Building a foundation for unity leads to a place where love happens. The goal within the church must be to build people up, not tear them down.
Today, I’m posting about another hard but hopeful topic: building a foundation for unity. (For other posts in my hard-but-hopeful series, check out Break Down the Wall of Rejection and Finding Joy in the Midst of Suffering).
A solid, comforting sense of power
It’s late November here in Nova Scotia, with shortening (but surprisingly mild) days and apples still on the trees in our yard (we have so many we can’t use them all). A rainfall warning is in effect for the next two days, and I’ve been pondering the idea of unity.
Unity. The word has a solid, comforting sense of power, doesn’t it? Unity is defined as “the state of being united or joined as a whole.” A unanimous vote means that everyone agrees and the path forward is clear.
In Psalm 133:1 David wrote: “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity.”
Within the body of Christ that is the church, unity is something to be desired. It promotes peace, facilitates the resolution of conflicts, and expands the capability of the church to carry out Christ’s directive to bring the gospel to all nations.
Jesus, himself, spoke of unity among his believers. In John’s gospel, 17:20-23, Jesus said, while praying for his disciples: “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one – I in them and you in me – so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
Unity within the church has the potential for mighty consequences—majestic, holy consequences. This loving bond of purpose sets the stage for unbelievers to recognize that the old story of Jesus being born in a manger, dying on a cross, then rising from the dead is more than merely a myth or legend. It’s THE story—the Way, the means of salvation for humanity. If only one story were ever to be told to the world, it should be this story.
What’s our part in telling the story?
With Christ’s words in mind, let’s carefully consider our part in this unity-proclaiming-Christ’s-salvation story. Yes, we must speak of Jesus and salvation and eternal life, but what if other of our words and our thoughts and actions belie what we speak? What if we talk Christian love but think judgment or act condemnation? What if we’re hardened in our hearts and don’t show compassion and forgiveness, or we selectively show compassion and forgiveness?
We who have accepted Christ as our saviour are all his servants following the Way he set out. At times we’re blind, just as his first disciples were—there were many occasions when they didn’t understand what Jesus was telling them—yet our goal must be to embrace the light of his teachings and to put any darkness in our lives behind us.
Sometimes we don’t even see the darkness; we don’t even know it’s there. Unbridled cynicism or sarcasm. Blatant partiality. The need to elevate ourselves and attack others whom we perceive as outshining us. The condemnation of those whom we have judged as being wrong or unfit or unworthy, and the driving need to make known to others their wrongness, unfitness, or unworthiness.
None of this contributes to building a foundation for unity.
Love your neighbour as yourself
There will always be people we relate to immediately, and people we will never really relate to. We’re drawn to people who share our views, lifestyle, interests, or experiences, and—let’s face it—we’re often repelled, intimidated or unsettled by, or simply disinterested in, people with whom we have little in common. Loving others is easy when it comes to people who are like us, and really hard when it comes to people who aren’t like us. Even so, we have to do it. Christ stated that the second greatest commandment, after loving God, is to love your neighbour as yourself, and he didn’t specify which neighbour. He meant every neighbour.
I know there have been times when, subconsciously or even consciously, I’ve sat in judgment over others, and it was only when the Holy Spirit turned me to face a spiritual mirror that I realized the harm I was causing.
Set a guard over my mouth
In Psalm 141:3-4, David wrote: “Set a guard over my mouth, Lord; keep watch over the door of my lips. Do not let my heart be drawn to what is evil so that I take part in wicked deeds along with those who are evildoers; do not let me eat their delicacies.”
It can be tempting to put someone down, can’t it? A barbed comment passed off as humour (I know I’ve done this.). A stinging line in an email. A deliberate brush-off. A repeated harangue.
You and I might even convince ourselves that it’s necessary to “put them in their place” and to make sure everyone else knows exactly what that individual’s place is and how perfectly we’ve defined who they are. In such a scenario, in our minds there’s no room for other views. After all, this person isn’t behaving like a good Christian, and we see the situation clearer than anyone else. We know exactly what’s gone down, what’s going down, and what will go down in the future, and it’s up to us to make that clear to everyone. And so, we take advantage of a delicious, damaging opportunity. Now, I recognize that this is a bit exaggerated, but you get the point.
Who gave us the power to hurt?
Who gave us the power to hurt or destroy others? We all have it. We have that power on the tip of our tongues. We have it in the words we write. We have it in our actions. This hurtful, destructive power is not from Christ. It’s from Satan—”The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy” (John 10:10)— and it has nothing to do with building a foundation for unity in the church.
In Romans 14:4, the apostle Paul wrote: “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.”
The goal is to build up, not tear down
Within Christ’s body, the church, there are times when criticism and the questioning of motive or behaviour are valid and justified, but we must strive to make criticisms constructive, not destructive. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 tells us: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
The goal is to build up, not tear down. It’s to help others within the church to reach their full potential as servants of Christ. It’s to help the body grow and become stronger, not fragmented and weaker.
