Saturday, May 9, 2009

Active Faith, Full Understanding

I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ.

                        Philemon 6

Believing and Behaving

“Faith without works is dead,” James famously wrote, encapsulating dozens of other apostolic admonitions for us to put some muscle behind our mouths. The purpose is overt. Grace is given to us not only for our personal benefit, but also to encourage us as ambassadors of reconciliation with God. Whether or not we assume evangelical responsibility to “spread the Word,” our lives bear witness to God’s unconditional love and acceptance. In Paul’s letter to Philemon, however, we find an equally important, yet less obvious, reason why believing and behaving perfectly complement one another. Paul writes that actively sharing our faith brings us “full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ.”

This brief note—just 25 verses in length and the oldest Pauline epistle on record—broaches a very delicate, personal matter in which Paul seeks to persuade his good partner in Christ to do something very unusual, unheard of, actually. And it’s important to note Paul’s prayer that Philemon “may be active in sharing your faith” specifically refers to deed, not declaration. In the previous verse, Paul remarks that Philemon’s “faith in the Lord Jesus and [his] love for all the saints” is well known. In recognizing Philemon’s renowned faith and love up front, Paul frustrates any possibility his plea might be read as an appeal to his friend’s vanity or concern about public reputation. “Everyone knows you’re a true believer and good man, Philemon,” Paul says. “Consider this as a way to increase your understanding of Christ.”

A Prime Opportunity

We know only enough of Philemon and the epistle’s back-story to want more. Paul addresses the letter to him, “Apphia our sister”—perhaps Philemon’s wife—“Archippus our fellow soldier and to the church that meets in your home.” Since Paul also includes a personal message to Archippus in Colossians 4.17, it’s assumed Philemon is also Colossian and the reference to his home as the church’s meeting place lends credibility to his image as a man of means. As a matter of fact, property sits at the crux of Paul’s note in the person of Onesimus, a runaway slave of Philemon’s who now serves Paul during his imprisonment in either Ephesus or Rome. The epistle functions as a transmittal letter: “Dear Philemon, enclosed please find Onesimus…” Paul entreats Philemon to ignore legally sanctioned punishment for Onesimus, begging him to welcome the fugitive into his household as a free man and fellow believer. In this context, “active in sharing your faith” means forgiving and accepting one who has grievously—criminally—wronged him. Onesimus’s return provides a prime opportunity for Philemon to share his faith in the highest, most sincere manner by transcending laws of man to fulfill the Law of Christ.


The name “Onesimus” translates as “Useful,” which Paul underscores in verse 11: “Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.” Paul blatantly states the proposed reconciliation with his master redefines the former servant’s status and usefulness, however. In verses 15 and 16, he writes: “Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good—no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord.” Onesimus’s return goes beyond restoring property. He comes back to Philemon a changed man, a brother and equal in Christ. He’s back for good, for Philemon’s good. He returns as more than a useful domestic. He’s useful in opening his former master’s full understanding of Christ’s love and forgiveness beyond principle. Through Onesimus, Philemon can grasp the totality of Christ in practice—actively sharing his faith via an unprecedented act of mercy.

Active faith brings full understanding of Christ’s goodness because it compels us to behave in keeping with our belief. The grace, forgiveness, and reconciliation we accept by faith gains tremendous meaning and gravity when our faith obliges us to offer the same to those who wrong us. It’s not easy. It’s not supposed to be easy. It’s not natural. It’s not supposed to come naturally. Actively sharing our faith requires uncommon—unheard of—sacrifice. It asks us to overlook our humiliation and resentment and outrage to embrace those who, knowingly or naïvely, caused it. It turns our thoughts away from justifiable retribution to fix our hearts on merciful reconciliation. It asks us to replace expectations based on past performance with hope for future improvement. Onesimus’s faithlessness gave Philemon no reason to anticipate he was worthy of trust and respect, yet Paul’s letter makes an airtight case against the one man’s failures costing the other’s fulfillment. We get a taste of how difficult this idea must be for Philemon to stomach near the end of the letter when Paul personally offers to repay for any debt or wrong Onesimus owes, adding, “not to mention that you owe me your very self.” (v19) When we fully understand the goodness of Jesus, debts owed and wrongs done to us pale in comparison to our indebtedness to Him. Active faith recalibrates our sense of scale. What looks so impossible to do for others seems like hardly enough to compensate for what Christ did for us.

