Things are not the way they are supposed to be – COVID, racial injustice, political division. The list goes on. Does the very fact that everyone agrees things should be different mean anything? Hugh Whelchel thinks so. Our recognition that things are not as they ought to be points us to a deeper reality – the reality of shalom. Whelchel is the Executive Director of The Institute for Faith, Work, and Economics (IFWE) and his newest book, Reweaving Shalom, is concerned with this exact tension: what is the biblical framework to which Christians can look to anchor our daily lives in God’s larger story?
I had the opportunity for an online conversation with Hugh to ask him about this latest project. The interview below has been lightly edited for clarity.
Let’s start with the term shalom. It has been a consistent part of your work with the Institute on Faith, Work, and Economics (IFWE). What first catalyzed your interest in shalom?
When we began the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics over ten years ago, there was a lot of talk about the idea of flourishing in both religious and secular circles. For example, social psychologist Barbara Frederickson writes of this concept in her book Positivity:
People who flourish function at extraordinarily high levels—both psychologically and socially. They’re not simply people who feel good. Flourishing goes beyond happiness or satisfaction with life. Beyond feeling good, they’re also doing good… People who flourish are highly engaged with their families, work, and communities. They’re driven by a sense of purpose: they know why they get up in the morning.
It was working on Jeremiah 29:4-7, where the prophet tells the Jewish exiles to “seek the peace [shalom] and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile,” that showed me shalom was the biblical term for flourishing.
In 2014, IFWE was introduced to Dr. Jonathan Pennington and his extensive work on shalom. Dr. Pennington is a professor of New Testament at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary but had done extensive work on the Old Testament concept of shalom in concert with his research on the Sermon on the Mount. He helped us understand the historical, theological, and literary scope of the idea of shalom in both the Old and New Testaments and how it answers the philosophical-theological question of human flourishing.
God created a world made for shalom and then filled it with his image-bearers and told them to go and make more shalom because the more God’s creation works like it was supposed to, the more he is glorified. We taste God’s shalom in this world as we bring flourishing. He has called us to serve in our families, our churches, our communities, and in our vocational callings.
As Christians, we will one day experience and enjoy the fullness of shalom in the redeemed New Heaven and the New Earth. This does not mean, however, that we are now called to sit back and wait for that day. Instead, we are called to be working toward that restored creation right where we are by creating more shalom. Of course, we must understand that the work will not be completed until Jesus returns, but we are also really and truly invited into the midst of this work in the here and now.
That makes the title of the book particularly interesting: Reweaving Shalom. I’m curious about the choice of words and what they communicate. Why focus on the imagery of weaving when we think about shalom?
The term “Reweaving Shalom” is a term that I have used consistently as I have written and spoken about shalom. God put us in a created world where shalom is not only possible but is supposed to be the norm. Think of creation as a beautiful tapestry with millions of threads interwoven to produce a beautiful masterpiece. Each thread, while uniquely different, adds its portion to the whole. This is a picture of the creation in the beginning. God weaves all the parts of his creation together in such a way that it established shalom. Everything worked exactly as he intended.
Our English Bibles usually translate the word shalom as peace, but this word has a far more comprehensive meaning than the English word ‘peace’ or a simple greeting. Shalom signifies several things, including salvation, wholeness, integrity, soundness, community, connectedness (to others and God’s creation), righteousness, justice, and well-being (physical, psychological, spiritual). It is the way God intended things to be when he created the universe. The true meaning of shalom has the power to transform our world and the world around us.
I’d say that the best definition for shalom can be found in Cornelius Plantinga’s book, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be. He defines shalom as:
…the webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight…shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight—a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed…. Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be.
In the beginning, God wove all the parts of his creation together in such a way that it established shalom. Everything worked exactly as he intended. Then something terrible happened, and the entire tapestry began to unravel.
