Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. (Ephesians 4:29-32)
Paul is writing this letter to the church in Ephesus, but these words could have easily been taken out of many of his letters written to specific churches. For Paul spends a significant portion in all his letters encouraging church members to see beyond their disagreements and to see that what they share in the body and blood of Christ is much more important.
Why is it especially difficult to stay in community with one another when the greatest tie that binds you together is your understanding of God? One would think that this would make things so much easier. You each love God with all your being. What could be easier than that?
But this is exactly what may cause the greatest tension. For one may believe that God's will is A, while another may believe that God's will is B. (A and B being simply two sides of any issue over which a church disagrees). Because our understanding of God is at stake, and because we desire to honor God with all our being, we feel strongly compelled to stand our ground, even if it means separating ourselves from one another. So, we fight each other for God's sake. I wonder of this sense of self-righteousness might just be the cause of many bitter divisions between people of faith.
I recently struggled with my own sense of self-righteousness, which created in me a lingering bitterness very hard to remove. I wondered, Do I fight for my understanding of God? Or, do I put aside my feelings for the sake of the body of Christ? All my understanding of the teachings of Jesus tells me not to judge my neighbor, and to love even though we do not agree. And yet, what if I believe God's will is being disobeyed? Surely that should take precedence. How can I not stand up for what I believe is God's will?!
For solace, I turned to a book: Thomas Merton's, "No Man is An Island," which I had stopped reading a while ago. I continued where I had left off, at his chapter on Suffering. Words that I could not relate to before suddenly resonated with me. "Sometimes it is absolutely necessary to face suffering, which is a lesser evil, in order to avoid having to overcome the greatest evil, sin.... Our destiny is to love all things that He loves, just as He loves them." (pg.83,84) I thought that choosing love over this bitterness I was feeling, choosing to love even when it is hard, rather than acting on my self-righteous anger, is to choose suffering over sin. Sometimes it is hard to love one another, but to do otherwise is to commit a sin.
I thought of the Passion of Jesus. Jesus surrendered to the greatest suffering known to man. He blessed those who wanted to kill him at the worst moment of his suffering. He took all of their sinfulness and returned only love. I thought I understood before what it meant to be united in the body and blood of Christ. But, experiencing this difficulty has taken me closer to understanding the Cross, and to understanding the love that is freely given. This better understanding feels like such a blessing!
"Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone." Knowing God's will is difficult. Always following God's will, even if you are sure what that is, is even harder. God knows this about us, about me. God forgives us all. And God loves us all. Leading us with the greatest love ever known, he shows us how to turn sin away.
Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (Ephesians 5:1-2)
Thank you, Dear God, for leading me in the only way possible to understand your greatest desire. Thank you for loving me enough, and for trusting me with this most difficult test. I hope I passed. Love always, Pam