The Fruit of the Spirit: Peace
When is it ok to take a deep breath and have peace? The Holy Spirit produces a peace that enables us to do that in any situation.
Galatians (Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), Tom Schreiner
Galatians (Geneva Commentaries), John Brown
Galatians (Crossway Classic Commentaries), Martin Luther
Galatians For You, Timothy Keller
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When the COVID-19 pandemic first broke out, peace was a rare commodity. We knew so little about it, and people were dying from it! The NBA cancelled their season because of it! When you walk outside, might you walk into a cloud of COVID? Who knew? Would the grocery stores still have enough food? There was a pretty widespread anxiety there are the beginning, but then as time went on, people started to feel at peace again. For some, that was days later. For others, it was when gathering size limits were relaxed, when mask mandates were relaxed, or when the vaccine came out and they got it. Whatever the time, at some point people wondered: “Ok; is this it? Can we take a deep breath (literally) and be at peace now?” Some are still wondering that. Last week we asked if it was ok to have joy. This week we’re wondering: Is it ok to have peace? And again, the list of the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22, which we’re looking at on Sundays, is a help to us, because it shows us what impulses we ought to act on, rather than the impulses of the flesh, which are opposed to the Spirit. And, as it turns out, peace is next on the list. If you are a Christian, you can take a deep breath, and have peace in every circumstance, even in the first days of COVID, even if it ended up being way worse than it was. That’s the kind of peace the Spirit produces, a peace not only with respect to our circumstances, but a peace with God and with other people. So strive for and rest in the peace to which the Holy Spirit directs you. To understand that, we’ll talk about what peace is, we’ll look at why it’s a fruit of the Spirit, and then we’ll look at how to strive for and rest in it.
What is peace?
So what is the peace to which Paul refers in verse 22? Remember the best guide is context, but the immediate context of Galatians doesn’t tell us much about the meaning of the word. Ok, so where do we look next for context? We would look next to other writings of Paul, the author of the letter to the Galatians. When we do, we find three general ways he speaks of peace. First, he speaks of peace with God. So Romans 5:1 says that since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God. Closely related to this concept of peace in Romans 5 is the concept of reconciliation. When two parties are reconciled, they go from being in conflict with one another, to being at peace with one another. Peace, in this sense, is not merely the absence of conflict, but the restoration of the relationship. Imagine a family conflict between two adult siblings. Years of sinning against one another has piled up to the point where now the two refuse to even attend the same family gatherings. They send angry text messages to one another, they trash one another behind their backs every chance they get, they make passive aggressive posts about one another on social media. But, then one day they realize how much this whole conflict is affecting them negatively, and they decide to give it up. They agree to disagree, and they resolve: No more angry texts, no more gossip, no more passive aggressive posts on social media. However, they just stop talking to each other entirely, and they still won’t attend the same family gatherings. There is no active anger, no active insults. In that sense, there is an absence of conflict, but they do not have peace, at least not the way the Bible means it, nor the way Paul means it in Galatians 5:22, nor the way he means it when he describes peace with God.
When the Bible talks about peace with God, it doesn’t simply mean that God is no longer mad at you. It means that God is for you and with you. It means he welcomes you into his presence and rejoices to have you there, as we saw last week. And it means that you are for God, and you are glad to be with him, in his presence. Ok, so that’s peace with God; it’s an objective reality the moment you believe in Jesus. But then there is also the peace of God, which is more subjective. It’s a condition of your soul, rather than the status of your relationship with God. Philippians 4:7 speaks of this when it tells us that the peace of God will guard our hearts and our minds in Christ Jesus. The peace of God is what John Owen describes as “a gracious quietness and composure of mind”. In other words, it has less to do with your relationship to God, and more to do with your relationship to your circumstances. The peace of God is a gracious quietness and composure of mind in every circumstance, even difficult ones that would typically fill us with fear, anxiety, and worry. And it makes sense that this peace of God would come to those who have peace with God.
Why? Because if you have peace with God, he’s for you, and you are no longer fighting against him. And who is it who is ultimately in control of your circumstances? God. One of the great threats to our peace is the persistent temptation to resist the life God has assigned us. This happens in small and big ways. You were planning to go to a friend’s house for dinner, but your kids got sick. That’s sad, but your peace is hindered by spending 15 minutes stressing about it until you reach the conclusion you would have reached 15 minutes ago if you were not resisting the circumstances God ordained: We cannot go to our friend’s house. Of course, there are bigger things in life too: Your marital status, your health, the health of those you love, your income, and so on. These things matter, but when you have peace with God, you can have the peace of God even when these things do not go the way you had hoped.
That’s because when you have peace with God, you have God, and therefore you have the ultimate good. I was talking with a member of the church recently who owns a home he’s trying to sell. As a result, he’s on the phone with a realtor, and described to me how the realtor could call and tell him a price swing of anything within about a $20k range. Can you see how that might cause some anxiety? The next call could be telling you that you will make $20k less than you thought you were going to on it. Nobody would like losing $20k if they didn’t have to, but if you already a billion dollars in the bank, it probably wouldn’t make you quite as anxious, would it? So when you have peace with God, you already have a secure relationship with the one of infinite value. So you don’t need to let the potential loss of other things shake your peace.
Furthermore, when you have peace with God, you learn that not only is he in control of all your circumstances, but you learn that he is exercising that control for your good. He’s for you, not against you, after all, right? So Romans 8:28 tells us that for those who love God, all things work together for good! Though a circumstance may be bad, God is working it for your good! And, finally, not only does God promise to work all things for our good; he promises to be with us through hardships. Remember that peace with God doesn’t just mean he’s for you; it means he’s with you. So he promises in Isaiah 43:1-2 – “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.” Why do we not need to be afraid? Because even through deep waters and fiery trials, God will be with us. Peace with God is the seed out of which the Spirit brings the peace of God.
And, it is the seed out of which the Spirit brings the third kind of peace we find in Paul’s writings: peace with others. It’s this kind of peace that is most prominent in Paul’s writing, and which seems to be the focus here in Galatians. We can sense that from the context. Remember in verse 14 the commandment that he says fulfills the law is to love your neighbor as yourself. He follows that up in verse 15 by saying that if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another. In the list of the works of the flesh in verses 20-21, we find such vices as these: enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, and envy. So also in verse 26, after telling us to keep in step with the Spirit, he says, “Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.” As peace with God is that state in which God is for us and with us, and we are for him and delighted to be with him, so peace with others is that state in which we are for one another, and delighted to be with one another.
And with that, we can now attempt a definition, and begin to talk about the opposite, into which Galatians 5 gives us so many glimpses. For a definition, we could say that peace is a restful and quiet state of mind toward God, people, and our circumstances that results from being reconciled to God. Its opposite is described in Galatians 5 with words like biting and devouring one another, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, and so on. We could summarize these opposites listed in Galatians 5 as sins of anger (fits of anger, biting and devouring one another), comparison (envy, rivalry, jealousy, conceit), and division (dissension and strife). If we had to choose one word, hostility maybe works best. The opposite of peace, then, is hostility toward God, hostility toward others, and hostility toward our circumstances, the latter of which will often feel like anxiety or worry. It’s a state in which God is opposed to us, and we are opposed to him. It’s a state in which we are constantly anxious, because we cannot truly know all things will work together for our good. And it’s a state in which, as our text shows us, we are hostile to others.
The counterfeit, then, is detachment. On a straightforward level, this can look like escapism. So Daniel Tiger’s mother, when Daniel is afraid of a thunderstorm, gives him the sage advice that when he’s afraid, he should think of something that makes him happy. Daniel thinks of his stuffed animal, Tigey. A generally helpful children’s book called All About Feelings which is supposed to help children identify and deal with their feelings gives the following tips to try if you are feeling worried about something: “Tell yourself ‘It’s OK’ until you feel better.” “Imagine you are a cat taking a nap. Close your eyes and relax.” “Watch a program or movie that you love.” If you’re angry with someone, close your eyes, take a deep breath, then BANG on a pan (the book capitalizes BANG). These techniques are kinda cute and they “work” on some level, but they’re counterfeits of biblical peace. They only work if the child really is in a safe condition; Daniel can only get peace in a thunderstorm from stopping and thinking about Tigey if he’s in the safety of his home, where the lighting won’t strike him. But this strategy is powerless in a world with real dangers from which we can’t always be sheltered. Telling yourself “it’s OK” may feel better, but what about the times when it’s not OK? And what if there’s something you actually need to do to make things OK? Telling yourself it’s OK, in that situation, actually hinders peace. Banging a pan doesn’t address what’s causing the anger. None of these techniques deal with the actual cause of anger or worry; they just help you escape it for a time. But after you escape, guess what? The angering or worrying circumstance is usually still there.
