Defining the Kingdom
Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Do not let your heart be troubled, nor let it be fearful. (John 14:27)
We usually imagine that we could enjoy peace if only the problems around us would just go away or be resolved. We believe that if only wars could just be stopped, if fighting would die away or arguments could be silenced, then we could have peace.
This kind of thinking remains stuck in the realm of external living. Satan's system of life is externalism. With our heart dominated by the fallen operating system of selfishness, self-protection at the expense of others, we tend to see only a narrow band of options in most situations. When threatened we assume we have two options – fight back or run away. Even withdrawing within ourselves is a form of running away. But both of these options are in the external realm and are both rooted in selfishness, our natural state as fallen humans. What Jesus came to reveal and to offer to each one of us reaches to a far deeper level within our souls.
Too often we feel frustrated with God because it seems that what He wants to do in our life doesn't really address our problems the way we believe needs to happen. We think we know what is needed for fixing our problems, so when someone asserts that 'Jesus is the answer' to everything, we feel like rolling our eyes in disgust and disbelief at such a simplistic idea. We feel we know what needs to happen in order to restore peace in our life and simply saying that Jesus is fixing everything doesn't seem all that relevant when it appears He is not really doing anything practical or presently to resolve our current dilemmas.
Our problem however is that it is we who do not realize the actual problem we have and what is needed to bring us into peace and joy. Paul pointed out in Romans what the very essence of God's kingdom is definitively. The kingdom of God is...righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. (Romans 14:17) That all sounds good and nice but in the meantime we tend to assume that first we need to have our immediate problems solved and then we can have these things in the absence of conflict or sadness.
But as is usually the case, the kingdom of God and its principles are pretty much opposite and upside-down from how we normally think. Rather than fixing our problems the way we assume they need to be fixed or forcing those in conflict to stop fighting, God is working in and through all circumstances to accomplish something far more effective but hidden deep inside of us to bring about the resolutions that need to happen. But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. (Matthew 6:33)
Do you notice the reversal in logic here? God's kingdom, the very thing Jesus instructs us to seek first, to give our highest priority to before getting our problems fixed or our conflicts stopped – God's kingdom is righteousness, peace and joy. And all of these come with the Holy Spirit.
Notice too that part of what we are to pay attention to before all else and to make our first priority is HIS righteousness. We have long tended to transfer that in our thinking to mean a righteousness evident in our own lives. But I now realize that until I begin to see just how right God is, how good and gracious and compassionate and consistent and faithful He is, there will be no real righteousness in my own life. Seeking to arrive at a righteous life while failing to appreciate the real truth about just how righteous God is keeps me deceived and trapped in futile thinking. This is what religion has given us and what keeps us from living in the peace and joy that so marked the lives of the early believers and that turned the world upside-down for a time.
Our version of what we think God should do in our lives is usually backwards to what Jesus mentions here in Matthew. We assume that of God would provide all the things we need in life, then we would be able to live a righteous life and have more faith in Him. We feel like if only God would answer our prayers and supply our needs or improve our circumstances, then our fledgling faith would be strengthened and we would become more righteous.
Part of our confusion comes from a misunderstanding of the meaning of the term righteous and righteousness. Concepts about this have become so religified through the centuries that it would almost be better to scrap these words in favor of something with far less ambiguity. I have struggled all my life to even begin to grasp the actual meaning of this vague concept that is used so much in religion and yet seems so elusive to understand. Generally in my experience righteousness and perfectionism have been tied closely to each other which was never a good thing, for in doing so righteousness always gets sucked into the idea of self-righteousness, good performance and all sorts of other subtle notions involving attempts to get aligned properly to God or the law.
Some years ago God caught my attention as I was reading this verse in Matthew and I realized that my biggest problem was not in my own lack of proper behavior or purity of doctrine; rather my woeful lack of awareness and appreciation of the truth about just how gracious God really is was my problem. In recent years it seems God is finally beginning to crack open my hardened heart and dim senses that have for so long been stuck in false assumptions learned in religion, society and my environment. What I began to dimly sense was that the real truth about God's goodness was so beyond anything I had ever dared to allow myself to imagine that it would take a considerable amount of time for me to become convinced. But that is exactly what He seems intent on doing with me.
