“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)
Have you ever had a gym membership? I’m amazed at how many workout places there are just in Carleton Place! There’ are traditional gyms with weights and machines as well as places for CrossFit, Gymnastics, Martial Arts, and of course, Zumba. I have had a couple memberships but, as you can tell, I don’t anymore. When I was younger I used to work out with my dad, and then as a student I liked going to the YMCA to play racquetball, but as the studies got harder and my family got bigger I let the gym memberships slide. Now I have a home gym and lots of catching up to do.
Like today, the ancient Greeks and Romans had Gymnasiums that they would join and do very much what we do today – and more. At first it was only for wealthy aristocrats, but eventually they were open to all citizens and became an integral part of all Greek cities. They were sort of like a YMCA. They would exercise, learn skills, and develop their endurance and character. They would learn lessons in wisdom and philosophy – and then learn how to wrestle, swim, run, shoot and more – all in the nude of course. The word Gymnasium comes from the Greek word GUMNOS which means “naked” – so it wasn’t exactly like the YMCA.
Sports and physical development were as popular then as they are now, and more so, which meant the Apostle Paul could hardly help from using it as an illustration in his letters. It was something everyone would understand.
He used it when talking to his younger ministry apprentice Timothy. Listen to how he phrases this: “If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed. Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.” (1 Ti 4:6–8).
The words Paul says in our passage today sound as much like the words of an athletic coach as they do a theologian or missionary. They are the kinds of things that coaches and spectators would shout at the runners to cheer them on during their training and competition. “Run for the prize!” “Remember your training!” “Hold yourself to a higher standard!” In fact, if you were going to be a member of these gyms or compete in the events you had to take an oath that you had done at least ten months of training, would promise follow the rules (2 Tim 2:5), live on a strict diet that had no wine or “pleasant foods”, endure the cold and heat, and submit yourself to whatever painful discipline they would prescribe.”
Sports in Ancient Greece
In ancient Greece the sports competitions were even bigger than they are today. Today we follow our favourite teams, players, runners, boxers and fighters with interest – sometimes fanatical interest (which is where the term “Sports fan” comes from) – but it had much deeper meaning back then. The training and competitions were sacred events, dedicated to whatever patron god they worshipped. The stadium was as much like a church today as a sports arena. The race or the boxing match wasn’t merely a test of strength but a trial of excellence, like the Olympics. Today, gym class is scheduled once or twice per week and the kids get short recesses to stretch a couple times a day. In ancient Greece and Rome they considered physical development as equal to scholastic education. And we don’t have a corner on worshipping athletes either. In those days the winners wouldn’t just get crowned with a wreath as a prize, but would be adulated by fans, have songs and poems composed about them, and have busts and statues carved and displayed in front of the stadium.
I’m from Edmonton so I understand exactly what was going on there. They may have had their runners and boxers, but we had Wayne Gretzky. His statue, installed 1989, stood for 27 years outside the Oiler’s arena and was then refurbished and stands outside the new one. It’s a pretty big deal where I’m from. That’s the kind of respect and celebration the winners of the games could expect – Gretzky level fame. So it’s no wonder they trained so hard.
The Christian Life
We’ve just spent the past 4 sermons talking about how to share our faith, but these are not usually the kinds of things we say when we invite our friends to church or tell then what it means to be a Christian. If your friend comes up and asks what it’s like to be a Christian you don’t usually start with, “Well, we have super high standards, are constantly training and educating ourselves, take public vows to live by a certain set of standards, purposefully practice self-denial, endure suffering, and submit ourselves to whatever painful discipline that God prescribes to us. It’s great! You should totally join us!” It would be like trying to convert people to CrossFit or P90X.
But training, discipline, sacrifice, and self-denial are a big part of the Christian life and they are spoken of all over scripture. For our remaining time here I want to take a look at what Paul is saying in these few verses and draw some application out of it, so please turn back with me to verse 24.
It says, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it.” This is the continuation of something he’s been talking about for a while. It’s been a little while since we talked about it, but remember the context. At the beginning of chapter 8 we see that in this section Paul is talking about “food offered to idols” and the difficult situation it had created in the church. Some people thought it was ok because of their freedom in Christ while others had a really hard time with their consciences and felt it was not only wrong but a denial of their faith.
