A Peace That Defies The Protests
As hail crashed against the windows of my home on Monday night I wondered for a moment if we might be living through the catastrophic events outlined in Revelation. Millions of people have lost their lives to COVID-19. Billions more have been adversely affected by the pandemic. And over the past few days in South Africa we’ve witnessed widespread protests, violence, and unprecedented looting. Mr Ramaphosa has called a nation state of emergency, deploying the military. Indeed, one would be forgiven for hearing the blast of trumpets in the distance, together with the cracking of seals and clashing of bowls.
Such upheavals quickly give way to unrest and anxiety. I live in Cape Town, yet I have found myself feeling overwhelmed—and not only because I have family and friends in both Gauteng and KZN. The disruption to our precarious peace has been nothing short of devastating, and the rupture appears irreparable. Amidst this perplexing chaos we long for peace. So in this post, using Philippians 4:4-9 and hopefully no platitudes, I will attempt to reorient us back to the God who offers a peace that transcends understanding.
There is a scene in The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe where Susan and Lucy tumble down a grassy hill with Aslan. Lewis says this felt like playing with a kitten yet experiencing the fiercest of thunderstorms. Commenting on this imagery, Stella Gibbons writes: “I was no longer shocked by the symbol of Christ as a mighty golden lion, combining majesty and tender fatherly comfort. It is a child’s picture, this dazzling golden heraldic beast on fire with divine love that yet can be nestled up to.” Aslan is simultaneously terribly powerful and lovingly tender. Gibbons continues, “perhaps the true shock comes from picturing the contrast between the enormous creature’s power, and its gentleness when it calls the child ‘dear heart.’”
Most Christians will be aware that this description better illustrates the true God than the tame, tepid, or indifferent god of our imaginations—and many pulpits. This explains our reticence to pray. Yet it was this knowledge, better yet, his experience of this God that enabled Paul to insist: “The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:5-7). This is a promise we desperately need to hear. Prayer leads to peace, for by it we entrust ourselves to the God who is at the same time omnipotent and patient, sovereign and sensitive, altogether glorious and gentle. Christian, pray.
Paul then presents two other means of knowing peace. As he concludes the next short section: “practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you” (Philippians 4:9). The first of those is being more discerning when it comes to what we feed our hearts and souls; the second is becoming as concerned for the needs of others as we are for our own. In living this out, Paul says, “the God of peace will be with you.”
2. Avoid Fixating
I have recently written calling for a greater discernment with regards to the media we consume. So I won’t rehash that here. I know as well as anyone how fascinating it is to watch the unfolding scenes shared both on social media and by news outlets. There is something captivating about these videos. For not only is video powerful; the destructive violence is a truly incredible spectacle. Just because we have access to an almost endless supply of footage, it doesn’t mean we need to watch it. We are fools if we think that continually consuming these disturbing events through our screens won’t move us to greater anxiety.
Philippians 4:8 calls on believers to deliberately think or reflect on what is true, honourable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise. We shouldn’t be surprised that we feel such a profound lack of peace at the moment, when we repeatedly think on and view the opposite of what Paul describes in that verse. Please don’t mishear me. I’m not advocating for blissful ignorance, especially when many communities need to be alert in order to remain safe. But don’t mistake our voracious appetite for sensational viewing with being well informed. Better yet, think on what is good. Meditate on God’s character; read J. I. Packer’s Knowing God. Celebrate and consider Christ’s work on the cross. Fill your minds and heart with Scripture.
3. Serve Others
Finally, and briefly, Paul’s third avenue for enjoying the peace of God is perhaps the most surprising. He writes, “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you” (Philippians 4:9). Throughout Philippians we are exhorted to imitate the selfless service of Paul, Timothy, and Epaphroditus. Of course, behind those novices stands the master, Jesus Christ. Each of those men knew an abundant and joyous peace because they spent themselves for others. Therefore it is here, somewhat paradoxically, that Paul says we will find peace.
Yet his point actually makes a lot of sense. As Eugene Peterson writes, “We must decide to live in response to the abundance of God, and not under the dictatorship of our own poor needs…We must centre ourselves in the God who generously gives and not in our own egos which greedily grab.”
The numerous crises we are facing, and their peculiar impacts on each of us, mean it is easy to obsess over ourselves. But the more I fret over my own mounting troubles and endless worries—even hardship and suffering—the less able I am to give my attention to others. This will not only mean failing in Christian service but also forfeiting the peace that God promises to those who look to the interest of others (Philippians 2:4-5). This is certainly counterintuitive. Yet we have a choice, whatever our situation: be consumed by our own needs or gladly spent for the sake of others. Christ, Paul, and many believers since, knew the peace of God in the latter.