You need to make a difficult decision, and ask Christian friends for their input. They give some advice, then ask, “Do you have a peace about your decision?”
You’re having a difficult time working through something, and after someone prays for you, they want to know if you’re sensing God’s assurance, and ask, “Do you have a peace, now?”
You’ve just confronted a brother or sister about their sin, and aren’t sure how well the conversation went. To comfort you, a friend asks, “Well, do you have a peace about what you did?”
Do you have a peace about that? Or, to put it in more explicitly theological terms, has the Holy Spirit supernaturally imparted a unique, subjective sense of assurance about a given subject?
When the rubber meets the road
I’ve heard this phrase all my life. Somewhere in the last five years, it began to grate on me. I’ve sat quietly on this one for a while; I don’t want to become simply a pious doctrinaire who, like the grammar-hounds always nitpicking at people’s English, is always highlighting every minor theological imprecision in people’s language. However, I do believe that our words matter, and I am a bit perplexed by this particular phrase.
The phrase is extra-biblical, of course. That’s not necessarily a problem in and of itself; we have a great deal of verbiage that is extra-biblical, including in some important cases of orthodoxy. Much of our language for the Trinity, for example, is extra-biblical, from the word “Trinity” to our technical terms (“essence,” “person,” “subsistence,” “substance,” etc.). Being extra-biblical is no indictment of a phrase. When the phrase is an common part of our Christian idiom, however, we ought to make sure it is biblical in its sentiments even if not in its wording.
And here the tires begin to squeal a bit. I suspect the idea is drawn from passages like Philippians 4:6-7 or Isaiah 26:3, both of which promise peace to those who trust in God. We can hardly say, then, that God does not offer peace to believers. Clearly, he does! However, the application so many well-intended believers seem to be drawing from these passages is strangely absent from the rest of Scripture if indeed it is their intended meaning. I cannot find a single instance of someone making a decision or trusting more in God because of a subjective sense of peace imparted to his heart by the Holy Spirit – not one.
The other way around
Perhaps we ought therefore to ask: what does it matter if you “have a peace” about something? Does Scripture give us grounds to believe that subjective experiences of peace are a means by which the Spirit speaks?
Consider: Paul writes of himself as constantly in danger, as persecuted and resisted wherever he goes. You would think, then, that if a subjective sense of peace granted by the Holy Spirit were a part of his decision-making or assurance, it would appear in his writing or in Luke’s narratives in Acts. It does not. When Paul describes his apostolic hardships, describing his ministry to the doubting Corinthian church, he writes:
We put no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love; by truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; through honor and dishonor, through slander and praise. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything. (2 Corinthians 6:3-10)
Note that of all the points Paul lays out, “a peace” does not make the list. You will find the same to be true throughout Scripture.
David was often in anguish, calling out for God to save him. Never does he mention subjective experiences of peace in guiding his decisions. Nor does “a peace” assure him of God’s faithfulness, or that circumstances will work to his favor. Likewise, Jeremiah’s righteous prayers for relief went apparently unanswered, his hopes for his countrymen were dashed on the rocks of the Babylonian invasion, and his obedience to God netted him only suffering. Read of his faithfulness in Jeremiah and his sorrow in the pages of Lamentations; you will find no trace of “a peace” – only trust in God’s righteous faithfulness.
Indeed, it is the other way around. Throughout Scripture, as in Philippians and Isaiah, peace is not the ground of the believer’s assurance, but the result of his trust. Our subjective experience of peace tells us one thing and one glorious thing only: God is with us. David did not have peace because God wanted him to know that he was doing the right thing; rather, he could rest in peace because he trusted God’s protection and believed his promises (Psalm 4:8; see the rest of the psalm for the broader picture).
A better peace
I recognize that this view butts up against many of our deeply held views and against experiences we may cherish. However, we are called to submit to the authority of Scripture. If Scripture gives us no reason to look for “a peace” as confirmation of right action, prayer, or hopes, we should look for no such thing.
Do not mistake me: I am not arguing that we do not at times enjoy a supernatural experience of peace. The Holy Spirit does sometimes grant us unique tastes of his presence. However, these are not measures of our faithfulness or the rightness of our walk with God. Nor are they indicative of whether we are making the right decision, or of how our present circumstances will turn out in the end.
We will experience fear and courage, sorrow and joy, loneliness and hope, and in all of these we may know God’s peace. We will make poor decisions and good decisions, pray in line with God’s will and not, see our hopes met and our hopes dashed, and in all of these we may know God’s peace. Thank God – what miserable people we would be if God’s peace were dependent on us or our circumstances! We are called to do one thing and one thing only: trust God.
This is a good thing. When we rely on these subjective impressions, we can easily become distraught if we are not experiencing the peace we associate with God’s favor. We begin to question whether we are walking in God’s will, or to wonder whether something is going wrong that we don’t know about, or whether we prayed the wrong thing. On the other hand, when we recognize that God’s peace is freely available to whomever trusts in him, we are freed from the tyranny of experience. We can rest completely in his goodness. We may trust that whatever comes, whatever we have done, and however we have prayed, he is working all things for good, and he will fulfill his promises. We can trust in him and rely on his character, regardless of what we feel. Would that we were all so free.