On a more sophisticated level, detachment can be seen in the philosophy of stoicism, which suggests that if you simply diminish the importance of your circumstances or relationships in your mind, then when they go wrong, you can still have “peace.” So Ryan Holliday, in his modern day best-selling book The Daily Stoic, in which he gives daily readings from stoic philosophers, entitles his reading for February 21: “Wish not, want not.” In it, he writes, “To want nothing makes one invincible—because nothing lies outside your control.” The idea is that if you desire things you can’t control, you’ll be constantly anxious about getting them. So, simply work on desiring those things less. Similarly, when it comes to relationships with others, Holliday counsels that we shun that which makes us angry. He writes, “If you find that discussing politics at the dinner table leads to fighting, why do you keep bringing it up?…Try saying, ‘I know the reaction I typically have in these situations, and I’m not going to do it this time.’ And then follow it with: ‘I’m also going to remove this stimulus from my life in the future as well.’”
There is, no doubt, some wisdom in these pieces of advice, and I think it’s fair to say there is more wisdom in them than in the escapist approach. Perhaps that’s why Holliday’s book is popular among adults, whereas escapism is more popular in children’s books. Historians have even pointed out similarities between Stoicism and Christianity; they developed around the same time. It’s true that if you love a vacation too much, to give an example Holliday uses, you’ll get anxious when you can’t take it. And there’s some wisdom in steering clear of conversations that are likely to evoke dissension. So Paul tells Titus: “Avoid foolish controversies” (Titus 3:9). But, this approach is still a counterfeit. To have peace we do need to desire things like a vacation less, but how can we do it? Our hearts are love factories, and we cannot wean them off the love of one thing without replacing that love with a greater love. It’s like telling yourself to stop eating fast food without figuring out what to eat. If we are to love things we can’t control less, we need to love something else more. Stoicism gives us nothing greater to love. Stoics typically appeal to the virtuous life as the object of our love, but the virtuous life cannot love you back. You cannot be reconciled to virtues.
And while avoiding the proverbial political debate at the holidays may be wise, if you simply try to attain peace by removing stressful stimuli from your life, you’ll end up removing people from your life. In other words, you won’t be able to be a loving and faithful person. Stoics agree with Paul that all the virtues are one, but here we see the way of cultivating peace they promote prevents the cultivation of the virtues of love and faithfulness. If we should remove stimuli from our lives that hinder our peace, what should a parent do when he finds out his infant regularly is a stressful stimulus in his life? Abandon the child? Then he won’t be loving and faithful. Detachment, then, while seeming to provide peace, provides only a counterfeit of it: It gives us a way to escape our circumstances, but can’t give us peace in circumstances we can’t escape, or help us deal with the circumstances that are inevitably still there after we escape. It tells us to love things we can’t control less, but doesn’t replace our love for those things with a greater love. And it tells us to remove stressful stimuli, but doesn’t give us a way of doing that that still enables us to be loving and faithful people.
Yet these are the responses of which our sinful flesh is capable: We can love things too much, and then get angry when people get in the way of them, jealous when people have more of them, or anxious when we are uncertain we’ll be able to attain them. Or we can try to detach from things, but end up with only a counterfeit peace that prevents us from becoming loving and faithful people. To have real peace, though, a peace with God that enables the peace of God in every circumstance, rather than just an escape from it, and that produces real peace with others, even those who produce stressful stimuli, that’s only possible as a fruit of the Spirit. So let’s look at why that peace is a fruit of the Spirit next.
Why is it a fruit of the Spirit?
As with the other fruits, we can say that peace is a fruit of the Spirit first because it is not a fruit of the flesh. Since the peace of Galatians 5:22 springs from reconciliation with God, the flesh cannot produce it, because the flesh cannot reconcile us to God. The flesh is the cause of our enmity with God! When a kid hits their parent because their parent won’t give them what they want, what’s happening there? They’re hostile toward their parent because their parent restricts their sovereignty. So we, under sin, are hostile toward God because as long as he is God, we aren’t. And, because we have sinned against him, God, in his justice, is against us, just like any advocate of justice opposes the perpetrators of injustice. We are under his curse, as Galatians 3 puts it. Or, to use the words of Ephesians 2, we are “by nature children of wrath.”
