In this series of blogs we are exploring four Christian virtues associated with the Advent season: hope, peace, love, and joy. Each one of these virtues—as Christian virtues—finds their full meaning and significance in Jesus’ ministry on earth. Without them we are at a clear disadvantage in dealing with trials and in demonstrating the reality of the gospel in our lives.
“Peace on Earth, Goodwill to Man”
This month you likely will hear, if not sing, the familiar carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” which includes the refrain “peace on earth, goodwill to men.” And how many times did you wish the same for your counselees throughout this past year? How many times did you hear from professing Christians about unrelieved conflict in their lives? Spouses yell expletives at one another that you’d only expect to hear on an R-rated movie; friends refuse to talk to one another after an insensitive comment is made; a father wishes for the death of the young man whom he thinks is not right for his daughter. In whatever form it takes, a lack of peace undoubtedly pervades your counseling caseload.
From reading his letters, we know Paul encountered this same problem: “I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord. Yes, I ask you also, true companion, help these women …” (Philippians 4:2-3). “I appeal to you [Philemon] for my child, Onesimus … I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. … if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me” (Philemon 10-17). “But if you [Galatians] bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another. … Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another” (Galatians 5:15, 26). Galatians 5 also identifies why a lack of peace exists, even within the church: “Now the works of the flesh are evident: … enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions” (Galatians 5:19-20). When the “flesh” reigns, peace wanes.
Paul personally understood the hate-generating desires of the flesh. He described himself to the Galatians: “I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it” (Galatians 1:13). To the Corinthians he wrote: “For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am …” (1 Corinthians 15:9-10). Still much later in his life, the lesson he learned about God’s mercy in response of his former life continued to impress him: “though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. … I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.” (1 Timothy 1:13, 16, 17).
Paul’s own transformation from hateful persecutor to faithful servant of Christ embodied a message he wanted to pass on to other believers. Much of Ephesians is a meditation on the centrality of peace in God’s redemptive plan. The peace begins with a reconciliation between the sinner and God through Christ. “… we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy … made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved” (Ephesians 2:3-5).
Christ’s ministry also made possible the reconciliation of people who are normally at odds with one another. “And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father” (Ephesians 2:17-18).
Our feuding counselees need to be reminded that their bitterness, anger, or hatred—in whatever form it takes—is antithetical to the calling they received to be part of the body of Christ. “… walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1-3). It is the Lord’s will that his children work together, support one another, and live harmoniously with one another. The presence of the Holy Spirit makes this possible! The “unity of the Spirit” is the relational harmony made possible by the mutually indwelling Holy Spirit. And note Paul’s realistic perspective on interpersonal peace within the church: He specifies that our calling requires humility, gentleness, and forbearance, a willingness to put up with those who might be irritating, annoying, or insensitive.
Paul did not think those who stubbornly jeopardized the unity of the Spirit should be allowed the opportunity to create division within congregations. “As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned” (Titus 3:10-11). These individuals are not humble or willing to accept others’ differing points of view; they are not “long-suffering” with others who differ with them; they are not gentle when the differences become evident. The response by church leaders to them needs to be decisive and quick.
The “Peace” Assessment
Do you (or your counselees) recognize the centrality of peace in the “calling you have received”? The saving of souls is meaningless if it does not promote the harmonization of hearts, because in God’s plan “there is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:4-6).
Ask yourself (or your counselee): Are there any mannerisms, jokes, attitudes, opinions, etc., that I am known for that promote disunity? Those must be stopped. Moreover, remember that “promoting unity” is not passive. “Make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit.” Thus, what can you (or your counselee) do to proactively create conditions that unify fellow believers? You cannot ignore this question. Otherwise, you are not “living a life worthy of the calling you have received.”
Join the Conversation
In your relationships and in your counseling, what subtle forms of hatred or anger have you witnessed that are easily overlooked—until they lead to fractured relationships? What strategies have you used to make every effort to maintain—or restore—the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace?