Photograph: Iowa State Daily, May 6, 1970
In the fall of 1970, I came to Iowa State as a freshman. Just a few months earlier there had been massive anti-war protests. At that time, Highway 30 still ran through Lincoln Way, and thousands of students sat down, blocking the highway while singing “Give Peace a Chance.” We were not in favor of “Nixon’s War,” and our entire generation was clamoring for peace. The slogan was “make love, not war,” and there was actually a spirit of optimism in the air. Our generation could change things, and we longed for a world where love reigned. The Fifth Generation sang about it. We could bring in the age of Aquarius—the age of harmony and understanding, sympathy and trust abounding.” All we had to do was “open up our hearts and let the sunshine in.”
So much of the optimism was in our music. The movie “Forest Gump” uses that music to take an honest look back at my generation. When I first saw the movie, I just wept. We had such high ideals—so many hopes and dreams. But they all came crashing down in a mess of selfish indulgence, drug escapism, and sexual exploitation. It turned out that it wasn’t so easy to just “let the sunshine in.” We found, as Three Dog Night captured it so well, it’s so “easy to be hard, easy to be cold. How can people be so heartless? How can people be so cruel? Especially people who care about strangers, who care about evil and social injustice.” Even the love generation, with all our high ideals, found that love is elusive, and peace so difficult to achieve.
Well, fortunately, some of us did find the love and peace we were looking for. We listened to Larry Norman, who sang “Why don’t you look into Jesus? He’s got the answers.” We found the love we were missing in Jesus the Christ and in some of His radical followers. That love, more than anything else, is what drew me to believe in Jesus as the Messiah and to become His follower. You see, when Jesus’ followers actually love one another—when we are actually united and joy filled and at peace—people pay attention. They see it. It’s different. It’s captivating.
Our love and unity is powerful evidence that God is with us and that He has poured His love out within our hearts. People see it and they want it. Therefore, it’s of utmost importance to our witness that we strive for and maintain our unity and love for one another.
Jesus understood this, and in His final prayer, just a few hours before His crucifixion He prayed for unity.
I have given them the glory you have given me, so that they may be one as we are one. I am in them and you are in me, so that they may be made completely one, that the world may know you have sent me and have loved them as you have loved me. (John 17:22–23, CSB)
Jesus prayed that His followers would be just as united as Jesus was with the Father—that they would be “completely one” or “perfectly unified” (NASB). Why? So that the world may know that God sent Jesus—that He came from God.
So, I’d like to talk about unity—what it is, why it’s so hard, and how to attain it.
We will be looking at Ephesians, chapter four. Ephesians is a letter, written by the Apostle Paul, to a church located in what is now modern-day Turkey. In chapters one through three, Paul presents the good news of what God has done, what He is doing, and what He will do through His Son, Jesus.
He says that God is calling out an incredibly diverse group of people, Jew and Gentile, from every language and nation to believe in His Son and so become part of God’s family, His people. They are to be a people of love—they are the beginnings of a new creation. And here, in chapter four, Paul turns to how these people should live in light of God’s calling. Let’s read:
Therefore I, the prisoner in the Lord, urge you to walk worthy of the calling you have received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope at your calling—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:1–6, CSB)
I find it fascinating to see what Paul brings up as he calls this church to respond to the great things that God has done in Jesus. Think of all the things he could have called them to. He could have said, “Worship and love God.” He could have said, “Read the Bible or go to church. He could have said, “Give your money and time to God” or “Preach Christ to the whole world.” All these are good things that Paul commends in other places. But what was most on Paul’s heart? He tells them to love one another and be united. At the very top of Paul’s priority list is establishing revolutionary communities where love reigns and unity abounds. He’s advocating and striving to establish the very thing that I and my generation so greatly, yet so naively, desired.
But let’s take a closer look at these verses. In verses 4-6, Paul lays out the basis for our love and unity.
He lists seven ways that God has made us one.
- There’s only one body—the one body of Christ.
- There’s only one Spirit, of whom we all partake.
- We all share one hope—of living together in a perfect world, in the kingdom of our Messiah.
- We have one Lord—we all have the same boss.
- We have one faith—we all share the same worldview and hold to the same fundamental view of reality.
- There is one baptism—we all have to repent and believe and confess our faith in baptism, which symbolizes death to the old ways and alive to the new.
- We have one God and Father of all. He’s the creator of this family, and as our Father, he is above all—leading, protecting, and providing. He’s working through all—to accomplish His purposes. And He’s in all—through the Holy Spirit, he dwells within us. God actually dwells within every believer and is present whenever we gather in Jesus’ name.
