If you’re like me, one of the things that create turmoil in your heart is the tumult that exists in this fallen world in which we live. Division over race, over politics, over religion, over nationality- it’s overwhelming at times how fragmented and polarized this world is, and how alone we often feel as a child of God living in it. Sometimes I read Eugene Peterson’s “The Message” to gain a fresh perspective on the Scriptures, and his treatment of Galatians 5 captures the vacuity of disunity, rooted in our own selfishness, and in collective human selfishness: It’s obvious what kind of life develops out of trying to get your own way all the time: repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; and, ugly parodies of community. Read that out loud- wow. Just, wow. Is that not a vivid description of the disunity of our sinful world? If we’re honest, can’t we find ourselves at times in there at least somewhere?
And, yet, in the midst of the maelstrom, the God of peace and reconciliation steps in and commands a people, His people, people who Tim Keller and Peterson observes are by nature sworn enemies of each other, to live together. To be unified; to be one with each other in a way that reflects the Trinity, the love and care and concern that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have and have had for each other, for all eternity. In our community, our Christian community, our churches and in this school, we’re called to love each other, understand each other, and care for each other in such a radically different way that it draws Gentiles to us, despite their perspectives of the quirkiness of our moral ethic, the way we think, and the things we believe. Whether in the first century, or the twenty-first, what has and will always draw others to the body of Christ is unity and love.
That unity comes at a price. It requires something of us. First, it requires humility. Unity requires that we first let go of our pride. Keller describes pride as “cosmic plagiarism”- taking credit for the things in your life that God gave you. Things like your mind, your abilities, your family background, and your opportunities. No one is “self-made.” We’re all “God-made.” Keller notes that pride robs us of our joy. When something good happens, we don’t rejoice; we say “it’s about time!” When something bad happens, we gripe about injustice. We lose our ability to rejoice in the face of sorrow and injustice, because we think we’re owed greatness—all the time. Life becomes about our rights –what we are owed, what we are due. Someone who is owed and who is due something can never live in unity with others, because she will always find herself on the short end of the balance sheet of life. Somebody is always taking advantage of her. Someone always got the best of her, or she’s always trying to get ahead at someone else’s expense. Humbling ourselves before the Lord, letting Him use life’s challenges, not to become embittered, but to increase our reliance and dependence upon Him, our gratefulness for what we have, makes us willing to reach out, not to hang onto our rights (because we don’t have any), but to pour out our lives out to others as an act of gratefulness for what God has done for us.
Humility leads to the second requirement of unity: empathy. When I was 25 years old, I was never going to raise kids the way my mom and dad did. I could catalogue every one of their parenting errors, and I was bound and determined never to repeat them. Until I actually had kids of my own. Raising kids, girls, is just flat out hard work. If it’s easy, you ain’t doing it right. There’s joy, but there’s plenty of pain, and prayer, and failure, and pulling yourself up again. My wife calls raising teenage girls a constant assault on one’s self-esteem. Raising kids has taught me that my mom and dad were actually just doing the best they knew how to do, and they did a lot of things right, and I can overlook what they didn’t because I’m hoping my kids will return the favor for me when they’re older. Living life, and messing it up, and falling repeatedly on the unyielding, extravagant grace of Christ gives me insight into the hearts of others who are struggling through life just like I am. It makes me a lot less eager to judge and cast aspersions than I did when I was younger, and I’m a lot more likely to just let things roll off my back than when I was young. I can be a lot more generous with other people’s extreme or underwhelming reactions, seeing the fear, or uncertainty, or suffering behind them. Empathy leads to grace and forgiveness, which is essential to unity.
Finally, and in many cases most difficult, unity in community requires a willingness to confront. Striving for unity doesn’t mean peace at all costs; on the contrary, it means sometimes seeking out and even provoking conflict, when the resolution of that conflict leads to greater peace strength within the community. Love never tolerates evil, in the sense of letting it go unmentioned and unaddressed. But, it doesn’t always mean duking it out, either. Sometimes, being willing to confront means standing back and letting God work out the consequences in a person’s life, allowing Him to let the community chasten, rebuke, and, ultimately, restore a brother or sister. It doesn’t always mean stepping in immediately. Sometimes, it requires restoring a heart working through those consequences. Sometimes, it means you’re the consequences. The older I get, the more I realize the danger when I try to play Holy Spirit in someone else’s life. As I’ve said before, I do a lot more praying, letting God take care of the consequences, while being faithful to humbly, empathetically, and gently restore.
In a “Genesis 3 world,” unity must be fought for, contended for, sought after, and prayed over. It is hard work, but it is good, God-honoring, life-changing work. It’s work that ultimately transformed a civilization, and can again.