My whole life I have wanted incomprehensible peace. You know—the kind “that passes all understanding.” Paul writes about that in Philippians 4:7: “And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
I LOVE that incomprehensible means “there ain’t no way you can understand it.” If we bend this lovely long word a bit and then snap it like a green bean where the curves are, we get the prefix in- for “not” and comprehendere for “to take together, to unite; to include; to seize (as with the mind or with one’s hand),” which itself breaks cleanly into com- for “thoroughly” here and prehendere for “to catch hold of, seize.” (I think of the way a rarely not-moving, not-swinging monkey’s prehensile tail can “seize” a yummy banana.)
I wondered what other words can pinch hit for incomprehensible, so I went to Merriam-Webster online. Its thesaurus is helpful. I found these synonyms for this transcendent peace: impenetrable, unfathomable, ungraspable, indecipherable, inscrutable, unsearchable, deep, and mysterious.
So let me rephrase my point. I have always wanted the incomprehensible, impenetrable, unfathomable, ungraspable, indecipherable, inscrutable, unsearchable, deep, and mysterious peace of God that will guard my heart and mind in Christ Jesus.
Mostly I wanted this peace because I am not a naturally calm person. The default setting for my temperament is more calibrated at “sizzle,” “sensitive,” “agitated,” and “worried,” that ability to lie in bed in the dark of midnight wondering, Did I really turn my alarm on for tomorrow morning? I am, however, good in a crisis, but afterwards I collapse off-stage, then get back up and go again. (One always prays that the gettings-up outnumber the goings-down, even if only by that very important factor of one.)
Peace is also an interesting word. If we go back far enough (and why not?), peace comes from the Pre-Indo-European *pak for “fasten,” and even though the asterisk here really means, “Some very smart, quite diligent linguists are making their best educated guess,” I believe their conscientiously reasoned, carefully researched supposition.
Isn’t it fascinating to consider that peace has at its very roots the notion of “fastening,” or rather, of “making something NOT WOBBLE.” I tell you. Not having a naturally peaceful temperament, I have known my share of inner wobbling.
So, I have always wanted and prayed for the ununderstandable peace (if ununderstandable is a word) that can give me a firm and joyful foundation no matter the shakiness or the difficulty of the circumstances, whether they concern my trying in every way possible to help my daughter when she was in extreme pain from dry sockets after a quite difficult wisdom tooth surgery (including making a super quick trip Memorial Day Eve to reach Harry’s to get some clove oil before the store closed that evening) or whether the circumstances are merely that I am tired at the end of the day and stuck in line behind someone who simply is moving as fast as a non-souped-up 1973 Vega chugging uphill. . . with the A/C on.
(And, well, I should know. In 1980, I drove a beat-up 1973 Vega, and, yes, to go uphill, I had to turn off the air conditioning, to give the engine a “boost.” I use that word loosely there.)
Peace is also related to the Latin pacisci for “to covenant or to agree” (see pact). Now this etymological fact thrills me because the root cause over the years of my lack of peace has been my inability to “agree” with my self.
I have been at war with my self.
That is the primary reason I am a Christian. That peace is promised, and I need it. Little did I know, however, when I first heard about this peace when I was a child how crucial it would turn out to be to open my self up to God’s grace—to open and to prayerfully try to keep on opening.
I am more of a batten-down-the-hatches person myself.
But now, not so much, for I have experienced a change inside, and it only took me fifty years to get here, too.
I’m almost afraid to talk about it because it was a very hard-won change, and yet the main thing that I had to do (ironically) was to submit to the Truth in a new way, to give up my hidden wobbly, always smiling self and to embrace the vulnerable, naked, needy, scared, scarred, quiet, sensitive, beauty-loving, mistake-prone, and worrying person in me who Christ loves through and through—my real self.
If you have spent your entire life smiling to be brave, you will know exactly what I mean when I say that I have smiled through many tragedies. I don’t mean that I laughed callously or made fun of shallowly or was Pollyannaish, but I put on my brave face, bothered no one else, and soldiered on. Actually, some of this sort of pluck would be good to come back into fashion, but too much of it (I speak from experience) can wear a person out.