Now, as we think about the basis of our unity, I’d like to point out, that our unity is based on truth—particularly truth about who God is and what He has done in history and especially what He has done in the life, death, resurrection and enthronement of Jesus. The Bible does not prescribe a kind of unity where it makes no difference what you believe or how you live or what god you serve. We can tolerate those who reject the truth about God, but Paul’s seven uniting truths make it clear that Christian unity must be based on what is true about God and Jesus.
Understanding these seven foundations for unity powerfully helps us to love one another and be united. We should think “These are my people,” “This is my family,” “This is where I belong,” This person that I’m having trouble getting along with is also part of God’s family and is just as important and valuable as I am. He or she is actually a son or daughter of God, precious to Him, loved by Him, destined by Him to become conformed to the image of Christ. I must love and value those whom God has loved and valued—even with their flaws and faults that are so irritating to me.
And this brings us to what Paul says in verse three. He says we must “bear with” one another in humility and gentleness, with patience and love. God has done much to make us one, but there’s still much that can tear us apart. When we believe in Christ, we become part of God’s new creation. Yet that creation is not yet entirely new. We begin a process of renewal—renewal of our minds, which leads to a renewal of how we live. Transformation is not instantaneous. We still have annoying habits, selfish patterns, and hurtful coping strategies. This requires patience. It requires us to “bear with—some translations say “put up”— with one another. The Greek word includes the idea of suffering. We are called to put up with people who are not yet fully transformed and are sometimes annoying, difficult, and even hurtful.
But there’s another reason why we find it hard to put up with others in the body of Christ. God has bestowed on His family a wide diversity of gifts, talents, personalities, and passions. Some of us like to rise early, others sleep in late. Some of us are daring, others cautious. Some are talkative, others withdrawn. Some are liberal in spending, others frugal. Some are neat, organized, on time; others flexible, mellow, and late. Some are optimistic, others pessimistic. Some industrious, others relaxed. And most of these differences aren’t wrong, they’re just different. Part of maturity is realizing that although I’m strong in areas my brother’s weak in, he’s strong in areas that I’m weak in. God loves diversity, and we must not only bear with those who are different from us but actually learn to appreciate those differences.
Paul is clear that living well in God’s family takes patience, it takes gentleness, it takes humility, and it takes love. God is calling each of us, you and me, to this high goal of love and unity. Do you know what it requires? It requires being like Christ in our character, thoughts, and actions. And that is God’s goal for you and for me. It’s likely that He has put that annoying person in your life—your roommate, your ministry team member, your spouse—He’s put that person in your life to work on that all-important goal of molding you into the image of His Son.
So, we’ve looked at verses 4-6, and we’ve looked at verses 1-2. Let’s conclude by looking at verse 3. Paul says to “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” Some versions translate this “be diligent,” others “be eager.” The word has a sense of urgency combined with a sense of diligence. Unity and peace take effort. Since God’s people are yet flawed and immature, and since we are so extremely diverse, conflicts are inevitable. Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean that something is wrong. It means that something needs to be worked out. This is where diligence and zeal are needed. We must not be conflict avoiders. In our pastor’s meetings we often talk about “mining for conflict.” Rather than trying to avoid conflict, we’re trying to learn to uncover it so that we can work it out and, in that way, draw out the breadth of our perspectives in order to lead the church well.
Now, there are many different aspects of conflict resolution. I would like to briefly mention two of them.
First, when you find yourself in conflict, the most important thing to do is to take what I call a U-turn. Instead of focusing on the other person and how he or she is wrong or has hurt you, get curious about yourself. I find this to be wildly counterintuitive. I tend to excuse myself and blame others. But Jesus nailed it when he said that we tend to look at the speck in our brother’s eye and don’t notice the plank in our own eye. So, first, humble yourself and take a look at yourself. “Where might am I be in error?” “What might I not be seeing correctly?” “How might pride or defensiveness be blinding me to what I need to learn and grow in? What are my motives? Are my responses or emotions in any way extreme, and if so, why? Remember that God’s primary goal in any conflict is to teach you, to train you, to mature you into the image of Christ.
I’m reminded of a time when our pastoral team was deeply struggling to be united over a certain issue. After hashing through it over and over for many months, we decided we needed the help of a mediator. Well, the mediator and I had lunch and he asked me to take a week and pray and ask God to show me anything that I might have done wrong in the situation, anywhere that I had been negligent or unwise or timid, or unteachable—or anything that I wished I had done differently.
