There are certain platitudes that we all use when praying for other people. I mentioned in my first post praying for “God’s favor” in a certain situation. Another commonly used phrase is for the “peace that passes all understanding” to come to someone. Please don’t get me wrong, I am not at all against praying for others or for praying for peace or favor in their lives. I just think that there is a misunderstanding of the scripture behind this phrase.
Most people don’t think twice when they hear a preacher or a prayer leader say “God, please give them the peace that passes all understanding.” They pull this phrase from Philippians 4:4-7 which says:
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (ESV, emphasis added)
The point here is that the word is “surpasses” not “passes.” The Greek word is hyperechō meaning “to have or hold over one; to stand out, rise above, overtop; to be above, be superior in rank, authority, power; to excel, to be superior, better than, to surpass” (Thayer’s Lexicon). In my study of this phrase, I believe I have stumbled across the reason why many people pray or say “peace that passes” instead of “surpasses” (besides the fact that it’s less syllables and easier to say). Our beloved King James Version translates hyperechō this way, “…And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding.” I can see how King James readers might easily slip from “passeth” to “passes” in everyday vernacular. But check out some other translations of phrase:
And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension (NASB)
And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding (NIV)
and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding (NKJV)
Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand (NLT)
It’s clear that the peace Paul is talking about to the Philippians is not one that “brings understanding to pass.” It is a peace that transcends our understanding of the situation. God is not obligated to grant us full understanding of His motives for the situations we encounter in life. But He is willing and able to give us peace that “excels in rank” over our situation. He is the sovereign God of the universe and He is good. Understanding this should guard our hearts and minds in Christ.
In his book Knowing God J.I. Packer uses an analogy of a train station to illustrate how we can misunderstand God’s wisdom. He explains that standing at the end of the platform at York station will allow you to watch a constant succession of engines and train movements, but you’ll only be able to form a very rough and general idea of the operational pattern set out for the trains to follow. However, if you are allowed into the signal-box, you will see “a diagram of the entire track layout for five miles on either side of the station, with little glow-worm lights moving or stationary on the the different tracks to show the signalmen at a glance exactly where every engine and train is. At once you will be able to look at the whole situation through the eyes of those who control it: you will see from the diagram why it was that this train had to be signaled to a halt and that one diverted from its normal running line…The why and wherefore of all these movements becomes plain once you can see the overall position.” (p. 102) The misunderstanding we sometimes have as Christians is that we think we are entitled to be allowed into the signal-box of our lives. We ask why did you allow me to lose my job, God? What is the real purpose behind my suffering? And I fear that this is what we are praying when we ask God for the peace that “passes all understanding.” As if to say, “God, I know you’re going to help me completely understand this situation someday. Hopefully you’ll give me this divine wisdom today.” Check out The Message’s translation of Philippians 4:7
Don’t fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. 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.
Where is the transcendence? Where is God’s superiority? It’s nowhere to be found. It’s covered up with “God’s wholeness” and a “sense of everything coming together for good.” This is very subtle, and of course I’m not saying that it is bad to have a sense of everything coming together for good. But the true “peace that surpasses all understanding” is not just a fuzzy wuzzy feeling, it is a very real hope for the Christian.
God’s peace is better than being in the signal-box. We would exhaust ourselves futilely looking for “meaning” in every hiccup of our lives. Trust that God is sovereign, that he has predestined to call you according to His purpose, that He loves you. And then you won’t have to pray for understanding because you’ll know in your heart of hearts that He is working all things together for good (Romans 8:28-30).