Actively sharing our faith is useful to enrich our understanding of what reconciliation means and how it works. (Maurice Harron: Hands Across the Divide, Craigavon Bridge, Derry, Northern Ireland)

(Tomorrow: Hannah and Her Sisters)

Postscript: Dedicated to the Moms

He Knows How Much We Can Bear – Mahalia Jackson

This being Mother’s Day weekend, there’s only one appropriate gospel artist to feature—Mahalia Jackson, gospel’s great matriarch. Though not the first great female gospel artist (Rosetta Tharpe, Sallie Martin, Clara Ward, Roberta Martin, and a half-dozen other legends precede her), Mahalia gave gospel to the world at large. As a young feisty gospel fan growing up in Chicago, I was blessed to hear her sing live a number of times. No surviving film or video comes close to capturing her forcefulness and spirit. Beyond her talent, Mahalia’s local reputation was built on her being the “real deal.” She sang with great conviction because every word and every note expressed her soul. There will never be anyone to equal her.

I dedicate this clip to every wonderful mother who gathers here—and there are so many of you, including my own mom! God bless you for all the love, strength, and wisdom you’ve given to your children. How we love you!

Lyrics (Roberta Martin)

We are our heavenly Father’s children,

And we all know that He loves us one and all;

Yet there are times when we find we answer

Another’s voice and call;

If we are willing, He will teach us,

His voice only to obey no matter where,

And He knows; yes, He knows,

Just how much we can bear.

Tho’ the load gets heavy

You’re never left alone to bear it all;

Just ask for strength and keep on toiling,

Tho’ the teardrops fall.

You have the joy of this assurance;

The heavenly Father will always answer prayer,

And He knows; yes, He knows,

Just how much you can bear.  

Friday, May 8, 2009

Following Peace

Let us therefore follow after the things which make for peace, and things wherewith one may edify another.

                        Romans 14.19 (KJV)

Stirring the Pot

I’m a marketing creative director and writer by trade, which privileges me to work with tremendously bright, inventive, and passionate people. Friends whose professions are more tightly structured and predictable than mine often comment on how lucky am I by comparison, and I can’t argue with them. Yet they also miss its downside, since creative people can be extremely sensitive and imaginative in their relationships with one another. Personality clashes and shortsighted expectations can lead to silly rifts or hurt feelings. Particularly for those of us in “communications,” the first impulse is to talk about it—though not always with those who frustrate or disappoint us. In fact, some of us avoid that and seek consolation by including people outside “the circle” in our conflicts. Thankfully, in my present situation, this happens so rarely as to be anomalous. But past teams I’ve worked with called this “stirring the pot,” and I’ve witnessed colleagues stir things up so quickly and carelessly that nearly everyone in range wound up scalded in one way or another, none worse than the stirrers themselves.

Following Jesus is an extraordinarily creative venture that requires constant collaboration with our Savior and one another. Passion for our faith and determination to remain true can easily fuel misunderstandings or letdowns that nag at us. Instead of approaching those with whom we differ, asking their forgiveness or seeking clearer understanding, we sometimes widen the circle of conflict in hopes of including others who agree with us. We stir the pot without considering how many more brothers and sisters we place at risk of getting scalded. In Romans 14.19, we’re advised to “follow after the things which make for peace and edify one another.” Thinking we can end confusion by spreading it or believing we can help ourselves by tearing someone else down is silly and delusional. The moment we try to “win” an argument is the moment that ensures everyone—we more than anyone else—loses.

