Attitudes that Promote Unity.
God is seeking to reconcile the people of the world to himself and to each other. He calls us to cooperate with his purpose, but we do not and cannot do this independently of him. Instead, we cooperate based on what he has done for us (see post). We are now considering specific ways he gives us to cooperate with his plan.
I think it is significant that Paul’s first general topic in the practical section of Ephesians (chapters 4-6) is relationships, and that the specific subject is unity. Working toward unity is not only God’s purpose for us but is also a great need in many churches. The first specific way he gives us to cooperate with his plan to unite the world is for us to have the right attitudes: “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love” (Ephesians 4:2). All these traits are fitting for a Christian in general, but in context they are more than that. They are prerequisite to having unity.
Perhaps you’ve noticed that once there is dissension or arguing among Christians, the qualities mentioned in Ephesians 4:2 are nowhere to be found. It would seem that we think we can restore unity by stating our side of any issue louder and stronger. Such an approach will create compliance at best, but as the old adage says, “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.” More likely it will produce division and carnage.
In contrast, the attitudes mentioned here lead to conversations instead of arguments. We are accustomed to saying that we have many different perspectives on issues, and I understand that. But we could also say that various ones of us have seen different parts of God’s wisdom. We are much more likely to come to a fuller understanding of God’s will if we can have conversations and allow many people to share what they have seen and heard from God. As we seek, hear, and consider the collective wisdom of God’s people, we stand to gain a more complete and balanced understanding of his will. Such conversations, conducted in an atmosphere of humility, may even lead some of us to realize our previous understanding was deficient in some way. It is much more likely that such a realization will emerge from a mutually respectful conversation than from strong argumentation.
The first attitude mentioned is humility. This quality is somewhat difficult to grasp because we easily confuse it with low self-esteem. But humility does not mean we think we are worthless, engage in negative self-talk, or feel like we could never say or do anything worthwhile. Nor do we try to get a read on our value by comparing ourselves with others (2 Corinthians 10:12). Instead, we recognize that we are valuable because we are made in God’s image and he loves us dearly (Genesis 1:26-27; 9:6; Isaiah 43:4; Psalm 17:8).
In contrast to low self-esteem, humility is a modest estimate of one’s importance and abilities. It recognizes the value we have because of God’s love for us but also acknowledges our weaknesses and sins. Instead of thinking more highly of ourselves than we ought or lower of ourselves than we ought, we think with sober judgment (Romans 12:3).
Jesus was humble (Matthew 11:29; 2 Cor 10:1). This consisted especially in his willingness to give up his exalted position with God in heaven to become human, a servant, and even a sacrificial servant (Philippians 2:6-8). It also manifested itself in his willingness to associate with people of low position in society’s eyes (Matthew 11:19; cf. Romans 12:16), asking people what they wanted instead of assuming (Mark 10:49-51) and not forcing people to accept him (Mark 10:21-23).
Humility will reflect itself in similar ways in our lives but also in some additional ways. Unlike Jesus, we have sins, weaknesses, and deficiencies. Instead of denying these or thinking we can cover them, we humbly turn to God in trust (2 Corinthians 3:5-6; 12:7-8). It is especially important that we do this in regard to our sin (Luke 18:9-14). When we humble ourselves and turn to God, he forgives our sins, provides for our needs and compensates for our weaknesses. Since God is also the one who gave us our strengths and gifts (Deuteronomy 8:17-18; James 1:16-17), everything we are and have is due to him. This leads to the important statement:
Then you will not be puffed up in being a follower of one of us over against the other.For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not? (1 Corinthians 4:6-7).
So a humble person will acknowledge that they have both strengths and weaknesses, truth and error, obedience and sin. They also realize the good they have is from God, not themselves, and so they have no reason to boast or feel superior to others. When they bring this attitude into their relationships, they not only say “I know I could be wrong,” but they actually mean it, even in the particular case they are discussing. The selfish ambition and vain conceit that come from the devil and lead to disorder and every evil practice (James 3:14-15) have no place in their lives. Instead they listen to others, consider what they say, and refuse to force themselves upon them.
The second attitude Paul mentions in Ephesians 4:2 is meekness, gentleness, or kindness. It is related to humility and sometimes appears with it (Colossians 3:12). It may be a bit of an oversimplification, but humility seems to have to do especially with our attitude about ourselves and meekness is especially about the way humble people treat and relate to others. They do not force their own way on others. The English words gentleness or kindness grasp the sense especially well.
