15. Peace Like a River
The people of God in Isaiah’s day had become prosperous, proud, self-sufficient, and self-indulging. They professed to worship God, but they did it “neither truthfully nor rightfully.”99 Their lives were steeped in sin and their hearts were obstinate and rebellious.
Isaiah faithfully called them to repentance and warned them of their coming captivity in Babylon. Listen to him plead: “Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel: I am the Lord your God, who teaches you for your profit, who leads you in the way you should go. Oh, that you had listened to my commandments; then your peace would be like a river and your righteousness like the waves of the sea.”100
In the prophet’s 2,700 year-old message to Israel there is a great truth concerning the will of God for believers today. The lesson is simply that God wants to lead us, he makes his way known to us, and when we follow his direction we enjoy an inner quietness and assurance that has all the abundance, freshness, and persistence of a deep-flowing river.
In other words, the crowning confirmation that we are walking in the will of God is peace. We can never know true peace when we go our own way. As the prophet pointed out, “There is no peace, says the Lord, for the wicked.”101 But when we go God’s way, there is a beautiful calm within.
The Apostle Paul taught much the same truth to the Colossian Christians hundreds of years later. He had been telling them how they ought to live, naming things they should put out of their lives and things they should incorporate into their lives. But there would be some occasions when they might not know what God wanted them to do. How were they to decide those matters? “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts,” he says.102 The word rule actually means “to act as an umpire, to arbitrate, to decide.” Here Paul chose a technical term from the sports arena to help us determine the will of God. He said that an umpire called peace would make the final decision.
Can you imagine a world series baseball game without an umpire? Fifty thousand fans are in the stands, the players are on the field, and the first pitch streaks across the plate. The catcher says it’s a strike. The pitcher and fielders agree. The batter says it’s a ball. Everybody in the dugout takes the batter’s side. The fans are divided and total pandemonium breaks loose. There is no way the game can go on with that kind of confusion. But when the umpire steps behind the plate and calls, “Strike!” the uncertainty is dispelled and the tumult is averted. Not everybody will like his call, and there may be a little arguing about it, but not for long, because the players want to stay in the game until its end.
Just so, God has provided an umpire to end the uncertainty, settle the disputes, and avoid the confusion in our lives. When we are pursuing the path of his choosing, an inner tranquility and serenity will tell us so. A quiet confidence and contentment will come over us. We will feel good about the direction we are going. Our minds will be at ease. As Isaiah put it, there will be peace like a river.
But if, on the other hand, disturbing and disquieting thoughts begin to oppress us, it may be God’s signal to go back and rethink our decision, back to the Word, and back to our knees in prayer. We may even have to go back to the examination room of the heart and check out the sincerity of our yieldedness.
Suppose, for instance, you are considering marriage, but there has been a great deal of bickering between the two of you lately. The man you plan to marry isn’t treating you very tenderly and lovingly. Or the woman to whom you are engaged is constantly nagging you about silly little things. You’re beginning to feel unsettled and restless about moving ahead with the wedding. God may simply want both of you to get some counsel, change some of your personality traits, and grow in his grace a little more before you marry. But those uneasy feelings could mean you have been going your own direction rather than God’s, and to ignore them could bring years of unhappiness.
It is painful and embarrassing to break an engagement. Yet that pain is small in comparison with a life of misery with a person whom God never wanted you to marry in the first place. Most people have a few second thoughts before the ceremony. That’s normal. But a deep, agitating uncertainty must not be overlooked. God may be trying to say something.
God used the umpire of peace to lead a pastor friend of mine to a new church. He had preached in that church while in that city on other business. Although he had no thought of changing pastorates nor any knowledge of what the people were up to, they voted overwhelmingly to call him to be their pastor. He and his wife prayed diligently over the decision and followed every principle of divine guidance they had learned, but still they were not sure what God wanted them to do. They were being used of the Lord greatly where they were, and had no desire to move. One morning he woke up and said to his wife, “God wouldn’t make us do something we really don’t want to do, would he?” She agreed that he wouldn’t, and so that morning they decided together to remain in the pastorate they were then serving.
He went to his office, wrote a letter declining the offer, left the letter on his desk, and went to teach a class for which he was responsible in their Christian day school. But his mind was in a turmoil. He struggled for thoughts as he paced from one side of the classroom to another, but he could not teach. “Lord,” he prayed silently, “I thought I was supposed to have peace when I came into an understanding of your will. Where is the peace?”
Finally, in utter distress, he dismissed his class (much to the student’s glee), returned to his office, tore up the letter, and wrote a new one—a letter of resignation from his church. “Suddenly the sweetest awareness of Christ’s peace swept over me,” he said as he related the story to me. And God soon gave both him and his wife great joy as they anticipated their new ministry. The umpire of God’s peace had made the final decision.
Can We Trust Our Feelings?
When I shared these thoughts with a group of college students, one young man protested, “Isn’t that being led by our feelings? How can we be sure those feelings are from God?” That is a valid question and it deserves to be answered.
If the feeling of peace were our only source of guidance, finding God’s will would be hopelessly subjective. But we are assuming that prior matters have already been attended to. First of all, we are properly prepared—we know the Guide; we have yielded our wills to him; and our lives are being transformed by his grace. Second, we are living in the Word, applying its eternal principles to every issue we face. Some people say they have peace when they are disobeying God’s Word. But God never gives his peace about something contrary to his Word. A sense of peace must always be tested by the Word.
Third, we are cultivating a deepening relationship with the Lord through prayer, claiming direction from him. Fourth, with sanctified common sense we are prayerfully evaluating our circumstances, our responsibilities, our gifts and abilities, and the advice of others. If we have been faithful in these ways, we can be certain that it is God’s peace which has settled in our souls rather than a false sense of well-being. He promised us that!103
But is it not possible for something or someone other than God to disturb the peace he wants us to have, and so divert us from his plan for our lives? Yes. Even on occasions when I knew God’s will, I have felt uneasy because I thought I might do a poor job and disgrace myself. My pride was destroying my peace. At other times, the prospect of great sacrifice, the anticipation of hard work, the fear of physical danger—any one of these might disturb us, and we may not even realize what is causing the absence of peace.
How can we count on peace to be a reliable umpire in cases like these? As we have seen before, the pathway is not always smooth in the center of God’s will, and the thing that is threatening our peace may very well be one or more of those problems we are facing. So let’s discuss further the matter of problems as they relate to God’s will.
How can we forget the afternoon Jesus made his disciples get into a boat to cross the Sea of Galilee while he went up into a mountain to pray?104 “When evening came, he was there alone, but the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it.”105 Those disciples were out on that water by divine constraint. They were in the will of God, yet their lives were in danger. Contrary winds and stormy seas evidently do not prove that we are out of God’s will. They may prod us to examine the reasons for the direction we are going, but not necessarily to alter it.
We can expect trials, hardships, sacrifices, and difficulties in the will of God. Don’t shrink from them. They are part of his plan to bring us to maturity. In fact, when we receive them in the right spirit, they actually increase our desire to do God’s will. Peter said, “He who has suffered in his body is done with sin. As a result, he does not live the rest of his earthly life for evil human desires, but rather for the will of God.”106 The Psalmist observed, “Many are the afflictions of the righteous.”107
Biblical illustrations abound. For example, God sent Joseph to Egypt to languish in prison so that in due time he could preserve the nation Israel. Later, God led the children of Israel out of Egypt right into an awful wilderness so that he could take them home to Canaan. He sent Paul to Philippi where he was beaten and clamped in stocks, then later sent him to Jerusalem, warning him that bonds and afflictions awaited him there. And he sent his Son to the cross to suffer all the agony which our sin deserved.
We too will face hardships as we follow God’s leading. One day as Jesus walked along the road, a man ran up to him and said, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”108 He gave us fair warning. To be his faithful disciples we must be willing to surrender the claim to everything we have.109 And we might as well count the cost before we volunteer to do his will.110
But suppose we have counted the cost, given him all, sought his guidance, determined his will, and now we are joyfully walking in it, but then problems come and disrupt our peace. How do we handle that? We must go back to Solomon’s first principle of divine guidance: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart.”111 If God’s leading was clear when the sun was shining, don’t doubt him when the storm clouds gather. Believe that the problems themselves are part of his plan. Keep your eyes on the Guide rather than on the obstacles, and move ahead by faith. Then trust will remove the uneasiness and restore the peace.
No amount of trust can reestablish peace in the heart of the Spirit-filled Christian if he accidentally steps off the path of God’s choosing. That unrest is God’s way of showing him he has taken a wrong turn. It is also part of God’s way of calling him back to the right road. But when we are walking in the center of God’s will, with a firm trust in his sovereign and loving care, peace will reign in our hearts though the whole world crumble around us. Then to press on with confidence and perseverance in spite of suffering will bring great reward. “So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised.”112
Another problem that frequently disturbs the peace of believers who are seeking guidance from God is a delay in getting answers. They want to do God’s will; they have prepared their hearts, searched the Word, and sought the Lord, but still there is nothing. It’s like trying to make an emergency telephone call, only to hear the phone ring and ring at the other end with no answer. We get nervous and fidgety when that happens. And we often get just as edgy when God doesn’t answer our request for unmistakable leading. It happens often to college seniors who approach the end of the school year and still do not know what they will be doing after graduation. Instead of resting quietly in God’s promise of guidance and intelligently investigating the opportunities that may be open to them, they panic and start wildly grasping at anything.
