Biblical Shalom: Living Life with a Purpose

My study of shalom changed my life. I have been thinking about this lately, after a number of conversations with former students who have become life-long friends and who told me how their lives were impacted by my teaching on this subject, since they could see the impact on my life. Similar conversations with close friends have re-enforced this.

Three years ago, when I began this blog, I described some of the background to my discovery of this powerful Biblical teaching. I decided to share this again, but now in more detail.

When I was in graduate school at the University of Maryland pursing a Ph.D. in European and Russian history, I often thought about how my Christian faith related to my academic work. I knew God meant faith to be more than just a “private matter,” but I was unsure how to flush out the connections between my religious beliefs and what I was studying. My history profs at this state university were of no help, of course, and in fact their general approach was to ridicule religion and blame it for much of the violence and ignorance in European and Russian history.

After earning my degree, I spent four years in the State Department’s Historical Office, where I edited many volumes in the Foreign Relations of the United States series, particularly those focused on the early years of the Cold War. In an effort to offset these daytime hours chronicling conflict and war, I began an in-depth study of Biblical peace, with the hope of gaining some insights that I could integrate into my work in foreign policy.

I left the Department of State to become the founding director of the American Studies Program for the Christian College Coalition in 1976. This semester program was specifically designed to work alongside students as they wrestled with public policy issues through the eyes of faith; the study of biblical peace – shalom – was definitely part of the mix! I shared with the students what I was learning in my own study and together we tried to figure out the implications of what we were learning. What a great experience – teacher and students learning together!

The event that focused my studies in a more concentrated fashion came in May 1983, when I served on the executive committee that organized a national conference on “The Church and Peacemaking in a Nuclear Age.” I was asked to edit the conference proceedings that were subsequently published in a book entitled Perspectives on Peacemaking: Biblical Options in the Nuclear Age (Regal Books, 1984).

The insights I was gaining during this time were so profound, so revolutionary. I was seeing themes in Scripture that I never saw before. God brought mentors into my life who helped me in this pursuit – mentors like Vernon Grounds, Nicolas Wolterstorff and Rich Mouw. I became so inspired that I decided to write a 16-week devotional guide entitled “Shalom: God’s Intention and Our Response,” which I thoroughly enjoyed preparing because it combined the results of all of my study on this subject. The manuscript was never published – after 4-5 rejections from Christian publishers, I quit trying.

Let me add that I was born and raised in a Christian home and educated in quality Christian schools through college and what I learned and experienced during these years impacted my adult life in many valuable ways. Still, my multi-year study of biblical peace opened up new and refreshing insights from the Bible that I had never seen before. It gave me a vision for how my faith could and should shape the way I evaluate all that goes on around me, and then how I should respond in thought and in action.

This magnificent biblical word – shalom – is so rich in meaning that no word in English is sufficient to capture its essence. When I think about shalom, I can easily imagine a beautiful multi-faceted diamond, which refracts different shades of light and color when slowly turned. Shalom – peace with God, peace with ourselves, peace with others, and peace with God’s creation.

Beginning with the creation of the world, the Old Testament records God’s desire for a world that reflects his view for fullness, for well-being, for what it means to be truly human. Sin, of course, distorted God’s plan, but the God of grace and peace continued his relationship with humanity and eventually send his own Son to restore what was broken.

Jesus, the promised “Prince of Peace,” taught us to live as he did, to be agents of God’s shalom, following his example. He taught us that we have a calling – to be “agents of hope,” to be healers in a broken, sin-filled world. We have work to do – full-time jobs as shalom-makers. There is no unemployment for God’s Kingdom workers. Restoration – making whole what is torn apart – that’s a big job and we all can play a role in this exciting activity. It means living life with a purpose – never an easy path, but always a fulfilling one!

Biblical Shalom: What is it? 

“Shalom is the human being dwelling at peace in all his or her relationships: with God, with self, with fellows, with nature. . . . Shalom at its highest is enjoyment in one’s relationships.” (Nicholas Wolterstorff, Until Peace and Justice Embrace, p. 69.)

“This webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight is what the Hebrew prophets called shalom. We call it ‘peace,’ but it means far more than just peace of mind or cease-fire between enemies. In the Bible, shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight. . . . Shalom, in other words, is the way things are supposed to be.” (Cornelius Plantinga, Engaging God’s World, pp. 14-15.)

“’Shalom’ is usually translated ‘peace’ in English Bibles, but it means far more that what our English word conveys. It means complete reconciliation, a state of the fullest flourishing in every dimension – physical, emotional, social and spiritual – because all relationships are right, perfect and filled with joy.” (Timothy Keller, Generous Justice, pp. 173-174.)

“Biblical Shalom is so rich in meaning — good health, right relationships with others and ourselves, security, closeness to God, care for God’s creation. Think of shalom as peace with God, peace with ourselves, peace with others, and peace with creation. It is, in fact, a way of summarizing the ‘good news’ (the Gospel).” (John A. Bernbaum, www.reflectionsonshalom.blogspot.com.)

4 comments on “Biblical Shalom: Living Life with a Purpose”

  1. Arthur Jongsma

    I thoroughly enjoyed this posting, John. Shalom is meaningful to me as well in my faith journey. Thank you for highlighting the richness of this concept. Art

  2. Jerry in DC

    To hear The Story recounted, and to hear your story intertwined with it; ahh, John, what delight. Indeed, what shalom!

  3. Paul Arveson

    John: And it is such a positive vision, not a negative message about society that we often hear from evangelicals. Did you try a Jewish publisher?

  4. Pres. of InterChurch, Inc.

    John, reading this was so refreshing in my spirit as I share with you a deep commitment to share the enrichment of this shalom in the wonderful grace of God. His self-giving suffering love that reconciles us to him is to be extended in reconciliation with others. Myron in Harrisonburg, Va.

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