Resembling Our Father

Current culture celebrates pot-stirrers. The media glut constructs platforms for anyone predisposed to cry “Foul!” and we’re so fascinated with disagreements we forget arguing doesn’t fix anything. Why should someone care where you or I or anyone else “stands” on an issue if all we’re doing is standing? As believers, we’re not charged with condemning others or defending us. We’ve been given a much harder, more meaningful task: fostering peace. Our identity depends on this. In Matthew 5.9, Jesus stresses this in black-and-white: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.” And even if we tried to breeze by this, virtually every point in its wake confirms He means exactly what He says. “Be happy when people attack you and tell lies about you” (v11); “let others see your goodness and glorify God because of it” (v16); “whoever breaks my commandments and encourages others to do the same is the least in the kingdom of heaven” (v20); “anyone who gets angry with his brother/sister faces judgment similar to a murderer” (v22); “say ‘yes’ when you mean ‘yes,’ ‘no’ when you mean ‘no,’ because hedging and prevaricating comes from the Tempter” (v37); “instead of seeking revenge when you’re slapped around, turn the other cheek; go the extra mile; give more than you’re expected to give” (v39-42). And then He finishes with the topper: “Love your enemies. What’s the point of loving only those who love and agree with you? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (v44-48). He ends where He started. To be known as God’s children, we do our best to reflect His perfection in every facet of our behavior and lives. Resembling our Father isn’t about where we stand or what we say. It’s only obvious by how we’re seen.

A God of Peace

Paul urges us to remember, “God is not a God of disorder but of peace.” Hebrews 12.14 makes the same point, enjoining us to “make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.” (The King James Version reads, “Follow peace with all men…”) Permitting our passions and rectitude to overwhelm our concern of how well we project a God of peace defeats our cause and displeases Him. He doesn’t need us to defend Him, nor for that matter, should we feel any need to defend ourselves. In Exodus 14.14, we read, “The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still.” When we engage in defensive arguments and proving our positions, we usurp God’s leadership in our lives. “The battle is the LORD’s,” according to 1 Samuel 17.47. It’s impertinent to assume our strategy and defenses are superior to God’s.

How shrewd of the Hebrews writer to connect living peacefully with being holy. And how silly of us to attempt proving righteousness by stirring pots. Any time we try to validate our holiness—drawing attention to us rather than focusing attention on our perfect Father, the God of peace—we invariably create one big, old, unholy mess. Without holiness, Hebrew reminds us, no one will see the Lord. Following peace leads to holiness. Where holiness reigns peace abides. When passions and frustrations have us grabbing at spoons and firing up cauldrons, it’s wise to step back, lower the heat, and simmer down. Jesus never asked us to prove we’re right. He commanded us to be perfect.

Stirring the pot proves nothing; it only creates confusion, risks scalding us and others, and leaves us to clean up an unholy mess. The results are never as tasty as we hope, either.

(Tomorrow: Active Faith, Full Understanding)

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Laughing at Disaster

You will be protected from the lash of the tongue, and need not fear when destruction comes. You will laugh at destruction and famine, and need not fear the beasts of the earth.

                        Job 5.21-22

Right Words, Wrong Reasoning

The Book of Job is one of the toughest books in the Bible because it’s the most blatant example of the “what-have-I-done-to-deserve-this” scenario. Everybody knows the set-up and has a vague idea—or at least presumes—that it all works out in the end. But the middle section, a long conversation between Job and three friends, is rough going. After Satan taunts God, saying He has no truly faithful servants on Earth, God retorts, “What about Job?”. Without Job knowing it, He lifts His protection so evil can run amok. Job loses everything—his fields, his livestock, his family, and his health—in a series of disasters. He sinks into an ash heap and wonders how his entire reality has shattered into shards of misery. Three of his friends drop by to commiserate with him and try to help him correct his course back to prosperous, happier days. This is where things get fuzzy

Job’s friends say a lot of right words, but their reasoning is wrong. They can’t conceive any other cause for his sudden misfortune than he’s sinned against God. They advise Job to search his conscience, identify his error, and repent. The first friend, Eliphaz, launches into a two-chapter discourse urging Job to stop living in denial: “You’ve always helped others with your wisdom. Now you don’t know what to do. Shouldn’t you trust your own advice?” (Job 4.4-6) Job’s not buying this. He’s done nothing wrong. In the next chapter, Eliphaz tries a different tactic, shoring up Job’s confidence in God’s mercy. “He’s the only One you can turn to, Job,” he says. “If you appeal to Him, He’ll restore everything you’ve lost and protect you from future disasters.” Although Eliphaz completely misjudges Job’s situation, we shouldn’t ignore his counsel altogether, because his points still hold validity.