Frankly I didn’t really want to do it, I’d already reflected so much on my perspective. But I humbled myself, and, as honestly as I could, asked God to show me if there was more that I needed to see. Every day for a week, I prayed and listened and reflected. And, probably to no one’s surprise but me, there was more. God uncovered some hidden, improper motives and some aspects of negligence, timidity, and lack of discernment that I hadn’t noticed before. You see, God wanted to work even more deeply in me.
Well, when we got back together, I acknowledge these things, and it was the start of a breakthrough. With the help of our wise mediator, others also humbled themselves and made the same U-turn. Through this increased humility, God healed the deep division that we had been unable to mend.
So when you’re in conflict, first take a U-turn and then acknowledge whatever God shows you. I’ve found this to be powerful, even when I think that I’m only ten percent of the problem. Humbly acknowledging my failings sets an example that powerfully encourages others do the same. It’s much more powerful than angry threats or accusations ever could be.
Jesus tells us to put this practice of taking a U-turn at the very top of our priority list.
So if you are offering your gift on the altar, and there you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled with your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. (Matthew 5:23–24, CSB)
I mean, it seems that nothing could be more important than worshipping God and offering gifts to Him. But Jesus says that acknowledging our errors and getting right with our brother or sister is more important.
I’d like to recommend a helpful resource called The Seven “A’s” of Biblical Confession. They come from the book The Peacemaker by Ken Sande. Actually, you would do well to read the whole thing. It’s the best resource I’ve found on peacemaking in my fifty years of counseling experience.
Here are the Seven A’s
- Address everyone involved (All those whom you affected)
- Avoid if, but, and maybe (Do not try to excuse your wrongs)
- Admit specifically (Both attitudes and actions)
- Acknowledge the hurt (Express sorrow for hurting someone)
- Accept the consequences (Such as making restitution)
- Alter your behavior (Change your attitudes and actions)
- Ask for forgiveness
The second aspect of conflict resolution that I’d like to talk about tonight is reproof. What do you do when someone is sinning and hurting you or other people—perhaps lying or stealing or having angry outbursts or abusing alcohol or being promiscuous? Well, Paul addresses this in Galatians 6.
Brothers and sisters, if someone is overtaken in any wrongdoing, you who are spiritual, restore such a person with a gentle spirit, watching out for yourselves so that you also won’t be tempted. (Galatians 6:1, CSB)
God wants those who are following Him to make efforts to restore those who aren’t. Notice that the goal is not to shame or belittle or reject the person, but to restore him, to help him get back on the right path.
Paul says we should do this with gentleness. But what is gentleness? It’s being tentative. It’s using tentative language, such as “I’m wondering,” “perhaps,” or “maybe.”
A non-gentle approach might be “Brother, you sinned when you talked to your sister like that.” And that may be true, but it’s not really gentle.
A gentler approach might be “I wonder if when you said that to her if it might have been a little bit harsh.” Notice the tentative words, “I wonder.” “It might have been.” “A little bit.”
Now gentleness isn’t the same as weakness. You can always become stronger if the need is there. But gentleness shows respect by assuming that a strong response may not be needed. I’ve found gentleness to be way more powerful than directness or harshness. It helps the person know that you are on their side and truly wanting to help, not just accuse or condemn.
But what if you go to someone and they won’t acknowledge their wrongdoing? We know that God wants unity, but if someone continues to steal or lie, or slander, or pick fights or quarrel over insignificant issues—if these kinds of things are allowed to continue, that’s going to cause incredible disunity. Well, Jesus addresses this in Matthew 18.
“If your brother sins against you, go tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he won’t listen, take one or two others with you, so that by the testimony of two or three witnesses every fact may be established. If he doesn’t pay attention to them, tell the church. If he doesn’t pay attention even to the church, let him be like a Gentile and a tax collector to you. (Matthew 18:15–17, CSB)
Again, notice that the goal is to win your brother, to restore your relationship. My experience is that almost always it ends at the first or second step. The sinning brother or sister acknowledges the wrongdoing and makes efforts to make it right and not to offend again. But there have been a few times in my 50 years of pastoring when someone has refused to acknowledge their wrongdoing and refused to do anything about it even when confronted by multiple people. It’s absolutely heartbreaking. But such a refusal to acknowledge wrongdoing is inconsistent with being a Christ follower, and Jesus tells us to remove such a person from our fellowship.
In conclusion, God is calling people into His family, into a community of love and peace and joyful connection. He is in a renovation process, and He is starting with us, who believe in Him. He wants us to diligently and zealously preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. He wants us to bear with one another. He wants to remember what He has done to bring us together into one family and he wants us to embrace one another as brothers and sisters in the household of God. Preserving this unity will require humility, patience, gentleness, and love. His ultimate goal is to restore each of us to the image of God and to conform us into the image of His Son.