The Slippery Slope of Grace

xkcd has been one of my favorite webcomics for a long time, and today’s entry is absolutely fantastic.

Sure, taking a few seconds to be respectful toward someone about something they care about doesn’t sound hard. But if you talk to hundreds of people every day and they all start expecting that same consideration, it could potentially add up to MINUTES wasted. And for WHAT?

What would happen if you took time to care about the people around you? What would result from actually showing kindness and concern for your bank teller, your waitress, your cashier, your plumber, or a telemarketer? Might you start to make the world around you a little better? Might it eventually make you into a better person? We get so worried about so-called slippery slopes in our church cultures, but this is one I can get behind: a slippery slope of grace.

Peter describes this slippery slope in I Peter 1:

His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love.

Jesus has shown us grace in His love, and we come to know that grace through knowledge of His word. We then let that word help us grow to the same love He showed us, and part of that love is grace. Every time we practice grace toward others, we grow more like our Savior. This might mean we use kind words where we might want to be harsh. We listen where we might want to dismiss. We show kindness when we feel wronged. We forgive where we might want to begrudge. We take time to understand before we pass judgment.

When Paul was verbally or physically assaulted during his ministry, he never responded in kind. When Jesus confronts Peter about denying Him, he shows mercy and forgiveness instead of resentment. Jesus challenges us to resist conformity with the harshness of this world at the end of Matthew 5:

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even n the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

These statements are not suggestions or truisms. This is how we grow closer to being like our Savior. This is what it means to be like Christ.

If we do this though, we will indeed be on a slippery slope. Because if I show kindness to those around me, even those I do not like, I might begin to care for them. If I care for them, I might be concerned for their well-being. If I’m concerned about that, I may begin to love them. And if I love them, I will begin to care about their souls. Then I will start focusing more on God’s work of seeking and saving the lost. If I do that, I might lift my head above worrying about all of the things that seem so important in this world and focus on something higher.

The slope is indeed slippery, but unlike others, it’s on an incline. It’s a risky journey worth taking.

Partisan Spirituality

debate

Have you ever been part of a congregation that began to internally debate a matter of scripture? I’m not talking about a few people discussing a small disagreement. I mean speakers representing different sides of an issue actually standing before the congregation having a moderated debate. I’m talking about the type of setting where supporters of each idea will sit on the opposite sides of the auditorium.

It’s been years now, but I have. And it’s not pretty. Worse, it’s not productive.

I recently touched on this topic in a sermon I gave at my congregation about doctrinal integrity (which reminds me that I should be better about posting my sermons here):

When dealing with doctrinal matters, we have to avoid partisan mindsets like the plague. By this, I mean we must avoid drawing lines, taking sides, and forming teams. The only side any of us should be on is that of the truth. Remember Paul’s first letter to Corinth where he accuses them of this very thing — lining up behind the teachings of specific individuals and being more loyal to that person than to God? We can’t let our congregation become a debate club. Debates change no one’s mind, for the participants and their supporters have come armored up and oppositional, with their minds already convinced the other side is wrong.

Once we begin treating our spiritual differences like a presidential debate or the Ham/Nye debate, we create an environment where reconciliation is all but impossible. How often have you watched a political debate that convinced you to vote for the other party’s candidate? Never? Me too. Instead, we observe the debate through a filter that automatically casts a more favorable light on our side while being more likely to fact-check, criticize, and otherwise marginalize the other. The very setting inhibits objectivity and fairness.

So how do we prevent disagreements from rolling out of control?

  • Keep it small. The more people get involved, the more heel-digging will occur. How do you think the conversation between Aquila, Priscilla, and Apollos would have gone if teams had been involved in Acts 18?
  • Keep it Personal.  Make sure you both know this is an issue between yourselves. Think of how Matthew 18:15 begins with addressing an offense. “Some people” don’t have to be brought into the discussion. (As in: “Some people would disagree with…”)
  • Assume Sincerity. Assume the person with whom you have a disagreement wants to do God’s work. Assume they want to be with you in Heaven. Christian love is supposed to “hope all things'” and that applies to brothers and sister with whom we disagree as well.
  • Escalate wisely. If the disagreement does affect salvation, and if it cannot be resolved personally, then involve the shepherds or minister in the discussion. Again, keep things small. A personal discussion does not need to become a congregational circus.

In all of this, we should be keeping Proverbs 3:30 in mind: “Do not contend with a man for no reason, when he has done you no harm.” Are you really disagreeing over a matter of doctrine, or did the other person just step on an opinion? Will the issue at hand affect anyone’s salvation, or are we just splitting hairs? Yes, there are a few examples of doctrinal issues escalating to the congregation in the New Testament, but that should not be our first course of action.

Our exclusive motivators should be to do God’s work and to care for each others souls. It should not be our goal to feel vindicated on an issue. It should not be our goal to score a victory. Our goal is to be more like Christ and to help the world see His love in us — in our conduct, in our attitudes, in our generosity, in our relationships. If that love comes first, there is no room for partisanship.