What Else?

With each passing day, I’m more stunned by all the Jobs walking among us—people who suffer unconscionable hardship and loss through no fault of their own. And for many of them, it’s not just one hard season of getting knocked down; they cycle through traumatic losses over and over. They grow so exhausted and apprehensive they stay on the lookout for the next wave, always wondering what else will happen to pull out the rug from under them. There’s no reasoning with God or themselves about this, and suspicions rise that God’s vanished completely, He’s either stopped caring or never really cared about them, and there’s no use trusting Him. But asking what else can possibly go wrong leads to a much more crucial question: Who else can we turn to?

“Call if you will, but who will answer you? To which of the holy ones will you turn?” Eliphaz asks Job at the start of chapter 5. Uncertainty of God’s concern and power only confirms our certainty that no other power has the authority and wisdom to remedy our situation. The moment we start believing God’s left us alone is the moment we should realize He’s our only hope. Resenting God is foolish, Eliphaz explains in the next few verses, because it leads us further away from God, exposes us to greater harm, and leaves us defenseless against powers that be. What he next says in verses 6 and 7 carries such force, we should never forget it: “For hardship does not spring form the soil, nor does trouble sprout from the ground. Yet man is born to trouble as surely as sparks fly upward.” What have we done to deserve this? Nothing! We are born into a world of heinous cruelty and sin, caught in the crossfire of disobedient thugs and their displeased Maker. It’s no fairer for us to endure the violence and agony of others’ arrogance than it was for Job. But, sadly, the poison existed before we came to be and rather than drown in its cesspool, we must do our all to pull ourselves out of it, trusting God’s mercy for us even when we can’t feel or understand Him.

Don’t Tell Me That!

Eliphaz continues: “But if it were I, I would appeal to God; I would lay my cause before him. He performs wonders that cannot be fathomed, miracles that cannot be counted.” Several times in my own life, when my situation and my faith seemed to hit an all-time low for no discernible reason, well-meaning friends have dropped the “Eliphaz bomb” on me, too. “Just believe. You’ll be amazed how works things out.” I usually nodded along to avoid hearing more of the same to convince me. But inside my head, I howled, “Don’t tell me that! I can’t grasp why God’s letting me suffer. He’s not answering my questions. And you’re telling me ‘Wait and see. He’s a miracle worker?’ Take that somewhere else.” After I settled down, however, and recognized God was my only source of true help, I learned they were right. In several instances, it took years for the miracle He promised to reach fruition. But He never failed to keep His promise.

“If God is for us, who can be against us?” we’re asked in Romans 8.31. Eliphaz expands on this, saying, “He thwarts the plans of the crafty, so their hands achieve no success. He catches the wise in their craftiness, and the schemes of the wily are swept away.” (Job 5.12-13) While we’re racked with anxiety that God’s oblivious to our situation, it’s most often the case He’s dealing with the sources of our turmoil—bringing our enemies to their knees—while we wait on Him. His first order of business is protecting us from future harm; once that’s done, our healing will last. David, perhaps the Bible’s greatest example of living on a rollercoaster of extraordinary highs and devastating drops, writes, “The LORD is the stronghold of my life—of whom shall I be afraid? Though an army besiege me, my heart will not fear; though war break out against me, even then will I be confident.” (Psalm 27.1, 3)

As hard as it is to accept, ours is not to know why we suffer. Hardship happens. Instead of blaming God or mistaking His timing as indifference, we’re wise to trust His Word. While we think He’s ignoring us, He’s actually protecting us. The day will come when cruel words, actions, and circumstances that torment us for so long will end. We’ll find we’re protected from tongue-lashings, unshaken by encroaching destruction, and laughing at disaster. “It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees,” we read in Psalm 119.71. A life without hardship is a life without learning. Losing what we have for a season—possibly forever—is far better than having lived without experiencing God’s protection, healing, and deliverance.

Job's friends counsel him with the right words for the wrong reasons. 

