Peace: Wholeness and Shalom A Spirit-Synced Way of Life

 

Peace: Wholeness and Shalom

What is peace?

I think our minds normally drift toward the semantic domain of safety when we try to answer this question.  Peace is the freedom from conflict.  Peace is security.  Peace is an absence of strife, we think to ourselves.

But is it?  It doesn’t seem that peace is only a want of quarreling.

I think at other times when we try to identify peace we might think of it as a glib salutation before we leave the presence of a friend.  “Peace out!  I’ll see you later,” we may say.

Another way we often define peace is with various notions that orbit the idea of tranquility (like the picture at the top of this blog!).  So peace would be something like a nice, calm quiet space or period of time.

As followers of Jesus we sometimes define peace in a quirky way.  We say things like “I have a peace about dating John” or “I don’t have a peace about quitting my job.”  So, in these contexts, it appears that “peace” means something like an agreeable inner-spirit (“peace of mind” so to speak).

But when we read Galatians 5 and the Apostle Paul says that a Spirit-synced way of life results in peace, does he have our modern notions of peace in mind?  Or does he think of something else?

Most surely the Apostle Paul, aka Rabbi Saul, had in mind Hebrew notions of peace.  Unfortunately, the Hebrew idea of peace is wrapped up in one beautiful word — shalom — that’s nearly impossible to translate well into English.

Here are a few sample ideas relating to shalom that are floating around out there:

  • Rabbi Joseph (c. 280-350  B.C.), a major figure in the Talmud (a commentary of a commentary on the Hebrew Bible) said this is Gittin 59b: “the whole of the Law is also for the purpose of promoting shalom, as it is written, Her ways are ways of pleasantness and all her paths are shalom [Proverbs 3.17].”
  • Aviezer Ravitzky, a professor at Hebrew University, writes the following about what shalom meant in the rabbinic writings (namely, the Mishnah, the Talmud, and the Midrash): “In the rabbinic texts, shalom primarily signifies a value, an ethical category–it denotes the overcoming of strife, quarrel, and social tension, the prevention of enmity and war.  It is still, to be sure, depicted as a blessing, a manifestation of divine grace, but in a great many sayings it appears in a normative context: The pursuit of peace is the obligation of the individual and the goal of various social regulations and structures.  The majority of passages on the subject of peace are concerned with family or communal life, that is, with internal peace among people, and only a minority are concerned with relations between Israel and other peoples. between nations and states…The Sages [i.e., ancient rabbis] went to great lengths in their praise of peace, to the point of viewing it as a meta-value, the summit of other values…Peace was the ultimate purpose of the whole Torah…”  (20th Century Jewish Religious Thought, “Peace” by Ravitzky, pg. 686)
  • Lastly, former president of Calvin College, Cornelius Plantinga, wrote the following about shalom: “The webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight is what the Hebrew prophets call shalom. We call it peace, but it means far more than mere peace of mind or a cease-fire between enemies. In the Bible, shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight—a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed, a state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes the creatures in whom He delights. Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be.” (Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be, pg. 10)

I hope it is clear that the word that Rabbi Saul (the Apostle Paul) was using in Galatians 5 had the Hebrew word shalom standing behind it.  And this word, shalom, is a word rich with meaning.  Shalom, and therefore “peace” in Galatians 5, means universal flourishing, wholeness, and things being the way they ought to be.

 

Shalom, but How?

How do we find shalom then, as followers of Jesus?

Do we do it by taking courses on conflict resolution?  Well, that will only get us so far.

Do we engage in peace walks and non-violent demonstrations?  Sure, when the issues being brought to light are in line with God’s justice as seen in the Bible; but this won’t create the shalom we’re looking for.

Do we work endless hours efforting to bring about wholeness and flourishing for others?  There aren’t many things that would be more noble to pursue, but we’ll fail.  Guaranteed.

Do we pool all our resources in order to seek the shalom of our communities?  Sure!  But, unfortunately, we’re all people and invariably we’ll miss some people, we’ll seek shalom for some in unhelpful ways, etc.

So, we’re doomed in our efforts to find shalom then, right?

Wrong.

There’s a way.  In Galatians 5 Rabbi Saul spells it out pretty clearly: walk by the Spirit (16), be led by the Spirit (18), and stay in step with the Spirit (25).  Why is this idea of the Spirit’s leading important?  Because we’re human!

