Sunday, December 13, 2009

Peace with God and the Peace of Christ

As we anticipate Christmas and are drawn again to ponder the Babe in the manger, I find nothing restores joy to my soul more than reflecting on the real gift of God that night over 2,000 years ago - as relayed by the angels in Luke 2:14.

"Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests."

God extended to mankind the gift of true peace - peace with Him. For the first time in the course of human history, He initiated a permanent relationship with mankind who was at enmity with Him and rejected true holiness.

How could one find "favor" with God? Haven't we all gone astray; each one to his own way (Isaiah 53:6)? How, then, could He be pleased to dwell with us? The answer, of course, lies in the same verse from Isaiah: "the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all." There was only one way to please God then as now: by faith. Mary "found favor with God" (Luke 1:30) because she humbly trusted and had faith in His will. Abraham and the patriarchs likewise pleased Him with their faith, demonstrated by doing whatever God required of them. The only way to please God is by "believing on Jesus Christ, Whom He has sent" (John 6:29).

Because of our faith in Christ, we have a permanent place in God's family. We are eternally forgiven and adopted as dearly beloved children (Eph. 1:5; 5:1). This is what it means to be at peace with God. Fellowship is promised to those "on whom His favor rests." The Father's favor rests on you if you are united with His Son, and it is an irrevocable, constant favor - you have received the peace of being forgiven; the peace that comes from knowing the Holy Judge is also now your Loving Father. You cannot lose this peace - it is initiated and maintained eternally by God Himself.

There is another type of peace which the Lord also grants us, but it is the type we are prone to "lose" at times during our Christian walk.

In John 14:27, just before dying a horrible death, the Lord Jesus says something intriguing to His disciples: "Peace I leave with you; 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." Jesus, during His earthly life and ministry, was always at perfect peace. He did not need the Father to extend the same offer of peace that sinners so desperately need; He, of course, was sinless and as God Incarnate always in perfect fellowship with the Father. Yet what He displayed and offered to His followers (and by extension, us) was a peace that can transcend the worst trial, fiercest storm, and keep our hearts stayed on the Savior's perfect love and care of us.

In Matthew 14, we witness Jesus during what had to be the second most stressful day of His life. First thing in the morning, He hears about the death of His cousin, John the Baptist. On the heels of this bombshell, the emissaries of the news warn Him that Herod is interested in murdering Christ, as well. Choosing to withdraw (no doubt for prayer, as was His custom), the disciples return exuberant from an evangelistic outreach. The crowds followed Him. When Jesus landed, Matthew says He "had compassion on them and healed their sick."

Can you imagine this from a human perspective? The ministry of Christ was marked by interruption, constant and immediate demands from (often ungrateful) people, threats, uncertainty, persecution and hardship (they regularly hiked over 20 miles a day over rocky terrain. No thanks.) Think on this the next time you are tempted to think Jesus doesn't understand stress or pressure. Continually, we see that while Jesus' emotions may have varied, His demeanor didn't. In fact, Hebrews 13:8 reminds us we can count on Jesus' consistency at all times: "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever."

How we react in a given situation reveals what is in our hearts. When Jesus said, "Peace I leave with you", He almost certainly was referring to the peace with God that the disciples (and all believers) had been granted. When He continued, "My peace I give to you", He was almost certainly referring to the supernatural peace of the Holy Spirit that surpasses all understanding (Philippians 4:7).

For you Greek-geeks, in all of these verses the word for "peace" is εἰρήνη (eirēnē). It denotes a cessation of conflict; a quietness of spirit and an absence of hostility or disharmony. Qualitatively, the "peace" spoken of in Scripture is the same thing - but there are different ways in which the believer can experience peace. It is entirely possible to lack the peace of Christ, even while positionally being at peace with God (because of the Cross). If we truly have the peace that comes from yielding our lives to Christ, it will show up in the way we respond to trial.

We do not have to beg God to give us this quality of deep harmony and grace to deal with unexpected demands; it is a fruit of the Spirit. It is a by-product of simply surrendering our will, minds and desires to Him and learning to rest in His love. When we feel that we've "lost" that peace - anxiety, worry, depression or spiritual apathy has set in - it is usually a result of moving away from the quiet, intimate presence of the prayer closet. If we "take back" areas of our life and place too much importance on an area that is not GOD's first priority, we feel that loss of peace as stress or disharmony. We feel distant from God.

One thing I have learned through study and counseling women is that depression and anxiety are actually a refusal to bend the knee to Christ. Rather than simply accepting that God is in sovereign control of our lives and has our best interest at heart, (even when our "best" is not enjoyable), the depressed individual chooses to believe lies of Satan. She essentially becomes her own god, dwelling on the "vain imaginings" of her self-absorbed heart rather than the revealed truth of God's Word. Self-absorption, lack of peace over feeling slighted, unforgiveness and attention-vying tactics are all manifestations of pride (Stuart Scott has an excellent booklet on this subject, available from Focus Publishing).

What is honestly amazing (and convicts, inspires and encourages me) is that the Christians I know who have suffered true adversity and tragedy are, incredibly, the ones who experience the deepest, purest peace of Christ in their lives. I do NOT say that they are always happy-clappy folks who never shed a tear; not do they hide their emotions and refuse prayer and tangible support from other believers (that would also be prideful). However, the witness they have displayed by their steadfast, unwavering faith in God's goodness is staggering. I know one woman (a Christian blogger) whose husband was imprisoned for several years, while she raised their son in the love of the Lord. Her life has been quite difficult, especially around the holidays when many of us take our families and provision for granted. She grew ever closer to the God Who always provided; always comforted (although not always immediately). A woman in my church (a fellow Bible study leader) lost her 18-year-old son to brain cancer last February. I cannot imagine what she is growing through this month, but she is always sharing the love of God - inside church and out. Her e-mails of God's sustaining faithfulness convict me - how often have I doubted Him, or taken Him for granted?

Neither of these women have slid into despair or depression. Neither have grown cold spiritually, sought attention, or slid into the deadly trap of self-pity. Often, the most depressed, melodramatic believers with the weakest faith are those with the least to be morose about. They have, in many cases, recreated a "jesus" in their own image - and their faith is built on the sand of emotionalism. Morbid introspection replaces fixing one's eyes on Christ, "the author and perfecter of our faith" (Hebrews 12:2). This type of faith will never result in the peace of Christ; it will always be fluid and dependent on one's fickle feelings because it puts one's self at the center. This is why reading and studying the Bible is so important to one's spiritual growth.

This Christmas season, no matter where you are in your faith or how long God's favor has rested on you, I pray that you will know the peace Christ offers you in Him. Sit at His feet and learn from Him, for He is gentle and humble in heart (Matthew 11:29). Find that rest for your soul, and once refreshed you will be a more productive servant for His glory. Keeping your eyes fixed on Him and abiding in His steadfast love will produce a beautiful, glowing light in your heart much brighter than the lights of a Christmas tree.

The peace of Luke 2:14 is yours forever if you belong to Christ. Whether you posses the peace of Christ He offers in John 14:27b is up to you.

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