As a good, American-made, Bible-believing Christian, I have always found comfort in the Pauline doctrine of ubiquitous, supernatural peace. The Apostle Paul famously proclaimed to the church at Philippi that through thanksgiving, prayer, and rejoicing, the people of God can find "the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding" (Philippians 4:7, ESV). And for years, I sought this peace with all my Spirit-filled energies. I prayed vigorously to God, offered my continual thanks to Him, counted my blessings liberally, found highlights of joy amidst swards of sorrow, and served the Lord through my work as a pastor and Army chaplain. Yet, if I am honest, I never discovered overwhelming peace that defied understanding. That is to say, any spiritual contentment I experienced was always tainted by the regrettable circumstances of life. I felt as if Paul's promise, though genuinely offered and divinely inspired, was somehow only a dangling carrot, faith-based fable, or unrealistic expectation. I believed what Paul said, but I wondered if it would ever be true for me. I had experienced peace in my life but only in pieces--never holistically (i.e., in every area of my life simultaneously).
However, when I was recently diagnosed with a (semi-)serious heart condition and was forced to come to terms with my own finitude and the pointed realization that I have more years behind me than ahead, it occurred to me that there may be (and probably is) a better, more accurate interpretation of Paul's guarantee. Indeed, to construe Paul's notion of "peace" as some sort of all-pervasive contentment--an irrepressible tranquility that absorbs into every nook and cranny of one's life--flies directly in the face of contradictory promises of suffering and hardship found in such passages as 1 Peter 5:10, Romans 5:3-5, James 1:2-4, and Psalm 34:19. To believe that one can attain "perfect peace" in this lifetime seems to favor one side of a decidedly two-sided existential coin. Thus, squaring Paul's unfathomable peace (Philippians 4:7) with his self-same declaration of inevitable suffering (Romans 3:5) is critical to one's practical theology.
For years, I took the typical paths to discover this synthesis, which consist of equating Pauline peace with something acquired in the latter stages of sanctification (part and parcel of John Wesley's perfectionism), some manner of spiritual utopianism, or, as is most common in evangelical circles, the conviction that one's assurance of eternal life coupled with the filling of the Holy Spirit in power and wisdom conspire supernaturally to give her the confidence and equanimity necessary to endure any of life's exigencies. In this third way, peace is not so much an emotion as it is a state of mind or being. That is, one experiences peace when she experiences the indwelling Spirit of God and rests in His blessings and inspiration--what one might rightly call the doctrine of "inspirationalism."
Regardless the merits of perfectionism, utopianism, or inspirationalism, however, I never once experienced the Pauline ideal. My life was simply too mucky, too complicated, and too dissected to fit nicely into any paradigm of "un-understandable" peace. So, I had to look for something else, and that something came recently in the form of a question: "What if Paul's peace can come in pieces?" In other words, what if the "peace of God, which surpasses all understanding" is not some real or imagined perfection or a Spirit-filled state of mind, but what if it is simply the moments or tidbits of joy, satisfaction, power, and wisdom that God gives us each day against the backdrop of fallenness and imperfection? What if Paul's peace is the momentary joy experienced when one realizes he is blessed with a wonderful wife and children? What if peace is an encouraging word from an otherwise domineering boss that elicits a brief feeling of confidence, a surprisingly favorable diagnosis from the doctor that brings thanksgiving, or a simple laugh among friends? What if peace is an uncharacteristically wise decision one makes in a life filled with foolish ones? What if peace is the temporary euphoria of love or the sudden relief of safety. What if peace comes only ephemerally. Is this kind of peace any more or less understandable than the ubiquitous variety? I still don't know why my wife loves me. I don't know why good things continue to happen to me even in this present world of political and social upheaval. I don't know why God has provided me with a great job when so many are unemployed. I don't know why He has given this quiet introvert so many great friends and colleagues over the years or why I still find scraps of joy in our dark, fallen world. But God surely knows, and I find contentment in all of it, even though these blessings have come to me only a piece at a time.