(Tomorrow: Following Peace)

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

When God Goes Blind

There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

                        Galatians 3.28 

All the Children

In Sunday school, we sang a song many of you probably sang, too: “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.” The song earns an A-plus for ethics, but only a C (at best) for theology by implying God recognizes ethnic differences and, ergo, they matter. Galatians 3.28 patently refutes this, saying status we confer on one another based ethnicity, class, gender, and every other demographic qualifier doesn’t exist in His eyes. All the children of the world “are one in Christ.”

God’s universal acceptance regardless of “race, color, and creed” (as they say) is an easy purchase. Indeed, when we hear nutjobs like white supremacists preach divine favoritism, the idea is too ludicrous to merit laughter. Yet knowing God doesn’t see our differences can't prevent our noticing them, which saddles us with enormous—practically impossible—responsibility. We’re required to master the skill of looking and not seeing, accepting without assuming. Some of us do better than others, but none of us, I think, succeeds all the time. We’re stranded in a culture built on stereotypes too insidious to mention. And when we meet people whose appearances fit certain molds, more than we care to admit, we’re apt to filter our impressions through reckless images, media-fed clichés, and, worst of all, fear-based myths. Once we get to know them better, we confess they’re not at all like we initially expected, meaning more like us than we first imagined. We’d spare ourselves much wasted time and avoid needless feelings of guilt and ignorance if only we could train ourselves not to see so much and know more than we first acknowledge. This is what God does.

Leave It at the Door

The Early Church wrestled long and hard about who was qualified to receive Calvary’s benefits. Jewish converts believed in Christ as the Messiah, their Savior, and many had no interest in broadening their concept of Jesus’s mission to include Gentiles. Despite Peter and Paul (especially Paul) insisting He died for all, tensions between Jews and Gentiles proved palpable in many churches. It was equally hard for free Gentiles to worship and serve beside slaves or other second-class people whom they previously were taught had no standing with deities. Granting their equal access to God with free citizens demanded a huge mind-shift for European believers. Finally, Jewish and non-Jewish societies were patriarchal, placing men as natural superiors of women. Yet with increasing regularity, spiritual gifts like prophecy, wisdom, and good works surfaced in local churches without gender preference, much to the shock and resistance of believers who couldn’t reconcile social traditions with spiritual freedom. When Paul writes unity in Christ abolishes ethnic, class, and sexual status, he’s saying discrimination serves no purpose in the Church. In essence, he’s instructing us, “When you enter life in Christ, pack up your prejudice and leave it at the door.”

God’s Prism

The world is God’s prism. As a lens refracts colorless light into all of its hues, the world reveals the vast diversity of expression concealed in God’s light. Each of us is a point in the spectrum, one of nearly seven billion that together reflect the fullness of God. This is how it’s possible for all of us to be created in His image yet remain unique from one another. This is why Paul refutes our distinctions by virtue of our commonality—we are one in Christ. In John 9.5, Jesus says, “While I am in the world, I am the light of the world,” meaning the fullness of God exists entirely in Him. But in Matthew 5.14, He also says, “You [plural] are the light of the world.” None of us contains all of God’s light. But joined as one in Christ, our infinite variety of ethnicity, class, and gender reveals the majestic complexity, balance, and splendor of our Maker.

The little children of the world are precious in God’s sight because He sees His vastness in all of them. The instant we approach faith without disregarding individual distinctions is the moment when God goes blind. He refuses to recognize what we see, because focusing on traits that divide us weakens His image. Denying anyone equal access to God’s grace oversteps our authority. Presuming anyone unfit for His acceptance based on what we see is the height of audacity. We were never created to resemble one another in any way, shape, or form. We were made to look like Him. Instead of differences, we must see sameness. Training our eyes to go blind just as God goes blind is the only way we’ll ever see His total fullness and glory.

They're precious in God's sight not for their diversity, but for their expression of His fullness and glory. 

(Tomorrow: Laughing at Disaster)

Monday, May 4, 2009

From Panic to Picnic

When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do.