Rabbi Saul says it better than I ever could:

So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. (Galatians 5.16-17a)

Do you see it?  If we try to do things in our own power, in the flesh, then what we’ll accomplish will be contrary to the Spirit.  And if our goal is follow Jesus, that is, to live a Spirit-synced way of life, then we certainly don’t want to accomplish things that go against what the Spirit desires!

So, instead, we must walk by the Spirit!

How?  Here are a few pointers to get us started:

  1. Read the Bible — More specifically, discover the ways that the Spirit works, speaks, moves, and guides by reading the Bible.  A great place to start would be the book of Acts.  In fact, a great practice would be to write in a journal all the things that you see the Spirit doing in the book of Acts.  When you are finished, look them over.  What do you notice?  What did you expect to see but didn’t find there?  And, most importantly, how can the truths of how the Spirit operates in the Bible impact your life and the life of your family, your Christian community, and your church?  Then, and here’s the hardest part, begin listening for the Spirit yourself, and when you think you hear him, work through the next three steps, and then obey!  Note: it’s easy to read what we want into the Bible.  So what we learn from the Scriptures should be viewed very highly, but we should also run it through #s 2, 3, and 4 below for the purpose of having checks and balances.
  2. Worship and Pray — A prime way to walk with the Spirit is to experience him through worship and prayer.  And by worship I mean two things primarily: 1) The life-as-worship idea in which you offer all that you do, from scrubbing toilets to creating works of art, as worship to God; and 2) Gathered worship in which you learn, sing, pray, and congregate with other followers of Jesus.  And the notion of prayer here is not complicated!  All I mean is that you converse with God, meaning that you talk to him and that you give him space to answer you back.  (Is it just me or do most American Christians do a poor job of allowing God to get a word in edgewise?)  And it has been my experience (and the experience of followers of Jesus for 2000 years!) that you will experience the Spirit through worship and prayer.  And when you do, it’s always important to make sure that your experience of the Spirit is sifted through the sieve of the Scriptures (#1 above), Christian community, and Church history (#s 3 and 4 below)!
  3. Christian Community — There’s a theological truth that I don’t really think we all believe.  Here it is: everyone who has been saved by grace through faith in Jesus is filled with the Spirit.  Why do I say we don’t really believe this?  Well, because we so rarely interact with one another in a way that indicates that we believe we are indwelt by the Spirit!  Many of us would prefer a just-Jesus-and-me Christianity to what we learn in the New Testament about following Jesus.  Jesus never meant us to do this thing alone!  We were meant for community.  And by community I don’t mean sitting in rows next to one another while listening to people sing and speak at the front of the room (though, of course, there’s great value in gathered worship!  See #2 above.)  Instead, what I mean is a smaller group of followers of Jesus with whom you can be on mission, with whom you can be vulnerable, and with whom you can experience love (giving and receiving).  In so doing, you will very likely hear from the Spirit of God in ways you never could have imagined on your own!  Of course, run whatever you learn through #s 1, 2, and 4 before going all in!
  4. Church History — This sounds boring, I know.  But it’s not!  If we want to walk by the Spirit, we must look back at the history of the Church and see how the Spirit moved in the past.  Now, to be sure, the Spirit of God can do new things.  That’s one of his hallmarks!  But he also works in patterns, or so it seems to our simple human brains.  As we look back into the annals of the Church, we’ll begin to pick up on how it seems that the Spirit leads.  Then we can be on the look out for him leading us in similar ways.  So pick up some biographies of Christians from the past whom you respect and read them.  Find the writings of Church people from the past.  And, just like with the others, this one needs to be tempered against #s 1, 2, and 3.

To summarize this bit: There are four ways we can learn about how to be led by the Spirit…from the Bible, through our experiences of prayer and worship, through Christian community, and by looking at Church history.

These four things are not equal though.  What we find in God’s Word comes first.  The other three can vary in their order of importance from situation to situation and from person to person.  But what the Bible seems to say clearly about how the Spirit leads should always be given the highest respect!

 

Now to apply this to shalom: If we want to experience shalom in our lives, our families, and our communities, then we must live Spirit-synced ways of life and we must do so together.  The only way to do this is by seeking the Spirit out, seeing where he is going, and following him, all while using the advice above as best we can.

When we do these things, it is likely that we’ll experience the wholeness, the security, the rest, and the fulfillment that we’ve been longing for.

We’ll experience shalom!

