February 24, 2015

Unity or Uniformity?

The following is an excerpt from my new book, From Good to Grace: Letting Go of the Goodness Gospel. If you want to read more, you can find the book on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Christianbook.com.

When the alarm clock went off the morning after my wedding, I immediately bolted out of bed and dashed off to take a shower. We had a plane to catch, and I had to get the room straightened in preparation for check out (because everyone does this, right?), so I was shocked when I returned from the shower to find Kyle fast asleep, awaiting the second or third call of the alarm. I didn’t know people actually used the snooze button, but evidently I had much to learn about my new husband.

After several mornings of this routine, Kyle turned to me during breakfast and said, “Do you always do that?”

“What?” I, of course, did everything right so I couldn’t imagine why he sounded so mystified. 

“Do you always pop out of bed like that? You are practically out of the bed the second the alarm goes off. It kind of scared me the first time. I thought something was seriously wrong when you jumped up like that.”

We gaped at one another, his snooze button philosophy coming toe-to-toe with my up-and-at-‘em philosophy. Who knew we’d experience our differences so early— literally and figuratively—in our marriage? We quickly uncovered more. He squeezed every ounce of toothpaste from the tube by carefully flattening and rolling as he used it, while I just squeezed from wherever felt convenient in the moment—top, bottom, middle, whatever man.

He constantly asked how long to heat his leftovers in the microwave, which, of course, drove me crazy because, really, how can you mess that up? Just pop it in and give it a go. Add a few seconds more if necessary. Or just blow on it if it’s too hot. Whatever man.
It was tempting to label one another’s preferences and customs as “right” or “wrong”. It was also tempting to assume that once we made our rational, persuasive arguments for how we thought things should be done, the other one would see the brilliance of our position and immediately come to his/her senses. 

Despite our best efforts, that pretty much never happened. After several disagreements, surviving the first set of holidays, and making it through our first year of marriage, we eventually settled on traditions and ways of doing things that worked for the two of us as a fledgling family. But we learned lessons about one another and about our families that have served us well throughout our marriage, the main one being this: Different isn’t wrong. Different is just different. And different is even quite beautiful.

Unity or Uniformity?
When I stopped striving to earn grace and simply received it, I noticed an abrupt change in how I perceived and related to other people. What I had learned in our early months of marriage also informed my response to the unique ways God compelled those around me to love and serve others: Different isn’t wrong, different is just different, and different is even quite beautiful. God’s grace allows for this, because God’s grace brings profound unity among believers but also allows for freedom in how we respond to that grace we’ve been given. In Christ, there is unity but not uniformity.

All of this sounds well and good, but in reality, the application of this is where we—the goodness obsessed—have trouble. Too often, as we “run the race that is set before us”, we look around at everyone else who is running alongside of us instead of “looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith" (Hebrews 12:10). We look to other Christians in order to determine how we’re supposed to live or what our personal convictions should be. We look at their uniqueness and think it should be ours too. Or we look to other Christians and think they should be doing what we’re doing. We turn our unity in the Beloved and like-minded purpose as Sent Ones into disunity and division, because we believe that the goal is uniformity.

When I walked according to the goodness gospel for a good portion of my Christian life, I believed in uniformity. By its very nature, the goodness gospel requires uniformity, and it leads us to judgment, huddling up according to our convictions, and isolating ourselves from others for fear of being judged. Because it’s greatest virtue is behavioral uniformity, the goodness gospel does not allow us to give grace to believers who are different from us.

This is why we too often find churches full of bitter, back-biting people. Believers can be cliquish according to their personal convictions and choices, unfriendly to outsiders, and critical of those who look or act differently than their chosen uniform cause. These characteristics are ungodly, a blatant sign of people who have never come to understand God’s grace and love for them personally. They may know it intellectually, but refuse it intimately, and, therefore, cannot extend it to others. 

Attitudes of ungraciousness betray an ignorance of God’s grace, because His grace isn’t selective, nor is it selfish.

We are in good company, however, in our struggle to understand that the goal of God’s grace is unity rather than uniformity: the apostle Peter also had a goodness gospel problem. After Jesus’ resurrection, after He commissioned the disciples to go into the world with the gospel as Sent Ones, Jesus and Peter had an interesting and important interchange, one we can learn much from. As a sign of Christ’s restoration of Peter, Jesus asked Peter three times, “Peter, do you love me?” And each time, Jesus equated Peter’s love for Him with loving and serving others. Having fully restored him, Jesus then prophesied somewhat ominously that Peter would die a difficult death in God’s name. We see a clear progression of grace: Christ gave grace, Christ called Peter to give what he’d received, and then Christ gave Peter a specific way to respond to what he’d received.

Almost immediately, Peter turned around and looked at John: “But Lord, what about this man?” In other words, Peter wondered if John would die in a similar manner: “Aren’t you calling him to the same thing?” Jesus’ response to Peter is the same to us when we look around at others to compare or contrast our unique callings and convictions with theirs: “If I will that he remain till I come, what is that to you? You follow Me” (John 21:22).

We see from this interchange that receiving and giving grace means that our focus must remain on Jesus, that He will give each of us specific and unique ways to respond to that grace, and that He will often give other people different ways to respond to His grace.

His goal is our unity, not our uniformity.

A Terrible Dysfunction
What caused Peter to question His unique calling? He turned and looked at John.

Have you ever tried running next to someone while looking at them rather than straight ahead? Maybe it’s just me, but I have to look at where I’m going. If I don’t, I trip, fall, and end up in someone else’s lane. 

We can’t run our race well unless we look ahead to where we’re going. Jesus is where we’re going; He is our Finish Line. He wants us to look to Him and run the race He’s marked out for us. When we do that, we can’t look around and compare. 

We tend to assent with our minds that we are loved by God, that we are indwelt by the Spirit, and that we are approved by Him, but we don’t see how that applies to our relationships with others. We still compare and try to prove ourselves. We get our feelings hurt because people don’t understand every nuance of our lives, our personalities, our circumstances, or our choices. We get frustrated and even offended that people aren’t passionate about what we’re passionate about. As a Church, we fight over the most trivial of things. All because we’re looking at our fellow runners and not at our Finish Line.

We call it something else. We call it a struggle: “I struggle with people-pleasing”. We call it personality: “I can’t help it. I’m a competitive person.” We call it gender: “I’m a woman and women tend to compare themselves with other women”. We call it personal conviction when it’s really pride: “I am right and she is wrong.” We call it low self-esteem: “I am nothing compared to her”. 

These are lies and have nothing to do with the gospel. The goodness gospel, yes. But the gospel of Jesus Christ? Absolutely not. However, as long as we continue to return to the goodness gospel, we will be enslaved to it, enslaved to a law that we cannot ever perfect, and enslaving others to a law that they can never perfect.