Spirit. As a Christian Scientist, I understand the materialism that the Sufi speaker said we should shun to be all that is opposite to the loving spirituality that’s our real nature. It’s the acceptance of the false view that everything is limited and discordant, when instead we are truly created by, and exist in, limitless, divine Spirit.
What if a “warfare with one’s self” could change the headlines?
In particular, the broad belief of being material includes the more specific belief of being prone to sinful thoughts, including those leading to violent acts. But such thinking is alien to anyone’s true, spiritual selfhood as God’s creation. When we are confronted with the evidence of others’ sinful thinking and actions, it can press us to accept a material conception of existence. Instead of accepting this limited view of one another, we can strive to see beyond it to the true idea of what God knows of all His children. A heartfelt struggle to yield to the understanding that nobody is truly material and sinful helps free us from mental elements such as fear and anger.
In practice, it can seem quite a step to even want to wrestle with and overcome these turbulent elements within our thinking when we read the headlines. But what if such “warfare with one’s self,” as Mary Baker Eddy—who discovered Christian Science—described such inner wrestling (Miscellaneous Writings 1883–1896, p. 118), could change the headlines? A Bible story suggests that it’s possible for a triumph within ourselves over a material sense of life to dissolve our fear of another’s violent intent.
It’s the story of how Jacob betrayed his brother Esau, fled from Esau’s wrath, then headed back home decades later. In the intervening years, Jacob had grown spiritually through many experiences of God’s presence and power. Yet he very reasonably feared the anticipated reunion when he learned that Esau would be accompanied by four hundred men (see Genesis 32–33).
You could call what happened next Jacob’s jihad. Speaking of this experience, and referring to God as Truth and Love, Mrs. Eddy’s Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures says, “Jacob was alone, wrestling with error,—struggling with a mortal sense of life, substance, and intelligence as existent in matter with its false pleasures and pains,—when an angel, a message from Truth and Love, appeared to him and smote the sinew, or strength, of his error, till he saw its unreality; and Truth, being thereby understood, gave him spiritual strength in this Peniel of divine Science” (p. 308).
What transpired next suggests that lives beyond our own can be influenced by this kind of victory over the error of believing in material existence. If Esau had been struggling with his own demons of resentment and revenge, they were silenced as Jacob’s trepidation was overcome. By the time those four hundred men arrived, any potential violent intent had given way to a heartfelt fraternal embrace.
Fear and anger can certainly feel like reasonable reactions to reports of deadly violence by religious or political extremists. But that’s a material reaction to a material view of events. Like Jacob, we can wrestle with such temptations until we feel the peace of glimpsing God’s point of view. That’s the perspective from which the author of Science and Health wrote her book, which concludes that, far from being besieged, “spirituality lays open siege to materialism.” The book then asks, “On which side are we fighting?” (p. 216).
So while governments rightly take steps to protect us from extremist violence, we can each make a contribution by choosing an inner battle to understand spirituality’s ascendency over materiality. We can become conscious of infinite Spirit and its infinite idea, in which materialism, including aggression, has no real hold over anyone. Such a clear spiritual perception isn’t easy to attain even when trying to heal a minor tiff with a loved one, let alone when striving to see beyond the specter of deadly hatred. But God’s love is working with us to help us see that everyone truly is a child of God, and our honest efforts to overcome the false, material sense of all our neighbors are an essential part of the “warfare with one’s self,” which Miscellaneous Writings describes as “grand.”
We may never know if our inner victories have helped prevent some unwanted headline or touched a grieving heart somewhere. But when we honestly battle our fearful and angry material perceptions of others, we can trust each victory to reach beyond our own lives with healing effect.
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