Can we discuss “the peace that passes all understanding”?
I have heard that phrase for years. I remember hearing it as a child and wondering what it meant and how I was supposed to get something that I didn’t even understand.
Don’t get me started about trying to understand something that says, in its title, that you will not be able to understand it.
But I digress.
“The peace that passes all understanding” turns out to be one of the Christian code-phrases we hear about when millennials and agnostics write about the Church; words and phrases that appear to have no context for meaning if you are not already faithful.
I’ve got news: I grew up in the Church and accepted Jesus as my personal savior when I was only five years old, and I still did not understand lots of those Christian code phrases. It isn’t because you’re young or seeking or simply unfamiliar with the Church; you don’t understand the code phrase because…well, because we Christians hardly ever take the time to define what the heck we are talking about and we pastors can be even worse. We just throw the phrase out there like it means something and expect everybody else to understand it intuitively. The evangelical movement has a ton of these phrases:
“Walking in victory with Jesus”
“Growing in grace”
“Die to self”
“Washed in the blood”
“The peace that passes understanding”
“Pray a hedge of protection”
There are plenty more but I figure you’ve probably gotten the point by now. I remember hearing these phrases and wondering what they meant but never really asking for an explanation. Even when I did ask for clarification, the answer I received was often just as baffling as the code phrase itself. “Walking in victory is when you have grown in grace enough that you are able to ignore the attacks of the Enemy and follow the will of God wherever it leads you.” Okay, so how do you ‘grow in grace’ enough to ‘walk in victory’? “You grow in grace when you ask Jesus to wash you in His blood and help you die to self.”
The explanations were kind of circular in nature. After a while I just gave in to the thought that perhaps my experience of faith would explain these concepts to me and I would finally understand what no grownup seemed able to fully explain to me.
Don’t get me started on why I thought growing up would cause me to understand what other grownups were incapable of explaining despite their advanced age.
But I digress.
The problem with these Christian code-phrases is that they can lead to a conspiracy of lies around what it is to experience the Christian life. It makes it sound like good Christians don’t experience fear or anxiety or depression…after all, they have the peace that passes all understanding! And of course, they don’t struggle with finances or with adverse situations, because they are “walking in victory with Jesus” and victors aren’t losers! Only losers struggle. If you’ve truly ‘grown in grace’ then you probably ought not to curse or lie or speak unkind words…in fact you can’t be even remotely sinful…because growing in grace implies that you are continually becoming more holy and holy people are squeaky clean! And goodness knows that those who ‘die to self’ don’t act selfishly since their ‘self’ no longer matters. Those who have ‘died to self’ just give and give and give and never get tired of giving because they receive all they need from Jesus…
Really? Because that’s a bunch of BS.
Christian life is full of struggle and fear and pain and failure and sin and self-focus and self-care and prayer and reflection and growth in grace…
There! I said it! One of those Christian code-phrases makes sense to me! I understand growing in grace, because I came to understand grace when I became a Methodist. Grace is an unmerited gift from God that helps me become all that God created me to be, by drawing me deeper and deeper into a relationship with God, which slowly changes me until I am conformed to the image of Christ.
Oops! I just used another Christian code-phrase. In fact I used several.
The truth is that these phrases do have meaning. Some are symbolic (since no one really bathes you in blood, thank goodness) and others are more representational of Christian life and faith as it is actually experienced, because I really should become much more like Jesus Christ as my relationship with Him grows deeper and stronger. To me, becoming more like Jesus (more Christ-like) means that I should be more loving and accepting of those on the margins of society and that I should actively seek social justice and equality for all people. The Jesus I know is a bit of a rabble-rouser.
I want to get back to the conspiracy of lies.
In all honesty, the conspiracy of lies starts as a conspiracy of expectations. I grew up in a fundamentalist, evangelical faith tradition that emphasized orthodoxy (right belief). We were taught that orthodoxy would lead to orthopathos (right experience). In other words, believe the right things and you will experience the right things.
That’s a powerful draw to faith! Think about it—according to that concept, believing the right things will lead me to experience the “right” things: peace, prosperity, happiness, success, achievement…you name it, whatever this culture deems “right” is what I will get if I believe in the right ways.
Here’s a few things that our culture does not deem “right” despite their frequency in the general population:
Having children who commit crimes or use drugs
Mental illness, including depression and anxiety
Unexplained or chronic illnesses that are difficult to manage
Wow. Just wow. Can you imagine what it’s like to grow up believing that none of these things should happen to you if you have “right beliefs”? And it doesn’t help to acknowledge that (of course) these things ‘happen’ to Christians, it’s just they don’t persist and (of course) Christians count on their faith to give them “victory in Jesus” over all these circumstances.
This is how you end up with a conspiracy of lies. If right belief means right experience, then I better not let anyone know that I am having the wrong experiences, and if I do tell the truth for a brief moment, I better not let anyone know that my wrong experience is persisting.
The funny thing is that Jesus told us that He is “the way, and the truth, and the life”. (John 14:6) He also said that if we continue in His word, we are truly His disciples and we will know the truth and the truth will make us free. (John 8:31-32).
Does the “truth that will set us free” include telling the truth? I think so. I also think it means that we will stop fearing the truth as if it will destroy us and invalidate our faith. Get real people! We worship a Savior who cried out “My Father, my Father, why have you forsaken me?” as he hung on the cross, dying. Jesus didn’t say that to quote a Psalm and look impressive. Jesus said that because it was His experience as He died a horrific death.
If Jesus didn’t lie about His pathos…and I don’t think we should either.
Skip the conspiracy…both the conspiracy expectations and the conspiracy of lies…and stick with the Truth.
It’ll set you free. Trust me on that one.