You Can Have the “Jaw-Dropping” Peace of God
What is your “peace barometer”? How do you define and measure God’s peace in your life? Have you ever heard a Christian say they have decided to do something or not do something and that they “have a peace about it?” “Peace” is one of those Christianese terms that is sometimes used in the context of decision-making as a test for God’s will. Often when a Christian says, “I have peace about this or that,” they mean that they take that particular thing to be God’s will for them. Every Christian I’ve gotten to know over a length of time, no matter what country or culture they are from seems to have this universal catch-phrase in common. “Peace” is used as a barometer to determine the right thing to do in a given situation. Many go so far as to say, “God has given me a real peace about it.” (As opposed to him giving a false peace?)
In my Christian experience I’ve sometimes taken to using the peace barometer to aid decision-making. Rather, I should say that I used to do that. I don’t do it anymore because, uh, well, because…I don’t have a peace about it. 😉
In all seriousness, as a Christian when you say you “have peace” about something it means nothing more than you “feel good” about it or there is an absence of emotional conflict. Some Christians refer to a “supernatural peace” taking their cue from Philippians 4:7, “The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” This is a comforting passage, but one that is often mistakenly called upon when trying to determine God’s will. This is a mistake because the scripture never gives us instruction to use “peace” as a barometer for determining God’s will—rather, the scripture uses conviction. Peace can be a byproduct of an already-made choice, but not always.
“Peace” from a biblical view is first “peace with God” (Romans 5:1), meaning that our enmity with God has been erased by the atoning working of the Lord Jesus on the cross. Because of Jesus, God is no longer in conflict with those who have received him. We are “at peace” with him.
Second, biblical “peace” is a lack of internal conflict, or perhaps we shall also call this internal enmity, with ourselves about something. In both cases this kind of peace does not proceed or coincide with a decision to do something, rather it is a byproduct of an already-made decision—sometimes. I’ll explain that qualifying “sometimes” in a moment.
Take a close look at the book of Philippians for the context in which Paul was speaking when he briefly, almost in passing made his reference to the “peace of God which surpasses all understanding.” First look at when Paul said what he said, as it will aid our understanding of Paul’s context. Paul wrote this epistle while imprisoned by Rome awaiting judgment by Caesar for his evangelism activities (1:7). This was equivalent to a charge of political treason, punishable by death. Paul had peace about what he was doing and about what he would suffer because he had already made a decision—in advance—that it was right for him to set his face toward imprisonment and suffering.
How many of us would have peace with that kind of decision?
Paul’s imprisonment is fascinating since he deliberately set out on a mission that he knew beforehand would get him arrested. Let that sink in. I think I’ll go to jail and be executed. Yes. Ah, yes, I have peace about that. Paul’s imprisonment was no accident. He intentionally worked in such a way as to keep himself in Roman custody after he was arrested.
During Paul’s time in Ephesus he set his face to go to Jerusalem knowing full well that if he preached Jesus while there (and being Paul he could not avoid it) he would be confronted and arrested. Look carefully at Paul’s words to his Ephesian brothers. “I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. But I do not count my life of any value nor as precious to myself…” (Acts 20:22-24). Did you notice that phrase, “constrained by the Spirit?” This is Paul’s way of saying, “I’m not really sure I like this idea, but God is moving me in this direction so I must do it regardless of my personal feelings.” Now, does this sound like Paul used “peace” to make his decision about God’s will? Not at all. Paul didn’t need supernatural peace for the decision-making process, he used conviction provided by, as he said, the Holy Spirit. Upon his arrival in Jerusalem Paul attempted to appease an angry mob of Jews that God had given the same blessing of salvation to Gentiles (Acts 22:21-22). At every step making his defense over a period of years Paul upped the ante saying things to his prosecutors and accusers that were all but assured to get him into further trouble. It was as if Paul was orchestrating things so that he could get to Rome, under Roman guard, to force a hearing for Christianity before the Roman emperor himself (Acts 25:11-12, 26:31-32, 28:18-20). In fact that is exactly what one late professor of theology taught Paul was doing. “[Paul’s] appeal to Caesar brought Christianity directly to the attention of the Roman government and compelled the civil authorities to pass judgment on its legality. If it was to be allowed as religio licita, a permitted cult, the persecution of it would be illegal, and its security would be assured. If, on the other hand, it was adjudged to be religio illicita, a forbidden cult, then the ensuing persecution would only advertise it and offer an opportunity for a demonstration of its power” (New Testament Survey, Merrill C. Tenney, “Results of the Pauline Imprisonment,” page 329).
