"Peace, Peace..." Beyond Personal Peace to Kingdom Peace
I worry about many of us evangelicals, including many of us in the Reformed tradition. I fear we have tended to reduce the Gospel to a promise of personal peace and we are often tempted to limit sanctification to psychological wellbeing. I believe this is one reason we are often ill equipped to think well about issues of social justice and relational disputes. We think they matter, but they are not actually essential to the Christian life. It is not necessarily that we hate the poor, don't care about racism or sexism, or are ignorant of other social pains. But we struggle to make the strong connection between those issues and living out the Christian faith.
Consequently, concern for sanctification and the Christian life becomes framed almost exclusively in individualistic terms of self-improvement: how can I achieve personal inner peace; how can I stop having lustful thoughts; how can I pray more often; how can I resist gossiping. Behind all of these concerns lurks the "I", the ego. In truth, none of these things are wrong in and of themselves - in fact, one is right to plead with God for his strength amid psychological disquiet and during personal temptations. It is good and right to ask for God to calm your heart, to purify your mind, and to help me show self-control in how I speak to others. But is that the fullness of Gospel "peace"?
I cannot here address all of my concerns, but I can raise this one small example of how we understand 'peace' as a test case that can point to these larger issues. Emphasizing personal 'peace' can make us indifferent to relational and structural sins. In this way, our problem is more often indifference rather than outright hostility, but that doesn't mean it is any less dangerous or sinful. In fact, indifference threatens gospel peace.
Peace Cannot Just be about Personal Psychology
Our contemporary Churches in America often present the Christian life exclusively in terms of achieving personal peace and internal calm. Seek personal peace. Tell others they can have personal peace with Jesus. Jesus is the answer for your personal angst.
This subordinates the gospel to our culture of individualism. It keeps us from understanding issues of social justice, poverty, physical bodies, the institution of the Church, and the sacraments the way that the prophets and apostles saw them. Yes, of course, the Gospel can and often does bring personal peace, but we truncate its power and intent when we give in to our self absorption by accepting our culture's lenses uncritically.
Jesus' Peace was Holistic and Relational
We show we misunderstand if we fail to see that the Creator God is also the Re-Creator God who is making all things new in his Son, that is, not just my psychology, but the whole world.
Fulfilling the Prophetic expectation which always linked the Creator with the promise of renewal, Jesus - full of the Spirit - proclaims good news to the poor, sets the captives free, heals the blind and deaf, makes the lame walk, cleanses the lepers, and liberates the oppressed (Lk 4:18; 7:22; Matt. 11:5; Is. 61:1). This was not merely a pretend drama, where Jesus faked these things. Material bodies experienced genuine -- though still temporary-- restoration and peace. Poor people heard of God's concern and saw it exemplified in the life of Jesus, who identified with them and was willing to not only befriend them, but to die on their behalf. Peace.
Even when he confronted those who opposed him, he did it for the purpose of ushering in his Gospel Shalom - all in him would be welcomed into the Temple, into God's grace and forgiveness. As the risen and ascended Christ poured out his Spirit, the nations would be brought back together, former divisions of tongue and tribe would be overcome as each was able to understand and value one another: they would be united as they bow before the risen King (Acts 2; Phil. 2:9-11; Rev. 5: 8-10).
It must be part of our proclamation, part of our understanding of the Christian life, part of our conception of sanctification that God has not only liberated his people from their sin, but also liberated them to be avenues of grace, justice, and mercy. He gives us not merely inner peace, but relational peace, cross-cultural peace, risky and humbling peace.
A Peace that Surpasses Understanding
The Gospel brings peace, and Paul points us to the "peace of God, which surpasses understanding" (Phil. 4: 7).
How often have we rightly found comfort in these words, how often have they rightly shaped our prayers. Yet I have come to suspect that this is an example of how we interpret Paul in an overly individualistic manner. His words may have something to do with personal psychological peace, but if that is what they are reduced to I believe we are missing his larger point.
Paul has entreated Euodia and Syntyche "to agree in the Lord" (Phil. 4: 2). These two believers are having some kind of relational dispute, though they are Christians, and Paul wants to see shalom rather than distrust, understanding rather than misrepresentation.
Because one can "rejoice" in the Lord, believers are free to let their "reasonableness be known to everyone" (Phil. 4:4-5). In other words, you don't need to defend your agendas; you don't need to always be right. Rejoicing in God's grace, we are freed to be reasonable; free from being ideologically driven in such a way that we fail to listen, to empathize, to love. I believe Paul is echoing the "reasonableness" we learn about from Isaiah.