I am now starting to see why Jesus instructs me to seek first His kingdom and His righteousness – because both of those things (they are not really separate anyway) are foundational to everything else He wants to do in my life. Paul defines this kingdom as living in peace and joy in the Holy Spirit while Jesus told a pious religious leader that it was impossible for him to even see this kingdom unless he was willing to be born all over again. Never mind trying to parse out the theological implications or interpretations of all the passages explaining God's program – one can't even begin to guess what God's system is really about unless they are first enlightened. What is needed most is to have the heart injected with the healing salve of a new awareness of the kind of God who is the King of this kingdom.
God knows that before any real transformation can ever happen in our lives, we must first experience the peace and joy that only comes from an intimate experience of the heart connecting with the heart of our Creator. Blocking fights or simply handing us whatever we ask for in our prayers to satisfy our selfish desires would only add to our confusion and reinforce our false assumptions about God, reality and the underlying issue of sin. Sin is not so much in the externals as we have too long assumed. Sin is our fear and distrust of God rooted in all the misapprehensions and mistaken notions about Him we have inherited from our genes and from the world around us.
Not until our internal concepts of what God is really like are radically altered and aligned with what Jesus came to reveal to us can we enter into a relationship with Him that will bring true healing and peace into our hearts and lives. God's way is to first infuse peace deep inside of us, peace that defies circumstances and is far beyond explanation or understanding. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:7)
Some time ago I learned that the true definition of joy is that feeling you have when you are aware that someone who loves you sticks close to you no matter how you are feeling or what you are doing. They are passionate to be close to you, to experience life with you and you know they care deeply about you. They are willing to celebrate with you, suffer with you, be humiliated with you, even be identified with you when everyone else views you with shame. This experience of the nervous system is the phenomenon we call joy.
When I first heard about this I decided to go examine passages of Scripture that speak of joy to see if they lined up with what I had heard. To my amazement nearly every passage in the New Testament confirmed this definition closely. No wonder Jesus emphasized that He would always be with us and would never forsake us. This is because Jesus is the original and ultimate source of genuine joy.
So why don't we feel more joy in our lives? If believing that Jesus is with us all the time is supposed to produce joy, why does this so often produce fear, guilt or shame rather than joy inside of us?
I would suggest that the reason we feel anything other than joy when we think about this promise of Jesus to always be near and present in our lives is because of our faulty opinions about what God is like. Our hearts have been deeply infected with the lying insinuations of the enemy. And as long as there is any doubt about the goodness of God in our hearts there will be triggers that cause us to feel afraid whenever we think of God being very close to us. This gets to the very core of the sin problem. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love. (1 John 4:18)
The reason Lucifer and his rebellious followers had to leave the presence of God and heaven was not because God got upset and threw them out in anger. To think that way is to agree with the assertions of the very one who left God and slandered His reputation in the first place. Our thinking and assumptions are so saturated with false beliefs about God's heart that it takes the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit to alter our thinking. This is what is needed to restore us to the joy of salvation and to bring into us the peace that is so vital before we can enjoy living in the kingdom that Jesus intends to establish.
I have become convinced that my highest priority above anything else in life is to first cooperate with God's efforts to change my thinking and my feelings about Him, about how He does things and especially about how He feels about me. Over the years as I have tried to do this I have noticed that my deeply damaged, suppressed heart has begun to wake up little by little and warm with spontaneous affection for this God who is so different than the one I thought I knew growing up. In recent years I have begun to experience a deeper level of this strange peace inside of me, and my ability to enter into true joy is beginning to emerge. Yet the more I am know this the more I realize how little I yet experience these things compared to what God longs for me to experience. It is then that I simply have to trust that He is the only one who can bring to completion what He has been working to do in me for so long and my part is to do all I can to simply embrace what He is showing me day by day about the real truth of His heart.
For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. The one who thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and has human approval. Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. (Romans 14:17-19 NRSV)