More about the “peace that passeth understanding”

In a previous post I discussed this verse:

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

I suggested that when Paul said the peace of God “surpasses all comprehension” (or “passeth understanding”, in KJV), he meant that it surpasses any peace we could attain by understanding.

The more I think about that, the more uneasy I am with it. The more natural interpretation is that there is more of the peace of God than we can understand.

So, suppose the phrase means that the amount of peace surpasses what we can comprehend. How can we understand the verse in that case?

How much peace?

At first glance, I don’t understand how there could be so much of something that I don’t understand how much there is. As a mathematician, I work a lot with the concept of infinity. I understand infinity. So even if God has infinite peace, I can still understand that he has infinite peace. How can God’s peace surpass infinity? How can it surpass understanding?

Maybe Paul means that God’s peace has no conceivable limit. Any limit I can think of, God’s peace exceeds (because infinite peace has no limit).

In fact, it occurs to me that perhaps Paul didn’t have the concept of infinity that we do. We’ve been influenced by the mathematics of infinity, which was developed just a couple of centuries ago. I don’t know if the cultures of Paul’s time even had our concept of infinity. For example, one of the Greek philosophers used the word apeiron, which may mean something like unbounded, but some translators think it means without definition instead. It seems there wasn’t a clear linguistic distinction between infinite and indefinite.

Even the New Testament phrase “forever and ever” doesn’t use a word for infinite: the literal rendering is “to the age of the ages”.

If Paul didn’t have the words or concepts for “infinite” he might have been trying to express what we mean by infinity by saying that the peace of God was without conceivable limits. The “beyond comprehension” may simply be a way of saying “infinite”.

(I can’t even say for sure that the peace of God is infinite. It seems philosophically right to assume that an infinite God would supply infinite peace, but there could be something technically incoherent about peace being infinite.)

A related possibility: maybe Paul means that even if we can understand how much there is of the peace of God in the abstract, we cannot really grasp the enormity of it. Thus the translation in the New American Standard: comprehension rather than mere understanding. We can know that there is an infinite amount of peace, but we cannot really comprehend it. I know what infinity is, but I can’t say I totally get it.

Maybe Paul means we don’t comprehend the peace of God in that we can’t grasp its full relevance for us. The peace of God is more than we can possibly know in experience. Even if the peace of God is supernatural as to its source, it manifests itself to us through our human emotions. (That means that the peace of God as we experience it is not infinite, because we aren’t capable of having infinite peace.)

In this case, Paul could mean that even what we can experience is beyond what we could ever have imagined ourselves experiencing, or he could mean that the actual peace of God, out there, available to us, is so abundant that no matter how much we need there is always enough. The peace of God that I feel is within my comprehension, but the peace of God that is available to me is beyond my comprehension.


Of course, another possibility is that the phrase is an example of hyperbole; that is, Paul is exaggerating to make a point. As a young man I rejected the idea that Scripture could have hyperbole in it, because it seemed to me that hyperbole was a kind of falsehood, and an inerrant Bible could not teach something false. But if hyperbole is a figure of speech then it is not intended to be taken literally and so when it is interpreted correctly, it doesn’t teach something false. When I realized that, I started keeping an eye out for legitimate examples of hyperbole in Scripture. I remember finding a fairly definite example in Song of Solomon somewhere (I forget which verse now). That settled it for me: the Bible can contain hyperbole.

The reason it took me a few years to figure that out, though, is because people around me kept taking verses that seemed to them unlikely to be true and calling them hyperbole to avoid having to take them seriously. That was bad interpretation. Good interpretation would ask whether the original writer / speaker meant it to be taken literally or not.

In that light, is Paul using hyperbole here? Does he mean us to understand that the peace of God is not really beyond comprehension, that there’s a just a lot of it? His statement here reminds me of the passage in Ephesians 3:20 where he says that God can do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think. Did he intend us not to take that one literally either? I can’t prove it, but it seems to me likely that Paul really meant what he said in these phrases. He was trying to make his claims as bold as possible because he meant them, not because he didn’t. He didn’t want his readers to water the phrases down. Doing so would be misinterpreting him.

So, personally, I doubt the verse is hyperbole. I’d be willing to change my mind if I learned that the phrase “surpasses all comprehension” was a common idiom in those days with a standard non-literal meaning.

Given all these possibilities, my current tentative interpretation is that Paul means that the peace of God is infinitely abundant so that there is always as much as we need, that this infinite abundance surpasses comprehension in the sense that we can conceive of no limit to it, and that our experience of that peace is finite because all our experiences are finite.

What do y’all think?

