“with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4:2–3, NASB95)
The human thing frequently is to get irritated when people rub us the wrong way. After all isn’t it our passion that ignites a flame in our hearts? But at the same time that passion may easily become friction for someone else, and we all know that with friction comes heat and that enough heat leads to combustion. James wrote a lot about this in his brief but packed letter. In James 3:5 he wrote, “See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire!” (James 3:5, NASB95) But this is only the second half of the verse. The first half reads, “So also the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things.” Earlier in chapter 1 he wrote, “… But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger;” (James 1:19, NASB95) He sets up for us a contrast between the one who acts upon his own impulses and the one who waits, and he says to us that the one who waits also calms.
We all know friction and conflict. We all know how damaging it can be and how long it can linger. We know that friendships, marriages, and families and churches are torn apart over it. It is a destructive force, and frequently it is evidenced through the things that come out of our mouths. Continuing in James 3:8-10 we read, “But no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way.” (James 3:8–10, NASB95)
But the tongue is not the real source of the problem. It is merely an obvious path for the problem to surface. Reading on in James we find, “Who among you is wise and understanding? Let him show by his good behavior his deeds in the gentleness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not be arrogant and so lie against the truth.” (James 3:13–14, NASB95) … “What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you? Is not the source your pleasures that wage war in your members?” (James 4:1, NASB95) James points to the root of the problem and that is our own desires. And when we hold our desires above those of others conflict will surely come.
We have been called into one body by God and by the power of the Spirit we are knit together. Paul urges us to consider this oneness and be diligent to preserve it. The way we are to do this is by humbly looking to others as we remember the example of Christ for us (Philippians 2:5-8). Jesus, being fully God humbled Himself by taking on the form of a bond-servant in the likeness of man to give Himself as a sacrifice for us so that we might receive forgiveness of our sins and be granted eternal life all according to the will of God the Father. He endured setting aside the glory of God for a season to endure humanity, ridicule, rejection, beatings, and death for us. Why? Because God loves us that much (John 3:16).
And it is this love that we in turn show to one another which declares to the world that God is real (John 13:35) as we fulfill the this commandment given to us by Christ (John 13:34). “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34–35, NASB95)
So, how do we practically love one another? This is where the words of Ephesians 4:2 and 3 come into focus. First, we are to demonstrate humility in our lives. Humility is a compound word in this passage. It combines ‘tapeinos’, meaning lowly or of low estate or not rising far from the ground with ‘phren’, meaning understanding or perceiving or judging such that you reign it in. Putting these two Greek roots together we get the understanding of actively reigning in and holding to an attitude of low position. It was with this attitude that the Son of God did not regard equality with God something to be strongly held on to. It did not mean that He was any less, but that He did not allow His position to get in the way of what was important which was doing the will of the Father. He demonstrated humility for us and we are called to be humble ourselves always remembering that we were not saved based upon any merit of our own, but because of the Father’s great love for us as demonstrated through the humility of His Son.
We also read that we are not only to be gentle, but to have an attitude of gentleness. Our gentle actions are to flow from a gentle heart. This speaks of a person with a mild disposition or one who is not prone to quarrel or easily anger. Again I think of the example of our Lord who even in the face of being reviled and having abuse piled upon Him did not return the same in kind (1 Peter 2:23). But rather through His actions we were drawn unto Him. When the world hated Him, He loved us. “and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed. For you were continually straying like sheep, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls.” (1 Peter 2:24–25, NASB95) In Galatians 5:23 we read that gentleness is among the things listed as fruit of the work of God’s Spirit in us. “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” (Galatians 5:22–23, NASB95) Just a couple of verses later in chapter 6 we go on to read, “Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted.” (Galatians 6:1, NASB95) Gentle actions flow from a gentle heart. We are to demonstrate the work of God’s Spirit in us by treating others with the gentleness which we have learned from God.
We go on to read in Ephesians 4:2 that we are to “with patience” show “tolerance” or be “longsuffering” toward. Each of these words grasps some element of the meaning and all point to the fact that things won’t always go smoothly. I know this is not a news flash for us. We’ve all figured it out by now. Even the most loving of people are going to have those moments when they have to make a choice about how they are going to respond to a wrong suffered or a desire squelched. Tolerance is a much misused word in our society where it has come to incorporate not only putting up with something not going or being as we desire, but also embracing it. The problem here is that it is used to include even those things which fly in the face of what God’s word declares to be right and true, and I think for that reason many people are steering away from the word. But the truth is that even within the framework of people who are seeking after God, hiding His word daily in their hearts, and trusting Him to direct their steps there are going to be missteps and stumbling. There are going to be times when we sin or hurt each other and need to deal with it. There are going to be areas of disagreement within the church about music and colors of carpet. There are varying views on how a ministry should be run, and there are even varying understandings of what God intends in portions of His Word. All of these things can be used as fuel for division, but Paul encourages us to patiently stand firm with each other as we walk right before God and one another in the power of the Spirit allowing Him to sort these things out. It is in this that patience shows itself to be powerful, knowing that not everything is resolved on the spot. It is in this that longsuffering proves unifying as we stand with each other as we endure that which is not right with the hope that it turns out right before God. And it is here that we tolerate one another knowing that what God began in each of us He will indeed complete as we build up and encourage one another in Him and entrust ourselves to the work of His Spirit.
We are told to love one another. All of the things above and so much more is tangible evidence of our love. People who love each other demonstrate that love in how they are toward one another. And our love is to be more than an outward act, but an outflowing of God’s working in us. When we sense ill feelings rising up or are tempted to respond harshly things it is a good sign that maybe it is time to stop and look to God first. Going back to James 1:19 where we read that everyone is to be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger, I am reminded of the greater context of James chapter 1 which is really looking to God. When these things pop up and I am tempted to respond inappropriately according to whom I am in Christ the best thing to do is to first stop and look to God, listening to Him, and seeking His way of moving forward. Then in accord with the things He has shown me in His Word and spoken to my heart I can then respond in the Spirit led way knowing that first it reins in my own temper and secondly also leads to peace with others thus preserving the unity of the Spirit in which we are knit together in the bond of peace.