The Things That Divide Us

And after some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us return and visit the brothers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are.” Now Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. And there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other. Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and departed, having been commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord. And he went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.
Acts 15:36-41 (ESV)

One of the things I love most about the Bible is how it provides modern believers with a crystal-clear picture of the foibles, weaknesses and divisions that were rife even among the faithful. Paul opposes Peter to his face (Galatians 2:11-14), Jesus Himself promises sharp divisions within families (Matthew 10:34-36), and His hometown responds to His inaugural sermon by trying to toss Him headlong off a cliff (Luke 4:28-29)…on and on and on it goes. If the Bible were a work of fiction intended to “sell” us on Jesus as the only way to have a relationship with God (John 14:6), surely its “editors” could have done a much better job of smoothing out all the rough, messy parts where Jesus nearly gets Himself killed and his own disciples go at it with each other, right?

Personally, I find a lot of cause for hope – along with a strong apologetic for authenticity – within the pages of the Bible simply because the people that God uses most mightily are seriously jacked up and often contentious…just like me. They quarrel, they mislead, they scheme, they defy Christ’s authority…again, just like me (and just like a lot of other people I run into, both within the church and outside of it). God is not telling us His story against a backdrop of impossibly-pure heroes and heroines that we can never hope to emulate; this story is nothing at all like a Hollywood movie where every shot fired by the hero fells 30 enemy soldiers. Rather, God – in His mercy – is using flawed, fallen people just like us to demonstrate that He is content to build His church using…people just like us. Unfortunately, people just like us quarrel – sometimes heatedly – and are prone to divide over quarrels.

For me, one of the most routinely-difficult aspects of trying to live out the Christian faith is that faithfulness (or even one’s best attempt at faithfulness) seems to almost invariably lead to divisions, both temporary and permanent. Quite frankly, my own heart is still struggling to accept this truth…even though I see it play out this way all the time! Though I clearly see faith-related division happening over and over again, there is yet some sort of naive belief in my heart that all of us (and by “us” I now mean the church) should be able to simply “love Jesus and get along.” But after awhile, it starts to look a lot like denying the little white lines on the interstate as you drive along at 70MPH. It seems obvious, then, that a denial of these all-too-real divisions ultimately helps nothing at all.

Admittedly, I don’t do the division thing very well. I don’t like it. I don’t want it, and I for sure don’t go looking for it. When it shows up uninvited on my doorstep, typically demanding an immediate response, I am almost always “surprised” at its arrival! That being true, it’s normative for me to feel caught off guard, to “bobble the ball” at least a few times before finally articulating the problem accurately; left to my own devices, I still have a tendency to respond out of my emotions. Sometimes, by the time the search for a response that is God-honoring begins in my heart, the “window of opportunity” for meaningful dialogue is long gone. By the time I have come to accept the fact that I am clearly at odds with another person, I’m behind the eight-ball.

As just one example, back in 1997, I had to give up drinking altogether before I would ever be enabled to come to Christ. Not everyone needs to do this, certainly, but for me it was obviously required. In my 20 active years of drinking alcohol, I had made a lot of friendships that were primarily rooted in the love of a raucous drinking binge. As I turned my back on the one shared love that cemented those friendships, I began to watch those relationships fall away – some more difficult and awkward than others. Even the few friendships I made in those years that had more going for them than a shared appreciation for drinking have gone through noticeable change. Again and again, there is an odd tension that comes about whenever the “formula” makes itself obvious; renouncing a besetting sin causes division (small or large, temporary or permanent). Counting up your losses can become something of a hobby.

So I take a lot of comfort from the fact that Jesus assured us it would be this way (John 15:18-20; John 16:33, Luke 12:49-53, Matthew 8:19-22, Matthew 10:16-25, Mark 6:10-11, Luke 6:27-30). I try as best I can to stay immersed in God’s Word so that I have some hope of maybe, possibly “thinking God’s thoughts after Him.” I know for a fact that my own thoughts and heart attitudes are absolutely wrecked by sin, so I must rely almost exclusively on the Bible, prayer and the interpretation of other mature Christians. Put simply, I long ago gave up on the idea that I can respond appropriately to a dispute apart from the Word of God and the advice of other believers who have been walking with Christ far longer than I have.

The Bible, prayer and the advice of other Christians. Some might judge this arsenal as one that needs to be stocked with some more “powerful” tools. In the book of Ephesians, though, the Apostle Paul begs to differ (Ephesians 6:13-19). Paul similarly exhorts us to live peaceably as best we can (Romans 12:18) while we must always be ready for conflict (Ephesians 6:10-11). Actually, Paul says quite a lot about conflict (Romans 12:19-21, 1 Corinthians 1:10-11, 3:3; 2 Corinthians 7:5-10; 2 Timothy 2:16-17, 2:23-25, the entire book of Philemon). He also encourages us to check each other’s heart and motives (Galatians 5:16-24, 1 Timothy 1:5) and Luke encourages us to emulate the noble Bereans as we balance what our spiritual leaders have to say against the Word of God (Acts 17:10-12).

Honestly, I hate conflict, even though there are multiple ways in which I yet seem to engender it. Like most believers, I would (if possible) always choose to live a hassle-free life. I suppose the best I can hope for is that one day I will engender ill will in roughly the same manner as our Lord, who by His very nature rubbed people the wrong way…but for all the right reasons. I notice, though, that I am yet very much unlike Jesus in the way I respond to division and strife; may His Spirit live in me (and all of us) such that we stop dividing for all the wrong, selfish reasons, and may we all gain some lasting encouragement from 2 Timothy 4:9-11, wherein we learn that Paul, awaiting execution in Rome, has been reconciled to Mark after all.

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