The best words have no translation

And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. –Philippians 4:7, NRSV

Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life.     –Philippians 4:7, The Message

It’s at times like this I wish that I could read ancient Hebrew and ancient Greek. That I could sit at Paul’s feet, that learned Hebrew scholar operating in a Greek and Latin world, and ask: Rabbi, when you say peace, do you mean shalom?

The Letter to the Philippians, after all, was written in Greek. Given Paul’s background, and the words as construed in English, it seems reasonable to think that he intended shalom.

Which is a wonderfully large word. Particularly God’s shalom.

Am I a poet because I collect words, or do I collect words because I am a poet? Nevertheless, if you haven’t met shalom up close, I encourage you to do so. For English’s “peace” doesn’t come close.

“Peace” is a treaty, is the absence of fighting, is quiet.

Shalom is also the absence of fighting, might or might not be quiet though it is tranquil, is completeness inside and out with nothing missed, is wholeness at the cellular and global level at once. It’s what kumbaya aspires to be. At the creation, in the Garden of Eden, was God’s shalom on earth.

And ever after the Fall we try to heal our wholeness back to that shalom. (By the way, English gets that right, with heal and wholeness coming from the same place.)

Shalom I can nearly manage without knowing my own Hebrew. I can feel how it includes blessing inside it without ever having that synonym in my language.

But next I want to comprehend peace that passes understanding.

See, I want to tread properly, and not find things that don’t exist in the original. In the translation, I find an interesting overtone: peace that makes no sense. Peace beyond sense-making, peace that doesn’t need reasons, peace that is larger than any human construction of shalom…and shalom is a big, big word.

In my lack of Greek and Hebrew, I turned to Eugene Peterson’s Message, because his is a life-labor of reading the source-texts we have and speaking the words into early twenty-first century English. It’s paraphrase, not translation, so using it can be tricky…but Peterson’s intent is similar to mine: Rabbi Paul, is this what you mean?

Peterson makes Paul’s shalom of God crystal clear, all wholeness and tranquility and blessing. But I can’t tell whether unreasonableness still hides in the source, unable to fit in Peterson’s textual flow.

Given what I know of the nature of God, I suspect it does.

God hands out grace continuously, without ever checking for good behavior or effort. God forgives so thoroughly that there is no memory of separation or wrong. Why wouldn’t this God pour out shalom on a world bleeding from the hurts it got in punching itself? Bathe the people in shalom and more shalom even as they get up and hurt again?


Maybe what also passes understanding is how tasting God’s shalom can transform we creatures here on earth. 

In a world that’s losing even the few shreds of certainty it had a few years ago, a reasonable thing is to be afraid. It is appropriate, in uncertainty, to feel anxious, and to worry. But it’s not helpful. Or healthy–that is, leading toward wholeness.

God wants shalom for all creatures. Now, at the beginning of time, and at the end of days. The Christ lived as a human to give us a bridge between our flailing hurtfulness and fear and God’s shalom. It’s our Christmas present, already unwrapped and ready to hold.

Peace. Harmony. Wholeness. Completeness. Prosperity. Well-fare. Tranquility. “Shalom seems not to merely speak of a state of affairs, but describes a process, an activity, a movement towards fullness.” 

Or as author Cornelius Plantinga is quoted as saying, “The webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight is what the Hebrew prophets call shalom.”

So may the shalom of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. You’ll need them both in your movement toward your and the world’s wholeness.

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