Most of us don’t like to wait. We want answers now. We want things to work out for us right away. If it’s any comfort to you, the Psalmist didn’t like to wait either. “Lord, why are you standing aloof and far away? Why do you hide when I need you the most?”113 “I plead with you to help me, Lord, for you are my Rock of safety. If you refuse to answer me, I might as well give up and die.”114 Job had trouble waiting too. “Oh, that I knew where to find God—that I could go to his throne and talk with him there.” “But I search in vain. I seek him here, I seek him there, and cannot find him.”115
Our greatest mistakes in life are usually made because of our unwillingness to wait for God’s timing. That’s what happened to the nation Israel at Kadesh-Barnea. When God informed them that they would not be permitted to enter the promised land because of their unbelief, some of them got upset at the possibility of going back into the wilderness. The delay was more than they could handle. They thought that because they had admitted their sin they should be allowed to go right in, despite God’s warning. But they lost their lives in the attempt.116
King Saul’s refusal to wait also set him on a course that eventually destroyed him. God wanted him to bide his time until Samuel arrived to sacrifice a burnt offering in preparation for battle with the Philistines. But Saul couldn’t wait. He intruded into the office of the priest, offered the sacrifice himself, and lost his kingdom as a result.117
We do it too. We make rash and foolish choices which we regret for years to come because we will not wait patiently for God to show us his will. Perhaps no major decision is more commonly made in haste than the decision to marry. Some fellows and girls seem to think that they may never have another chance if they let this one get away. So they move ahead into an unwise relationship that brings heartache and grief for a lifetime. Other people quit jobs for flimsy reasons, spend money frivolously and impetuously, sell a house and move to another city without any clear leading, or file for divorce without ever thinking through the consequences or seeing what God has to say about it in his Word. The Scripture says, “He who makes haste with his feet misses his way.”118 When we get into a big hurry, we are bound to make mistakes.
Why does God delay in giving us directions when we desire them so much? Isaiah makes one suggestion. “And therefore will the Lord wait, that he may be gracious unto you, and therefore will he be exalted, that he may have mercy upon you; for the Lord is a God of judgment; blessed are all they that wait for him.”119 The longer he waits and the more desperate our situation becomes, the more gracious and powerful is his deliverance and the more gloriously is he exalted. He waits so that he can demonstrate his mercy more dramatically and thereby magnify himself. Long delays are often followed by spectacular answers.
Periods of waiting can also be times of great spiritual growth, times when our faith is stretched and strengthened, when we get to know God more intimately. Baxter suggests that through the delay God may be trying to teach us something which is better even than the answer we are looking for.120 His delays always have a purpose. Although we may not know what the purpose is, he asks us to trust him and wait.
Our impatience is usually due to unbelief, and we go back again to Isaiah’s day to see it graphically illustrated. Judah was being threatened by the mighty Assyrians. The people were calling for some sort of treaty to placate them, or for an alliance with Egypt for protection against them. “Let’s not just sit here and be destroyed; let’s do something,” was their attitude. Here was Isaiah’s word from God: “Behold, I lay in Zion a foundation Stone, a tested Stone, a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation; he who believes will not be hurried.”121
It was a prophecy of the coming Messiah, but it was also a reminder to those people that the God they worshiped in Zion (Jerusalem) was their sure foundation. If they would believe him, if they would put their trust in him, they would not need to rush out in fear and frustration and make some foolish treaty or alliance. Trust would be their only defense against a hasty decision. In our day, too, the only way we shall be able to wait patiently and peacefully for God to guide us is to trust him, to believe that his answer will come when we need it.
We must not set time limits on God. He does not always work on our time schedule. We cannot hurry him. People may be yelling at us to do something decisive. Satan may be hurrying us to do something stupid that will ruin our lives. The flesh wants to take over immediately and do something brilliant and courageous that will prove its ability to handle any situation. But God is saying, “Just trust me, and wait.”
David put it this way: “Wait on the Lord; be of good courage, and he shall strengthen thine heart. Wait, I say, on the Lord.”122 And it looks as though he took his own advice; for he was able to testify: “I waited patiently for God to help me; then he listened and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the pit of despair, out from the bog and the mire, and set my feet on a hard, firm path and steadied me as I walked along. He has given me a new song to sing, of praises to our God. Now many will hear of the glorious things he did for me, and stand in awe before the Lord, and put their trust in him.”123
Has some decision been causing you to get impatient? Commit it to God. Tell him that you will trust him to guide you in his time. Ask him to help you wait patiently. And enjoy his perfect peace.
Related Topics: Basics for Christians