Paul addressed this problem by telling those who have no problem with it to bear with those who did and deny themselves for the sake of their brother. He says, “Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.” (1 Corinthians 8:12-13)
Then, in Chapter 9 Paul uses himself and the apostles as examples of self-denial that they should follow. He lists some of the things he is allowed to have, even that he has earned because of his work, but has chosen to deny himself for the sake of the gospel. For the sake of being a missionary he has chosen to go without a lot of really good things like food, a liveable wage, and a wife and family. He gave them up so he could serve God full time.
Then, in verse 19, he says, “For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them.” He is totally sold out for the gospel of Jesus, laser focused on living a life where preaching, teaching, and writing about Jesus is everything to him – and there’s nothing to get in the way; cutting everything out of his life that doesn’t line up with the call of Jesus on his life.
He’s like an elite athlete training for years to compete at the highest level. I’ve been long impressed with the Canadian athlete Clara Hughes. She’s an incredible athlete as well as a pretty amazing person. She’s one of only five people to have won medals in both the Summer and Winter Olympics, which she did in both cycling and speed skating. She’s translated her success into a lot of humanitarian organizations helping disadvantaged people and promoting mental health issues.
Now, all that being said, the one thing that impressed me most about her was her legs. Specifically, how different they look when she is competing in different sports or during her off time. If you see her today, her legs are – for lack of a better term – normal sized. When she was cycling her legs were big and strong, but when she’s was in full speed skating mode her legs were – again, for lack of a better term – gigantic. It was incredible to see the transformation and was an incredible reminder to me of what laser focused training can do.
When these athletes are in training for the Olympics everything matters. Every movement, every calorie, every minute of sleep, heartrate, body fat, type of food, amount of water, recreation, everything. Michael Phelps, said that when he was training and winning all his medals for swimming he did three things: slept, swam, and ate 12,000 calories per day. These athletes are single minded in their training and lifestyle.
That’s what Paul is talking about in verse 24. He sees himself as an elite spiritual athlete and sets himself up as the example. He even says in chapter 11, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. ” (1 Cor 11:1) He didn’t mean this in a prideful way, but as an apostle of Jesus, their pastor, and the one who planted their church, he was their prime example on how to live the Christian life, so he held himself to the highest of standards. He runs the race to obtain the prize, and encourages them to do the same.
Now, what this doesn’t mean is that he felt he needed to do all this in order to earn salvation. He didn’t think Jesus would turn His back on him if he stopped trying so hard. He wasn’t telling them that their place in heaven was at stake if they didn’t try harder. He didn’t say that God would love them more if they accomplished more. He wasn’t saying that their value and worth was tied to what they were able to produce. That goes against so much of what the Bible says about how God sees us. He loved us before we loved Him. He saved us before we asked for it. We were dead in our sins and He traded His Son for us. And there is nothing we can do to make Him love us more.
Now, what the Bible is saying here is that, in light of the love we have received from God in Jesus Christ and the calling that we have been given as Christians who are on a mission in this world, we should take that seriously. God’s love compels us to love others. Jesus’ sacrifice compels us to sacrifice for others. Jesus obedience compels us to be obedient too. Because we know we are saved by grace, not by works, given something we could never earn, simply because we are loved, we are compelled, driven, to show love to Jesus by serving Him and others. Because of the new nature we have been given, where once we were dead in sin and only thinking of how to gratify ourselves, now we have been given new natures that want to honour and serve the One who saved us – the one we call Lord and Saviour.
Christians take this relationship very seriously, but we never think we need to do these things to impress, bribe, or appease God.
Think of it in human terms. As a dad, we work hard our jobs outside and inside the home. We work for 5 days and then take our kids camping or spend the weekend driving them around for their clubs and events, and then turn around and go right back to work. Then when someone asks, “Why do you work so hard? Why put in all the hours? Why do you spend all that time working and then come home and do more?” The answer isn’t simply because we have to… it’s because we love our families.
Grandma invites the whole family over and spends hours and hours shopping, preparing, and serving Christmas dinner. It takes an incredible amount of money, work, time, effort, and then every pot, pan and dish in the house needs to be washed. Why did she do it? Because she’s obligated? No, because it is a joy to serve the ones she loves.
A child spends 2 hours drawing, colouring, gluing, and folding a card for someone. It’s not their birthday or anything, they just wanted to make a card for them. Why? Why make all that mess and take all that time just to give their mom or friend a card? Because of love.
That’s the motivator to run the Christian race with seriousness and dedication: our love for Jesus. But loving someone has consequences, doesn’t it? If I dedicate myself to my wife, it means I cannot have any other woman in that way. My love for my children means that I will have to deny myself certain things for their sake. My love for my church means that I won’t be able to do everything I want to do because of my obligations to them. My love for my friends means that when they need me I will put aside my own life and go to them. Love has consequences.
