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Righteous Stupidity

September 4, 2011
Show the Peace of God

The Text

4Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice 5Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; 6 do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.  (Philippians 4:4-7 ESV)

A Closer Look at the Text

What is the “peace of God which surpasses all understanding”? And if this peace of God is incomprehensible that it is inexplicable, where does that leave us when we go to explain it to others who don’t experience it? And how we know or experience the guarding of our hearts, by something that is beyond our understanding?

Verse 7 of Philippians 4 seems at first glance to be either of two thing. On the one hand, it could be a lodestar of revelation, doctrine and truth that is deep and tightly packed. On the other, it could simply be a winsome and almost airy acknowledgment that at the end of the day experiencing the peace of God is far more important than understanding it or being able to explain it. If the verse is the former, there’s lots to unpack and consider. If it is the latter, we can nod in agreement, and perhaps not even bother to try to explain the peace of God. We can just go on about our blissful, almost-ignorant (but saved-and-made-content-by-grace) lives.

Certainly there is some small element of the latter in the verse, but the verse does not call for a disengagement of the mind or a cessation of learning. The Greek word for “understanding” (nous) is usually translated “mind” in the New Testament, except here in Philippians 4:7 and at Revelation 13:18 where it is also translated “understanding.” The NASB rendering of nous as “comprehension” at Philippians 4:7 is probably a better translation than “understanding”, because it gives a better sense of the active mind.

We might or might not understand something. This can be true for us whether we actually engage our mind or not. But we have to work at comprehending something: we have to engage the mind before we can know whether we comprehend something. One translator, Gerald F. Hawthorne, uses the word “planning” to best reflect the intellectual engagement that is expressed by the word nous in Philippians 4:7.

Of course, no matter how engaged our minds might be in our efforts to comprehend the peace of God, we fail. Whenever we do begin to sense that we actually “get it,” and whenever we might acknowledge that in our spirit we are experiencing the very presence of God’s peace, we quickly run out of words to describe the phenomenon. We can can talk about contentment, about our reliance on God’s sovereignty, about how all is good to God’s glory, about our security in faith, and about trusting… but we quickly realize that we can’t do justice to this notion by trying to explain it. Just as Paul tells us, the peace of God is so vast and so awesome that is indescribable. We readily acknowledge that it “surpasses” (hyperechō) or exceeds the comprehensive capacities of the human mind.

The English word “mind” (which is the most literal translation of the word nous in the middle of verse 7) is also how “noēma” is translated into English at the end of the verse. But noēma refers not so much to the capacities of the mind, as to the goings-on within the mind.  In fact, noēma is translated “thought” at 2 Corinthians 10:5 (“We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.”) and “designs” at 2 Corinthians 2:11 in reference to Satan’s schemes.

The word “guard” (phroureō) is a military term. Paul is telling us that the peace of God — that very peace that bolsters our joy and quiets our anxieties — also serves to secure our faith. So long as we are mindful of God’s presence (“the Lord is at hand,” verse 5), and all that awareness of God’s presence to inform and indwell both our joys and our concerns, our hearts and our thoughts will be protected. This is a promise, and it is a promise “in Jesus Christ.” It is secure. It is solid. Like a Rock.

Some Observations about the Text

Nothing in the Bible calls for a disengagement of the mind. Instead, the Bible is a 66-book drumbeat that calls upon us to engage our minds in order to seek God’s. To rely solely on human wisdom was, is, and always will be a disaster. It was a disaster in the Garden, when Adam and Even decided that they wanted to assume autonomy and authority over morality rather than rely on God’s commands. God’s punishment was to grant them their wish, and the history of the human race has been an ugly story ever since. It has been a story pock-marked by continual eruptions of human pride, jealousy, anger and ambition.

I recently watched couple of episodes of the TV show Hell’s Kitchen. Like many so-called “reality” shows, the real competition between the contestants was based only partially on the theme of the show (in this case, haute cuisine). Hell’s Kitchen is not so much a cooking show, as it is a human depravity show. Most of the dynamics within the show are driven by conflicts and dysfunctional behaviors which, in turn, are fueled by pride, jealousy, anger and ambition. In other words, even well trained chefs are human. Just like well trained physicians. And lab technicians. And research scientists. And those who are were wise according to worldly standards, or powerful, or of noble birth (1 Corinthians 1:26). They all have a human nature. They are all prone to the same sinful traits that have been continually and reliably demonstrated throughout the history of humanity (Romans 3:23). They don’t even need the cynical coaxing and manipulation of Chef Ramsey; they are fully capable of entering into conflicts and on their own. “But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth.” James 3:14

God’s wisdom, by comparison, surpasses anything that depraved humans, dumb or smart, talented or not, could ever be expected to come up with on their own. “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.” 1 Corinthians 13:4-6. Not exactly the stuff reality shows — or history — are made of.

Gospel Apologetics

It’s natural for people outside of the Christian faith to presume that followers of Christ are stupid. Frankly, they can’t be expected to think otherwise, because their postlapsarian worldview requires that they trust only human reasoning and resist godly wisdom. In some ways I am glad for this: it’s easier to understand spiritual warfare when the battle lines are clearly drawn. It also helps me to avoid becoming confused about the presuppositions upon which they are relying. And when their prejudices evolve into active persecution, the clarity — as well as the ultimate victory — will be even more obvious. Matthew 5:10-12.