Now, on some level the false teachers who infected the churches of Galatia could have granted that. Who can deny that we are not perfect? Even those I know who are most opposed to Christianity would probably grant that they are not perfect. But what the false teachers, and what all human flesh really does in response to that, is it simply tries harder to be and do better. For the false teachers, that meant getting circumcised in accordance with the law of Moses and observing the days, months, seasons, and years it prescribed. For most today it means various forms of self-improvement.
But that’ll never produce peace. It’s simply not the means of reconciliation that God has provided. God knows that we not only are not perfect; he knows that we are slaves of sin. So rather than leave it to us to redeem ourselves from the curse of the law, God redeemed us from the curse of the law by sending his son to bear that curse in our place. Rather than us closing the gap between where we are and what God requires, Jesus closed the gap by being and doing all God requires, and suffering the penalty for all the ways we are not when he died on the cross in our place. So Colossians 1:22 says Christ has reconciled us to God in his body of flesh by his death, making peace by the blood of his cross. God has made a way for you to be reconciled to him: Jesus is the way. He has made peace by the blood of his cross. But if you are still trying to attain peace by your own efforts, do you see what you’re doing? You’re still resisting God. You’re still hostile toward him, even though it may look like you’re obeying him. You’re resisting his appointed means of salvation.
And so, those who try to improve themselves, whether religiously or irreligiously, don’t have the peace of God. As long as you are depending in any measure on your own goodness to give you peace with God, how could you ever know you’re good enough? And how then could you have the peace of God? Even if you say I believe God’s grace is 99% responsible for my salvation, but I know I do have to do my best to contribute 1%, how do you know you’ve hit the 1%? And so, deep down, both religious and irreligious people are radically insecure, though they cover it up with religious activity or numb it with fleshly escapes. And because they are, what do they do to one another? Envy one another. Stir up division, act in rivalry, to bolster their own self-image. The flesh cannot produce peace with God, and so it cannot produce the peace of God, or peace with others.
Why, then, does the Spirit? Remember our two basic reasons: Because the Spirit is God, and each fruit is an attribute of God, and because the Spirit works through the gospel, as we hear it with faith, and so brings out of the gospel what is organically in it. Peace is an attribute of God. God is always at peace. He never panics. In Psalm 2 we read that the nations are taking counsel against God and his anointed, and what does he do? He laughs at them. He’s not worried at all, because He loves God: The Father loving the Son in the unity of the Spirit, and therefore he has all he needs. He’s not attached to lesser things because His love is set on the one object worthy of it. So no future scenarios can scare him. Furthermore, he’s in control of all the future scenarios. Nothing happens except through him and by his will. And he knows, ultimately, that he will work all things together for his glory. No matter how chaotic our world may seem, not a sparrow falls to the ground apart from our heavenly father. However panicked you may feel in a given moment, set your hope on this: God is not panicking. God is always at peace, so when the God the Holy Spirit comes to live in you, he produces peace.
Not only that, but it is the Spirit who brings you into the experience of peace with God. God is at peace within himself, but that cannot produce peace in you until you come to realize that God is for you. And how do we come to realize this? We come to realize it when we hear the gospel, the good news, of what God has done in Christ to reconcile us to himself, and as the Spirit produces faith in Christ through the hearing of that gospel. It is the Spirit who then assures us that we are God’s children, and it is through the Spirit that God is with us even in hardship, because it is through the Spirit that God is in us! So the Spirit enables us to believe the gospel, which tells us the good news of how God has reconciled us to himself by the death of his Son, the Spirit assures us that we are personally reconciled to God, and the Spirit is Himself God in us.
From this, then, he develops in us love for God in response to his love for us. Through the Spirit, then, we have the power to love the things of this world, the things we can’t control, less, because we love God more. Our problem isn’t even really that we love things too much, but that we love them too much in relation to God. The Spirit solves that problem: He gives us a love for God that puts those other loves in their proper place, and so enables us to have peace even when they are threatened, because we know we have unbreakable peace with God. Peace is thus a fruit of the Spirit. It’s one of the things he is working in you if you are in Christ. Let’s close then by considering how to strive for and rest in peace.
How to strive for and rest in peace
Hopefully it’s clear by now that the key to peace in general is peace with God, and that comes not by your striving, but by your resting upon Christ alone. He strived to obtain this peace for you. So the essential step toward peace is not striving, but resting upon Christ and his work alone. You cannot have the peace of God until you have peace with God. Repent of your own striving and rest upon Christ today, and you will have peace with God, a peace that can never be broken.
