A question sometimes put to me is this: ‘Why are many non-churchgoers nicer than some who say they’re Christians?’ Shouldn’t we expect God’s people to be living lives reflecting Jesus’ teaching?
Certainly Paul the Apostle expects this. In Ephesians chapter 4, verse 1 he says: I therefore, a prisoner of the Lord, urge you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called…
His exhortation is more far-reaching than a specific set of rules, for it applies to areas of life that might be difficult to define. So, just as members of a family respected for its integrity, will want to uphold the good name of the family God’s people will want to live for the honor of God’s name.
Paul continues: … with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. Concerned with how God’s people relate to others, he gives some specifics.
Humility and gentleness: the flip side is conceit and insensitivity. Conceited people tend to be so wrapped up in themselves that they rarely think of others. Indeed, sadly it is true that there are people within the church who are so consumed with their own interests that they are indifferent to others. Yet as we learn elsewhere, humility is needed if we are truly to experience God in our lives. We need to be honest with ourselves and with God about the self-interest that dominates our lives. Once we know the reality of God’s love what should be more natural than putting aside self-interest and indifference and practising humility and gentleness?
To this Paul adds, patience – literally longsuffering. The converse of longsuffering is a quick-fire temper that explodes at the least provocation.
A psychotherapist once observed that we all have sensitive areas in our personalities where our response is out of all proportion to a situation. It’s as though we have mine-fields in our lives. Some have very few mines and are much easier to relate to. However, there are others who have mines everywhere. Their ‘mines’ may be occasioned by a lack of self-confidence or a point of view, such as political correctness, that is so strongly held that no discussion will be tolerated. These people are not easy to get on with. And so, if a group of ten people come together for an enterprise, it only takes one person who is a walking mine-field to destroy the morale and endeavor of the group.
Unity. God’s people are also to bear with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (4:3).
In 1 Corinthians 12:3 we learn that God’s Spirit awakens us and draws us to the Lord Jesus. And in 12:13 Paul tells us that all God’s people, whether Jewish or non-Jewish, slave or free, are baptized into one body. While the Spirit imparts a unity among God’s people within churches and across churches, we are responsible for working this out in practice. And here we have a resource and a model that no-one else has: the character of God. God is not without his points of conflict with us, but he is patient and has provided the example of bearing with us in love. In his love he doesn’t hold grudges and he doesn’t let his anger turn into bitterness. Rather, he is willing to forgive us when we fail him and turn back to him.
And so we are called upon to be willing to forgive one another when we have wronged one another. It is inconsistent with our calling to be argumentative, resentful, and complaining.
That said, we mustn’t misunderstand Paul. He is not saying that we should put up with anything. He goes on to write: But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,… (4:15). To be long-suffering doesn’t mean that that we never rebuke, admonish, or exhort one another. We are called to be non-judgmental. The quality we are to adopt is the spirit of love: love for God and love for people.
Furthermore, Paul has already said in this Letter that our relationship with God is not based on our ‘niceness’ or our good works, but strictly on the grounds of God’s grace: For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast (2:8-9).
As there’s no room for pride or boasting in our relationship with God, so there’s no place for arrogance and aggressiveness in our relationships with one another. ‘Be humble and gentle with one another,’ Paul says. This is not weakness but strength. It is only the strong person who can be humble, only the strong person who can be tender.
Niceness. To return to the question of ‘niceness’. Wonderful though it would be if everyone in the world was ‘nice’, God has a greater interest. He is committed to rescuing and creating a new people whom he knows as ‘sons’ and ‘daughters’ and who know him as ‘Father’. People around us may seem ‘nice’ but none of us are ‘good’ in God’s eyes. Our rescue involved Jesus’ crucifixion.
And so there will be ‘nice’ people, and countless others who aren’t necessarily nice at all, who need to be aware of their need to turn to Christ Jesus with repentant hearts. On the other hand, all of God’s people are, in varying ways and varying degrees, a work in progress.
Let’s pray for God’s grace that we may lead a life worthy of the calling to which we have been called…
A prayer. Teach us, gracious Lord, to begin our works with reverence, to go on in obedience, and finish them with love; and then to wait patiently in hope, and with cheerful countenance to look up to you, whose promises are faithful and rewards infinite; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.