The Surprising Reality of Disunity: insights from Philippians

In Philippians we see Paul do something rarely seen in any other letter. Near the end Paul specifically names two individuals, exhorting them toward unity. He writes in Philippians 4:2-3:

“I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you, my true companion, help these women since they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.”

Here is the challenge: we are one in Christ, but we often don’t live like it. And that challenge grips the church in Philippi.

We do not know exactly who these two women, Euodia and Syntyche, were, but they were evidently pillars in the Philippian church. Because of how Paul earlier addresses the various pressures believers in Philippi faced, it is most likely these two Christian leaders were in disagreement about how to live out the gospel in the face of external pressures or even persecution.

This situation also highlights something else about conflict and unity in the church: disunity is not just a problem for those who are young or immature in the faith, but also for those who are mature in the faith.

These two women were leaders within the church—even deemed co-workers with Paul—as it says in verse 3: “they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel.” They were friends and co-workers called by name by Paul who knows them and cares for them, as well as the entire church in Philippi.

Friends, this is not that different from our own day. Because of the pressures on us during this incredibly divisive time, as Christians we are struggling to figure out what it looks like to live out the gospel in our day and time. We wrestle with what that means and sometimes we disagree with one another about that. This is not necessarily a maturity issue…but it is a real unity issue.

We are one in Christ, but we often do not live as one. The situation in Philippi, a church which Paul joyfully thanked God for daily, should not be surprising to us. Challenges to unity are normal… …but we must actively uphold unity with love.

[This post was drawn from my message, “Becoming One: the developing unity of the church as the community of Christ.”]

What Does It Mean to Live in the Kingdom of God?

Near the end of his magnificent letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul calls early believers to live fixed on the most important things, not superficial things such as what we eat or don’t eat, what we drink or don’t drink, but true life in the kingdom. This is how Paul describes the Christian life there: 

“For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 14:17)

What does it mean to live in the kingdom? According to Paul the Apostle it means at least four things.

Righteousness
As one of the central themes of Romans, righteousness is tied in with the work of Christ that justifies us before God by faith. But in the context of Romans 13 righteousness also has to do with living rightly in relationships within the Christian community. Kingdom living is about righteousness.

Peace
Living in God’s kingdom is living at peace with God through Christ and at peace with others. This is not merely the absence of conflict but the fullness of biblical shalom where all things are right in God’s world as they should be. This is the sort of good life that all human beings truly desire.

Joy
When righteousness and peace are present in our lives we will almost inevitably live with irrepressible joy in our lives. This is a joy that exists regardless of our circumstances, as Paul testifies in his great “epistle of joy,” Philippians, which was written from prison. Kingdom living is joyful living.

In the Holy Spirit
All of these attributes, and kingdom life itself, comes through the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit enters our life through faith in Christ as both the powerful presence of God and the One who makes the realities of the kingdom real to us personally.

To be made right with God the Father, to live in the peace of Christ, and to walk in the joy of the Holy Spirit—this is what the kingdom life looks like. Doesn’t that sound good?

When we hear Jesus proclaim that “the kingdom of God has come near” (Mark 1:15), He is letting us know that this sort of life is now accessible to us. We can enter it now—not just later when we die—and live in it by learning from Jesus and walking by the power of the Holy Spirit. Dallas Willard describes it this way:

By relying on Jesus’ word and presence we are enabled to reintegrate the little realm that makes up our life into the infinite rule of God. And that is the eternal kind of life. Caught up in his active rule, our deeds become an element in God’s eternal history.[1] 

So we must say, ‘yes,’ to Jesus and daily yield to the Holy Spirit. Have you done that? Have you surrendered the little realm of you life to the realm of His life? Have you given your ‘kingdom’ to God for His kingdom?


[1] Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (San Francisco, CA: Harper Collins, 1998), 27.

How Important is the Gospel to Us?

Rembrandt Paul

Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible….I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings. (1 Corinthians 9:19, 22b-23)

How important is the gospel to us? Does it save us only or does it shape every aspect of our lives. The Apostle Paul is motivated to sacrifice his freedom and autonomy for the sake of his gospel ministry. His goal is that more might be saved by all means available.

We do not see in Paul a half-hearted love for God and the gospel, but a wholehearted dedication. He surrenders all he is and has to God that God might use all of Paul for His purposes. Every aspect of Paul’s life is surrendered to God for His purposes: His freedom, his cultural frameworks, his preferences, his will, his strength, his comfort—everything.

What about us? Are we the sort of people who are completely surrendered to God for His purposes? Have we given every aspect of our lives into the hands of God or is there something that we have held back? Our response to these questions may reveal how important the gospel really is to us. May God give us strength to surrender everything to Him.

Three Ways God Uses Suffering in Our Lives

perseverance

We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. (Romans 5:3-5)

The sufferings we endure are not meaningless within the hands of God. This is true regardless of whether we have brought the suffering upon ourselves or whether it has come upon us through the hands of others or our environment. When we put ourselves in the hands of God by faith, our sufferings are invested with another purpose. As the Apostle Paul outlines here in Romans 5, God takes us in the midst of our sufferings and shapes something valuable into our lives.