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“the peace that passeth understanding”

After I wrote this, one of the commenters (Bekah) reminded me of Philippians 4:7. In the King James, this verse refers to the “peace that passeth … understanding”, which sticks in my mind because of the old song, “I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart”. In the New American Standard version it says this:

And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:7)

The phrase “surpasses all comprehension” could simply be a way of saying “Wow! That’s a lot of peace!” It surpasses comprehension in that we can’t even understand how much there is.

There’s another possible meaning though, and that is that the peace of God goes beyond what mere comprehension can attain for us.

In other words, there are two ways to try to find peace. The first is to worry at my problems, to keep mulling them over until I see a clear solution. This is the attempt to get peace by comprehension. “If I can just figure everything out,” we think to ourselves, “then I can stop worrying about it.”

The second path is to bring things to God in prayer, and leave them there without necessarily seeing how the answers will come or even if they will come. Then God gives us peace anyway. It doesn’t have its source in how much we understand, but in how much we trust. We can’t figure our way into that kind of peace. It’s only possible by the gift of God.

Because this peace is something we cannot calculate our way into, it may seem to go beyond what is rational. The peace God gives us just doesn’t make sense to us. We can’t see why, given the current situation, we shouldn’t be more worried than we are. And so, in the circumstances, the peace of God really does surpass comprehension even in something like the original sense.

If this is true, then Philippians 4:6-7 implies there is more to dealing with worry than simply trusting God’s promises. It means that, although rehearsing the promises of God and being thankful for what He has done in the past may strengthen our faith and may give us some rational level of peace, there is also something else that happens when we pray. When we come into contact with God relationally, His Spirit strengthens our hearts and gives us a peace that goes beyond the practical comfort we get from believing He will keep His promises.

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Is faith a good work?

I mean, of course, faith in a trustworthy God, not just faith as a quality in itself.

1. On the one hand, we have Romans 4:2-8.

For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “ABRAHAM BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS CREDITED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS.” Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing on the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works: “BLESSED ARE THOSE WHOSE LAWLESS DEEDS HAVE BEEN FORGIVEN, AND WHOSE SINS HAVE BEEN COVERED. BLESSED IS THE MAN WHOSE SIN THE LORD WILL NOT TAKE INTO ACCOUNT.” (Rom 4:2-8)

Paul’s point is that if Abraham had been made right with God by his good works, it would have been something that was due him as a reward for having done the good works. Since it was by faith, which is not something we can gain any credit for, his being made right with God was simply favor, or a gift.

What keeps faith from being a work, in other words, is that it is not something we would expect any reward for.

2. On the other hand, we have Hebrews 11, in which faith is treated as a virtue that God rewards. It starts out by saying:

And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him. (Heb 11:6)

Here, faith is rewarded by God because He is pleased by it. The chapter continues with  description after glowing description of the wonderful way in which various men and women in the Old Testament had faith in God.

All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a country of their own … Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He has prepared a city for them. (Heb 11:13-16)

Here, God is not ashamed to be called their God because, apparently, they deserve it. They’ve proven their worth by their faith. At the end of the chapter, we see this:

And what more shall I say? For time will fail me if I tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets, who by faith conquered kingdoms, performed acts of righteousness, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions,quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness were made strong, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection; and others were tortured, not accepting their release, so that they might obtain a better resurrection; and others experienced mockings and scourgings, yes, also chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated (men of whom the world was not worthy), wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the groun And all these, having gained approval through their faith

Again, Hebrews 11 seems to portray God’s approval of believers as a reward for the worthiness of their faith.

Note that in this chapter, faith seems to be something akin to courage; it seems to mean standing by what you believe to be true and acting consistently with it even when the circumstances or popular opinion make it more convenient to doubt it.

Now, you may say that Romans 4 and Hebrews 11 simply disagree, in that they mean different things by faith, or are making different points in different contexts to different audiences. If so, we still have to decide what we should mean by faith as Christians when we speak of it in general. Is there a way to synthesize the two passages? Practically speaking, should I think of faith as a Christian virtue that God approves of, or as a  way of approaching God without relying on any virtue of my own? Should I distinguish two different kinds of faith, the Romans kind and the Hebrews kind?

The other odd thing about all this is that so far I can’t get anyone to understand the question. I’ve asked my wife, had this discussion (I think) with a couple of friends, and raised it in my Sunday school class. Rather than answering me or correcting me or wondering aloud with me, people just looked baffled and said, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” The puzzle seems really clear to me. I can’t figure out why no one else gets it. Hopefully writing it up will clarify it.

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Arguing for or against God’s existence

Just a quick thought about something I will write up in a lot more detail later.

I’ve been reading lots of philosophical arguments about the existence of God this past year — some arguing that God does exist, others arguing that God does not exist.