Love has Consequences
Jesus says something pretty serious two times in Matthew. Listen to these.
Matthew 10:22, “…you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.”
Now, Matthew 24:9-13, “Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved…”
What did Jesus mean by “enduring to the end”? Love has consequences. Truth has consequences. Belief has consequences. Faith has consequences. Choice has consequences. Following and loving Jesus has consequences. Being a Christian has consequences and those consequences often mirror those of the athlete: high standards, loyal devotion, constant training and education, self-denial, suffering, and sometimes the painful discipline from Jesus, the “author and perfecter of our faith” . In fact, that title for Jesus is set in athletic terms too.
Let’s read that from Hebrews 12:1-2, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” , like a crowd of former Olympians watching us compete from the crowd, “let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us…” Why would a runner or boxer or gymnast ever add unnecessary weight to themselves? Why compete in lead shoes? They want to be light and agile so they cut all unnecessary weight so they will have the endurance to last until the end.
And while the crowd of former spiritual Olympians look at us, who are we looking to for inspiration, guidance, training, help, strength and perserverance? It says, “…looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”
His decision to love us had consequences. He endured great suffering and died because He chose to love us. In the same way we look to Jesus, as Paul looks to Jesus, as not only the example of what it means to follow God, but the one from whom we get our strength to endure.
Self-Control in All Things
In verses 25 it gives us one of the consequences of following Jesus, “Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.” It’s the small things that are the difference between winning and losing a race. In the 1992 Women’s 100 Meter race the difference between first place and fifth was 1/10th of a second. In 1988 1000 Meter Canoeing it came down to a photo finish where the winner was ahead by 0.005 seconds or less than a centimetre.  That’s why they obsess over the details. The exact moment to stop exercising and eat the exact right food to have exactly enough to finish the race – but no more or it might slow them down.
“Self-control in all things.” We aren’t running to win a gold medal, but we do have an incredibly high calling. You look at your life and think that you’re doing pretty good – better than most people you know – but that secret sin that you think no one knows about will be what the enemy uses to cripple your mission and deaden your soul. That part of your personality which you know is a problem, but have just decided is part of you now, will be what keeps you from effectively sharing your faith. That habit of unforgiveness, bitterness, being critical, will keep you from being a good disciple maker. That schedule that is always out of control where you have no time for worship, rest, thinking, praying, reading, friends, or Sabbath, will be what kills you.
I’m not saying, and scripture isn’t saying, that God doesn’t love you or that you won’t be saved – what it’s saying is that if you refuse to practice self-control in that area, then you won’t be nearly as spiritually healthy, or hopeful, or happy, or peaceful, or joyful, or productive for the kingdom of God. It will be the wedge that creates space between you and God, the foothold by which Satan can climb on your back.
Train on Purpose
Verse 26 says, “So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air.” Having powerful muscles is pointless if you never use them to lift anything other than weights. Having strong fists and being able to take a punch is pointless if you never enter a fight. Being able to run for hours is pointless unless you use the strength and endurance you are building to actually do something for someone else.
An athlete doesn’t train for the sake of training. They don’t skate in circles and shoot a ten thousand pucks into an empty net because they like skating in circles and scoring pretend goals. A boxer doesn’t shadowbox and hit a punching bag for no reason. They do it so they can live out their purpose. They skate and shoot so that when the time comes they will be able to win the game. They punch bags so they can eventually win the fight.
Firefighters don’t exercise just to stay healthy, but so they have the strength and endurance to save people when it matters. Police and military officers are required to exercise and pass physical endurance tests, not so they will look good in uniform, but so they can enforce the law and help the community.
In the same way Christians don’t merely live, but we live with a purpose. We don’t merely read the Bible, but we read with a purpose. We don’t merely pray, but we pray with a purpose. We sing, serve, correct, deny, give, share, speak, eat, and all the rest with a purpose. Some of that purpose is universal for all believers: We do what we do for the glory of God and to enjoy Him forever. We do what we do to advance the kingdom of God and spread love, justice, and mercy.
But some of that purpose is specific to you. God has given all Christians a special gift and a special purpose to their lives. As Christians we work to find out what that gift is, and then we use that gift to live out that special purpose. Christians are not aimless, but are very purposeful in what we do. And not just in work, but in rest too, right?
