What exactly is the peace that passes understanding?
There’s this general idea, floating around in the nebulous ether of Christianity, that if you’re anxious or stressed or under pressure, you can pray your way to the peace that passes all understanding.
You know how it goes. You’re running out of money or your child is incredibly sick or you’re going to lose your job. You’re feeling incredibly anxious, you pray and…
…a warm, fuzzy, relaxed feeling of peace that passes all understanding comes over you, like a warm blankie.
Similar to the feeling you get when you watch Bob Ross paint happy little clouds on The Joy of Painting.
We get this idea from Philippians 4:7 (and other verses), which says:
…do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
One article I read on the subject put it this way:
The faithful believer will know peace—his heart and mind are “guarded” by it—despite the tempest raging without. No one, especially those outside of Christ, will be able to fathom that peace. To most, it will remain a mystery how someone can be so serene in the midst of turmoil.
Serene. Calm. At rest in the midst of the turmoil. It sounds like a commercial for an anti-anxiety drug. Like the peace of God that passes all understanding is a pill you swallow when you’re having a panic attack.
And while all this sounds nice and zen-like, I’m convinced that the peace that passes all understanding is almost NEVER a feeling.
Even more, if you’re constantly on the search for “a peace about it” (as we like to say in evangelical circles), you’re going to end up even more anxious and probably dishonor God by unbelief.
I’ll even go so far as to say that the endless quest for a feeling of divine peace and serenity is closer to Buddhism or Stoicism than Christianity.
Yeah, I went there.
I realize this sounds semi-grumpyish, but the biblical truth about the peace that passes all understanding is much bigger and better.
Where Was Jesus’ Peace That Passes All Understanding?
Given that Jesus was the sinless son of God, he’s the person we should look to first to get an idea of what it means to have peace that transcends understanding. But there’s a problem. If the peace the passes understanding is a feeling, then Jesus has some serious explaining to do.
When he was in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night before his crucifixion, the absolute last thing Jesus felt was peace.
He was in deep, soul-suffocating anguish and anxiety about the suffering he was going to endure the next day. He was in such distress over his crucifixion that blood seeped from his face (or sweat, depending on how you interpret the passage).
Jesus asked God repeatedly to remove the cup of wrath that was about to be poured out upon him.
How does this possibly line up with the exhortation to be anxious for nothing? How can Jesus, lying facedown in the dirt, be in line with experiencing the peace that passes all understanding?
Where was his serenity? Where was his inner calm amidst the storm?
Maybe we’ve misinterpreted the bible verse about peace that passes all understanding.
Where Was Paul’s Peace That Passes All Understanding?
In 2 Corinthians 11:28, after detailing the incredible pain and persecution he experienced for the sake of the gospel, Paul tacks on the little phrase, “And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.”
Uhh, Paul? Call me crazy, but didn’t you command the Philippians not to be anxious about anything? Didn’t you say that they would have peace as long as they made their requests known to God?
Are you having some memory issues in your old age? Have the beatings and stonings and constant persecution created some missed connections in your brain?
Or maybe, just maybe, Paul meant something else when he talked about the peace that passes all understanding.
The Psalms Don’t Have Peace That Passes Understanding
If biblical peace is a feeling, then a lot of the Psalms are simply “broken”. Or to put it more bluntly, they’re false.
In Psalm 13:1-2, David says this:
How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
This doesn’t sound serene at all. David has sorrow in his heart all day. He feels like God has forgotten him. He’s overwhelmed by his circumstances and wondering how long God will hide his face. There’s no peaceful feeling present in this passage.
In Psalm 22:1-2 (which foreshadowed Jesus on the cross), David cries out:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest.
David says that even though be cries out to God by day, he can find no rest. He feels like his prayers are rising to heaven and then being flung back at him. As if God has totally and completely forsaken him. Like he’s alone in the swirling, crushing chaos of the world.
These are not the words of a calm, zen-infused man who is experiencing a feeling of peace that passes understanding.
David is in serious turmoil. He is wrestling in his soul.
So What Is Peace That Passes All Understanding?
So now we come to the heart of the matter. If peace that passes understanding is NOT a feeling, then what is it?
It’s something much more profound than a simple feeling.
The peace that passes understanding is a strong, resolute faith and confidence, that no matter what circumstances you encounter, God is faithful, God is good, God will keep you, God will provide for you, and God will bless you. It’s a faith that looks past circumstances to the God who works all things for your good and his glory.
This is a faith and confidence that can survive in the cancer ward and the bankruptcy court and the cemetery.
This is a faith that doesn’t rely on feelings but relies upon God’s unbreakable promises.
As Jesus stumbled, bloody and broken, toward Golgatha, he was most certainly in deep distress in every sense of the word. But he was also confident in the supreme sovereignty of his Father. He knew, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that God had good, glorious things in store for him.
This confidence went well beyond his human (not divine) understanding. Normal, human understanding interpreted Jesus’ death as a colossal tragedy (the perspective of the disciples).
As Paul lay in the dirt, profusely bleeding and concussed from being stoned by his enemies, he remained confident that God was for him. This was a confidence that superseded any human understanding of his life and circumstances.
Even in the midst of being afflicted in every way, perplexed, crushed, persecuted, struck down, and always carrying the death of Christ in his body, he also remained confident that God’s grace was sufficient for him.
In the midst of the hurricane of suffering, there will be many times when you feel overwhelmed, broken down, and swallowed by grief. We live in a sin-torn, broken world in which trouble is the norm.
But just as grieving and hope can exist side-by-side, so can feelings of distress and the peace that passes understanding.
So when you’re walking through the Valley of Death, don’t try to work yourself into a state of feeling peaceful. Your feelings will go up and down depending on 10,000 different variables.
Peace that passes understanding goes beyond mere feeling. Rather, it’s a solid confidence and faith in God that allows you say:
When peace, like a river, attendeth my way
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say
It is well, it is well with my soul