About five or six years ago, I began praying daily for unity in the church. I longed for unity. Disunity is incredibly painful. I also saw that divisions in the church made the work of the church range between tremendously inefficient and completely ineffective.
As I prayed, I searched the Scriptures to discern what God promised regarding unity and whether unity was something we should expect now, or only in Heaven. There were so many Scriptures which made my heart ache with longing. Psalm 86:11 and Ezekiel 11:19 expressed my longing for a united heart. How I wanted to stop fighting myself to make myself do what was right! How I wished to have one heart with the people of God! Jeremiah 3:22 expressed my longing to be cured from backsliding. How often had I thought I had conquered sin only to find it back again! Jeremiah 31:31-34 filled me with longing for the new covenant we won't break. I longed for Isaiah 59:21 with God promising that His word and His Spirit would not depart even from my children and my children's children.
In the New Testament, I searched Jesus' last prayer, from John 17. Jesus prays twice that we would be one so that the world may know. As I read this, I wondered, does this mean that unity is something Christ expects to happen here on earth while we are still in the world? If unity is not going to happen until after the world can no longer repent, what would be God's purpose in having unity be a demonstration of truth to the world? Would He do it only to prove the world wrong before its condemnation, or does God intended this to be a final witness calling the world to truth before judgment?
As I read Ephesians 4, I saw that Paul says that the church was given apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers until. I had never before noticed the word until in that verse. That means that something different will come afterward. After the until comes the whole body attaining the unity of the faith and maturing into adulthood. As I meditated on this verse, I realized that every prayer for the church focused on good leadership. I wondered what would change if we focused our prayers upon the maturation of the whole body.
However, as I searched the Scriptures, I also found many passages that talked about people falling away from the faith, about people not maturing as they should, about fighting in the Church. I wanted to believe the Scriptures of hope, but what was I to do with the other Scriptures? I know our tendency is to consider the verses of hope as only figurative or for after our death, but is that right? We can't throw out any passages. If the Bible is literal, both must be literal. If the Bible is figurative, why are only the messages of hope figurative? How would physical death change our character?
As I meditated these questions, I saw that repeatedly through Scripture, God had placed a mountain of blessing and a mountain of curses before His people. The Old Testament reminds me of a "choose your own adventure" book. If you go this way, this will happen. If you go that way, that will happen. I wondered whether there was a circumstance where a prophecy could still be true even if it didn't happen. Certainly Jonah and Nineveh showed that. Could prophecies that seemed contradictory be equally true, but only one be fulfilled? I wanted to hope so, but I wasn't sure I did.
As I was reading Scripture, I was struck by Moses' prayer for the Israelites in Exodus 33-34. God tells Moses that He will not go with the Israelites anymore because He might kill them on the way. Moses begins to pray, Who will go with us? remember that we are your people. God answers, My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest. Moses then says, If your presence doesn't go with us, don't let us go. (I thought, Didn't God just say yes?) God promises again to go with them. Moses asks, show me your glory. God passes His glory before Moses declaring His name. Afterward, Moses asks God one more time to go with them, though God has already said yes twice. This time, having heard God declare His name, His character, Moses believes God's promise to go with Israel. The promise is consistent with who God is.
As I meditated on this passage, I felt God was asking me, 'You keep praying for unity. You have searched the Scriptures and seen my promises of unity, yet you still keep asking. Why don't you believe me?' This wasn't a time when I heard words, but rather a nagging idea. Jesus often told the Israelites, If you don't believe Moses and the prophets, you won't believe me, even though I do great signs and wonders.
I felt as though God were saying to me, "Stop praying for unity in the church, and tell me why you think it is impossible. What is the tree? Why don't you think I am a Father who will lead you to obey me through love, rather than drive you to obey me through fear? Who do you say I am?" We can't believe God's promises unless we know they fit His character, so both questions, "Why don't you believe these Scripture promises?" and "Who do you say I am?" were really a single question.
As I said at the beginning, I am not writing this blog chronologically. All these questions which were one question came Spring/Summer 2011. I spent the next two years dialoging with God about my reasons for unbelief. My hope is that the God who is faithful and just has received this dialog as confession and will forgive and cleanse.
Psalms 86:11 (ESV)
Teach me your way, O Lord,
that I may walk in your truth;
unite my heart to fear your name.
Ezekiel 11:19 (ESV)
And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh,
Jeremiah 3:22 (NIV)
“Return, faithless people;
I will cure you of backsliding.”
“Yes, we will come to you,
for you are the Lord our God.”
Jeremiah 31:31-34 (ESV)
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord, ’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
Isaiah 59:21 (ESV)
“And as for me, this is my covenant with them,” says the Lord: “My Spirit that is upon you, and my words that I have put in your mouth, shall not depart out of your mouth, or out of the mouth of your offspring, or out of the mouth of your children's offspring,” says the Lord, “from this time forth and forevermore.”
John 17:20-23 (ESV)
“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.”
Ephesians 4:1-16 (ESV)
I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call — one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ's gift. Therefore it says,
“When he ascended on high he led a host of captives,
and he gave gifts to men.”
(In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
Exodus 34:5-9 (ESV)
The Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the Lord. The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation.” And Moses quickly bowed his head toward the earth and worshiped. And he said, “If now I have found favor in your sight, O Lord, please let the Lord go in the midst of us, for it is a stiff- necked people, and pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for your inheritance.”