You likely know the old story of the young woodcutter who got a job on a logging crew by showing the boss how he could cut down 18 trees in one day. He loved the job and worked hard, but it wasn’t long until he started running into problems. On day three he cut down 15 trees, and then on day five he could only do 10, by the end of the week he was only able to do 5 trees. The foreman said that if he didn’t start cutting more he’d lose his job. He begged the for another chance saying he always comes early, leaves late, and never takes breaks! The foreman asks, “Well, when do you stop to sharpen your axe?” The young man replied, “Well sir, I just can’t do that. I’ve been working way too hard to take the time to do that.”
The point is that as a Christian, even our times of rest are purposeful.
Areas of Influence
Finally in verse 27 it says, “But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.”
Think of all the massive sports failures we’ve seen. Pete Rose, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire, Mike Tyson, Tonya Harding, Michael Vick, Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong… the names are synonymous with the heights of sports and the greats of controversies and collapses.
This was probably Paul’s greatest fear – I know it’s one of mine. He wasn’t training and disciplining and denying himself to try to win God’s approval or earn salvation or impress anyone. He was doing it because he knew his mission was critically important and that it would be the small things that he neglected that would be his undoing. And then not only would he be disqualified, but a lot of people would be hurt. He was given great responsibility and a great mission, so he took it very, very seriously, because the consequences of messing up were so extreme. The words “discipline my body” are literally “I give myself a black eye”!
Now, we’re not apostles, and we don’t have dozens of churches that would be crippled if we mess up, but we all have circles of influence that are affected by our sin – which is what the last 2 chapters have been talking a lot about.
Why do you practice self-control when you drink and spend and say and watch on tv, mom and dad? So I won’t be disqualified as a parent and mess up my kids. Singles, why do you avoid certain places that everyone says are fun? So you won’t disqualify yourself and mess up your future. There are so many examples, right?
Think about the people you have influence over, whether it’s your kids, friends, siblings, coworkers, or church family. Part of the reason you train well and practice self-denial is for their sake. So that when they are hurting, they can come to you because you are trustworthy. So when they are in need you have the capacity to help. So when they are tempted, you can help them. So when you speak to them words of criticism, they will hear because you have a reputation for fairness and love. So when they need advice or a listening ear, they will call you because they know you will keep confidences and speak God’s word to them. It’s not just about you, it’s about those around you too. Let’s close there.
 Jamieson, R., Fausset, A. R., & Brown, D. (1997). Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible (Vol. 2, p. 279). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
 Lange, J. P., Schaff, P., Kling, C. F., & Poor, D. W. (2008). A commentary on the Holy Scriptures: 1 Corinthians (p. 194). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
Here’s the audio for the sermon:
You may have noticed that I changed the title of this series. Instead of being “Being People of Integrity”, I’ve simply called it “Christian Integrity”, and that’s because I believe that it’s important to distinguish the fact that we are specifically talking about the characteristics of a person and church of faith. These things don’t universally apply to everyone in the world.
Worldly Vs Christian Integrity
If “integrity” is simply taken as being honest and consistent, then there is a worldly kind of integrity. The non-Christian mechanic or plumber who doesn’t overcharge can have integrity. The school teacher who loves their students and sticks to the textbook has a form of integrity – even though they could be teaching falsehoods. The soldier who is sold out to their country and willing to die could be said to have high integrity by their superiors – even though they represent an evil nation.
Christian Integrity is a higher form of integrity. It is a supernatural thing, beyond simple honesty and consistency. Christian Integrity requires being a person who has God as their Father, Jesus as their Lord, and the Holy Spirit guiding their thoughts and deeds.
In this series, we are taking apart Psalm 15 which begins with the question, “LORD, who may dwell in your sanctuary? Who may live on your holy hill?” What do the people who dwell with God look like? When people join the Kingdom of Jesus Christ, what are the expectations? What can they expect when Jesus rules the hearts of people?
What we see in Psalm 15 are six descriptors of a functioning, obedient, growing Christian. This is obviously not an exhaustive description, but it is a good place to start. The first was Integrity, and we said that it is the roof of the house, which is built on the foundation of our salvation through Jesus Christ.
Our Integrity is held up by the other five traits of being Truthful, Loving, Honouring, Trustworthy and Generous. We’ve already looked at being Truthful and Loving, and for the last couple weeks we’ve been in verse 4 as we’ve discussed the flip side “Honouring the Faithful”, which is “Rejecting the Vile”. This week we are looking at the second part of verse 4 where it talks about Honouring the Faithful. A Christian “despises a vile man but honours those who fear the LORD”.