In his letter to the Ephesians 4:16 Paul wrote: “…we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”
We are all parts of one body, and we all have a role to play in creating unity within it. So, how do we become strong supporting ligaments? How do we help construct a solid foundation for unity?
Encouragement goes a long way
In 1 Thessalonians 5:11 Paul gave us clear direction: “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.” Hebrews 3:13 echoes this instruction: “But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called “Today,” so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.”
Encouragement and the attempt to understand without judgment can go a long way toward building a foundation for unity in Christ’s body. Such building up might take many forms: a sincere greeting and inquiry as to how things are going, a willingness to listen to concerns, an offer of help, a quick note of affirmation, or the creation of opportunities to walk alongside others and see what the Holy Spirit brings for discussion. And I’m sure there are many other possibilities.
In order to offer genuine encouragement, we must be willing to step into someone else’s shoes for a while—a minute, an hour, a day, or longer—and to hear their story and learn where they’re coming from.
We’re all different
Jesus walked into many places, and the people he called to be his first disciples were not all of the same stripe. Simon and Andrew, James and John were fishermen, but Matthew was a reviled tax collector paid by the Roman occupiers of Israel. Matthew would probably have collected taxes from Simon and Andrew, James and John, and they would have seen him as a traitor, the enemy. Yet Jesus chose Matthew to follow him and had work for him to do in furthering the kingdom of God.
Look at us. We’re all different. Different ages, different backgrounds, different personalities, different vocations, and quite probably, different views on politics and perhaps some aspects of Christianity. But we join together with other Christians to worship God, to seek his guidance for our lives, and to draw on the support of other believers, even if that means simply being in their presence.
A place where love happens
Jesus chose us, and like his first disciples, we all have work to do in furthering the kingdom of God. I believe this work can best be accomplished when each of us knows we are valued and respected as a child of God—no matter our past or our faults—and that the place where we meet with other Christians is a safe place to enter—a place where love happens, as hard as that might be at times, and where we build up, not tear down, our brothers and sisters in Christ.
A tale of two editors
Let me tell you a story about building up and tearing down. It has to do with my writing, and I like to call it “A Tale of Two Editors.”
Seven years ago, I finished writing a manuscript about my family’s ten months of adventures in New Zealand. I decided to self-publish my book and wanted it to be every bit as polished as a traditionally published book, so I hired an editor, whom I’ll call Jane. Jane’s job was to advise me as to how my book could be improved—what should be added, what should be deleted, which sentences needed fixing, how to make it more appealing to readers, and so on.
Jane did all of this, but at times she did it in such a way that l felt like throwing in the towel and never writing another word. While the majority of her comments were professional and directed at my writing, I felt that others were personal jabs directed at the Nams family. For me, this damaged the writer-editor relationship, and it became a rocky one. I truly appreciated Jane’s expertise with the written word and learned a lot from her, but I came away from that editing experience feeling battered and belittled.
The summer after I published the New Zealand story, I attended a writing function in Halifax at which Jane was a panelist who fielded questions about editing. To a query from someone in the audience, she responded that her work as an editor is all about the reader, not the writer. Then she looked straight at me and said, “I destroy souls, don’t I, Magi?”
Fast forward to this summer, when again—this time with some trepidation—I hired an editor, whom I’ll call Tom. Tom was to guide me through revisions to another non-fiction manuscript written in a similar style to my New Zealand project.
When his first set of comments arrived, I braced myself. Then I read through them and was relieved and thrilled to find that his suggestions focused entirely on my writing, with none that struck me as being personal jabs. Where I wrote, “Old leaves are brown corpses caught in roadside stubble,” he commented, “the metaphor of ‘brown corpses’ might be quite jarring for some readers, if they immediately visualize murdered strangers lined up at the roadside.”
Tom’s concern was clearly also for the reader, but he never, ever made me feel like throwing in the towel. His comments encouraged me to try harder, to make my book shine in new ways, and to seek greater depths in myself as a writer.
With God’s grace, we can see past ourselves
As Christians, we can tear people down—we can destroy souls—or we can build people up. One of these options helps in building a foundation for unity. The other can crack that foundation open or blast it to pieces.
Jesus called sinners—like his first disciples; like us—to follow him, and as closely as we might think we are following, we’re still sinners. We’re still blind sometimes, and it’s only with God’s grace that we can see past ourselves—our prejudices, hurts, and insecurities—to attend to the needs of others.
Build up, or tear down?
Life is messy, and there’s no guarantee that we won’t add to its messiness with our attempts to build up others, but that’s what we’re called to do. The question I have for you is this: in the weeks to come, when you’re presented with an opportunity, will you build up, or will you tear down?