“May the peace of God that passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” These are words that have comforted generations of Christians, but I have often puzzled over them. How are we to pray for a peace we can not understand? Years ago I read a commentary that shared an insight into this difficult text that makes a lot of sense. It’s possible that Paul may not be making an observation on the quality of peace in this text. He may simply be suggesting that we have a choice between peace and understanding. Given the choice, he suggests we pray for peace.
Because peace is better than (i.e. transcends) understanding. Philosophers have long considered a link between peace and understanding. Albert Einstein once remarked that the atom transformed everything about modern life except our thinking. On another occasion Einstein added: “Peace can not be kept by force. It can only be achieved by understanding.” That is to say, to understand all is to forgive all. But understanding does not always lead to forgiveness.
The example is given of an experienced worker who reported to the office expecting to receive a commendation and a raise. He received instead some severance pay and the notice that his services would no longer be needed. Devastated, he wanted to understand where things had gone wrong. The explanations he received were shallow and disingenuous. He could not find peace until he could understand what had happened. A week later he got his wish. A colleague called and told him why he was fired. The boss had a lazy son-in-law who could not keep a job. He was fired to make room in the company for this young snot. Now he had his understanding, but the peace he longed for still eluded him. This new insight left him more angry than before.
Paul would say, given the choice between peace and understanding, choose peace. Peace is better than understanding because peace is eternal and understanding is always in flux. Peace transcends understanding because it is at one with the divine. It touches the heart and frees the mind from the burden of knowing what can not be grasped. Peace is a gift, an answer to prayer. It is born out of forgiveness and bestowed by grace. Einstein was wrong when he suggested that we would find peace for our restless spirits in mutual understanding. Mutual understanding is the fruit of peace, not the seed. St. Augustine got it right when he wrote: “We will be restless Lord until we find our rest in thee.”