Finding an Honourable Person
Remember that the word “honour” is a word that means “to be heavy or great”. It is a word that means that when you a certain person, their presence has great meaning to you, and their words have a special weight and significance to them. You honour them, respect them, treasure them, and highly esteem them. In your life and heart, they are given VIP treatment.
Most of us don’t have a lot of people like this in our lives. Especially with the advent of the internet, social media, the 24 hour news cycle, and other technologies, it’s hard to find someone who has strong Christian integrity. It’s hard to trust anyone these days. Who do we look for to find a strong marriage with statistics that say most are unhappy and over half of them ending in divorce? Who do we look to for Christian leadership when so many preachers and pastors have crashed and burned in their ministry? Who do we look to be an example to us in the godly use of money when most people are up to their eyeballs in debt? It’s really hard to find an “honourable” person these days.
Which makes it so much sweeter when you find one. When you find that teacher who has been consistently loving God, defending the faith, and strong in their convictions for the long-haul. RC Sproul is one of those men for me. He celebrated his 75th birthday this week and is still going strong. If you type the words “RC Sproul Controversy” into Google, nothing comes up! Yes, there are people who disagree with him, but all in all, he has a stellar reputation and a great Christian man and strong Gospel teacher.
Personally speaking, there are only a few people in my life who I would consider to have Christian Integrity, and they are a great blessing to me. My wife is one of them. When they speak, I listen. When I get an e-mail from them, the world stops and I read it. When they recommend a book, I read it. When they correct me, I listen and try to change my behaviour.
I hope you have someone like this in our life, because they are a great blessing! I do hope that you are able to honour these people in your life because they are a great gift from God.
Elevating Fellow Believers
But I want to be clear that Psalm 15:4 is not only talking about the kinds of believers who have earned the right to be given special treatment. RC Sproul has spent years developing his reputation, and he deserves to be listened to. This verse is talking about something a little different. God is not saying “Honour those who deserve it…” but “Honour those who are believers…” It says, “…honours those who fear the Lord.” That’s all beleivers, no matter what stage of maturity they are in. It’s talking about elevating the view of Christians in our life.
This is hard for us because we have so many of our priorities messed up. Matthew Henry, in his commentary on the Bible says that a Christian
“…values men by their virtue and piety, and not by the figure they make in the world.”
Let me give you an example of how I came face to face with this in the past week.
As you know, the Olympics are on, and of course I’m cheering for Canada, but I love watching these men and women do their best in their events and am in awe of their skill. I cheer for them as they compete and am happy for them when they win. I was honouring them.
However, this week I read something about the Olympic village that makes me remove my honour from them. It was an article entitled “Olympic Village brimming with love for Valentine’s Day” that changed my mind.
I don’t want to get into the graphic details, but it begins like this,
“… love is in the Sochi air this Valentine’s Day. What do you expect when you ram beautiful, young and fit athletes into a confined space, and allow their emotional highs and lows to be released in a fit of competition. Oh yes, the athlete’s village is a physical place —if you catch my drift.”
The rest of the article goes on to describe the unbridled lust (not love) the alcohol fuelled parties, nudity, and general lasciviousness that is part and parcel of living in the Olympic Village. It gives me a new view on these athletes. I don’t want to paint them all with the same brush, but this is being described as the norm.
This is what Matthew Henry and Psalm 15 are describing. Don’t misplace your honour. Don’t honour the dishonourable. The true value of a person is in their character, their piety, and their virtue when they are in front of people and when they are not. We should not be fooled by people who look good on the outside – but give honour to people who are in relationship with Jesus Christ and are seeking to be more godly every day.
Again, not perfect people, or only great preachers and missionaries, but the average believer who is walking in daily obedience, struggling with temptation, maybe inconsistent in their walk, but growing in God more and more as the days go by.
I would rather honour a junkie who has turned their heart over to Jesus and is in a daily spiritual battle with addiction and their old life-style, than a gold medal athlete who competes for their own glory, gives their body over to lust, and doesn’t give Jesus a second thought.
We Don’t Do This Well
God is very serious about how Christians treat one another. If there is one place, one group, on family that should know how to love one another… it’s the family of God. And yet, our track-record of getting along as believers is quite terrible.
We have sects, and divisions, and denominations. We even have a term for what happens when people in a church can’t get along and then start two separate church – we call it a church splits. I’d love to know the statistic comparing church plants (on purpose, missional, evangelistic minded, celebrations) to church splits. Even within the church we have cliques, gossip sessions, and back-room meetings. We smile at someone on Sunday, and then slander them on Monday.
