In today’s text we are blessed to read St. Paul’s beautiful conjunction of “the peace of God” and “the God of peace.”
We live in a time when we appear increasingly to be a nation of troubled souls. There are a number of indicators that lead us to this supposition, perhaps none more telling than the suicide rate. The US Center for Disease Control and Prevention released data indicating that the national suicide rate increased 33 percent between 1999 and 2017. Analyses of this data indicate that suicide is the second-leading cause of death for Americans under age 35 and that the highest rates of suicide are among white, middle-aged, rural Americans. Surely this is a disturbing sign of distress and hopelessness in people’s lives.
We can see signs looking in entirely different directions. James Emery White, a pastor, faculty member at Gordon Conwell, and ardent culture watcher, recently blogged on the turn toward Buddhist practices in American culture. He noted that major companies like Google and Apple now provide Buddhist meditation programs for their employees. White quotes extensively from a recent Atlantic Monthly article by Olga Kahzan on why so many Americans are turning to Buddhism. Kahzan writes that “It’s not about spiritual enlightenment or a faith community, but rather hoping for a quick boost of cognitive healing.... Mental health disorders are up in Western societies, and the answer doesn’t seem to be church attendance, which is down. There’s always therapy, but it’s so expensive. My meditation class was $12.00... People find something “newly appealing about a practice that instructs you to just sit...”
I will cite just one more indicator that we are no longer as emotionally resilient a people as we may have been in the past. This past week, the UN’s annual world happiness report ranked the United States as 18th /19th out of 156 countries in the world. (The happiest countries identified in the report are the Scandinavian nations of Finland, Denmark and Norway.) According to the Washington Post, we keep dropping in the ranking each year and are now the unhappiest we have ever been, at least since the UN started keeping track seven years ago. Jeffrey Sachs, a co-author of the World Happiness Report, said that there is “sobering evidence of how addictions are causing considerable unhappiness and depression in the US.” NPR cites him as saying that the US is experiencing epidemics of obesity, opioid addiction, and major depressive disorder that are all remarkable by global standards.”
I personally do not believe that life in the US in the 21st century is existentially grimmer, or more tenuous than it has ever been in the past. In fact, day to day existence for most Americans today is not nearly so tenuous as it would have been for, say, 1st century Palestinian Jews or for Medieval Europeans, to say nothing of the daily lives of our contemporary fellow human beings in the third world. Yet we appear to be increasingly troubled, unhappy and disordered.
As Christians, we swim in the same cultural currents as the rest of our society and are vulnerable to the same malaise of spirit. Thus, it should be no small consolation to hear that one of the benefits of our being in Christ is the guarding of our hearts and minds.
In hearing this, though, we must be on guard against the cultural tendency to seek, as Khazan expressed it, “a quick boost of cognitive healing.” The culture is apparently discerning enough to see that Christianity offers nothing along those lines. James Emery White, commenting on the appeal of Buddhism, observes that “it gives us the easy appeal of spirituality without the accountability.” Christians, by contrast, must pursue the peace of God in the God-appointed way—namely, in our union with Christ. Our pursuit of the peace that “surpasses understanding” can never be reduced to a technique for meditation. Instead, it will always be part of our pursuit, like St. Paul, to be “found” in Christ. (3:9)
As the apostle brings his letter to a close, as his sentences become shorter and he searches for ways to anchor his parting counsels deep in our hearts and minds, he does give us easy techniques to achieve peace. However, he does give us four words to help us understand how we are preserved by the peace that “surpasses understanding.” These words are: rejoice, pray, think and do.
In 4:4 (and not for the first time—cp. 3:1) he urges us to “rejoice in the Lord.” Here is another mention of our union with Christ that reminds us that Christ is the very center and foundation of our lives. This particular expression has its roots in the Old Testament Psalms where time and again “rejoicing in the Lord” is a response to his saving action on behalf of his people. (Ps. 35:9; 40:16 etc.) This rejoicing is covenantal. This God, the Lord, who saves us, is our God. We rejoice in his gracious choice to make us his sons and daughters in Christ Jesus.
In 4:6, the apostle exhorts us not to worry but to pray. Here we have echoes of the Lord Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount, “Do not worry. Your heavenly Father knows what you need.” (Mt. 6:25-33) This is not merely helpful advice since worry is far more than just a troubling emotion. Worry is an existential threat to our perseverance in the faith. “The worries of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing.” (Mt. 13:22) It is when we realize our vulnerability to anxiety and despair and the progression into hopelessness that we become people of prayer. We do not learn a technique to achieve “cognitive healing.” Instead we learn the discipline of prayer, through which the peace of God is stationed like a garrison around our hearts and minds to keep us from becoming troubled souls.
In 4:8, the apostle reminds us of the formative power of the things to which we turn our thoughts. Our brother, Dr. Glenn Sparks, has done research showing how exposure to brutality and violence in entertainment media desensitizes people to these evils, especially violence against women. This is sobering when one considers, for example, that precisely this kind of violence is most binge-watched on media streaming services like Netflix. By contrast, Christians are to turn their thoughts to whatever is “excellent and praiseworthy.” This underscores the contrast between the practice of meditation in Eastern religion and biblically-based meditation. The person that the Bible counts happy delights in the Lord’s instruction and meditates on it day and night. (Psalm 1:2)
In 4:9, St. Paul joins thinking with doing, returning to the apostolic paradigm as the guide to Christian discipleship. Note the fullness of the apostolic foundation of the church. It encompasses what was “learned, received, heard and seen” through St. Paul’s ministry. The word translated “learned” is the verb from which the noun “disciple” is derived. A disciple learns not just content, but a way of life by following the Master. St. Paul was convinced that his own life was a faithful, trustworthy reflection of Christ himself. (1 Corinthians 11:1) Thus, the test of the apostolic catholicity is not just in the content, but also in the practice of the Christian faith.
Through the four-fold directive of rejoice, pray, think and do, the apostle guides us into a way of life, in union with Christ, which is book-ended, as it were, by the peace of God and the God of peace. In a lost and broken world, the peace of God is not some form of serenity that enables us to rise above the world, detached from all that brings distress and grief. Instead, we experience the peace of God as comfort in all the crises of body and soul in life and in death.
The Heidelberg Catechism teaches us comfort as union with Christ. It expresses this union as our belonging to him, in his fellowship with the Father and Holy Spirit. “Because I belong to him, not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven. Because I belong to him, all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to him, Christ by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready,” as I like to paraphrase it, to get on with the business of “living for him.”