Living in the “Nevertheless”: Pastoral Reflections on Peace
I’ll never forget one of the first speeches I ever gave. My boss, a U.S. senator, had been asked to address the inaugural meeting of a bioethics advisory commission. But he couldn’t attend, so he sent me, a young staffer, in his place.
A group of intimidating people filled the room: doctors, lawyers, professors, and political professionals. I was a novice. My nerves rattled as I sat there in my grey suit, beads of sweat gathering on my brow, overwhelmed by the sense I was in over my head.
I sprinted through my prepared remarks. Then, before anyone could respond, I nervously and awkwardly stood up, hoping if I exited the room quickly no one would remember how it went. As I shuffled back to the office, I felt absolutely no peace.
WE’VE ALL BEEN THERE
What I experienced that chilly, October day isn’t unusual. Everyone knows what it’s like to be uneasy, out-of-sorts, anxious, and afraid. From the soldier deployed on his first mission to the salesman about to make his first pitch, we’ve all had to reckon with nerves that won’t calm down, a heart beating out of its chest, and thoughts spinning out of control. Everyone longs for peace; very few know where to find it.
We all know life is full of disappointments. From the biggest catastrophe (war in the Middle East) to the smallest inconvenience (pain in our lower back), feelings of unrest seem woven into the warp and woof of our daily lives. Whatever the trial, our gut tells us something is wrong. We aren’t supposed to be crushed by anxiety, beaten up by worry, or battered by loneliness. In the midst of a world that seems to know no peace, we’re left longing for rest.
LIVING IN THE “NEVERTHELESS”
This lack of peace is especially problematic for Christians. We’ve read enough of the Bible to know God expects us to be at peace. Nearly every New Testament letter begins with a call for peace to mark our lives (Rom 1:7; 1 Cor 1:3; 2 Cor 1:2; Gal 1:3; Eph 1:2; Phil 1:2; Col 1:2; 1 Thess 1:1; 2 Thess 1:2; 1 Tim 1:2; 2 Tim 1:2; Titus 1:4; Philemon 1:3; 1 Pet 1:2; 2 John 1:3; 3 John 1:15; Jude 1:2; Rev 1:4).
Paul and the first Christians followed in the footsteps of their Savior. Jesus suffered under the expectation of the crucifixion. He prayed for a way out, but remained at peace with whatever the Father ordained: “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42).
Christians are supposed to live in the “nevertheless.” Scripture calls us to accept whatever God allows, to rest in whatever God sends, and confess with Samuel Rodigast, the seventeenth-century hymn writer:
Whate’er my God ordains is right;
Though now this cup, in drinking,
May bitter seem to my faint heart,
I take it all, unshrinking.
Each of us is called to live in the “nevertheless” by trusting God in any and all circumstances. But what makes this so hard, and how can we “walk by the Spirit” (Gal 5:16) in such a way that peace more naturally dwells in our hearts?
The answer is found in understanding the root of peace.
THE ROOT OF PEACE
From Genesis to Revelation, the root of peace is the atoning work of God. When we hear the word, “peace,” we shouldn’t first think of being calm in the face of a speech or some other trial. As tempting as it might be, we shouldn’t think first of the beach. We should think of God making a way for sinners to be reconciled to him.
Peace, in the Old Testament, is the gift God gave to those who came to him through the shed blood of sacrificial animals. No wonder some of those sacrifices were actually called “peace offerings” (Lev. 3)! The psalmist rejoiced in these sacrifices, praying to the LORD, “you forgave the iniquity of your people; you covered all their sin” (Ps. 85:2). Looking at the temple, where God atoned for the sins of his people, the same psalmist saw “steadfast love and faithfulness meet; righteousness and peace kiss each other” (Ps. 85:10). In other words, through the blood of a lamb without blemish, God replaced wrath with love, infidelity with faithfulness, sin with righteousness, and enmity with peace.
Peace, in the New Testament, is the gift the Father grants those who come to him through the shed blood of his Son. We all offended God, each and every one of us (Rom. 3:9–18). We all deserve God’s wrath because of our sin. But since God is love, he provided a way of escape. He delivered up Jesus “for our trespasses,” and he raised him “for our justification” (Rom. 4:25). Those who were once God’s enemies, God now calls friends. How is this possible? Through the blood of Christ. And what is this called? Peace. “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1).
At its core, peace is not singing “Kumbaya” around a campfire with a dozen of your closest friends, it’s not going to work every day with the inner-confidence that all is well, and it’s not a tranquil feeling manufactured by 45 minutes of yoga. The root of peace is the objective reality that God has adopted you into his family as his precious son or daughter. Peace is a fact—solid as granite—that because of the cross-work of Jesus, every believer is “sanctified in Christ”, who will “sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1:2, 8).
The power of a tidal wave won’t be limited to the ocean—it’ll eventually hit the shore. Likewise, someone who knows the peace of God will realize how it impacts every aspect of life.
Because the gospel is a message of peace (Acts 10:36; Eph. 6:15), our biggest problem is behind us. But there’s more to peace than the end of God’s wrath. Christians who know the root of peace will see its branches extending throughout their life. Having been reconciled to a holy God, they will find peace, both with others and themselves.
PEACE WITH OTHERS
Christians are called to live at peace with each other (Mark 9:50; Rom. 12:18; 14:19; 1 Thess. 5:13; Heb. 12:14; James 3:18; 2 Pet. 3:14). In fact, our peace with God and one another can’t be separated. It’s impossible to be reconciled to God without peace spilling over into personal relationships. Notice how Paul connects the two:
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to those who were far off and peace to those who were near. (Eph. 2:13–17).
Under the Old Covenant, the “law of commandments and ordinances” privileged the Jews. But, in Christ, the barrier between Jew and Gentile has been dismantled. Just as the fall of the Berlin Wall united East and West Germany, so now the walls that once divided humanity—ethnic, social, cultural, economic—have been crushed under the weight of Christ’s atoning death and resurrection. The church is one body—so in Christ we’re at peace with God and one another.
What does this look like in your life?
- Are you building relationships with non-Christians of other ethnicities, colors, and backgrounds with confidence that God will build his church as a monument to his passion for peace?
- Do you cultivate discipling relationships with people from all walks of life, as a testimony to the reality that “the gospel has made one new man in place of the two”?
- Do you forgive those who have wronged you, with the conviction that “so far as it depends on you” you must “live peaceably with all” (Rom. 12:18)?
Relationships are hard work. The key is beginning with the root of peace. God, in his kindness, brought you into a state of peace with him. Now, according to God’s grace, we’re called to pursue peace with others.
The peace we have with God is foundational, and peace with others must be pursued. And yet, there’s another kind of peace the believer would be foolish to neglect. Notice this prayer Paul offers in Romans: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope” (Rom. 15:13).
Far too many believers—behind the pulpit and in the pew—are living without this peace that God has promised to those who love him. Perhaps it’s because they’ve failed to ask for it. Perhaps they’ve taken their eyes off the root of peace. For whatever reason, they’ve not yet learned, as Paul did, “the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need” (Phil. 4:12).
The secret is to remember that those in Christ are redeemed and secure, safe and accepted. Those who have been justified by Christ are forever free to find their identity in Christ. It doesn’t matter how bad the speech goes, how unkind your friend has become, or how uncertain your future plans are. The rock-solid truth is you have been justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. If this is true, the mountains in your life that seem impassable become pebbles you can barely see.
When our vision of God is big and the root of peace remains in focus, our problems seem much smaller. They’re real, but they aren’t ultimate. In other words, when we’re confident God has decisively dealt with our sin, our personal weaknesses no longer overwhelm us. This is how Paul could be acutely aware of his own frailty, but even more aware of God’s strength: “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing worth belongs to God and not us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Cor. 4:7-9). These are the words of a man who knew peace within.
REMEMBER THE CROSS
It’s hard to believe it, but I’ve been preaching now for over 20 years. Praise God, I’m no longer scared of public speaking. But I still wrestle with anxiety. Hardly a week goes by where I’m not overwhelmed by the reality that whatever treasure I have, God has truly deposited it in a jar of clay—me!
But when I’m walking by the Spirit (Gal 5:16) and pursuing the fruit of peace (Gal 5:22), I remember I’m not fundamentally a preacher or a pastor. For that matter, I’m not fundamentally a husband, father, son, or friend. First and foremost, I’m a Christian whose biggest problem is behind him. I’ve been “justified by his grace as a gift.” Jesus has dealt with the wrath of God I deserve. He has drunk the full cup of God’s fury against me by hanging on that tree in my place. Now, I can live in the “nevertheless.”
When I’m tempted to think my sermon isn’t good enough or my ministry isn’t strong enough or my life isn’t what it ought to be, I remember the cross. Calvary is the root of my peace. Then, and only then, can I take a deep breath and keep moving. Then, and only then, can I stop to sing:
Whate’er my God ordains is right:
His loving thought attends me;
No poison can be in the cup
That my Physician sends me.
A WORD FOR PASTORS
Those of us who pastor have a unique responsibility to model a life at peace with God and our brothers and sisters in Christ. This is a privilege. What can you do to both enjoy and exhibit the peace God has won for you through the cross? Four things:
- Be a peacemaker. Is there someone in your congregation you avoid? That’s evidence you have work to do. God has torn down the dividing wall of hostility. Take a lead in fleshing that truth out in the church you serve.
- Preach to yourself before you preach to the congregation. Go over your message in private, wrestling with the truths you’re about to proclaim. Pray something like this, “God, make me in awe of the cross I’m about to declare. Help me to enjoy the peace I’m about to hold out to all who would humble themselves before you.”
- Realize pastors aren’t impervious to anxiety. It’s one thing to know Christ is your peace and another thing to rest in him. When you aren’t, confess it. This is why you need a Savior, too. Indwelling sin will push you away from Christ, not into him.
- Beware the danger of finding “peace” in results. It doesn’t work that way. Such so-called peace is a mere mirage, a temptress in disguise. A larger church, platform, or name will never bring you peace. Only Christ can do that. Seek him.