Humility & Peace

There is one vital ingredient if we are to have unity and peace: humility. We desperately need humility in our lives and in our congregations if we are to work for peace, and, if there is one congregation we can point to as needing humility above all else, that is the congregation at Corinth in the New Testament.

Here is a congregation where factions split behind various leaders and figureheads. Some promote celibacy while others live in sexual sin, calling it freedom in Christ. Some abuse the Lord’s Memorial. Those with spiritual gifts seem to vie for prominence and attention during worship, behaving disruptively to gain attention. There are even those who deny the resurrection.

Five times in his first letter to this book, Paul calls for humility: I Corinthians 4:6, chapter 4:18, chapter 4:19, chapter 5:2, and I Corinthians 13 then explains Christian love, a love that is not boastful but humble. The heart of Corinth’s problem is one of pride or arrogance. These are dangers Paul would reinforce with Timothy in I Timothy 3:6 and 6:4 as well as in II Timothy 3:1. Paul obviously sees humility as an essential ingredient in our Christian lives, especially if we are to live peacefully with one another and our God.

Pride and Separation

Pride and arrogance keeps us from our true selves. Proverbs 16:18 warns that pride leads to a fall. Why? Because we blind ourselves to our own limitations. Proverbs 14:16 warns against arrogant recklessness born of overconfidence. Galatians 6:3 tells us we deceive ourselves when we think we are better than we are. In short, we fail to see ourselves the way God sees us, and the way we measure ourselves differs from the way God measures us.

Pride also keeps us from one another. Galatians 6:2 calls on us to bear each other’s burdens. How can I do that if I’m too full of myself? Romans 12:3, after telling us to avoid conformity with this world and encouraging us to live sacrificially, begins an entire passage about service through humility. We should not esteem ourselves above our brethren. Verse 16 calls for harmony, asking us to put others first without conceit. I Peter 5:5 tells us to clothe ourselves in humility, and in Matthew 18:2-4, after the apostles had been arguing over who was the greatest, Jesus calls on His followers to have childlike humility if they would be great in God’s kingdom.

Finally, a lack of humility keeps us away from God. Proverbs 8:13 tells us God hates pride and arrogance. Chapter 21:4 calls haughtiness sin. James 4:10 tells us God lifts up the humble, and I Peter 5:5-6 says much the same thing, reminding us that God resists the proud. Think about the sermon on the mount in Matthew 5; in verse 3, Jesus blesses the poor in spirit, those who have been emptied of self. Once we empty ourselves of pride, we make room for God in our lives.

Conclusion

In Job 1:1, we are told Job was a perfect, upright man, and, in verse 8, God calls Job His servant. Chapter 2:3 repeats this assertion that Job is God’s humble servant, fearing God and turning from evil. Can God say the same about any of us? After chapter upon chapter of Job’s friends tearing him down, we come to Job 31:35 where Job declares His innocence before God. He becomes proud in God’s eyes, and God responds in chapter 38-39, putting Job in his place. Chapter 40:3-5 then records Job’s humbled response. Now, if righteous Job could not be prideful before God, how can we lift ourselves up in arrogance?

In humility, we can see ourselves as God sees us. Humility allows us to serve one another, and it is humility that will draw us nearer to God. As little children, we need to empty ourselves of self-interest and all arrogance, coming to him in meekness and humility so He will draw nearer to us.

lesson by Tim Smelser

Unity and Peace Among the Brethren

We need to strive for the attitude and the relationship of a close family in our local congregations, a family that is loving, encouraging, and eager to do the work of the Lord. We need to be a place where we respect and love one another and where every member of Christ’s body feels welcomed and needed. These bonds of our Christian family should be even stronger than those of our physical family.

Disunity in the Family of God

We have, in our culture, a passion for dramatics and sensationalism. When working with one another, though, we have to avoid this temptation. Proverbs 17:9 warns us against spreading troubles and rumors, causing separation among the brethren. Instead, we should seek love and forgiveness with each other. The harm caused by rumors can take a lifetime to undo. Proverbs 17:14 calls strife and contention like water released from a dam. Our foolish arguments can become uncontrollable; feelings escalate and devastation follows, all based on personal interpretations or second- or third-hand accounts of events.

In Proverbs 26:17, we are warned from meddling in someone else’s quarrels, in inserting ourselves into others’ business. We hear one side of a situation in progress, and we try to make judgments based on few facts. We want to get our two cents in without seeing that those two cents were poorly spent. There is a big difference between encouragement and meddling, and Proverbs 26:20 tells us that depriving a fire of wood quenches it.

Proverbs 26:21 and Proverbs 15:18 both warn us against stirring up strife, against serving self at the expense of others. Proverbs 25:18-20 also tells us to be trustworthy in our interactions with others. When we manipulate or spin information, we undermine our trustworthiness as much as if we simply outright lied. Proverbs 22:14 addresses insincere flattery, empty words meant to get somebody on your side, being a “yes-man.” We practice deceit when we assign motives to actions that we don’t truly understand, when we voice agreement without commitment.