My real self is quiet a lot. My real self doesn’t always know what to say. My real self is private. My real self has boundaries. My real self is the place where I can be with Jesus and just be and feel loved and accept that God loves me.
It is just what I heard all my life growing up in church, and not that I didn’t try before—if you count prayer, reading and studying the Bible, working to be kind, and struggling to figure out one’s own self as “trying”—but the difference is that I finally had to try this letting go in a profoundly necessary way, and I had help from some very kind, very wise family, friends, colleagues, and others whom God has put in my life as the best blessings ever.
It is of course an ongoing process, but at last at least I have tasted peace.
It is my daily bread now. And, oh, how I love it!
So when I go out into the world and I see someone or when something happens to make me feel my own unmet or at that moment sensitized needs, I have a little chat with Jesus. I ask him to fill that space and to become that need for me. Well, I say, It hurts to him, and there he is.
Wise people say that God is always with us, and certainly that is true; but so is oxygen, and yet we all so often breathe without noticing it.
So when I go out into the world and meet a person whose needs come up against my world in a totally large way (which happens on occasion), either because this person has a hurt or an issue that is terribly agonizing for them (or for me) or because this person needs attention that only God can give them, now I can listen and let their needs just be and pray for them better, and then go from there.
Having boundaries is a wonderful thing, and it only took me fifty years to get here. I have also learned that the best kind of boundaries are invisible. No one wants to become a curmudgeon. At least I don’t. I want to be loving to others, to love God (same thing, really), and to love my own self, and I have discovered or am discovering that I can love better with self-boundaries, which a psychologist might call “a healthy ego.” I might also call it “loving the gift of life that God gave me.”
As I stand talking with anyone in public now, I am aware of and can feel my new peaceful boundaries, and I pray for that beyond-knowledge peace for people I’m with and listen as lovingly as I can, well, to everyone, but I’m learning the wisdom of Luke 10:6, that sometimes my peace returns to me when there seems to be too much noisy need either in my own world or in another’s.
This makes me think of my high school friend who was an amazing tennis player, and also a killer ping pong opponent. We played many fierce games over that tiny net, and even though I was no shabby ping pong player myself, I could not beat him. His serve was too hard, his spins were too strong, his placement too clever, and his returns just too overwhelming.
I kept trying to rise to his level. I’d hit his powerful serves and returns back to him the way he sent them to me, with all my might, but my efforts just sent many orange ping pong balls shooting off the table and careening out into space.
One day, exasperated at losing to my friend again, I said, “Come on. Teach me how to beat you.” He said, “Try what I do on the tennis court. When a player serves really fast and really strong, I don’t hit back with all my strength. I let his energy return his serve back to him. I just stand there and make contact. Then I play my own game.”
I followed my friend’s advice, and soon I was winning; and then he began complaining that I was using his teaching against him.
But what he’d really taught me was a valuable lesson for life.
The lesson seems to me to be rejoice, be gentle to all, and don’t worry; instead, pray and thank God always. Well, that’s what the three verses before Philippians 4:7 recommend as the “if” to the “then” (or “and”) of verse seven: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 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.”
So, to get God’s ineffable peace, first, take grace, then mix it with being thankful, being gentle to everyone (even to the people one doesn’t much jive with), don’t worry, pray, and, again, thank God for our blessings. Btw, ineffable is my favorite word for this kind of peace.
Learning to be thankful, to be gentle, and to be praying sounds like a lifelong journey to me. So I am thankful that the best part of life is that the learning can be and always is ongoing.
It is telling that someone as eminent as Lord Kelvin, the nineteenth-century University of Glasgow professor who analyzed electricity mathematically, articulated the first and second Laws of Thermodynamics, and helped shape physics as we know it today, that this Lord Kelvin once said, “I have been a student of the University of Glasgow fifty-five years today, and I hope to continue a student of the University as long as I live.”
I am praying to continue a student of Christ “as long as I live.”