Genesis 3:1-19 makes it clear that because our first parents rebelled against God, we are all fallen creatures with a sinful nature, which manifests itself in selfishness, greed, and exploitation (Rom. 3:12). Things are not the way they are supposed to be. The unity and peace God had woven into his world – shalom – began to unravel. Every part of the created order was damaged; even the environment was altered (Rom. 8:18-23). Everything was broken, including our relationship with God. Sin enters the world, and the beautiful tapestry portraying a picture of God’s good creation begins to come apart.
It is only by God’s grace that the whole thing does not become undone. We can still see a faint shadow of the glory that was once present in God’s creation. And that faint shadow reminds us, God’s image-bearers, now fallen, of the way things were supposed to be.
Those of us who have had an encounter with the Prince of Shalom (Isa. 9:6) have the opportunity, through our daily work, to bring shalom to the communities we serve, moving creation a little closer to the way things were supposed to be. This, in turn, brings glory to God and supplies us with the ultimate answer to the question “Why work?” The work of our hands should produce shalom that glorifies God and serves the common good, extending God’s kingdom in the here and now and giving those around us a taste of the full shalom that awaits the coming age of restoration. Understanding this great truth should change the way we work and how we see our lives today. Our calling, writ large, is to “Reweave Shalom.”
So, shalom is a deeply biblical concept, but your book asserts that a desire for shalom is found in every human heart – regardless of their biblical literacy. How do you see this desire for shalom playing out in our culture today?
We are all made in the image of God, believers and nonbelievers alike. Because of this, there is, deep in the heart of every person, a sense of the way things are supposed to be. Shalom! Almost everyone reacts at a deep emotional level when we hear a story about a natural tragedy, terrorism or even something personal like the death of a close friend after a battle with cancer. Whenever there is a disaster, be it natural or manmade, people cry out in horror, “That is not the way it is supposed to be!”
I mentioned Jonathan Pennington earlier. He says the desire to “live in peace, security, love, health, and happiness,” has driven our actions and goals throughout human history, transcending both culture and era. And these desires are good! One might even say these are desires for shalom.
These desires, however, while good at root, are not expressed in ways consistent with God’s desire. Because of the Fall, we have all “…exchanged the truth about God for a lie” (Rom. 1:25). While experiencing some semblance of a desire for shalom, we have, apart from Christ, rejected the Author of shalom. We deny what is true: that Jesus Christ is Lord over their lives, deserving of all honor, glory, and praise. Instead, we value other things over him, especially ourselves (Rom. 1:18-19). We place our trust, confidence, and love in ourselves rather than in God. We choose to live in a way that glorifies “me.” From that, all relationships suffer. Our wildly misguided perception of truth and value—our sin—taints all interactions.
Put simply, we were made to extend shalom, but as a result of man’s rejection of God, the God-given drive for flourishing deteriorates into the selfish pursuit of a self-centered life based on individual happiness, health, and security. God’s desire for shalom throughout his creation has been replaced by man’s destructive, self-obsessed quest to make a name for himself. No longer are we interested in living in harmony with God, other humans, or the physical creation. Instead, we are each isolated in our own ego and greed.
Where does this leave us? Our culture, apart from Christ, is at war with itself. There are deep-rooted desires in each of us for shalom. And there is deep-seated sin in each of us that rejects the Creator of shalom. As those with personal and saving knowledge of the Prince of Shalom, we are uniquely equipped to peer into the culture and see that which is good and that which is evil.
You emphasize the Four Chapter Gospel in this book, which is the focus of an earlier book that you wrote. How is shalom a central concern of the Four Chapter Gospel?
We believe that the “Four Chapter Gospel” is a biblical-theological framework helpful in understanding biblical themes as they unfold across redemptive history. It looks at this redemptive-historical narrative told by the Bible in four parts: Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration. Creation shows the way things were, the Fall explains the way things are, Redemption shows the way things are going to be, and Restoration demonstrates the way things will be.
The word shalom is used approximately 250 times in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and its Greek counterpart eirene about 90 in the New Testament. According to the Old Testament prophets, shalom/eirene will be an essential characteristic of the Messiah’s kingdom and is therefore collocated biblically with the idea of salvation through Christ (Eph. 2:17). It describes both the content, and the goal of the New Testament Christian message called the “gospel of peace (eirene)” (Eph. 6:15).