The Christian church has a history of killing one another in the name of Jesus Christ! Instead of embracing new ideas, different ways of thinking, and uniquely gifted people, more often then not the Christian church freaks out, ostracises them and then attacks. Like Martin Luther who was chased down, exiled and nearly killed because he dared to challenge the church authorities to defend some of their practices. Or William Tyndale was burned at the stake because he wanted to print the bible in English.
Those are extreme examples, but lesser crimes happen all the time, in many churches around the world, in our city, and even within these walls. And God takes this very seriously.
God’s Kids Fighting
Parent’s understand why God feels this way. I often go to the park with my kids. Sometimes I play with them, other times I stand back and watch. And almost every time we go, there’s some kind of disagreement. And those problems come in three different forms.
First is when two kids I don’t know start to fight. How do I feel about that? Well, I don’t like it, but I’m not really emotionally invested in the kids, and I’m not their parent, and unless they start to really hurt each other, I don’t really get involved. It doesn’t grip my heart.
Second is when some strange kid starts a fighting with one of my kids. What happens then? Then I step in! I find out what happened, I tell my kid to apologize if it was their fault, and if it wasn’t [which it usually isn’t because my kids are awesome] then I protect my kid, maybe get the other parent involved, or tell my kid they need to be gracious and kind and let it go. If my kid gets into some kind of conflict, then I get emotionally invested and I jump in to protect my kid, teach my kid, and parent my kid.
The third scenario is when my kids fight each other. This happens more often. My kids start to fight, one isn’t being fair or hurts another – on purpose or accidentally – and now I react a much different way. I jump in. I grab them both and pull them aside. There might be discipline involved where one has to apologize, ask forgiveness and sit on the side for a while. Sometimes, it’s serious enough that we have a long talk about it. And if it’s a big enough deal, we leave the park, talk about it in the car, and then maybe even carry though some disciplined at home.
It’s a bigger deal when it’s two of my kids! I don’t want my kids fighting! They are a family. They’re supposed to love each other and work together. I have a totally different reaction to when my kids are fighting with each other, then when strangers are involved. Why? They’re mine! I love them! They know what I’ve said about how to act. They know the standards of our home. And I hate it when my kids fight! Not just because it’s noisy… but because it shows me there is something wrong with their heart.
I think God feels the same way when His kids aren’t getting along. When two people outside the church are sinning against each other… that’s to be expected. They are sinners, who love to sin, and who don’t know God. When a non-Christian is in conflict with a Christian, God gets more involved and will protect the Christian, or might discipline the Christian.
But when two of His kids are sinning against each other, I believe, because of my reading of scripture, He takes it very seriously, and it hurts him very deeply. Why? Because it shows how far His children’s hearts are from Him!
What’s Behind Christian Conflict?
Let’s Look at what James 4:1-4 says is going on behind the scenes when Christians fight. When God looks at a family of believers who is not honouring one another, He doesn’t just see the surface issues we see like arguing over what song to sing, who should be doing what, or what color the carpet is in the sanctuary. He sees something much deeper.
“What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?” (vs 1)
In other words, when Christians argue, it’s almost never for a good, holy, righteous reason. Rarely is the fight over bad doctrine, disregard for scripture, or unholy living. It’s because one of them, or probably both, is being selfish. It’s a heart problem. Passions and desires out of control.
I want a certain style of music or type of ministry because they like it best. IO feel like I should have some kind of leadership position and not someone else. I want to be heard because I think I’m important and me opinion counts for more. I want it done my way, because I’m always right.
“You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask.” (vs 2)
That’s the root of most problems between believers. They aren’t arguing over core theologies or anything truly important to the kingdom. Most of these issues have nothing to do with what is on God’s heart. It’s just two people being selfish. They want something and aren’t getting it, so they fight.
Often, God’s not even involved, because they know as soon as they go to God, He’s going to show them how petty it is, and how prideful they are being, and how they need to submit to one another in love… but they don’t want to hear that.
“You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” (Vs 3)
This selfish mindset affects our prayer life. We ask God for things that are not good for us, that are wrongly motivated, that will elevate us instead of him, that will bring shame to others or harm others who we feel deserve it. We “ask wrongly” for these things because they are not motivated by our love for God or to Honour the Faithful Christians in the church… but to spend on our passions. We want to feel good, look good, have more, gain more power or prestige. And God doesn’t answer those prayers.
