“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14:27).
Hearts, like oceans, are turbulent and deep, but who can still them? I certainly cannot still my own, and I know because I have tried. Oh, how I have tried. This is not a confession of helplessness, as if there is nothing I can do to better my anxious heart, that's not true. I can work with a therapist, take medication, go for a run, pray, listen to music, write, talk to a friend, think more positively, and so on. I can do all or some of these things, and my heart will respond. Anxiety is, after all, a physical symptom, as is the physiological response that creates and sustains it. So no, I am not helpless to anxiety’s imprecations.
But there is a difference between a heart that is quieted and a heart at peace. A soldier on the battlefield may have a temporal peace when a ceasefire is called, but it does not follow the anticipation that battle will eventually commence does not cause him to be anxious. He is, so to speak, "in peace" but not quieted. The outer, objective world of his experience offers him, at this moment, the respite of peace. But his heart of white-capped waves and sour foam does not allow him to partake of the invitation. He is somehow disconnected from the outside world, even though he is hyper-aware of it because his heart's inner world is a different place altogether. Or, at least, that is what he experiences.
There is a difference between a heart that is quieted and a heart at peace.
Sometimes, I think the same is true for Christians who struggle with this verse. It is, without doubt, an invitation to a promised and objective reality—Jesus, the Prince of Peace, offering himself to us as our peace, a loving embrace for our troubled hearts. The verse has two parts, an offering, and an invitation. The offering is the peace Jesus offers to leave us; a peace he specifies is not like the more familiar notions of peace we hear about in the world. And the invitation is to "let" our hearts enter into his peace. How do we do that?
For many Christians, this is the most frustrating part because it puts the onus of the offering on our response. That is, if I do X then Jesus will do Y. So, anxious people feel a kind of hopeless or condemning word here. I have to do the “letting” so that Jesus can do the “peacing," and if I can get out of my own way, then I can experience a world free of anxiety. But what if I can't? Then, instead of offering peace, these verses offer another pie-in-the-sky promise with the danger of self-flagellation. We become hopeless with the confounding reality that we can't seem to do even this little bit to reap such a desired reward.
But for many of us, there is something inside us theologically—we might call it our theological conscience or theological gut—that tells us that can’t be right. Somehow, we recognize that Jesus isn’t offering peace for a price we can’t pay. For the anxious, who have spilled their tears in prayer and avoided far too many opportunities, it also feels better to blame ourselves than God. So, better to say, "This verse is true, but I keep messing it up" than to think, "Maybe this verse isn't true." But if we're honest, we've all wondered why this peace that sounds so wonderful is also so elusive.
I think the key to understanding this dilemma comes, in part, from John 16:1, where Jesus summarizes his entire speech, "I have said all these things to you to keep you from falling away." Jesus then precedes in rather graphic detail to talk about how the church will experience persecution and martyrdom. Explicitly then, the peace that Jesus is offering cannot be a peace where we have no anxiety since Jesus is speaking into the reality that we will have anxiety but that it will not overpower us to the point of apostasy. The peace of Jesus is not always a quiet rest from anxiety but a confident strength that God will win the day despite our anxiety and failings. And we are part of that victory, and all that accompanies it.
If we're honest, we've all wondered why this peace that sounds so wonderful is also so elusive.
But perhaps now you are feeling a bit disappointed. Have we just cheapened the peace of Jesus? What you want is your anxiety to go away, and now it sounds like Jesus sold you on a Rolls Royce but what you received was something much more affordable (and therefore unexceptional). These feelings come out of our desperation as we contend with the turbulent waters of our hearts that cry out for stillness. And Jesus can still them just as he does many storms. But as long as we live in a sinful world, a broken world, anxiety, like sickness, is something that will remain.
But! Jesus does offer a unique peace. The peace he offers is first and foremost the peace of the Gospel, which is a kind of confidence or assurance that our lives are caught up in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ peace ensures that our sins are forgiven and that we are adopted into his family so that we are never left as orphans struggling with our problems all alone. Prior to our key verse, Jesus told the disciples he is preparing a place for them at his home. This Gospel peace is meant to speak into our hearts where the weltering winds of anxiety shake and moan. This peace is the strength of endurance and prosperity, like when Jesus told the story of two houses built on the sand and rock. The winds beat and pounded the house, but only the one on the Rock stood. I'm sure it wasn't tranquil in that house when the storm was raging. Peace can have stretches of quiet, but it can also be a time of agitation. That doesn't mean it's not a time of peace. Again, we can recall the soldier who cannot enjoy the quiet of ceasefire because of his anticipation.
The Gospel is not a benzodiazepine; it is a word of promise. As such, the nature of the Gospel is not to make us powerful but to embrace our weakness as a reality that requires us to seek shelter in the One who is all-powerful and in love with us. The peace of Jesus gives us Jesus who, despite his fears, was brave enough to endure the cross for all the rest of us who would not have been brave enough (I’m looking at you St. Peter around that campfire before that rooster crowed).
The peace that Jesus offers us is, like the soldier, peace within a war. And everyone is fighting a battle of some kind: anxiety, addiction, poverty, sickness, disability, loneliness, rejection, etc. The invitation to "let" our hearts not be troubled is not an invitation to do but an invitation to not do. It is a calling, a summons, to hear, to really attend to what Christ is doing. That's all it is. To hear what Jesus is saying. Not only that, multiple times in the passage, Jesus says the Holy Spirit will work with our hearing to produce remembrance and faith in these words. All this leaves us with one last question: how does the peace of Jesus, the Gospel, work to still our anxiety because we need Jesus to do that.
This Gospel peace is meant to speak into our hearts where the weltering winds of anxiety shake and moan.
And the answer is that it transforms our perspective by giving us the eyes of faith so that we don’t live just with the eyes of experience. Slowly, gently—more like erosion than like an explosion, the remembered Word of God transforms us into the image of his son. The more we hear that word and struggle and wrestle with it, the more we abide in it and pray it, the more it works upon us to bear fruit. To celebrate the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is to celebrate the death of hopelessness. If death can be outmatched, then nothing is fated to failure. No one is fated to a life of misery. Everyone can receive the peace of God and, in time as the Lord leads, reach new places of clarity and freedom. That peace is always working, but it can be hard to see in the everyday struggles of life, and we will never be totally free of troubles in this life. The peace of Jesus is not an escape from life's troubles (that comes in our own resurrection) but a partnership where we, once trying to make it through a day on our own unreliable strength, become enjoined to the One who never fails and will never leave us.
When our anxiety gets the better of us, it is easy to dismiss Jesus' words as empty. But Jesus' words are not barren; they are filled with himself. Anxiety is a habit of avoidance coupled with negative thinking. Jesus offers to the anxious soul the one thing it ironically wants: certainty of the good. The more that vision of certainty is held before our hearts, the more they can participate, turbulent or not, in the promised and lasting peace of Christ. He is the One who faced his fears for our salvation so that we never have to face ours with the fear we would remain lost.