 

What do you think?  What is peace and how is it a result of being synced with the Spirit?

The Power of Labels: Proverbs 14.31

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I was recently asked to do a devotional at a local, Christian, non-profit organization.  I jumped at the opportunity because I really believe in the work that this group does (justice-focused ministries for folks in my very neighborhood) and because I always love sharing from the Bible with people.

But as I started thinking and praying about what I wanted to talk about I started hitting a brick wall.  What can or should I say to a group of believers who care deeply and passionately about the tangible good news of the kingdom of God?  Should I do a cheerleader kind of devotional which will pat them all on their proverbial backs?  Should I challenge them to give more deeply to the cause of the gospel?  Or should I approach this all a bit differently?

I chose the latter — I chose to look at a biblical picture of how we are to interact with those who are oppressed, those who are in need.  I was hoping that this would be powerful for two reasons: 1) That it would give them some Scriptural validation for the work that they do; and 2) That they would in fact be challenged by the witness of the Bible with regard to those who are impoverished.

While there are hundreds and hundreds of verses about poverty, those who are in need, and God’s opinion toward those who are oppressed, some verses are more powerful to me than others.  As I was trying to decide which of these verses to select, I went over to World Vision’s website and read through some of the verses regarding poverty that they highlight there.

Proverbs 14.31 stood out.  Here it is: “He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.”

The very first thing that ran through my head when I read this verse anew was how it connected with Matthew 25.37-40.  There, as in Proverbs 14, the way that the oppressed are treated reflects back on God himself.  To put it differently, those who are poor and God are specially connected.  In fact, I think that we can safely say that when we look into the lives of those who are in need we catch a glimpse of God’s character that we can’t see elsewhere.  And we can say with great confidence that God cares deeply about how those who are impoverished are treated.

As I was unpacking these ideas with the group at the non-profit most of the non-verbal feedback I got was positive.  I felt that I had taken the correct approach.  So I continued talking as I had planned.  I used the language of the text in Proverbs 14 as I talked, namely “poor” and “needy,” and didn’t think twice about it.

Then after I finished my devotional one of the members of the team, whom I greatly respect and I count as a true ally in the work of the kingdom, noted that he didn’t like the word “poor” all that much, even though the Bible uses it a bunch.  After he said this, many others agreed heartily!  They pointed out, rightly so, that the words “poor” and “needy” are judgmental, or at least they can be percieved to be so.  For some people being labeled as “poor” or “needy” brings with it shame and/or frustration.

Some of the preferred words that were shared with me were “vulnerable,” “marginalized,” and “underprivileged.”  I’m happy with all of these terms because they do tend to be less judgmental.

However, the text in Proverbs 14 might help here a bit.  The Hebrew word, dal, that the NIV renders “poor,” is an evocative word.  It means “one who is low” or “one who is thin.”  When applied in different contexts, this word can be translated as “weak” or “poor.”  The implication seems to be that the pressures of life, injustice, and oppression can press people down and squeeze them.

When I shared this lexical information with the folks who worked at the non-profit they seemed excited about it!  They were all aware, either personally or through those whom they served, that lots and lots of people in our world are “squeezed” beyond belief.

The word in the second half of the verse, which in Hebrew is ebyon, is different.  It is more clearly to be understood as “one who is in material need,” i.e., it really does mean “poor” as in “doesn’t have much money or many possessions.”  Sometimes, of course, the context of a passage may lead one to translate ebyon as “oppressed” but that is natural enough: all throughout history those who don’t have much have been taken advantage of by others.

However, because the two words are presented as synonyms in tandem, the more specific word, elyon, controls the meaning of the less specific word, dal.  Thus, both words do have a material context.  Both have to do with folks who are in need financially.  However, it would be wise of us to use words that are less shame- and frustration-inducing.  Perhaps instead of using “poor” we can use “dejected.”  And instead of “needy” we can use “person in need.”

Lastly, how does the text encourage us to interact with the dejected and those in need?  The NIV says that we are “to be kind” to them.  This translation isn’t all that good in my opinion.  The basic meaning of this word, hanan in Hebrew, is to show favor or grace.  In other words, God’s word is calling us to yearn toward the poor, to extend to them tangible expressions of the love and mercy God has shown to us.  And one simple way we can show grace toward those who are poor is to use the least offensive words to describe them as possible.

The labels we use are important, especially when they are used of people.  It’s well past time that we used more discretion when applying labels to human beings!