Whether Paul would be executed or set free it was a win/win situation for Paul and a lose/lose for Rome. If Rome had simply ignored Paul and sent him on his way, Christianity would have remained in further obscurity. Paul’s strategy would either bring greater freedom to Christians to advance their faith, or cause greater suffering for the church at large. Some might have asked, who was Paul to make such a decision for the whole church?
It was in this environment of difficult, sacrificial, painful choices and imprisonment that Paul wrote to his Philippian brothers, urging them to sacrifice themselves for one another, writing that his own life was nothing apart from Christ, even noting his suffering and many sacrifices to get to where he was. Isn’t that an interesting notion? I’ve sacrificed a lot to get to prison where I can suffer and be mistreated for the sake of Jesus, and possibly cause you more suffering.
In the midst of all of this, when Paul knew that great suffering awaited him still, then and only then does Paul refer to the “peace that surpasses understanding.” In fact, Paul went on in the same chapter to describe how to attain that peace: “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things and the God of peace shall be with you” (4:9). What example did Paul set for his Philippian brothers? He was an example of a man who lived godly as he embraced suffering and imprisonment with both arms for the sake of the Church and the sake of Christ. It was in that context that Paul wrote about peace—a context where Paul intentionally chose to intentionally suffer though he could have if he wanted, intentionally avoided it. By chance, do you see a pattern here?
In this context what do we learn from Paul’s admonition of peace? It is that “peace that passes understanding” isn’t something that is given to make decisions. Where will I live, where will I go to school, what will be my job, who will I marry, etc? Paul didn’t even use the peace barometer to make decisions about the persecution of the church. He used conviction.
Feeling good or bad about decisions is not abnormal, and does not require Paul’s “peace that passes understanding.” The peace that Paul refers to is supernatural because extreme circumstance require extreme conviction, and sometimes extreme encouragement. Feeling good or non-conflicted is not peace in the biblical sense. Peace in the biblical sense is that jaw-dropping, “how does he do that” sense of security and firm conviction in the face of absolutely overwhelming odds and opposition where no sense of sense makes sense to accept it. It is what the Apostle Peter had when he walked calmly to his own execution and begged to be crucified upside down because he felt unworthy of his Lord. It is what the early martyrs experienced when they smiled at the flames alight under their feat as the kindling began searing their flesh. It is what Paul experienced after he resolutely, firmly, and purposefully with deep conviction set his face to go toward imprisonment and suffering and embraced it at every step of his journey until the butcher’s axe severed his head from his neck. It is not to stand when the world demands you sit. It is the conviction to stand when the world cuts off your legs and greases the floor—and your conviction persuades others to stand with you. THAT is the kind of peace the Bible promises.
Sometimes. Sometimes it’s a bit delayed.
The night before the Lord Jesus was lead away to be crucified he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane asking the Father to, “remove this cup from me” (Luke 22:42). Yet at the same time his resolution was set, “not my will, but yours be done.” Did Jesus have “peace” at this momentous moment of decision—the decision to embrace the cross? Not in the slightest. Look at the following passages: “And there appeared to him an angel from Heaven, strengthening him (22:43). Rhetorical question: Why would Jesus need strengthening? Answer: Duh! Look at the following verse, even more revealing: “And being in agony he prayed even more earnestly” (22:44). Jesus’ stress was so great that it brought about hematohidrosis, causing blood vessels around sweat glands to burst so that he “sweat drops of blood” (22:44). Was this a Jesus “at peace” or was this a Jesus resolute in his decision regardless of his feelings? Clearly, the latter.
He was suffering great mental and emotional stress knowing what was to come. Yet remarkably he embraced the cross anyway. In stark, almost violent contrast Hebrews 12:2 paints the picture of Jesus’ kind of peace this way: “Who for the joy set before him endured the cross, despising its shame…” Jesus didn’t embrace the suffering of the cross because he “had peace about it.” He embraced the suffering of the cross for the peace it would bring us later.
When you make decisions about what course your life will take remember that “peace” is not designed to help us make decisions. If that were the case then all of our decisions would be designed to run from suffering like children. Rather, peace is the byproduct of decisions that are pleasing to God, regardless of suffering or joy. Yet also remember the suffering of the Lord Jesus who did not experience peace in the immediate aftermath of his decision. Instead he set himself resolutely to go to the cross because of his conviction and love for us. “Peace” had nothing to do with it except for the peace he was making between God and men.
Whom do you admire in the scriptures or in history the most? Chances are, like Jesus they are people who endured great suffering or turmoil, and either because of it and/or through it transformed the world around them.
And they didn’t always feel good about it.
In contrast to the worldview that runs from suffering, that makes it decisions through escapism, the scripture encourages times when we must embrace suffering, for out of it and through it great deeds are done, lives are transformed, and yes, even heroes are made. For there is nothing admirable about the man who embraces his personal peace at the expense of doing the right thing.