This biblical view of flourishing, as seen by the use of shalom and eirene, stands apart from all other concepts of human flourishing. It provides not only a vision but also the means by which a person can achieve true flourishing. This is most clearly seen in the third chapter of the Four Chapter Gospel.
In this third chapter, Redemption, we often refer to shalom as flourishing. But we do not experience the fullness of shalom that awaits the return of Christ at the end of this age. And although we have received the fullness of salvation, we still live in a fallen world. We are still exposed to and suffer from the pain and heartbreak of the sin around us. As believers, we long for the return of Christ to finish the work he started two thousand years ago and consummate his kingdom.
Theologians call this third chapter of the four-chapter gospel in which we live the “already/not yet.” In a sense, it is the overlap of two ages: the present age of sin and death established at the Fall (Chapter 2) and the coming age of Christ’s comprehensive reign (Chapter 4). It is the “age to come” breaking into the present age. During Jesus’ time here on earth, he established his kingdom through his life, death, and resurrection (Mark 1:15; Matt. 12:28; Luke 17:20–21).
As in the Old and New Testaments, shalom has in view a broader vision of human flourishing and well-being because “human flourishing and well-being are ultimately a function of God’s saving work.” Pennington correctly argues that God’s plan of redemption is rightly described as shalom/eirene because the result is human flourishing, first individually and then corporately. This vision of human flourishing is at the very core of God’s redeeming work. It is always what he intended for his creation.
As a vision of human flourishing, shalom also gives us a purpose for the work we do in the here and now while we await the return of our king. God’s purpose in redemption is not just to give us a bus ticket to heaven. David Dark, in his book Everyday Apocalypse, explains it this way:
The movement called Christianity…cannot be understood apart from the Jewish concept of shalom. The Christian gospel does not call people to give their mental assent to a certain list of correct propositions, nor does it provide its adherents with a password that will gain them disembodied bliss when they die and the pleasure of confidently awaiting their escape until then. Shalom is a way of being in the world. The Christian gospel invites us to partake in shalom, to embody shalom, and to anticipate its full realization in the coming kingdom of God.
This idea of shalom comes full circle from Genesis to the book of Revelation. Full shalom is seen in the Garden of Eden, at creation, and full shalom will characterize the eternal city, the New Jerusalem, in the final chapter of redemption. To truly understand this concept of shalom, we must see it in the context of this “four-chapter gospel.”
In the second chapter of the book, you wrote that “We all know a fellow believer whose physical body is being ravaged by some terrible disease. In this area, they are not experiencing shalom but that does not prevent them from experiencing deep shalom in other areas.” I know that you were diagnosed with ALS within the last year. I’m curious, how has this sentence become personal and evident to you?
It is hard to believe that I was diagnosed with ALS in March of 2020; it seems like it was yesterday. I still remember sitting with my wife, Leslie, in the neurologist’s office and having him tell us the “bad news,” and at the same time hearing God tell me it was for His glory. We walked out of the doctor’s office (I was kind of shell-shocked, to say the least) and ran into two friends in the waiting room. They asked, “What are you doing here?” I told them about the ALS diagnosis, and they immediately asked if they could pray for me. And that is what they did, right there in the doctor’s waiting room. In part of one of their prayers, they said, “This is happening that God might be glorified.”
Over the next six months, while we were trying to educate ourselves about my new disease, we truly saw God do amazing things. As I have often said, things were going well right up until the day I died.
On the morning of October 28, 2020, Leslie found me slumped over in my chair unconscious, not breathing with no discernable pulse. She called 911. Our son-in-law was there and began administering CPR. By God’s grace, the EMTs arrived quickly and pulled me back to the land of the living.
As I hovered between life and death, God showed me glorious things. I’ve always kind of laughed at people who have had near-death experiences. I don’t anymore. The Lord took me in the Spirit to a rocky plain with no trees, no grass, no plants, nothing but rocks. It was kind of dark. There was a cold wind blowing. In the distance, I could see a massive wall; it looked like something out of The Lord of the Rings. In the middle of the wall was a large double gate, which was open about four or five feet.
