Pursuing peace in a divisive world

In some ways, you are wiser, stronger, smarter, and more experienced than others. In certain areas of life, you have advantages that many others don't possess. And there are two ways to look at your blessings and advantages. You can treat these advantages like they make you superior to others, or you can humbly acknowledge that every advantage you possess has been given to you as a gift from a benevolent Creator with the goal that you will serve others with it.

Likewise, if we're honest, we also need to acknowledge that there are those who have greater wisdom, strength, faith, insight, and experience than we do. Hopefully they're using their advantages to be a blessing to us, but unfortunately, some may choose to selfishly flaunt their gifts instead.

Every day of our lives, we're given multiple opportunities to demonstrate Christ-like love toward others. Every day we are given opportunities to build others up in their faith. So, what are we doing with these opportunities? Are people being built up through interacting with us, or are they being destroyed? Are their spirits being uplifted or are they being crushed?

A mature Christian is an others-centered Christian. This world can be divisive, but we have been given the privilege to promote a spirit of peace within our Christian family as we prioritize each others' lives, needs, and growth. Take a look at what we're shown in Romans 14:13-23 where we're taught to prioritize peace in the midst of a divisive world.

I. I don't want to make you fall

Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. 
— Romans 14:13, ESV

When was the last time you unfairly judged someone else? If I'm completely honest, I have done this more frequently that I'd care to admit. In fact, in some ways, I think I'm guilty of doing this frequently.

I was thinking about this concept over the course of this past week when I was reminded about someone I had harshly judged in the past. I had basically written this person off because I didn't really understand what it was like to walk a mile in his shoes. I hadn't had some of the same experiences he had, so I found it easy to internally critique the decisions he made and the way he handled things. But in recent years, I have been challenged by new experiences that have helped me understand a side of life that I didn't appreciate decades earlier. I'm noticing that the older I get, the less I feel inclined to rush to judgment.

And when we look at Romans 14:13, what are we being told? We're told that instead of immaturely judging one another, we should direct our energy toward being careful we don't cause someone to stumble into sin. Instead of hindering a brother or a sister's walk with Christ, we should nourish it. That way, we can use the advantages we've been given to lift them up instead of causing them to fall.

I'll never forget an experience I had when I was in junior high school. One afternoon, after gym class, as we were about to leave the locker room, another student intentionally pushed me backwards while I was standing in front of a bench. The bench took my legs out, and I went flying into the lockers, head first, before falling to the ground. It happened quicker than I could process it, and I didn't see it coming. There is a moment locked in my memory of when that classmate made me fall. But as believers in Christ, let's occupy a place in the memory of others of all the times we've lifted them up instead of tripping them up.

II. I don't want to grieve your heart

I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died. 
— Romans 14:14-15, ESV

Earlier in this chapter, Paul spoke about some of the dietary debates that believers in the church at Rome were having. Some had grown up following Jewish dietary rules, and some had been raised in pagan households. The Old Covenant taught that certain animals were unclean and shouldn't be eaten, but under the New Covenant which Jesus inaugurated with His blood, we are permitted to eat all animals.

So what should we do with this knowledge? If I'm permitted to eat something, but discover it would grieve your heart for me to do so, should I still eat it or should I refrain? Would it be loving of me to cause you grief? Would it be loving of me to become puffed up with my knowledge and flaunt that knowledge in front of you?

Life has enough grief, and during the course of His earthly ministry, Jesus certainly experienced it. Yet in love, Jesus who knows all things, gave His life as a sacrifice for us while we were still living in a state of ungodliness. At the cross, Jesus took our sorrows and grief upon Himself, and He offers to compassionately bear our burdens. If we carelessly and needlessly cause each other additional grief, can we truly say we've learned to appreciate what Christ has done on our behalf?

III. I don't want to tear you down

So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil.  For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.  Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.
— Romans 14:16-19, ESV

Several years ago, when the winds of Hurricane Sandy whipped through Pennsylvania, some of the gutters were ripped off my house and the fence in my back yard was blown over. I had to hire a local fencing company to come and build a new fence. It was a big project for them, and because the ground was rocky, it took them longer to erect the new fence than they expected. It only took a moment for the hurricane winds to knock the old fence down, but it took a team of men many hours to build a new one.

People are quite similar. It only takes a moment to tear someone down, but it takes time and intentional effort to build them up. With that in mind, Paul stressed in these verses that the kingdom of God isn't about needless arguments and debates that really just tear people down. Rather, the kingdom of God demonstrates righteousness, peace, and joy empowered by the Holy Spirit.

Paul also stresses that those who serve Christ with Spirit-empowered righteousness, and a Spirit-empowered attitude toward others, demonstrate that they have been welcomed into the family of God. They also develop a great reputation among their brothers and sisters in Christ who are built up by them instead of being torn down.

IV. I don't want to violate your conscience or mine

Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats.  It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble.  The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves.  But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.
— Romans 14:20-23, ESV

Something I have learned to value more and more as I have grown older is the importance of living with a clear conscience. I remember several years ago going through a season when I wasn't feeling like myself. I felt discouraged and depressed, and I wasn't sure why. As I endured that season, the Lord made something clear to me that I had been ignoring. At the time, there was something that was bothering my conscience. In effect, I was tolerating the presence of sin in my life instead of repenting of it. The longer I violated my conscience, the worse I felt. But when I repented, and submitted myself to the Lord once again, my heart experienced the peace that it had been lacking.

Paul speaks of the importance of living with a clear conscience in this passage. He was instructing believers to live with a clear conscience while also being careful not to violate the conscience of others. Again, the specific issue at hand was dietary in nature, but the greater principle applies to all areas of life. If the Holy Spirit is speaking to your heart, listen to Him. If He is prodding your conscience to do something, say something, or value something, pay attention. If He's cautioning you to be sensitive to the state of spiritual development that someone else is at, proceed carefully. Your preferences are not more valuable than the consciences of those Christ has called you to serve.

A missionary I met some years ago was speaking with me about the experiences he had while serving in different cultures. These were experiences that stretched and challenged him. Many of those experiences involved eating unfamiliar and unappetizing foods. While talking about this, he repeated to me a phrase someone had once taught him; "Wherever He leads, I'll follow. Whatever He feeds, I'll swallow." I laughed at the rhyme, but the concept is fantastic.

That conversation was a great reminder to me that, if need be, I need to be willing to give up my liberties if exercising them would violate the conscience of someone the Lord has called me to build up. Valuing the conscience of another is a visible mark of spiritual maturity.

Paul concludes this passage by teaching us that whatever we do needs to proceed from faith. Our beliefs are always at the root of our behaviors. Every action we take, and every word that we speak should be the outpouring of the genuine faith we have in Jesus Christ. Anything we say or do that isn't the fruit of genuine faith in Christ is, by nature, sin.

In Romans 14:23, Paul says, "But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin." This is to say that if we continue with any action, even though the Holy Spirit is prodding our conscience not to, we are sinning against the Lord, against ourself, and likely sinning against our Christian family.

But thankfully, through faith in Christ, we're empowered by the Holy Spirit to pursue peace with each other instead of contributing to the division and destruction present in this world. We don't have to make each other fall. We don't need to grieve each others' hearts. We don't have to tear one another down, or violate each others' consciences.

Again, as Paul said in Romans 14:18-19, "Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding."

© John Stange, 2019