I keep hearing sermons that urge me to walk in God’s peace. Anxiety and worry arise, I’m told, when I try to control events. As I learn to trust, to “cast my cares” on Him (1 Peter 5:7), I step into His kingdom of “righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17). And this peace — understood as an unshakable tranquility — will draw others to Christ.
On many days, this is a good message for me to hear. I do worry about inconsequentials; I do cling to illusions of control. But I have concluded that the advice is incomplete, and that it is based on a picture of Christian character that is grossly distorted.
Paul writes to the Corinthians that, after sending them a severe letter, he “had no peace of mind”; despite a God-given opportunity, he couldn’t preach. Yet he doesn’t view this as a lapse in faith; on the contrary, God led him in triumph, as he “manifested” Christ without words (2 Corinthians 2:12-14). This presents a rather different image of Christian equanimity. It also suggests that people are drawn to Jesus, not when they see believers who are carefree and happy, but when they encounter suffering, sacrificial love.
As we read the Scriptures, Paul’s is not an isolated case. Nehemiah prays for four months, and then makes a bold request of a pagan king, because the walls are down in faraway Jerusalem; his opening comes when the king observes that his face is sad (Nehemiah 2:1-2). Boaz becomes a Kinsman-Redeemer when love causes him to lose his composure; he cannot rest (Ruth 3:18) until he establishes rest for those who need it (1:9; 3:1).
I am still very far from sharing or understanding the emotional life of the Lord Jesus, but I believe we oversimplify when we imagine Him as ever calm and smiling, free from agitation. In the Gospels He is exquisitely sensitive. He weeps easily (Luke 19:41; John 11:35), and is moved to grief (Mark 3:5) and indignation (Mark 10:14). Often, He seems driven (Mark 10:32; Luke 12:50; 22:15). His peace and joy are hard-won, and they don’t banish a wide range of emotions.
All through the Bible, we see a tension. Jesus invites His followers to rest (Matthew 11:28-29; Mark 6:31), but rebukes them for resting at the wrong time (Matthew 26:45). We are told to work hard to be at peace (Romans 14:19; Hebrews 12:14; 1 Peter 3:11), and to strive to enter into rest (Hebrews 4:11). The same Paul who says to rejoice always (Philippians 4:4) also declares that he has “great sorrow and unceasing anguish” because so many Jews do not know Christ (Romans 9:2). He also desires his converts to be free from anxiety (1 Corinthians 7:32; Philippians 4:6), and yet remarks that he carries “the daily inescapable pressure of my care and anxiety for all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:28).
This is not a new observation. John Patrick noted in 1902 that the rest promised by Jesus “is not a rest from toil but in toil (John 5:17), not the rest of inactivity but of the harmonious working of all faculties and affections.” Thus, when Jesus invites the disciples to come aside and rest (Mark 6:31), and a crowd follows them, He does rest, actively, even though the twelve are surprised and frazzled.
William Barclay devotes a chapter of New Testament Words (1964) to the Greek word merimna — to “right and wrong care.” He identifies worry about worldly cares, the future, opposition, and pleasing people as wrong, while care for others and the church is right and honorable: “what is forbidden is disabling worry and not enabling foresight.”
This formulation is too rational and tidy; Paul’s worry did disable him from preaching. The Biblical picture is paradoxical. Just as Paul is “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10), so he appears to be both anxious and at peace. For Biblical peace is not a condition of blissed-out tranquility or placid repose. It is a wholeness not yet fully realized, and a connectedness that may begin as we share in the cares of God Himself. It is a fruitful garden, a ministry of reconciliation, a holy community, an arsenal of weapons repurposed as earthmovers, a river that sweeps away lies. It is dynamic, richer and broader and deeper at the end of a well-lived life. It stands very far from the “personal peace” that Francis Schaeffer defined as the desire to be safe from the world’s problems, and that he called an idol.
Though we work intentionally toward peaceful relations with others, the peace of God doesn’t descend upon us as we seek it. Rather, it “passes understanding” (Philippians 4:7), in part, because it comes when we aren’t thinking about it at all — when we are focused on God Himself: “You will keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on You” (Isaiah 26:3).
There is a faith that prays once and stops, assured that the Father has heard. And there is a faith, no less rooted and grounded, that keeps on praying: “You who call on the Lord, give yourselves no rest, and give Him no rest till He establishes Jerusalem and makes her the praise of the earth” (Isaiah 62:6-7). It would be a great loss if we were to discourage such intercession in the name of “having peace.”
I need to relinquish control and to stop being “anxious about many things” (Luke 10:41). But I also need to lose some sleep over the condition of my city, and of hurting people far away. I need to care, and even to carry some of the burdens of some of my brothers and sisters. Rest lies in the work; joy, I know by faith, “comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5). And peace? I won’t always be aware of it, but the God of peace will be with me (Philippians 4:9).