First, Paul writes, God shapes perseverance into our lives. This is the capacity to keep going, even in the midst of adverse circumstances. Perseverance does not just magically appear in our lives. It is something that we must develop, like a runner suffering through training until she can run a full marathon. While none of us desire suffering, when we submit our suffering to God we free Him to develop perseverance into our lives. Without perseverance, nothing else will come because we will continually push against our circumstances and against God. But as we grow in perseverance, God can have His way in developing us for His glorious purposes.

Along with perseverance, Paul tells us, God uses our sufferings to shape character into our lives. Character is not an abstract gift from God—just an idea about virtue—but is something tangibly confirmed in our lives through the furnace of our trials. If you want character without suffering, you are looking for something else; perhaps a good reputation. If you want character without perseverance, you really want something else; perhaps informational knowledge of what character is. But if we really want character, there is no other way than through the furnace of suffering. Character is developed through trying and testing, like a precious metal refined in the fire as the dross is burned away to reveal its highest quality. Our character is developed and revealed through the fires of suffering combined with our willingness to persevere.

Third, Paul tells us that hope follows character and perseverance when our suffering is given into the hands of God. Hope arises as we persevere amidst the fires of suffering in which character is shaped. Without hope we give up in life, as we know from those who lose a will to live in dire health circumstances or imprisonment. But with hope, we can find meaning in life and keep going. It is by clinging to God by faith amidst suffering that we begin to see that God is indeed doing something else as we bear up in the challenges of life. Contrary to what we perceive with our eyes, God is at work, and this revelation that God is at work brings hope into our lives. We walk by faith and not by sight, as Paul writes elsewhere (2 Corinthians 5:7), but it is hope that keeps us walking. When we yield our sufferings to God, letting Him shape Christlike character in us, hope simultaneously springs up as we realize God has not left us alone and is working in our lives.

All of this meaningful work of God amidst suffering is sustained not by sheer human willpower (although the will is significant), but by the Holy Spirit who is the bond of love tying us into the presence of God through Christ. God is at work, completing what He begins in us (Philippians 1:6). God is working within us with the same power that raised Christ Jesus from the dead (Ephesians 1:19-20). And so, even as Christ’s suffering was powerful significant, so, too, when we yield our sufferings to God they bring forth a harvest of righteousness for His glory.

All Real Faith Involves Discipline: Albert E. Day on cooperation with God

sunshine-dust-motes

I encountered these provocative words from Albert Edward Day in Discipline and Discovery. While perhaps in some ways using exaggeration to make his point, Day strikes home the importance of cooperating with God in the process of spiritual growth.

True holiness is a witness that cannot be ignored. Real sainthood is a phenomenon to which even the worlding pays tribute. The power of a life, where Christ is exalted, would arrest and subdue those who are bored to tears by our thin version of Christianity and wholly uninterested in mere churchmanship

We have talked much of salvation by faith, but there has been little realization that all real faith involves discipline. Faith is not a blithe ‘turning it all over to Jesus.’ Faith is such confidence in Jesus that it takes seriously his summons, ‘If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.’

We have loudly proclaimed our dependence upon the grace of God, never guessing that the grace of God is given only to those who practice the grace of self-mastery. ‘Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling for god is at work in you both to will and to work his good pleasure.’ People working out, God working in—that is the New Testament synthesis.

Humans, working out their salvation alone, are a pathetic spectacle—hopelessly defeated moralists trying to elevate themselves by their own bootstraps.

God, seeking to work in a person who offers no disciplined cooperations, is a heartbreak spectacle—a defeated Savior trying to free, from sins and earthiness, a person who will not life his or her face out of the dust, or shake off the shackles of the egocentric self.

Real discipline is not vain effort to save one’s self. It is an intelligent application to the self of those psychological principles which enable the self to enter into life-giving fellowship with God who is our salvation.

In all Christian literature there is no writer who had a clearer conviction concerning the salvation provided only in Christ than has Paul. His self-despair ended in that marvelous, ageless insight, ‘I thank God, through Jesus Christ, my Lord.’ ‘I know whom I have believed,’ he cried in an ecstasy of gladness, ‘and am persuaded that he is able.’ Paul was a salvationist, in the noblest sense.

But Paul was also a disciplinarian. ‘I beat my body to keep it in subjection.’ ‘They that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its affections and lusts.’ ‘So fight I, not as one who beateth the air.’ ‘Mortify therefore your members which are upon earth.’ ‘Laying aside every weight and the sin which so easily beset us.’ ‘No man that warreth, entangleth himself with the affairs of this life.’ These are not he words of a man who scorned discipline!

On might multiply such statements as these from Paul—all of them the almost spontaneous evidence of the disciplines which he, trusting in Christ, imposed upon himself in his eager effort to give Christ that co-operation without which not even Christ can save a soul and make a saint.

We must recover for ourselves the significance and the necessity of the spiritual disciplines. Without them we shall continue to be impotent witnesses for Christ. Without them Christ will be impotent in his efforts to use us to save our society from disintegration and death.