Trying to wrap my head and heart around the divisiveness that has marked so much public discourse lately, I spent some valuable time pondering three messy relational scenarios described in the New Testament. Each situation highlights how we, who are perfectly loved by Jesus, don’t easily handle our differences very well.
In fact, until Jesus returns and we are made perfect in love (1 John 4:17–19), remain quite capable of failing to love one another. The fact that the Bible records these broken stories actually makes it more trustworthy to me and encouraging to my weary heart. What can we learn from the situations? How are we who live with canceled sins to inhabit this cancel culture of ours?
In Galatia, the debate over the relationship between God’s law and God’s grace got so intense, Paul had to warn the believers there about how their “biting and devouring one another” could lead to relational destruction among the churches in Galatia (Galatians 5:15). The inference seems to be that both legalists and grace-defenders joined in the verbal teardown. We can be just as self-righteous about the gospel of grace as we can the non-gospel of legalism.
Jack Miller, my spiritual father, used to refer to this as “Christian cannibalism.” It’s one thing to be passionate for the truth, but quite another to ignore—even sabotage the new command Jesus gave us, to love one another as he loves us (John 13:34–35). Paul’s parting word to believers in Galatia remains his abiding word for us: “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself in love” (Galatians 5:6).
Not long after Pentecost, a heated situation emerged between two groups of Christians in the early church about widow care. A group of Jesus followers from a Hellenistic (Greek) Jewish background felt marginalized and slighted by believers from a Hebraic Jewish background. The issue was the daily distribution of bread for widows and the poor—the Hellenistic widows weren’t benefitting from this mercy ministry of the early church (Acts 6:1–7). What we learn from this situation, is that how we handle our differences is just as important as the issue itself.
It’s one thing to register a complaint kindly—always appropriate for God’s people. But Luke used a unique word to describe the “mummering” that festered among the Hellenistic Jewish converts (goggysmo). It’s the same word used in Numbers 11 to describe the kind of mummering that arose from God’s people in response to their boredom with manna in the wilderness—a whine-fest God responded to with great passion.
As Luke tells the story, the Hellenistic Jews, didn’t just comment on the inequity of the bread delivery service in Jerusalem. They railed against the Hebraic Jews, perhaps reflecting a cultural divide and racial stereotypes. Sometimes the surface problem reveals a much deeper issue than the apparent one. The outcome? The apostles suggested a process that led to seven men, “full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom,” being raised up to continue this ministry of mercy and pastor the hearts of the community. Many suggest this was the beginning of the office of deacon in the New Testament. This was a very redemptive result to a crisis situation.
Timothy, Paul’s son in the faith, was known to struggle with fear and at times needed some encouragement (2 Timothy 1:6–8). Apparently he also needed instruction not to drift into argumentative habits. Thus, Paul admonished the young leader, “Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments because you know they produce quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 2:23–25).
In the heat of a disagreement, sometimes our commitment to be right can undercut our calling to be kind. Paul reminds us that only God can reveal the truth of his Word to the hearts of others. None of us is the fourth member of the Trinity.
No doubt, Paul remembered his own pre-conversion penchant for unhinged anger, resentment, even hatred. Acts 8:3 gives us a pretty clear picture of his background: “Saul was going everywhere to destroy the church. He went from house to house, dragging out both men and women to throw them into prison.” What a transformation that this was the same man leading the early church’s missionary movement and writing a significant portion of the New Testament! Paul’s story and growth in grace are a tremendous encouragement to us when we might be tempted to be discouraged about our own weaknesses with conflict.
Relying on the Love of God
From my own experiences as a pastor, husband, dad, and friend, I know the challenges involved in loving others as Jesus loves us. To this end, one verse in 1 John first letter has become a heart tattoo—a constant reminder, a gracious promise, and a kiss of hope for engaging in all of my relationships. This has become especially true in the past two years of heightened relational intensity that has marked our culture.
And so we know and rely on the love God has for us1 John 4:16
Knowing, growing in, relying on, and showing the love of God is the central theme of John’s first epistle. Here are a few of the ways this one verse is helping me recenter when I am discouraged about disunity in the body of Christ. Its truths help me come back to gospel sanity on a daily basis.
- Because the gospel is true, I know God loves me as much as he loves Jesus, and there’s nothing I can do to increase or diminish his love for me. I rely 110 percent on Jesus’s righteousness as the basis of God’s love for me. God doesn’t love us to the degree we are like Christ, but to the degree we are in Christ. This core gospel truth enables us to be present in relationships without the pressure of being impressive. We love from the love of God, not in order to gain the love of God.
- Because I am fully known and fully loved by God, I rely less on the validation, affirmation, and appreciation of others to “feel okay” about myself. In fact, by the power of the gospel, feeling okay about myself isn’t as important as it used to be. Much of my anger, fear, and anxiety in relationships has been based on needing something from them. I can still default to immature ways of handling challenging relationships, but I don’t try to justify my bad attitude or blame others for my unloving responses.
- By relying on the love of God, I am able to see and repent of my prejudices quicker, inhabit complex and challenging relationships with more kindness, be more present and less fearful in conflicts, and grow a heart of curiosity and appreciation for people very different from me, and who hold views that are, at times, polar opposite of mine.
- By relying on the love of God, I look forward to the day of Jesus’s return, when I will be made perfect in love (1 John 3:1–3). I crave that day more than ever. That great hope and sure promise enables me to humble myself on a daily basis, not give into shame, and receive fresh grace to love as I am loved.
1 John: Relying on the Love of God
For the apostle John, nothing defined him more than the love of God in Jesus, and that is what he relied on every moment of every day. Scotty Smith takes readers through 1 John and shows how a rich understanding of the love of God prepares us to thrive in times of great stress and strengthens us for every season of life.