“You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” (Vs 4)
When Christians fight, argue, quarrel, gossip, slander, hurt or sin against one another, they show themselves to be people who act like the world – not children of God. Christians that fight with other Christians about non-essential issues are called “adulterous” – which means they have left their first love, God, and are now embracing a new love – themselves. In fact, when Christians fight, divide and sin against one another, they are not only acting like the world… but are, in fact, acting like the enemies of God.
It is the enemies of God who fight against Christians, who make church a difficult place to be, who gossip and slander against believers, and hurt and abuse Christians. It is the enemies of God who make Christians stressed out and miserable. That’s Satan’s job! Christians shouldn’t be doing that to each other! It is literally satanic for Christian’s to fighting against one another over non-essential issues.
Dealing with Problems Among Christians
So what do we do when problems come up? Do we burry them in the sand, sweep them under the rug, and just pretend to get along for 2 hours each week. Everyone smiling fake smiles, no one arguing or getting close to one another, no one changing anything, no one saying anything that could be a criticism for fear we learn we have an argument? No, of course not. What God wants us to work through our issues (which we talked about last week) and “honour” one another.
If something between two believers, they should treat each other with “honour”. The fact that this person is a brother or sister in Christ should have great meaning, because this person has great meaning to Jesus. Jesus gave His life for that person. Their tears and frustrations, their complaints, their encouragements should have a special weight and significance to them, because it’s possible that the Holy Spirit is speaking through them. They are worthy of respect because they are a man or woman of God. They should be treasured because God treasures them. They should be highly esteemed because they are children of the Most High God, adopted into the Creator’s family, are co-heirs with Christ, and will one day judge angels! Ask yourself, “in your life and heart do you honour other believers?”
The “One Anothers”
I want to show you what that looks like. Consider what would happen if your favourite celebrity, or a famous teacher, or someone you respect were to offend you. Your love and admiration makes it a little easier to give them grace, be patient, give them a chance, forgive them. But it doesn’t come so naturally within the average Christian relationship.
We’ve talked about this before. Do you remember the “One Another” verses. There are at least 54 “one another’s” in scripture. They are wonderful descriptors of how Christians are to honour one another, and they all flow out of what Jesus said to His disciples in John 13:34-35, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.””
How? How do we do that? How do we “love one another”? The bible spells it out in great, great detail through the “one anothers”. Most simply say “love one another”, but others are very specific. Listen to some of these:
- Romans 12:16, “Live in harmony with one another.”
- Romans 15:7, “Accept one another,”
- Romans 16:16, “Greet one another”
- 1 Corinthians 1:10, “…agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you…”,
- Galatians 5:13, “…serve one another”,
- Ephesians 4:2, “…be patient, bearing with one another in love.”,
- Ephesians 4:32, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”,
- Ephesians 5:21, “Submit to one another.”,
- Colossians 3:16, “…teach and admonish one another …”,
- 1 Thessalonians 5:11, “…encourage one another…” ,
- Hebrews 10:24, “…spur one another on toward love and good deeds.”,
- James 4:11, “do not slander one another.”,
- 1 Peter 4:9, “Offer hospitality to one another”,
- 1 Peter 5:5, “clothe yourselves with humility toward one another”,
These “one anothers” are all talking about how we relate to other believers. How we live out Psalm 15, “honour those who fear the Lord.” That’s what it looks like. That’s how we are to act towards each other. This is the heart we are to have when something comes up between us, or when we are serving with one another. It’s our default position when in relationship with other Christians.
Let me pause and ask, as you look at this list, and how you have conducted yourself over the past while – have you been doing this? How have you been treating the favoured ones of God? How have you been treating God’s kids, your brothers and sisters in Christ?
Bear With One Another
Let’s read Colossians 3:12-17. I want to focus in on something that I think is important to us, and will give us a key phrase to grab onto when dealing with people in the church. Start in verse 12,
“Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.”
The Bible says, God says, that we are to “Bear with each other”. It’s the same word used in 2 Thessalonians 1:4 which talks about enduring persecution for the faith. Same word. Sometimes being part of a church is going to be difficult. When those times come, we are to “bear with each other.”
What that means is that when conflict happens, you go through it together. We don’t take off, pretend it didn’t happen, reject the person, or find a new church. It means we stick together through thick and thin, work it out even when it’s hard, figure it out even though it’s confusing, make it work even when it seems impossible, and let God take over the situation to make the impossible possible.
“…as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.”
