The idea of ‘peace’ has so many different possible meanings. Popularly, it has two broad meanings: the absence of war, and a more personal and everyday sense of tranquility, or just the absence of hassle. Biblically, ‘peace’ is the translation of a rich and strong social concept, the idea of ‘shalom’. But is this the same as the idea of ‘peace’ as a fruit of the Spirit? What does it mean that the Spirit produces peace?
I don’t think it means peace of mind! The Spirit often leads us to a disturbing sense of hunger:—as Jesus put it, a ‘hunger after righteousness’. The Spirit provokes us to a sense of need, or discontent. This is a long way from peace of mind.
There are two initial reflections I have to offer here. First, the Spirit of God leads us to work for peace, in the crucial sense of the end of war. I spent a significant part of my young adulthood as part of the ‘peace movement’. We were opposing the Vietnam War, but quickly discovered how that war was itself the outworking of the demands of what was called ‘the military-industrial complex’. Our society and its economic system creates demand which so easily lead to war. The trade imperatives which demand that other nations trade with us, whether they want to or not, are a source of conflict. So too are the exploitative policies of ‘the north’, or the First World. Injustice is the breeding ground of conflict, and (today) terrorism. So to work for peace has to mean working for justice and for the well-being of the whole world community. This indeed is in line with the ancient Hebrew idea of ‘shalom’.
The Spirit of Jesus gives to us the patience and the willingness to suffer for the well-being of others, not just our own interests, which is necessary in working for peace.
Secondly, I was recently struck by a blessing we use in our Wednesday chapel prayers at college. It’s taken from Romans 15. verse 13: ‘May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.’
The idea of ‘joy and peace in believing’ is interesting. If we think of ‘believing’ as an intellectual stance, then it may be hard to think of how we have peace in believing, except perhaps those who think this means having no questions, no disturbing thoughts, as if believing means having a closed mind. ‘God says it; I believe it; that settles it.’ But if believing is (better) understood as ‘faithing’, as a trusting stance, which we take in the face of many questions, often not resolved, then to have peace in believing is a different thing altogether.
As I understand this text, it suggests that the Spirit can bring us, collectively, a peace and joy as we trust in God.Thinking about the story in John’s Gospel, chapter 20, where Jesus concludes ‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe’ (v. 29): here the relationship between the Spirit’s presence and ‘believing’ is crucial. We come to believe as the Spirit helps us to encounter and know Jesus. To believe is to trust Jesus and his revelation about God and about life with God, and it is the Spirit who encourages and enables us to engage in this way of life. The Spirit can bring us to joy and peace in believing.
As I say, this is not a tranquil state of mind. Indeed, it may disturb us far more than calm us. Yet it brings us to a vision of peace and to hope: it is the God of hope who brings us to this peace. The Spirit’s gift of peace has the ‘already, though not yet’ character of the Kingdom of God, in Jesus’ preaching. Peace, in the sense of the fulfilment of our hope, is God’s gift in the future. Yet even now, in anticipation of that gift, the Spirit gives us peace in believing, in trusting. And because we do trust, we can practice peace, and make peace. This is the Spirit’s fruit.
If only. We are nowhere near living this peace, in so many ways. And it is SO tempting to pretend otherwise—to retreat into a ‘personal’ peace, and convince ourselves that this is the Spirit’s peace. Not so. That leaves me humbly confessing my need of the Spirit’s fruit of peace, and the need to endure and to work more, with the Spirit, for peace in our world.