Shalom: wholeness and well-being

This month our themes will be on health, wholeness and shalom.  Thank you Lynne Baab for kicking us off! —

My husband and I, along two friends, were eating dinner together, and I wanted to take the conversation deeper. So I said, “Sometimes I find it useful to pray for one thing for people I care about. I ask myself, ‘If I could pray for just one thing for this person, what would it be?’ I’ve got a couple of people for whom I pray for joy. So I wonder, if I wanted to pray for one thing for each of you, what would it be?”

We tossed around a few words, and someone suggested “peace” as the one thing to pray for someone we know. Later in the discussion, I suggested “shalom” as the one thing to pray for someone else. One of our friends turned to me and said, “We’ve already discussed peace. Isn’t ‘shalom’ just the Hebrew word for peace?”

Peace and shalom are somewhat different, and I want to write about the significance of that difference.

Illustration by Lynne’s Husband.

Peace is generally viewed as the absence of war or conflict, which includes both inner and outer strife. The concept of peace includes tranquility and relational harmony.  Jesus promised to give us peace, and anyone who has struggled in relationships or with anxiety or depression knows that God’s peace is an enormous gift.

The Hebrew concept of shalom includes what we consider to be peace, but also much more. To experience God’s shalom is to experience wholeness and well-being in all aspects of life. Wholeness and well-being obviously involve the absence of destructive conflict in all areas of life and the presence of some degree of tranquility. However, wholeness and well-being also include physical health, financial stability, a sense of purpose in life and meaningful work. You may be able to think of more components.

The Hebrew word “shalom” occurs 237 times in the Old Testament and is usually translated “peace,” “safety” or “welfare.” This word occurs in the very oldest fragment of the Old Testament that archaeologists have discovered, Numbers 6:24-26, often called the Aaronic blessing. In this chapter of Numbers, God tells Moses to instruct Aaron and his sons to bless the people with these words. In English we usually use “peace” in the last line, but I’ve changed the last line to reflect the meaning of the original Hebrew word, “shalom.” See what different meaning is conveyed to you by this version:

The Lord bless you and keep you; 
The Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
The Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you wholeness and well-being in every area of your life.

You may enjoy experimenting with different words for that last line to capture what you consider to be the best way of describing the kinds of well being you long for. Then say the blessing over yourself and those you love.

Experiencing shalom doesn’t make a person selfish. Instead, experiencing shalom enables a person to love and serve. After all, wholeness and well-being include healthy, loving relationships, and for a Christian, being whole includes obeying God, serving in the world after the model of Jesus, guided by the Holy Spirit.

I like to pray for shalom for family members and friends, and as I pray that word, I think about the forms of well-being I long for in their lives. And I like to pray for shalom in my own life, too.