                        John 6.5-6

Asking Too Much

Now entering His third year of ministry, Jesus’s popularity has reached its all-time peak. Mob scenes erupt wherever He goes. Physically exhausted, spiritually spent, He and the disciples sail across the Sea of Galilee to pray privately and get sorely needed rest. They return to a seashore lined with people awaiting their arrival—about five thousand men, the Bible estimates, not including women and children. They follow Jesus to a nearby hillside, which turns into a makeshift arena. By the time they’re settled and quiet, however, the approaching dinner hour gives Jesus little time to speak. Rather than lose part of His audience to their appetites and shout above the hubbub as they leave, Jesus decides to feed them on the spot. He asks Philip where to buy enough bread to serve the crowd. True to his reputation as a half-empty-glass sort, Philip panics. “Eight months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!” he answers.

Philip’s panic seems reasonable at first blush. Jesus is asking too much. But when we reconsider it, it makes no sense from someone who supposedly knows how Christ thinks and repeatedly watches Him handle impossible problems in impossible ways. Isn’t Philip aware Jesus never speaks without thinking and always has the answer before posing the question? Can he really think Jesus hasn’t done the math and weighed the options? By now, hasn’t He learned Christ often asks more than we can do to test our faith in His power to accomplish great things through us? Philip’s flimsy reaction brings to mind the hilarious question Roseanne Barr asked her sitcom son when his response was out of whack with how she ran the house: Are you new?

It’s a Start

Andrew overhears the conversation and speaks up. “There’s a boy who’s got five little barley loaves and a couple fish, but how far will that go with so many people?” Most of us would look at the lad’s skimpy lunch and say, “It’s not a lot, but it’s a start.” We’d huddle the disciples, explain the problem, and disburse them in a dozen directions to collect all the available food to combine and redistribute. We’d make a big announcement of what we planned to do and rush the people through a line, thinking it’s the only way to feed them quickly enough to get started with the lesson. We’d create a logistical nightmare as food and time ran out and a large percentage of the crowd wandered away unfed and untaught.

Jesus also looks at the lunch and thinks, “It’s a start”—but a start is all He needs. It’s unnecessary to trouble anyone else for more. There’s no reason to create chaos by canvassing the crowd for leftovers and organizing a food line when He’s already got all that’s required to feed their bodies and souls simultaneously. “Have everyone take a seat,” He says. He blesses the little He’s received, breaks it into pieces, and passes it out, telling the people to take as much as they want. After everyone’s fed and satisfied, Jesus instructs the disciples to fan out and gather what’s left. Each of them returns with a full basket.

Poised for Impossibilities

It doesn’t—or shouldn’t—take very long for any follower of Christ to realize He thinks and works with impeccable foresight. He sees needs long before they develop. He has answers well in advance of our figuring out the questions. Once we grasp the enormity of what’s happening, He often tests our faith by asking too much of us. We can be like Philip and panic, or we can learn from Andrew and say, “This is all I can to scrounge up. Take it and use it. I don’t understand how You’re going to stretch so little to do so much, but it’s Yours.” 

Following Jesus teaches us to stay constantly poised for impossibilities. We give Him what we have and step back, waiting for further instructions. What seems practical and efficient is shortsighted and counterproductive to what He has in mind. We want to get things moving. He tells us to settle down. We want to temporarily fix the problem with a bite or two. He resolves it to everyone’s satisfaction—with plenty to spare. Philip mistakes Jesus’s question to suggest He’s looking at the problem from an ordinary perspective and proposing an ordinary solution. He should know better. That’s never the case with Christ. While Philip surveys the problem and panics, Jesus is planning a picnic.

What we manage to scrounge up may not be much. But it's a start--and that's all Christ needs to remedy the situation.  

(Tomorrow: Why God Goes Blind)

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Where'd They Go?

How could one man chase a thousand, or two put ten thousand to flight, unless their Rock had sold them, unless the LORD had given them up? For their rock is not is not like our Rock, as even our enemies concede.

                        Deuteronomy 32.30-31

Regrettable Amendments

How it must break God’s heart to hear terminology like “the Christian Right” and “left-wing Christians,” “mainstream churches” and “splinter groups.” No doubt He winces (at the very least) when we answer inquiries about our faith with denominational affiliation or where we worship. Every convened forum to debate doctrine and legislate policy surely infuriates Him. Politics never figured into God’s plan. Yet from the start, we’ve done our best to foil His intentions. The quarreling that began soon after the first 120 Christians left the Upper Room hasn’t stopped, and won’t stop until Jesus returns to unify His Church by separating true believers from impostors.

