Sunday, May 4, 2008

the peace of God

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 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. Phil 4:1-7

This is one of my favourite Bible passages. It's comforted me many times since I committed it to memory, back when I was newly married and anxious about our future (what work would we do? where would we live? how would we eat?).

For the first time, I realised the incredible power of Bible memorisation: if I remembered God's word, I could wield it as a weapon whenever anxiety threatened to overwhelm me, and the Holy Spirit would speak it deep into my heart.

Yet these verses have always puzzled me. What is the "peace of God" Paul talks about? Is it the "peace" Christ's death has won for us, an end to the enmity between God and believers? Or is it more experiential, a sense of "inner peace"?

One of those "light-bulb" moments happened for me as I hunted through a complete concordance for the word "peace" for my Sunday School lesson (nothing like a perfectionistic session of over-preparation to help you know the Bible better).

I realsed the Bible's use of the word "peace" can be neatly sorted into 3 columns:
  • peace between God and people (Rom. 5:1-11);
  • peace as an inner state of trust in God, freeing us from anxiety and fear;
  • peace between people (Israel and the nations, Jew and Gentile, Christians in relation to non-Christians or secular authorities, and Christians with one another).

There weren't many verses about "peace" as freedom from anxiety flowing from trust in God, but there were enough to show me this was an important aspect of the word "peace" in the Bible:

    I will lie down and sleep in peace, for you alone, O LORD, make me dwell in safety. Psalm 4:8
    You will keep in perfect peace him whose mind is steadfast, because he trusts in you. Isaiah 26:3
    Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. Do not let your heart be troubled, and do not be afraid. John 14:27

Yet the argument in Philippians 4:4-7 is quite complex. What is the "peace of God" which guards our hearts and minds? Most modern commentators argue that "peace of God" isn't inner peace, but God's serenity and salvation, which guard our thoughts, wills and emotions from attack, including the assault of anxiety.*

However it works, of this we can be sure: that as we pray with thanksgiving, God promises to garrison our hearts and minds with his peace, keeping out intruders like anxious thoughts.

May God help us to turn to him in prayer whenever we feel anxious or afraid. And may he guard us with his peace.

My thinking about the 3 meanings of the word "peace", and the practical implications of Phil. 4:4-7, was clarified by Jerry Bridges' The Fruitful Life. There's a lovely explanation and application of these verses in Don Carson's Basics for Believers: An Exposition of Philippians p.110-5. And Martyn Lloyd-Jones gives an intriguing psychological explanation of how God's "peace" guards our hearts and minds in his chapter on worry in Spiritual Depression.

*See F.F.Bruce NIBC commentary on Philippians pp.143-4 and Peter T. O'Brien's NIGTC commentary on The Epistle to the Philippians pp.496-7.

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