All of them start from the assumption that we are unbiased, rational observers able to decide on the basis of the evidence we find whether or not God exists. But if Christianity is true, that isn’t really the case.

We have the God-given ability to reason logically (usually), but logical arguments are only as strong as their premises, and premises are only as reliable as the conceptual framework within which they are articulated, and those frameworks are anything but unbiased.

In 1 Cor 2 Paul said:

But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.  (1 Cor 2:14).

I think the word “appraised” there refers to the fact that our intuition about what is good and bad and right and wrong and real and fake and true and false is gravely distorted by the fall. We have an anti-God bias built into us. We can reason about things, but we can’t properly judge the likelihood of the premises or the significance and relevance of our conclusions.

Earlier, Paul said:

For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I WILL DESTROY THE WISDOM OF THE WISE, AND THE CLEVERNESS OF THE CLEVER I WILL SET ASIDE.” Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. (1 Cor 1:18-21.)

Our unbelief is a moral problem, not an intellectual one. I’m not sure how to reconcile this with the philosophical practice of looking for good arguments for or against the existence of God.

I’ve heard that a fideist is someone who believes there is no rational proof of God’s existence; that we just have to take it on faith. I’m not sure I’m a fideist. I think there are good reasons to believe in God, but I believe we are incapable of seeing them without the grace of God to open our hearts to them. Is that fideism? I’m not sure.

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“Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.”

I heard someone say this weekend that he hates that saying. He sees it as a way for Christians to make excuses for their sin.

I love the saying, but I see it completely differently. I see it as a statement of humility. We stop trying to claim to the world that we have got it all together, and instead insist that the primary difference in our lives is not us but Christ and his grace. Of course, we still keep trying to live more holy lives, but we never see ourselves as having arrived.

My wife doesn’t like the saying. She sees it as too defeatist, as not recognizing all that we’ve been given in Christ. We aren’t perfect, but  neither are we just forgiven. God has done so much more for us than that. Our very natures have been transformed, the power of sin in our lives has been destroyed, and we’ve been given the destiny of becoming like Christ.

What do y’all think?

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Can my failure to witness send someone to hell?

Insane busyness is continuing, and I am having trouble completing my next GIGO post. In the meantime, I keep coming up with other things I want to write about … when I have time.

Here is one of them.

Suppose I am called to witness to Joe. Suppose Joe is so open to the gospel at this point in his life that if I were to witness to him he’d be saved. And suppose I disobey God’s promptings and don’t witness to Joe.

Will God send someone else along to witness to Joe, so that he gets saved? Will He do something like that for sure? Or is it possible that because of my disobedience Joe will end up in hell, since I didn’t share the gospel with him?

I told my Sunday School class the other day that I think God would definitely send someone else along to share the gospel with Joe. Someone else in the class disagreed. Now I’ve been rethinking how best to justify my stand (or change it, but I don’t think I’m going to do that).

So what do y’all think, readers? I suppose if you’re Calvinist, it’s a no-brainer. So I’m more interested in what you’d say if you’re not completely Calvinist.

[Edit: I forgot to mention that my wife has also blogged about this question.]

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Emotional vulnerability

Act I

During Christmas break, I spent some extended time with the Lord to get my head straight again. As I prayed, I thought again about the two sides to my personality that have been relevant recently.

  • The emotionally vulnerable mode, in which I can sense the power and presence and reality of God
  • The tough, task-oriented mode in which I am not particularly interested in relationships with anyone, including God, but in which I can get lots of things done

I came to the tentative conclusion that in order to keep both aspects balanced in my life, I needed to schedule specific times to deliberately open myself up to God in emotional vulnerability. I decided that my quiet times (devotional times) each day were the perfect place to do this. I expected to have to learn how to put the toughness back on again afterwards, so that I could go out into life and get things accomplished.

Act II

When I tried the plan out, though, it didn’t go very well. The last week before vacation ended was spiritually rough. On the one hand, I found it really hard to be motivated to do anything in preparation for the next semester. On top of that, I found myself full of irrational fears about getting started with anything. (That happens to me every so often.)

On the other hand, though, when I went back to God to bare my soul before Him, rather than being nourished or recharged by the relationship, He seemed particularly distant. I felt almost abandoned spiritually.


As I started getting back to work, I had to just shift my focus and start moving forward on stuff with courage and determination. When that happened, my sense of abandonment disappeared, and I regained spiritual confidence. So at this point in my life, I guess that being tough is a prerequisite to having an authentic, relational, emotionally open time with God, rather than the other way around.

I don’t know quite how to interpret all this. Somehow, I expected this:

emotional openness before God  ↔   toughness facing the world

(relational orientation)                          (task orientation)

Instead, I found this:

emotional openness before God  →

withdrawal from the battle of life →

feeling spiritually isolated

How that connects with being emotionally open during quiet times and then tough and task-oriented afterwards, I’m not quite sure.