We’ve all but forgot the Second Coming and Final Judgment are regrettable amendments to the original design. Christ’s First Coming and Calvary’s verdict were meant to be final, forever reconciling our differences with God and, by extension, uniting us as equals by His grace. Two prophecies (Isaiah 2.4 and Micah 4.3) emphasize this almost word for word: “He will judge between many peoples and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.” Global rejection of Christ accounts for humanity’s perpetual conflicts. But what explains the Church’s persistent infighting? How can people bound together by God’s grace justify constantly battling each other?

When Believers Attack

Actually, an understandable—though hardly legitimate—reason comes into play when believers attack one another. Recognizing what that is would greatly help both sides declare peace and convert their weapons of war into tools for growth. Ironically, the very grace binding us together also tears apart. Because each of us cherishes it so passionately we’re compelled to defend and protect it. Both sides’ unyielding faith in God’s grace is a magnificent thing, undoubtedly the highest honor they offer Him. But the miracle of grace is too overwhelming to fully comprehend. It doesn’t take much thought about it to send us reeling into a drunken frenzy of misguided, graceless emotions and behaviors. We forget Jesus issued an open invitation to His well: "The Spirit and the bride say, 'Come!' And let him who hears say, 'Come!' Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life.” (Revelation 22.17) Accepting Christ's invitation to drink living water requires us to invite anyone else who's thirsty to drink with us. Unfortunately, however, many of us get so excited and greedy with grace, we want it all to ourselves. In our headiness, we actually try to drive others away

Let’s be honest: overindulgence in Christian fervor makes for mean drunks. We pick fights with fellow believers who, in our opinion, have no business savoring the same forgiveness and acceptance we prize so dearly. Abusing faith’s potency as an intoxicant throws us off balance, distorts our vision, clouds our minds, and releases personal inhibitions we’re taught to respect. We sacrifice all self-control to confront fellow believers who don’t look or act like us, who we don’t believe belong in our company, and who anger us by taking a seat we feel they don’t deserve. Insults start flying back and forth. Arguments break out. Everyone’s flashing ID’s and challenging each other’s scriptural rights to drink Christ’s living water. More drunks jump into the fracas, ponying up on one of two sides. People scramble to find God, as if He were a bouncer screening who’s eligible to get in and throwing troublemakers out. But God’s long gone. This isn’t His kind of crowd. Meanwhile, no one seems to care that desperately parched people see our pandemonium, hear our racket, and walk away. We’re not their kind of crowd, either.

The Rock

Condemning confrontational Christians makes us confrontational. We join the opposition and, therefore, oppose God’s plan and Christ’s purpose. We weren’t saved to identify with ideology, doctrine, or dogma—to side with the left or right, to be Catholics or Protestants or any other schism. Jesus died to bring us back to God and establish peace among His people. If other believers stumble around like blind drunks, tripping over themselves, stirring up trouble, and embarrassing one another, so be it. Our sole identification is with our Maker. We stand only with Him and those lucid enough to stand with Him.

That other crowd is too woozy to remember God has no tolerance for intolerance, particularly when practiced in His name. Deuteronomy says He sells them—He gives them up. Although He once priced their value equal to His Son’s life, they’re worth so little now one faithful believer can chase a thousand of them away, two people can send ten thousand packing. Notice the subtle downshift in capitalization. The Rock they claim to stand on gives them up to find another (all lower-case) rock. “Their rock is not like our Rock,” Deuteronomy 32.31 says, “Even our enemies can see that.” Numbers, politics, and opinions have no importance when we identify exclusively with the Rock. We may feel like outsiders, but doing as He says makes us a majority of one. When faith brawls flare up around us, putting as much distance as possible between them and us ends in our adversaries’ flight. One minute they engulf us with bickering and broadsides. The next finds us wondering, “Where’d they go?”

God wants nothing to do with faith brawls, and neither should we.

(Tomorrow: From Panic to Picnic)