One of the few blogs I subscribe to is written by Christian Pastor and Author Tim Chester. On Monday he wrote a very helpful piece on the meaning of peace in the Bible that I've been turning over in my mind these last few days.
As Christians we often claim the promise of Philippians 4:6-7 when we go through tough or trying times:
‘Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.’
But what does this really mean?
I think we often assume this means that if we just work hard enough at prayer and trusting God, we will have an otherwordly sense of tranquillity and serenity in the midst of the storm-trials of life we experience.
But is this what we should be expecting?
There is no doubt that many Christians can testify to having had freedom from anxiety as they have trusted God in the midst of trials that would otherwise have sunk them. But, continuing the nautical analogy, is Paul promising here that a 'faith-filled Christian' won't even feel the rocking of the boat or the spray of the water, as we endure the storms of life?
I'm not so sure that's what Paul promises.
In fact, I wonder if we can sometimes misuse the promise in Philippians in a way that can increase the sense of guilt and failure those we're trying to help may be feeling.
When we face crippling financial difficulties or an overbearing boss at work or a family crisis or a severe illness - either our own of a loved one - or the heartache of bereavement, it is entirely natural and normal for us to feel a lack of peace. These sorts of trials occupy much of our thought-life and drain our emotions, precisely because they need our attention and won't just fade into the background or go away. Resolving the challenges life throws up at us often requires struggle and toil - that's one of the consequences of living in a cursed world (Gen 3:17-19).
In addition, as Christians, we live in a sinful world in which we do not belong and that we are at odds with. We should not expect to walk through life feeling peaceful all the time - we are in a battle after all! If we remain unmoved by the heat of the battle, then we should ask ourselves whether we're in the battle at all.
As a pastor I sometimes hear well meaning Christians use the 'peace card' as an excuse for either ducking a demanding call to service ('I have no peace about this course off action); or as a justification for unwise or sometimes sinful decisions ('I feel peaceful about this so it must be right.'). However as God reminded Jeremiah: our hearts are deceitful and so it's both dangerous and unwise to allow our feelings to hold the trump card when we make key decisions (Jer 17:9).
This is one of the ways we are called as Christians to be different in our culture which is so heart-led. Our culture says: 'If it feels good, do it.' But as Christians we are called to test God's will by using renewed minds (Rom 12:2). Furthermore, God rebuked his people in the Old Testament for feeling peaceful when they should have been troubled by their spiritual state (Jer 6:13-14, Ez 13:9-10).
So what does the promise of peace in Philippians 4:6-7 mean then?
This is where I found Chester really helpful:
Christian peace does not mean tranquility. It means we have changed sides in the battle.
We have changed sides because we are no longer at war with God. The peace we have is reconciliation with God. But we are still at war so we still experience life as a battle. Indeed we often experience more turmoil because we can no longer simply acquiesce to the world, the flesh and the devil.
This, I think, is how we should read the promises of peace in the New Testament. We are not promised tranquility. Indeed in John 16:33 Jesus says that in this life we will have trouble. But we have the joy of knowing that through the cross we are now at peace with God. He was our enemy, coming against us in judgment. But now he is our friend and our Father. And that means we can rest from our striving for righteousness and the fear of judgment.
...[In] Philippians 4:6-7. Paul is not promising an easy life or even feelings of serenity. He is saying that knowing that we have been reconciled with God – and therefore that God is now for us – will guard our hearts from anxiety.
So... the peace we can know as Christians in the storms of life is not neccesarily SERENITY (although God may graciously grant us this), but rather CERTAINTY.
It is the settledness of heart that comes from knowing the One who has promised he will steer us through the storms of life, and be with us every step of the way, and get us securely to the other side - even our circumstances and feelings say different.
To return to the nautical metaphors: in this life, we cannot expect to avoid seasickness, but we can find rest of heart in the certainty that one day our Captain will - without a shadow of doubt - guide us safely into harbour.