Maintaining the Unity of the Spirit part 5

Fortifying the Peace with Mutual Forbearance

I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called,… bearing with one another…, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. (Ephesians 4:1-3)

The fourth important quality needed to maintain Christian unity is mutual forbearance. Without it, unity will flounder. If we care about unity, we must care about learning to bear one another.

The need for mutual forbearance is obvious. The church is a community of justified sinners. We have been justified (declared righteous), but we are still not perfect in practice. Sanctification is a lifelong process. This lack of perfection creates the need for mutual forbearance, because such a quality is called for only where there is some problem to be borne. For example we don’t bear with God. God is perfect. Bearing with God is absurd, because He has no problem to be borne. It would be quite insulting to Him for us to talk that way. We must, however, learn to bear with fellow sinners.

How do we develop mutual forbearance? Here are three suggestions.

1. We need to remember who we are.

We all struggle with sin. Not one of us is as perfect as we ought to be. We all progress toward holiness ever so slowly. Think for a moment about a sinful habit you struggled with in the past that took a long time to change (perhaps you are still struggling with it). Recall how desperately you wanted to be delivered from it. Remember how you mourned again and again every time you gave in to temptation. You knew it was wrong. You knew it dishonoured God. You hated it. You wanted it gone from your life, but it seemed so difficult. You felt so trapped by it. You beat it down, yet it always seemed to spring back. Paul’s words in Romans 7 were very much your own experience. “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing… Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:18-19, 24). We have all been there. If you haven’t, it is probably because you haven’t yet hated your sin as you ought.

How would you have liked your fellow Christian brothers and sisters to have treated you during that time? You wanted their help and support, didn’t you? You wanted them to pray for you and with you. You wanted them to set you back on your feet when you fell for the umpteenth time, and run alongside you with words of encouragement. You didn’t want their condemnation. You didn’t want them to look down at you with criticism, and say words like, “I’m sick of this. You never change. You always ______.” You wanted them to stand strong by your side until you stood victorious in a field of vanquished foes.

If such is what we want in our times of struggling against sin, how do we in turn treat our fellow brothers and sisters who are engaging in the same struggles? “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12). How quickly do you give up on fellow struggling sinners when you yourself know the intensity of the battle against sin?

2. We need to remember how God has treated us.

The sin you commit as an imperfect Christian is offensive to God. It is in direct rebellion against Him, and dishonours Him greatly. Yet throughout your struggle with sin, God treats you with unrelenting, undeserved mercy. Time and time again you go to Him for forgiveness, and time and time again He forgives. He doesn’t give up on you. He endures your sin, and continues to work in you to bring about God pleasing change.

3. We need to remember to credit our sanctification to God's grace.

As the years progress, we look behind and see where we have come from. We see growth in Christlikeness. We see sinful practices broken, and new righteous practices established. We see triumphs over sins that have been dealt the killing blow. All of this, we credit to the work of God’s grace. Every sin defeated, every step toward perfection is a step of grace. It is all the result of God’s working in us to will and to work for His good pleasure (Philippians 2:13). We give God the glory for our progress in holiness.

How then should we think of brothers and sisters who have not progressed along the path of Christlikeness as far as we have? What makes them to differ from us? One thing: Grace. But for God’s grace we wouldn’t even have started on the path, let along made it to where we are.

If God has so patiently borne with our weaknesses and failures, how much more ought we to do the same with our fellow strugglers?

When you find yourself struggling to bear with a fellow Christian, contemplate these three things. In doing so, you will help to maintain the unity of the Spirit.

  • Remember who you are.
  • Remember how God has treated you.
  • Remember to credit your sanctification to God's grace.

Maintaining the Unity of the Spirit
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6

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