Do you see that? What kind of forgiveness did Jesus give you? Did He forgive some of your sins… but couldn’t get over certain things, so He still holds them against you? Did He forgive you… but then keeps bringing them up and making you feel guilty all the time? Did He forgive you… but then go behind your back and tell a bunch of people? Did He forgive you… and then never speak to you again, refusing to sit with you or acknowledge you? No! Our model for forgiving one another is the forgiveness we received through Jesus Christ!
“And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body.” [Other translations say, “… since as members of one body you were called in one body.”] (vs 14)
What that means is that we are supposed to think of our church in the same way we think of our body. It is strange to think of our body at war with itself. When a person’s body fights with itself, we call it an auto-immune disease. It’s an allergy, it’s cancer, it’s Chrohn’s, it’s eczema, it’s Lou Gehrig’s Disease, it’s MS. When the body starts to attack itself, something is very wrong. We don’t want some parts of our body to fight against other parts of the body. We want our body bound together in “perfect harmony”, and at “peace”.
When Dr. God looks at a group of Christians who can’t get along… it’s not a small deal… it’s a major disease in the body. Jesus wants his church to be a healthy body that works together to build up the rest of the parts, not a sick body that harms itself.
4 Practical Steps to Christian Harmony
Let’s close by looking at verses 16-17 which gives a bit more practical advice and helps us to know what we need to work on so that we can be a united body, honouring each other, living out the “one anothers”, and growing in love with the believers around us: (Start with the last part of verse 15):
“And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”
If you are struggling with loving other believers, here’s how to pray and what to do.
1. “Be thankful” for them. This is the first step in changing your heart. Pray, “Thank you, God, for this person. They are different from me, but that’s ok. I don’t understand them, but you do. You built them, created them, chose them, equipped them, and are working in their heart. They irritate me, but they love you and you are working on them. They are my brother or sister who I will spend eternity with. Make me thankful for them, who you made them to be, and help me treat them with honour.”
2.Let the Bible guide you. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teaching and admonishing one another with all wisdom…” (3:16a) Not guided by your heart. Not your own wisdom. Not your friends. If you are struggling to love someone, go to the Word. If you’ve got a problem with what another Christian is doing, check out what God has to say about it first. Use the Bible as your guideline (not your hammer, your guideline) for your attitude and behaviour. You might be surprised to find that it’s not them that needs the attitude adjustment, but you! And if the person is going against scripture, then you bring them the word of God, not your own opinion.
Kid’s do this naturally! They invoke my name as the authority. One comes to me and says “Daaaaad! So-and-so is doing this!” Then I say, “That’s ok, I asked them to do that. I’ve got something different planned for them that you don’t understand right now.” Or I say, “Thank you for telling me, you’re right, they shouldn’t be doing that. Tell them that Dad says to quit it or they’re in trouble.” It is not my kid who has the authority… I do. I’m the Dad.
3. Be Gentle and Persistent. In this passage it says we should be able to be “…singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”
This tells us two things. First, a loving church is full of people who can sing and worship together. They sing the same song. People who don’t get along can’t worship God together very well. The animosity creates a barrier between us and them, and us and God. This also tells us that we need to be persistent in working through our problems, so when we are on the other side, we can be singing the same song.
If you say, “I can’t worship with that person in the room”, and you are not working towards a solution to whatever is harming the relationship, then you are not obeying God’s will to reconcile with your brother. If the presence of that person is causing you to not be able to worship God, the fault is not with them… it’s with you. Something is wrong with you. Nothing should stop you from worshipping God. And if that person is a believer, and has demonstrated themselves to be a person of faith, then you should be working through Matthew 18 so you can, if at all possible, sing the same song. We talked about how to do that last week.
Consider the words of Jesus when he said in Matthew 5:23-24,
“So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”
God desires we be reconciled, before He desires our worship.
4. And finally, “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”
All of our actions should be able to be done “in the name of the Lord Jesus” Christ. When dealing with our brothers or sisters, in our minds we can think, “In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ… I…”
- forgive you…
- love you…
- serve you…
- ask your forgiveness…
- will put myself second to you…
- will love your family…
- will walk with you…
- will help you…
- will do it your way…
- will keep at you until you repent…
- won’t stop loving you…
You can’t say, “In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ… I…”
- gossip about you…
- hate you…
- will never speak to you again…
- will sin against you…
- will slander you…
- will ignore you…
- will give you a dirty look when I pass by.
That’s not Jesus.
I know this is hard for some people, but we are called to so much more. Let me end by reading Ephesians 4:1-6 which is Paul’s urgent appeal from his prison cell to a group of Christians who had some relationship issues, and needed to put Jesus back at the centre:
“As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called— one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”