Conclusion

For a family to remain functional and cohesive, we need to deal with each other honestly and selflessly. We need to show wisdom and calm in our interactions with each other. Proverbs 16:7 tells us we should be at peace with God first. Then we can have peace with one another. Proverbs 15:8 encourages us to exercise self-control. Proverbs 18:13 reminds us to be slow to respond and quick to hear.

Proverbs 20:3 asks us to avoid starting quarrels with each other, and Proverbs 15:1-2 reminds us to answer with love and gentleness when disagreements do arise. Proverbs 10:19 advises us to be people of few words, to avoid talking ourselves into a hole. Finally, Proverbs 10:12 emphasizes the importance of love. That should be at the center of our relationships with one another. Whether building up or rebuking, love should be the motivation of our actions.

The blessings we have in the relationships born of our Christian family are valuable beyond words. Let’s be careful to keep those relationships intact and maintain peace and unity among our Christian family.

lesson by Mark Ritter

Unity in Love and Edification

Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be conceited. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.

– Romans 12:9-18

The church at Corinth was one with problems. It was a congregation of differences and disputes, each group, no doubt, thinking they knew best. Each member of every faction within the group thinking they were the ones in the right. Time and again in this letter, Paul comes back to the idea of thinking we know. These problems build up to chapters 12-14 and their focus on self in their spiritual gifts.

Some members at Corinth feel superior to others because of the gifts they possess. By I Corinthians 14:1, Paul tells the group to let love be their guide after he carefully explains what love entails in chapter 13. Romans 14:19 expresses this idea as pursuing or seeking love. In this, Paul places an emphasis in exhortation. He defines what it means to be spiritual, and he makes a connection between love and unity.

Edification & Exhortation

Do we make edification a goal of our spirituality? Notice I Corinthians 14. Numerous times in this chapter, Paul writes of edification. In context, this congregation has individuals who wish to interrupt worship to demonstrate their own spiritual gifts, but Paul warns against setting our brothers and sisters at naught in amplifying self. Applying this to ourselves, do we place our preferences, our desires, our opinions ahead of the needs of our brothers and sisters?

We all have favorite topics of study; we have favorite songs to lift up before God; we have speakers with whom we connect better than others. We will never have unanimous, synonymous, and equal edification in every service. We have to be able to yield to our brethren, recognizing some things edify my brothers and sisters more than myself.

Returning to Romans 14:19, let us earnestly pursue peace and edification in our spiritual lives. Romans 15:2 and Ephesians 4:29 also remind us on the priority we should be giving to one another. So long as we are making the edification, the exhortation, and the consolation of one another our goal, then we will be likewise edified.

Defining Spirituality

In I Corinthians 14:37, Paul writes that we should pay attention to what he is writing if we think ourselves spiritual. Again, this in the context of elevating self and imposing self on worshipping God. Do we know what it means to be spiritual? Is it simply having been baptized? Is it observing the Lord’s Supper? Is it the ability to lead in worship? Do we look at our own contributions to our congregations to define our level of spirituality.

I Corinthians 10:1-5 uses our spiritual forerunners as examples, having been baptized in the cloud and sea, having drunk from a spiritual rock. God, however, was not pleased with them despite these evidences of spirituality. Hebrews 6 speaks of those who consider themselves spiritual but have fallen away from enlightenment.

It is not the outward that brings us closer to God. Rather, it is what comes from inside; it is the meaning behind our worship. True spirituality is seen in our devotion to God and our devotion to one another. John 4:24 calls for spiritual worship rooted in truth. In I Peter 2:5 calls us to offer spiritual sacrifices, and Hebrews 13:15-16 calls helping one another pleasing sacrifice to God. Finally, Hebrews 6:9-10 calls on us to work love toward one another, working toward salvation in that.

Love & Unity

We sometimes treat I Corinthians 13 as if it stands alone from the rest of the book, but it comes in the middle of this discussion on unity and edification in the face of a splintering congregation. Ephesians 4:1-4, Colossians 3:13-14, Philippians 2:1-5, John 13:34-35 – these and more tell us to work for unity in love, being patient with one another. Paul illustrates this in I Corinthians 12, comparing the numerous members of the physical body with the diversity found in the body of Christ.

Just as a human body is united in its efforts to care for every part, so too should we care for each other. We may not perceive ourselves as important as other members, but Paul makes it clear we are all essential. We are all needed, and we should all be unified in our work for the Lord. We may not have unanimity, but we can have unity. Remember Psalm 133, describing the beauty of brotherly love and unity, comparing it to that first consecration of God’s priesthood and to the water that starts as dew on a mountain that will flow into rivers and lakes below.

Conclusion

We are perhaps more similar to the church at Corinth than we are willing to admit. We can grow closer in unity, though, if we can focus on unity in love, developing a true sense of spirituality, and prioritizing our brothers and sisters over ourselves. We can be a whole body by placing self aside, de-emphasizing our own desires and opinions, and by lifting each other up to the Lord as we work together toward Heaven.

lesson by Tim Smelser