Peace that passes all understanding—I guess

jail,music-9e1f3085eb1a4d8a620a24e83045d085_hPhilippians 4 describes an interesting flow of thought. Dwayne brought this up and I thought it worth sharing. Consider the well-known vv. 11-13:

“I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”

Paul possessed a transcendent contentment whatever the circumstances. Now, nobody suspects Paul of being utterly indifferent to his surroundings, as if he wouldn’t prefer a Roman 5-Star Resort on the Anatolian coast (been there several times—beeeautiful) over being ship-wrecked or beaten in a prison cell. And yet—and yet—in all these fluctuating circumstances Paul learned to possess himself in a contentment that was not derived from his preferences regarding these circumstances. Where’d this come from? Well, back up to vv. 6-7:

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

“God’s peace transcends all understanding.” We don’t really know what to do with that, do we? He can’t really mean “transcend” as in t-r-a-n-s-c-e-n-d, right? I mean, that would mean we can’t say propositionally what that divine reality is and that in turn would hurl us headlong into an epistemological abyss of unrestrained agnosticism. Perhaps Paul just means something more like God’s not being functionally impaired however deeply the world’s drama in fact depreciates or affects his felt sense of peace/contentment, right? But there the words are staring at you: “God’s peace transcends all understanding.” (He had to include the universal qualifier “all” as well.) Repeat the words slowly, aloud and alone, and with your eyes closed. Julia de Beausobre, Richard Wurmbrand, Blandina (perhaps the most notable of the martyrs of Lyon), and innumerable others, chose, like Paul, to define themselves by the truth of such peace.

The “peace” of v. 7 is repeated in v. 9: “Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.” Then we have the well-known verses in which Paul states he has learned “to be content” (“self-sufficed”), and this contentment abides whether he is abased or abounds, whether he’s full or hungry, whether he’s doing well or suffering need. Interesting.

Divine peace that “transcends all understanding” (which should be enough to settle the debate right there) and which “guards our hearts and minds” in all circumstances, teaching us to possess ourselves in a contentment/peace that in turn transcends our circumstances? Come on somebody.

(Picture here.)

3 comments on “Peace that passes all understanding—I guess

  1. tgbelt says:

    …to say nothing of verses like Rom 14.17: “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”


  2. formerlyjeff says:

    Tom, when you say …

    “Divine peace that “transcends all understanding” (which should be enough to settle the debate right there) …”

    … I’m guessing that you’re referring to the debate between a kind of divine passibilist like, say, Greg or T.C. and someone holding to something very far to the other extreme, like yourself or an EO. If so, then my question is this: Are you assuming that entailed in the definition of “peace” is the notion of an absence of suffering or the notion of a felt experience of exactly one intensity and quality? For if so, that debate does indeed seem to be settled by that definition of “peace,” if indeed those scriptures are true as per their authorial-intent interpretation.

    But then we’d need to account for how the debate-settling definition of “peace” is consistent with the scriptural language about fruit of the Spirit (again, assuming the truth of those scriptural words). In other words, does spiritual fruit grow? If so, what, given the debate-settling definition of “peace,” is it about that “peace” that can grow? If that fruit can’t grow, then doesn’t everyone with the Spirit simply have that “peace” by virtue of having the Spirit?


    • tgbelt says:

      Jeff, I mean there are statements in the NT, like Paul’s here in Philippians, that come as close as we need require to being categorical rejections of a strong passibilism. If we asked Paul to weigh in on the debate we were having, I’d take statements like this to count against his siding with passibilists. By strong passibilism I mean the view that God experiences every instance of suffering fully and without existential refuge. And by that I understand that there is not that in God’s experience which does not suffer this particular pain (that’s the ‘without refuge’ part) and that the depth of divine feeling on this particular occasion is not alleviated or qualified by other experiences God is having (that’s the ‘fully’ part). You get this in Greg’s oft repeated description of God as being in agony while Zosia’s eyes are plucked out, or TC’s claim that unless God is PISSED OFF (his caps) at injustice, God is not even worthy of worship. This is the passibilism that objects to God being happy on some level or in some realm of divine existence when a tsunami sweeps 100,000 lives away in a day. I’ve heard it repeated too often, namely from Greg (but others too), that it’s morally objectionable for God to be happy on such occasions. All of God, all God’s experience, must be exposed to and shaped/determined by our pain (= no refuge) and that divine suffering must have a depth and intensity (= fully) equal to the human experience given the human perspective. Recall TC’s objecting to Alan’s analogy that the difference we make to God may be like a “drop of disappointment in an infinite ocean of joy.” That’s not enough of a difference.

      Given the context in Philippians, Paul equates the peace that transcends all understanding with an experience of contentment or equanimity (of being ‘self-sufficed’ in Christ) which is not contingent upon the changing circumstances of his embodied context. Obviously Paul can ‘say’ it, can describe such peace in terms of its origin in Christ and its existential effects, so it’s not transcendent of understanding in that sense. (Transcendence isn’t competition or negation, after all.) I think what he means is that nothing within the created realm can explain, ground or negate such an experience of contentment (since the entire created realm is, we know from elsewhere, subject to decay and equally in search of such transcendent supply). It has to come from God. But that would entail its being the case that this uncreated divine experience is itself transcendent of these suffering contingencies, and that is something a passibilist like Greg simply refuses to say.


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