Love, peace, and joy are the defining components of a Christian life. It is these realities that constitute fundamental discipleship to Christ, not obedience to rules or fear of contamination, however helpful rules may be. What is real peace?
As with love, peace has undergone a radical redefinition. It now means the absence of war—a negative, not a positive. But a quick look at the Old Testament with its Hebrew background will reveal that peace (Hebrew shalom) is not simply the absence of war or conflict, but the positive presence of abundance and goodness. It is not something serene and soporific, like music that lulls you to sleep. It is more like a beautiful melody which wakes you up. When I was an Evangelical Jesus Freak, we used to sing a song “I’ve got peace like a river in my soul”. It conjured up for me images of a lazy river, gently flowing through an idyllic countryside, allowing those sailing down the river to doze off in their boats as they were carried happily away.
That is, until I actually looked up the passage in the Bible. Turns out it was from Isaiah 66:12, where it was an image of power and abundance. God promised restoration to Jerusalem “the abundance of her glory” (v. 11), and He said, “Behold, I will extend shalom to her like a river, and the glory of the nations like an overflowing stream”. The Jerusalem Bible renders this last bit, “like a river, and like a stream in spate”, “spate” being a British term for a sudden flood in a river, especially one caused by heavy rains. A spate is not a lazy, gentle thing. When there is a stream in spate, weathermen on the news sound the warning and you think about possibly finding sandbags. This was the kind of shalom that God promised to extend to us—a rushing, overflowing torrent. The peace promised us in Christ is not simply the absence of war, but an abundance of life. Peace is, in fact, the very presence of God.
Is it possible to have such a peace today? Yes, but there is a cost. It is a gift, but it does not come automatically, like junk mail shows up automatically in our mailboxes. It comes when we wrench ourselves free from the multitudinous distractions which clamour for our attention and focus upon God. God is always looking at us. Peace comes when we look back at Him. “You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on You” (Isaiah 26:3). If we look away from God, of course we will have no peace. The world is filled with chaos, and if we look at the world intently and exclusively, we will became chaotic ourselves.
In this we are like Peter when he was confronted with chaos. One day he and the rest of the Twelve were in a boat on the Sea of Galilee when a storm hit them (Matthew 14:22f). Jesus came to them, walking on the sea, and when Peter asked, Jesus bid him come to Him over the water. At first he did so, “but when he saw the wind, he was afraid and beginning to sink he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’” (v.30). Note: as long as he looked at Jesus and focused upon Him, the storm could not sink him, but when he looked away from Jesus at the chaos around him, then he began to sink. The storm that before was outside him then entered into his heart. Looking away from Christ, he internalized the chaos, and lost the peace that alone could keep him afloat.
Peter’s failure points the way for us to succeed. The world is crammed with chaos, with loud distractions, each one screaming like the loud wind on the sea to look away from Christ. But as long as we focus upon the Lord, we can have peace, even in the midst of the storm. The chaos of the world can lash our faces and soak us to skin, but it cannot sink us. If we keep our eyes on Jesus, we can have peace no matter where we are. With Him before our unblinking eyes, we can walk on water.