Peace with God can never be broken, but the peace of God can be disturbed by sin in our lives. If you are truly receiving and resting upon Christ alone for salvation, no sin you commit can cause God to go back to being against you. If you are in Christ, then even when you sin, God is for you, fighting with you, against your sin. Nonetheless, because sin is still an offense to him, sin will hinder your experience of peace with God. Ordinarily you will not sense his fatherly pleasure while walking in sin. The way the peace of the Spirit prompts us to strive for peace in such a situation is to confess your sin, believe the gospel once again, that Christ died for that sin, and resolve, by the power of the Spirit, to turn from that sin. Sometimes, the Spirit restores the peace of God to you right away. Other times, it may take longer for that sense of peace to return. It’s his work, not something you can manufacture, so wait for him to bring it as you repent and believe the gospel.
That’s peace with God; our peace with respect to our circumstances is obviously threatened by anxiety. Those who have the Spirit still get anxious in this life, because though we love God more than anything else, we do still love other things that can be threatened. Sometimes we love those other things too much, and the peace of the Spirits prompts us in those situations to repent, as we just talked about. But sometimes we love other things properly, and there is a proper anxiety that comes from that. So Paul can talk about the anxiety he feels for all the churches (2 Cor 11:28), because he loves them. But what the peace the Spirit works in you prompts you to do with those anxieties is to pray them. You let your requests be made known to God. You ask for God to keep that church you love faithful, to guard them from the evil one, to grow them in love and holiness, and so on, the very things we see in Paul’s prayers recorded for us in scripture. On a simple level, when the health of someone you love makes you anxious, you pray for God to heal them, and for God to use it for their spiritual good. And Philippians 4 directs us to do that with thanksgiving. Alongside the requests, you also thank God for giving you peace with him, you thank him that he’s in control, you thank him that he’ll work it for good in the end. So you see, unlike detachment, you face the things making you anxious head on, but you give them to God in prayer.
And that kind of peace enables you to keep loving, to keep attaching, to be faithful, even to people who produce stressful stimuli in your life. How then can we strive for peace with others, finally? Let’s remember the three categories of opposites of peace with others that we saw in this passage: sins of anger, sins of comparison, and sins of division. When you are tempted toward a fit of anger, instead of just avoiding the situation, the Spirit inclines you to consider what your anger reveals about what you are loving more than God, and to repent to restore your peace with God. Once you stop fighting against him, you can pursue peace with the person with whom you were tempted to be angry. When it comes to sins of comparison, since we have peace with God, we no longer have to reassure ourselves that we’re ok by feeling better than others. Rather, the Spirit produces in us unity with all who are also in Christ Jesus. We begin to see each other as one, rather than as rivals. So the peace which comes as a fruit of the Spirit inclines us to rejoice with those who rejoice and grieve with those who grieve, rather than opposing their success as our competitors. And since the Spirit assures us that God has welcomed us, he inclines us to welcome one another in the same way God has welcomed us, as opposed to further dissensions. So in the case of the Galatians, he inclines us to not require circumcision and the observance of the Jewish law of others in order to be one with them, because he helps us see that’s not how God has welcomed us. God has welcomed us by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, and so that becomes the standard by which we welcome one another as well, enabling unity even amid genuine differences. And even toward those who are not united with us by faith alone in Christ alone, we pursue them with peace and with the gospel of peace, holding the door of salvation wide open to them and calling them to come in.
There is work to be done here to strive for peace with all, but Jesus has already done the most important work. He has reconciled us to God, and therefore, we have peace with him, and therefore, His Spirit is now at work in us, producing peace. When you feel the Spirit compelling you to examine yourself before getting angry with someone else, do it. When you feel the Spirit prompting you to confess sin and repent, act on it. When you feel the Spirit compelling you to rest in the sovereignty of God, don’t resist it by continuing to dwell on how you wish your situation was different. Rest in it. When you feel the Spirit compelling you to pray amid anxiety, don’t resist it by escaping to a tv show instead. That’s the Spirit working peace in you! When the Spirit reminds you of God’s great promises, don’t shut them out as “cliché” or tell yourself “that won’t work”! When the Spirit compels you to rejoice with those who rejoice, do it, instead of comparing yourself to them. When the Spirit compels you to interpret someone’s actions favorably instead of unfavorably, don’t hold on to enmity. When the Spirit compels you to welcome one another as God has welcomed you, don’t hold on to dissension. Strive for peace with all, and as the Spirit brings it, rest in it. Enjoy it.