Tentative conclusions

I wonder if part of the key for me is to focus on the tasks for the day first and then on my  relationship to God in the context of those responsibilities. Practically speaking, I wonder if I should move my quiet times to the end of the day so I can spend time in confessing my sin and unloading my worries and offering my thanks at the day’s end about everything that happened during the day.

An image taken from Scripture has been sticking in my head: that of God making streams of water flow out of a rock (see Ex 17:6, Deut 8:15, 32:13, Job 29:6, Ps 78:15,20, 81:16, 105:41, 114:8, Is 48:21). Even though I realize it’s absolutely not what those verses meant, I keep imagining my tough mode as being the rock and my relational mode as being the water. The point is, I need to start with the rock and look for God to bring water out of it, instead of starting with the water and looking for a rock in the middle of it.

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Do atheists exist?

A pastor I respect just posted an article on facebook questioning whether Richard Dawkins’ atheism is genuine. (My answer: of course it is.)

He followed it up by saying:

This confirms my Bible-based conviction that there are no genuine atheists; only God-haters. See Romans 1:18-32.

I really, really wanted to respond by saying:

See Psalm 53:1. This confirms my Bible-based conviction that there are no genuine God-haters; only atheists.

The relevant portion of the Romans 1 passage says this:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened.

and Psalm 53:1 says this,

The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”

So, what is the resolution of these two apparently contradictory passages?

And while we’re at it, do these passages mean that we should accuse atheists of being either fools or liars? That seems wrong to me. I’d like to grant people more respect than that, but how does that fit with these two passages?

Maybe I’ll write up my answer later, but for now I’ll leave all this out there for you all to mull over.

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A question about power over sin

“I seem to be addicted to ___. I’ve resolved time after time to never do it again, but I keep falling back into it.”

“Good news! God gives us power over sin. You can have victory over this.”

“OK, I’m open to that. What do I need to do?”

“Just learn to have self-control. Make a choice to do what is right, and do it, regardless of your feelings.”

“Of course. I’ve tried to do that. I’ve mustered up all the self-control I possibly can, and I can resist for a while, but eventually I always succumb to ___ again. Are you saying I just need to try harder? I’ve been trying as hard as I can.”

“It’s not just trying harder. You need to completely surrender it to God. I have a friend, and he struggled with ___ and when he gave it up to God completely, he was instantly delivered.”

“As far as I can tell, I have surrendered completely to God. Honestly, I want to be free of ___ more than anything else in the world. I’ve asked Him to change whatever He needs to get me there. I have held nothing back. So if I haven’t surrendered enough, what can I do to surrender more deeply?”

“Perhaps it’s not surrender that’s the problem. Maybe it’s that you’re trying to do it in your own strength. You need to let go and let God. You need to trust his power in your life.”

“I thought  the same thing. A couple of years ago I spent a lot of time in prayer, and left it all in God’s hands. I was hoping he would deliver me right away, and I’m still looking for the time when he will, but so far I’ve always eventually blown it and fallen back into the same sin.”

“I think you just need to understand how serious this is. Your life could be ruined if you continue in ___. I don’t mean to be harsh, but you need to repent and stop sinning.”

“I know it’s serious. I’d give anything to be able to stop doing it. I hate being enslaved by ___. I have repented, the best I can, but it still keeps coming back.”

“Of course you can stop. That’s what the Bible says. ‘No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man and God is faithful to not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able.’ (1 Cor 10:13). You can do all things through Christ who strengthens you. (Philippians 4:13). If you give in to ___ it’s by your own choice; don’t blame God for it.”

“You know, you’re right. Sometimes the temptation toward ___ is overwhelming, and it feels as though I have absolutely no choice; as though I’m just forced to sin. But I am willing to accept that, regardless of how impossible it seemed at the time, it was actually, technically possible to resist the temptation.

“So every time I’ve fallen into ___, it’s been my fault. God isn’t to blame for it.

“That doesn’t really help though. It’s hard enough to do the right thing that I often blow it. And if you tempt me enough times I’ll eventually blow it again. So none of this helps me to be free from it from now on. I can decide right now never to get involved in ___ again, but tomorrow I’ll just make the wrong choice again. How can I stop myself from doing that?”

“I think you need to just decide not to. You can determine in your heart to stop sinning in this area.”

“I have decided that dozens of times but it never sticks. There is nothing I can do today to keep myself from doing the wrong thing tomorrow.”

“Well, I think you just don’t see how bad this is. You need to stop sinning right away.”

So: how would you answer?

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