And in the gap of that gate stood a lamb, the Lamb of God. And out of the Lamb flowed light, energy, goodness, blessing, everything you could imagine good. Everything in my body wanted to run to the Lamb as quickly as I could. But immediately, God brought me back.
The following month was spent in a local hospital recovering, waking up to my surprise with a tracheostomy and on a ventilator. The week of Thanksgiving, they transferred me to a specialized Rehab Center in Charlottesville, where I stayed until mid-January. Having to learn to breathe and walk all over again has been challenging. Leslie left her job to stay home and take care of me. Over the last seven months, we have slowly begun to adapt to this strange new life.
To say the last seventeen months have been a spiritual/emotional roller-coaster would be an understatement. Through it all, we have clung to God’s promise, “…we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28) This certainly is not the journey we would have chosen. You do not want to be the closing illustration in your pastor’s Easter sermon two years in a row (see here and here). But God is faithful, and he has used the love and prayers of his people to sustain us day by day.
During this time, I have had a lot of time to think about this last question. In the book, I wrote:
Shalom is flourishing in every dimension, physical, psychological, and spiritual. It denotes a right relationship with God, with others, and with God’s good creation. It is the way God intended things to be when he created the universe. Yet, in this chapter of Redemption, we will often see flourishing in one dimension and suffering in another.
While shalom is flourishing in every dimension of our lives, those dimensions are much more interrelated than we would like to admit. In the book, I told a story about a young man on a mission trip to a poverty-stricken rural area. There he had the opportunity to visit one of their worship services. There, in a hut with a dirt floor, he experienced a group of believers who were worshiping God more deeply than anything he had ever experienced here at home. While they were not flourishing financially, they were experiencing great shalom in the spiritual realm.
While that is the way it should be, my own experiences over the last seventeen months have been somewhat different. My suffering from ALS in the physical realm has far too often robbed me of shalom in other areas. Unfortunately, this is all too common for all of us.
In the book of Hebrews, the author uses the analogy of a race to describe the Christian life. He writes:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. (Hebrews 12:1-2)
We are given both the “what” and “how” of the Christian life in this remarkable passage.
The “what” is to “run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” Notice that we are to get up every day to run. This is the Christian responsibility and is what the Scripture calls faithfulness. Yet, it is God who establishes “the race marked out for us.” This verse seamlessly combines man’s responsibility and God’s sovereignty.
We run not to prove ourselves but because of our love for our Savior and our desire to please him. Some days it’s easy to run, the wind is at our back, and the road is downhill. But some days, the wind is in our face, and the road seems to get steeper the farther we go.
This passage tells us “how” to continue to run faithfully on days when we want to throw in the towel by “fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.” Often it is not easy, but as the Apostle Paul writes, “I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4:13)
My father grew up in central Florida during the Depression. I once heard him tell a story about how as a small boy, he went with his father to a local farm. The old farmer had just finished plowing a large field, and the team of mules was still hitched to the plow when my father and grandfather arrived.
Amazed at how straight each of the long rows were my father asked the old farmer how he kept the rows so straight. The old man replied, “Well son, it is really pretty simple. I pick a point at the end of the row, a post, or a tree, and then I keep my eyes fixed on it until I finish plowing that row. As long as I keep both of my hands on the plow and my eyes on the point at the end of the row, each furrow will be perfectly straight.”
The author of the book of Hebrews tells us in the passage above if we want to finish the race well, we need to keep our eyes on Jesus. The amount of shalom we experience is directly proportional to our faithful obedience to God’s calling in our lives. And the key to faithful obedience is to hold fast to the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, Jesus Christ.
Hugh Whelchel is the Executive Director of The Institute for Faith, Work, and Economics and serves as an elder at McLean Presbyterian Church, part of the Capital Presbyterian family of churches. You can order a copy of Reweaving Shalom: Your Work and the Restoration of All Things from the IFWE website.