Our age is characterized by activity, energy, and action. Peace, however, is not an attribute of our times. When magazines and television broadcasts highlight the lives of celebrities, peace is not mentioned as one of the advantages of “the good life.” Jesus, however, offered his disciples the yoke of discipleship, and under his instruction they would experience rest and peace. “Peace I leave with you,” he told his friends at the Last Supper. “My peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (John 14: 27)
He spoke about peace often: when he looked over Jerusalem he cried because the people of the city had never learned the things that would make for peace; when he commissioned his disciples to preach the Kingdom of God he told them to give their peace as a gift; when the resurrected Jesus appeared he greeted his friends with “Peace.” Peace is among the fruit of the Spirit. Peace is an attribute of believers even when they face persecution or violence. Peace is the fingerprint of Jesus upon the lives he has crafted.
Students of Jesus can learn rest and peace has they submit to his instruction in everyday life. We can learn peace. He can teach us how to live a life of peace. The Apostle Paul, writing to a healthy group of believers in Philippi, gave these words as his final command:
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. (Philippians 4: 6 – 7)
These are famous verses. Perhaps you have heard of this incredible promise of “the peace which transcends understanding.” But has anyone taught us how to receive the gift of God, this perfect peace?
As we read this passage in Philippians we could easily think of the first words as a command, “be anxious for nothing.” But it is not a command, it is an outcome—an outcome that depends on living out the words that follow. We can be free from anxiety through prayer and thanksgiving.
For many followers of Jesus prayer is more a source of frustration than peace. We know that we are supposed to pray, be who has instructed us in how to pray? For some of us, our prayers are driven by need or fear. For others prayer is a duty and a mystery. The disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray. As they spent time with Jesus they saw a qualitative difference in prayer as they understood it and prayer as Jesus practiced it. Fortunately, we have a record of Jesus’ teaching on prayer. Luke 11 is a particularly useful passage on prayer. We hear again a version of The Lord’s prayer; Jesus asks us to imagine that we a have a friend—the kind of friend we can approach even in the middle of the night; he reminds his disciples that there is a perfect parent in heaven who longs to give the Holy Spirit in response to our requests. One reason we do not experience the peace that passes understanding after we pray is that we have not learned how to pray as Jesus taught.
The passage in Philippians also reveals the key ingredient in prayer: thanksgiving. A thankful heart is the foundation for peace in God’s Kingdom. As we “present our requests to God,” we are instructed to do so with thanksgiving. Requests, with thanksgiving. These need not be opposed to each other. Thanksgiving changes the atmosphere whenever it is present. Thanksgiving orders our world properly. God does not demand thanksgiving, he is teaching us that a heart thankful toward him is a heart in right relationship with him. Do we need to petition God? Absolutely! But the life-giving way to bring our requests before him is with a genuinely thankful heart. Many followers of Jesus pray from a place of worry and care, and consequently emerge from prayer even more anxious than when they started! We can learn to be thankful. We must pursue this heart-quality if we are to follow him.
Finally, we need to see the connection between our understanding and peace. Christians, especially those of us in the western world, are driven by the need to control our circumstances. Part of that control is the driving need to “understand” what is going on in our circumstances. We believe that if we can understand what is happening, we will somehow have the power to affect our situation. This is largely an illusion. We rarely are capable of the perspective needed to understand our complicated lives. Bill Johnson, pastor of Bethel Church in Redding, CA, puts it this way: “until you give up your right to understand you can't have the peace that passes understanding.” We want to know: why have we been treated unfairly? Why did our loved one make such a foolish choice? The “why” questions reveal our inner desire to be in control, and when we are not in control we are filled with worry, grief, and care. God can indeed give understanding, but it is a gift to the heart at rest in him.
The good news is that we can learn the things that make for peace. We can learn to pray the Jesus way. We can cultivate thankfulness that springs from the heart. We can experience transcendent peace. He calls us to learn from him. We can start there.