One of my favorite things about foreign languages are the words that don’t translate well. A crêpe, for instance, is not what most Americans call a pancake. It’s similar, for sure, but not the same. If a flapjack house gave you a plate full of crêpes, you’d notice the difference—and there’s a reason you never hear anyone raving about Pancake Suzette. They’re different words, each with their own distinct meanings and subtleties.
“Hiraeth” is another one of those untranslatable words, this time from the Welsh. It’s a concept that doesn’t exist in the English language, at least not within a single word. The closest we have is “homesickness,” but hiraeth isn’t homesickness—not any more than a crêpe is a flapjack. In The Paris Review, Pamela Petro describes it as the “difference between hardwood and laminate. Homesickness is hiraeth-lite.”
The long and storied culture of the Welsh made a word like hiraeth inevitable. In 1282, the burgeoning English empire conquered a people known as the Cymry, acquiring its very first colony and stripping away Cymry independence. Even the given name of “Wales” was a reminder of subjugation—roughly translated, it means “Place of the Others.” The Cymry, now called “the Welsh,” were to be outsiders, foreigners in their own country. There could be no returning to the country of the Cymry. They could return to their houses, but their country, their identity, was gone. All they had left was the hope that the heroes of their past would one day return and restore their country to what it once was.
Petro goes on to say,
Hiraeth is a protest. If it must be called homesickness, it’s a sickness come on—in Welsh ailments come onto you, as if hopping aboard ship—because home isn’t the place it should have been. It’s an unattainable longing for a place, a person, a figure, even a national history that may never have actually existed. To feel hiraeth is to feel a deep incompleteness and recognize it as familiar.
What a word.
We’re fond of calling Hebrews 11 the faith chapter, and rightly so. But I think it’s something else, too—something we’ve never quite had the word for. It’s filled with stories of faithful men and women who accomplished impossible things in impossible ways, who willingly sacrificed their lives when it came time to lay them down. Why?
For what purpose?
The verses tell us, over and over. Abraham dwelt in his tents as a stranger, “for he waited for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (Hebrews 11:10). Moses gave up a life of royalty, “esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt; for he looked to the reward” (Hebrews 11:26). Others “were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection. Still others had trial of mockings and scourgings, yes, and of chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, were tempted, were slain with the sword. They wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented” (Hebrews 11:35-37). Why?
Because of faith, yes, but faith in what? Where were they looking?
These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For those who say such things declare plainly that they seek a homeland. And truly if they had called to mind that country from which they had come out, they would have had opportunity to return. But now they desire a better, that is, a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them.
Hebrews 11 is the hiraeth chapter. It always has been. Faith is one thing; faith that gives you the courage to suffer and die is something else entirely. I have faith that when I go to the ATM, I can withdraw money from my bank account—but I have no desire to die because of that faith. The stories of Hebrews 11 are stories of hiraeth—stories of men and women who saw their homeland, clear as day, more real than the world around them. They saw the Kingdom.
If there was ever a man with a good reason to lose sight of the Kingdom, it was Paul. Paul, who stood at the receiving end of a laundry list of injustices and abuses. Paul, who tells us he was “in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequently, in deaths often. From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness” (2 Corinthians 11:23-27).
Three shipwrecks. Three shipwrecks is about two shipwrecks past the point where most people start getting uncomfortable with the idea of boats. But not Paul. Paul had the faith to see the Kingdom and the hiraeth to remind him how desperately he longed to be there. His gaze was fixed on it. He could see it. He could see it while he was floating hopelessly on the sea. He could see it while his own countrymen pummeled him with rods and whips and stones. He could see it when he was hungry, when he was exhausted, when he was cold and naked and abandoned.
Years later, writing to the Philippians, Paul said, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need” (Philippians 4:11-12, English Standard Version).
What a strange concept. A secret to dealing not only with adversity, but with abundance as well—and Paul had learned it. He shares that secret in the very next verse: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13).
That’s great. That’s extremely encouraging. But the question we need to be asking of this verse is “Why?” Why did Paul even want to be doing all things through Christ who strengthened him? Why didn’t Paul look back on his life and say, “you know what, three shipwrecks are three shipwrecks too many; I’m done doing all things. Let someone else worry about them”?
Hiraeth, that’s why.
Paul saw it. Every day, he saw the Kingdom. Every day, he knew it was where he was headed and he knew it was where he wanted to be. The secret to dealing with abundance and adversity is understanding that both those conditions can distract a Christian from what really matters. How can we seek the Kingdom when we’re struggling to feed our family? And how can we care about the Kingdom when we already have every material thing we could possibly need?
The answer to both questions is the same: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
Can you see it?
It’s not about “solving” or “fixing” adversity and abundance. It’s about accepting strength from Christ to look past both those trees and start paying attention to the forest. It’s about fixing our eyes on the one thing that truly matters and then pushing toward it with all of our might and with all of God’s might.
Can you see it?
Earlier in Philippians—an epistle Paul most likely authored under house arrest—he explained, “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. … For I am hard-pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better” (Philippians 1:21, 23). There wasn’t a doubt in his mind—he was here on earth to do a job, to serve God and His people, but Paul’s ultimate desire was to “depart and be with Christ.”
Paul knew that, after his death, his next conscious moment would be with his Lord and Savior. The God he so zealously served would raise him from the dead, transformed in a way that defies imagination, and he would be home.
For Paul, that moment is still coming, just as it’s still coming for all of God’s faithful servants, “God having provided something better for us, that they should not be made perfect apart from us” (Hebrews 11:40).
Brethren, can you see it?
In Paul’s very last epistle, written shortly before his execution, Paul left Timothy (and all of us) with these words:
For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing.
(2 Timothy 4:6-8)
These are not the words of a man unsure of his destiny or struggling to come to terms with death. These are the words of a man of faith and zeal and hiraeth. At the moment he penned those words, Paul was the closest he had ever been to the Kingdom of God. All the beatings, the shipwrecks, the scourgings, the persecutions—every loss he suffered, he chose to “count as rubbish, that I may gain Christ” (Philippians 3:8). He knew where he was going and he knew what mattered—and it certainly wasn’t the rubbish all around him.
Paul saw his homeland, and he longed for it.
Until next time,