What is even more troublesome than such obvious spiritual warfare, is the false and heretical doctrine of “righteous stupidity” that is sometimes peddled or relied upon by Christians. Philippians 4:7 is one of several verses that are sometimes pointed to by these in an effort to dumb down the Christian experience. In the HRSV (Heretical Righteous Stupidity Version) of the Bible, Philippians 4:7 is translated as, “And your achievement of peace with God is something no one can ever understand anyway, so now that you are saved you can stop learning just close your heart and mind in Jesus Christ.” Notice that the HRSV confuses peace with God (which is the Gospel, and which can and must be understood in order for anyone to have faith in Christ), and the peace of God (which occurs when God is gracious to answer our prayers, that is, when in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving we let our requests be made known to God, Philippians 4:6).

Righteous Stupidity and 1 Corinthians 2:2

There are some other verses that are sometimes trotted out in an effort to justify righteous stupidity. 1 Corinthians 2:2 is a perennial favorite, where Paul writes, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” There’s even a theory that maybe Paul gave up on pointing to, and sometimes even drawing from, cultural markers when explaining the Gospel to Epicureans and Stoics and kings and such after his “failure” in Athens (Acts 17:16-34). First, as far as some of the men and woman who did become followers of Jesus Christ (Acts 17:34), Paul’s “philosophical” approach to preaching was most certainly not a failure. Second, there were others who were drawn into the discussion and wanted to hear more (Acts 17:33), which by any measure is a good sign. Third, Paul continued to engage in thoughtful and thought-provoking reasoning as part of his preaching of Christ even after Athens, such as at Corinth (Acts 18:4) and at Ephesus (Acts 18:19; Acts 19:8; Acts 19:9).

Fourth, Paul was always mindful and knowledgeable of his audience. Discussing pagan religion might have made sense in Athens, and reasoning about the law and the prophets might have been appropriate in some synagogues. But in his interactions with the Corinthians (who were easily distracted by any number of worldly idols), Paul “decided” to know nothing “among you” except Jesus Christ and him crucified.

Finally, to reason with nonbelievers about the great questions of life (God, man, the meaning of life, the immortality of the soul, etc.) as part of an obedient response to the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20) is, in fact, preaching the word of God. When Paul was discussing philosophy and pagan religion in the Areopogus, we are told in Acts that he was in fact preaching Christ and Him crucified … and resurrected (Acts 17:18).

Righteous Stupidity and Colossians 2:8

Colossians 2:8 is another favorite: “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.” The HRSV version renders this verse, “Whatever you do, make sure you don’t learn any rhetorical skills, any critical thinking skills, any logic, or any other philosophical skills or tools, and avoid any intellectual history except the history of the Reformation, and whatever you do don’t look for any good, or any common ground, in any belief system other than the Bible, because to do so is satanic and un-Christian.” The Abridged Righteous Stupidity Version (ARSV) reads as follows: “Don’t go near a college campus. Don’t even drive through a college campus. You might be captured by demons.”

Of course, the HRSV and the ARSV are not an actual translations of the original Greek. After all, in the original scripture text we are told not to be “taken captive” by philosophy and empty deceit. Not only are we not told to avoid studying rhetoric and logic and proper argumentation, we see Jesus and Paul and Peter (and Moses and many of the prophets of the Old Testament) showing us what good and proper rhetorical and argumentative skills look like. We are not told at Colossians 2:8 to avoid doing philosophy (that is, we are not prohibited from learning how to reason properly and respectfully with non-believers who have differing world-views), but instead we are told not to be taken captive. Not to be sucked in. Not to be duped. Not to start believing the conclusions and norms and truth-claims that very intelligent, very influential, and very wrong philosophers have derived and developed.

We need to be able to point to the moral (read, Biblical) wrongness of those philosophical conclusions, and to do so authoritatively. For that to happen, we actually need to have some understanding of the subject matter, and some ability to explain exactly which truth-claims are the result of ungodly, autonomous human reasoning that contradict God’s revealed righteousness. The Gospel of Christ might well be foolishness to those who are perishing (1 Corinthians 1:18), but we are nevertheless called to bring it to them … and to respectfully answer their questions and objections (1 Peter 3:13-17). After all, it is not given to us to know who really is perishing, and who, like some of the respondents at the Areopogas, want to hear more (Acts 17:33) because the Holy Spirit is regenerating their souls (Acts 17:34). In fact, if we are not only experiencing, but living out, the peace of God, it is more likely that people in our lives will want to hear more. More about what they see in us: our actions, our behavior, our demeanor, our confidence in bringing our problems to God in prayer, our story.

When we show people what the peace of God looks like, we have opportunities to tell them about how to have peace with God. When we are living epistles, we have opportunities to tell the Gospel. But we’ll need more than credibility when questions are asked, and the truth-claims of the Bible are challenged.

Tell about Peace with God

For example, worldly wisdom tells people around us that there is no Creator. It all just happened. It all just evolved. The Bible tells us otherwise. To knowing nothing but Christ and Him crucified (that is, to be a sold-out 100 percent follower of Jesus Christ and of nothing else and of no one else) can sometimes call for some effort on our part to learn about the strengths and weaknesses of the theory of atheistic naturalistic evolution. This helps us enter into conversations with those who have come to accept that theory as fact. It helps us to show the fallacies upon which that theory is based. In evangelism-speak, it helps us to till the soil so that when the seed is planted is may more readily take root. This is, in a word, apologetics.

Audio MP3 Discussion of this post is available here.

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