How much gentleness and kindness did you see at your last church fight? Do you find gentleness and kindness present in your conversations and relationship with that person you are having trouble getting along with? Would a third party be able to detect these traits?
The third and fourth attitudes, patience and bearing with each other, may be distinguishable but they are similar enough to consider together. Hebrews says a human high priest could deal gently with people who were ignorant and going astray since he himself was beset with weakness (Hebrews 5:2). Similarly, a person who is humble enough to recognize his or her own weaknesses can be patient with others who are weak, off-putting or wrong.
My sibling brother told me some people are EGR, that is, Extra Grace Required. I immediately knew what he meant, and I confess some faces even came to mind. There must be a lot of people like this if we have initials for it. One day it dawned on me, though, that I am someone else’s EGR! It’s a little hard for me to accept, and I know my mom wouldn’t have believed it. But I have come to realize that some of my traits that I consider strengths—like self-discipline, Bible knowledge, and thorough teaching—are viewed by others as being a goody-goody or irrelevant or devoid of the Spirit. In addition, there are a lot of other things about me that are not strengths by any stretch of the imagination. So even though it’s difficult for me to accept, I belive I am someone else’s EGR. That helps me not feel like a superior person just because I have EGRs. I need people to be patient with me, and that helps me be patient with others.
Notice that Ephesians 4:2 says we are to bear with each other “in love.” Our calling is not to patience with hands on our hips and frustration in our voices. Rather, we are to practice humble, gentle, loving patience. What a difference that makes when dealing with difficult issues.
Earlier we mentioned the powerful description of Jesus’ humility in Philippians 2:6-8. Many think this section is an early Christian hymn. We sometimes view it as a “really cool” paragraph. These words must be more to us than that, however. When we view them merely as cool, it reminds me of the man who commented on how fantastic it would be to go to the holy land, stand on Mount Sinai and recite the ten commandments. His wife responded, “Or we could just stay here and put them into practice.” Her idea is better than his. If we take Philippians 2:6-11 to heart, we will not view the words merely as a hymn to be sung or a cool passage to be read. We’ll do more. We’ll develop that same mindset in ourselves, which is what the previous verse tells us to do (v. 5). That mindset can be described as humility and gentleness. It’s true that having such a mindset will ultimately lead to glory (vv. 9-11; cf. Romans 8:17; 1 Peter 5:1), but that comes later. Now is the time for humility.
Backing up a little further in the Philippians 2 passage, a Christ-like mindset will lead us to behaviors that cooperate with God’s desire for unity. Specifically, we will be like-minded with other believers, have a common love with them, and be one in spirit and mind (v. 2). The oneness and unity of mind mentioned do not consist of everyone viewing every matter in exactly the same way but everyone having the humble mindset of Jesus. Those who have it will not be selfishly ambitious or conceited in the relationships and discussions about difficult issues. In humility, they will value others over themselves and look to their interests instead of just their own (vv. 3-4).
Where do we get the ability to treat each other in this remarkable way? The answer is stated if we back up in the passage one more time. According to Philippians 2:1 we get the power to develop these godly attitudes from being united with Christ, experiencing his love (cf. Ephesians 3:14-21), and having fellowship with the Holy Spirit. This sounds a lot like the “therefore obedience” discussed in the previous post.
What a difference it would make to our discussions, relationships, and unity if we all had attitudes of humility, gentleness, and loving forbearance. If you are in the middle of dissension in any relationship, I encourage you to call a timeout and prayerfully ponder God’s wisdom in Ephesians 4:2. These attitudes are prerequisite to unity, and unity is way more important than most of the things we argue about and certainly more important than getting our own way. If you are not in the midst of dissension, it is a great time to devote yourself to prayer and soul-searching, inviting God to strengthen these attitudes in your heart. They are always difficult to develop but much easier when we’re not in the midst of a fight. They will also help us preserve the unity of the Spirit when the next issue arises.
I’m not so naïve as to think these attitudes will prevent all arguments and solve all issues. As humans, we find ways to foul up most anything. Still, we need to recognize that Ephesians 4:2 is wisdom from God and will contribute significantly to the unity of his people. If you want your church to be united, spend less time fussing and fighting over issues and more time on being joined with Christ, knowing and experiencing his love, and having fellowship with the Holy Spirit with a goal of developing the humble mind of Christ.