Peace Means Understanding and Concern for the Other
When we hear the Prophet say, "come now, let us reason together" (Isa. 1: 18), he is not talking about philosophical debates. He is directly addressing issues of social injustice, indifference, and neglect:
"remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, please the widow's cause" (Isa. 1:16-17)
Do these things and we become "reasonable." They were doing all the right religious acts, but Israel was displaying self-absorption displayed through the sin of indifference.
This is why Paul can tell us to not be "anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God" (Phil. 4: 6). In the context of a relational struggle, Paul calls his readers to rejoice in the Lord, to lay out our concerns to God, who can absorb our anxieties. Paul is calling his readers to move beyond mere self-interest to serve others, and in this we hear a call to reconciliation and care.
Anxiety arises when we live under the illusion that we are in control, that we fully understand what is wrong and how to fix everything: we grow anxious when we are certain our way is the right way and all must follow it. Anxiety often grows because we assume wrong things about others and ourselves, wrong because we fail to see our own guilt, blind spots, and we consequently fail to empathize with the other; wrong because we imagine we can and should control everything. These assumptions are destructive in relational contexts, whether in family dynamics or in socio-political debates.
Paul replaces anxiety with peace: "and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus" (Phil. 4: 7). But what is this peace? Is it just a psychological calm in our soul? Surely it includes that, but Paul is clearly pointing to more than that.
The Gospel brings a peace that surpasses understanding: Jew and Gentile come together in Christ, male and female, rich and poor, old and young. The Gospel thus brings a peace that surpasses understanding, certainly surpassing the expectations of the world and its selfish dynamics. Two believers here have strong disagreement, and they have let it divide them, so Paul calls them to empathy, love, and sacrificial concern for the other in order to bring relational peace. Euodia and Syntyche are to come together for the good of the Church, for the good of the Gospel, for the good of the world. They will find, also, that this produces for them also a better condition, a "peace that passes [the world's] understanding."
Thinking on Whatever is Honorable, lovely, and Commendable
Paul brilliantly follows this up by encouraging his readers to combine meditation with action. First, the meditation:
"whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.... " (Phil. 4: 8).
In recent events in Charleston, we have seen and heard powerful testimonies of what is honorable, true, lovely, and commendable. We need to think on these things. We have learned of believers opening their sanctuary and hearts to a stranger, and showing a hospitality that was repaid with hate and death. We have witnessed the transcendent gift of forgiveness in the midst of terror and violence. We have beheld the exemplary behavior of those who have sought to be a voice for the voiceless, who have tried to remind us of how historic and present sins continue to haunt our churches and our world. By their examples we are reminded of the danger of indifference, particularly tempting for those of us who are white.
Practicing These Things
Paul then says,
"what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me - practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you" (Phil. 4: 9).
We are to practice those things that we have seen from fellow believers, things that are honorable, noble, excellent, and beautiful. These things look like a cross. They look like a sacrificial love for others. Paul was outraged when Peter allowed himself to get sucked back into the pressure of segregating himself from the Gentiles (Gal. 2: 11-14). Paul would not turn a blind eye to disruptions that threatened the unity of the Church (Phil. 4: 2; Eph. 2: 11-22, etc).
For Paul, part of the peace of Christ is that we bear one another's burdens (Gal. 6:2). But to bear the burdens of others, we must know them, we must appreciate their circumstances, their stories, their struggles, the wounds, and their hopes.
That is why the peace of Christ and his Kingdom cannot simply be about an individualized personal peace. This peace is cruciform, always responding out of the love received from God himself. It cares about the physically and emotionally wounded, it cares about the vulnerable, it cares about the other. It cares because God cares about these things: creation, incarnation, and re-creation, these movements of God that give and define our being, are characterized by a self-giving peace that St. Paul will not let us ignore. To attempt to ignore it is to attempt self-destruction.
God's peace surpasses understanding. The world does not have categories for it because the world can only continue to think in terms of the divisions between Jew and Gentile, male and female, black and white, rich and poor, strong and weak. St. Paul tells us that Christ has broken down these dividing walls and that we are unified with those from whom the world would divide us.
We come together because before the holy God we discover the depths of our own need even as we discover the depths of this God's concern. He calls us to receive his love, to extend his grace to others, and as his Gospel peace moves through us to others we live in this very peculiar, very unworldly, very cruciform, very Christlike peace that surpasses understanding. May it be so with us.
Kelly M. Kapic is Professor of Theological Studies at Covenant College. His most recent books include, A Little Book for New Theologians (IVP, 2012), Mapping Modern Theology (edited with Bruce McCormack; Baker, 2012)