Since coming to Japan as a missionary, I've been learning a lot about what it means to live in social harmony. The preservation of the wa, a sense of social unity, is extremely important in the Japanese culture. By comparison, our native North American culture seems increasingly harsh, impatient, and rigid to us.

North Americans value truth, honesty, and personal rights and freedoms above almost everything else. But I wonder sometimes if we also lose something incredibly precious when we discard the importance of harmony in favour of our other often-opposite goals.

As with so many things, the attitudes of our society have also made their way into North American churches. The Bible talks over and over again about unity as a goal within the body of Christ. In North America, however, we treat unity as a by-product but not a goal. We quote verses like "How good and pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity!" [1], while ignoring the implications of verses that say "...until we attain the unity of the faith…" [2]. Attaining the unity of the faith. That sounds like a goal to me. The apostle Paul also talks about the need to be "diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit" [3]. Unity is not just something that happens. It's something that must be diligently sought and guarded.

We, in the North American church, have sadly fallen far short of this lofty goal.

The other day, when Peter and I were having devotions together, we realized something extraordinary. Over 30+ years of each being Christians, we've been missing some profound lessons in Philippians 4. Let me quote the passage I'm talking about, and then I'll show you what I mean.


"I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to live in harmony in the Lord. Indeed, true companion, I ask you also to help these women who have shared my struggle in the cause of the gospel, together with Clement also and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life.

"Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice! Let your gentle spirit be known to all men. The Lord is near. Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

"Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things. The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you." [4]



At the start of this passage, my Bible has a subtitle saying, "Think of Excellence". The subtitle in Peter's Bible says, "Exhortation, Encouragement, and Prayer". I don't know if these sorts of  subtitles blinded us to the lesson that we learned today, but I know they can't have helped.

Why? Because these subtitles—and every sermon we've ever heard on this passage—make it seem as though Paul is talking about several different subjects in this passage. But what if this passage is all about the same thing? What if—instead of Paul briefly addressing two women in conflict, and then moving on to give general exhortations to the church at large—Paul is actually still addressing the topic of conflict in verses 4-9? What if verses 4-9 are actually his instructions on the mentality that Euodia and Syntyche should adopt to avoid sinning in the midst of their clash?

I now wonder if Philippians 4:2-9 is actually a primer on how to live holy lives in the midst of conflict. Perhaps, by following these guidelines, we can make forgiveness and the restoration of unity simpler for ourselves.

I hope not to get too long-winded here, but I thought that I would just provide a couple of verse-by-verse thoughts before I close, focusing on those verses which we have not formerly interpreted as being about conflict.

1. Rejoice.


"Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!" (4:4)



What's one of the first things that leaves us when we are in the midst of conflict?

Our joy.

According to Paul, rejoicing is also one of the first things we should administer as an antidote. Why? Because rejoicing denotes a trust in God, and a recognition that we don't have to clench up and be the ones to solve all of our problems. God knows what's gone on, and He knows what will come next. And we can rejoice in His love and care for us. We can be confident in our future, because He has it in His hands.

2. Don't retaliate.


"Let your gentle spirit be known to all men." (4:5a)



The Greek term for "gentle spirit" here is something that often refers to displaying a gentle or kind spirit when retaliation would be normal. [5]

3. Don't blow things out of proportion.


"The Lord is near." (4:5b)



Peter and I have two different ideas on how "the Lord is near" might be interpreted:

The Lord is physically nearby. He sees what is being done to you and He sees what you are doing. So be assured that He will not ignore any injustice you encounter, nor any sins that you might commit in this conflict.
The Lord is nearby temporally. The Lord is coming soon, so please don't blow this current conflict out of proportion. It's small potatoes in light of eternity.


4. Pray, give thanks, and allow God's peace to fill your heart.


"Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus." (4:5-6)



If rejoicing is one of the first things that leaves at the start of conflict, then anxiety is one of the first things that comes into our hearts. But here Paul encourages to lay our anxieties at Jesus' feet and instead adopt an attitude of thanksgiving. Giving thanks can change our human perspectives like almost nothing else. When we actively search for things to thank God for, our fundamental experience of human existence is changed. Just like with rejoicing, the act of giving  thanks is essentially an expression of trust in our Heavenly Father. And when we do this, God's peace flows into our hearts, replacing our anxiety, and guarding our hearts and minds. When I'm in conflict, how closely my heart and mind need to be guarded!

5. Guard your heart and concentrate on the good.


"Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things." (4:8)



This will be the last point I examine here. Again, Peter and I came up with different interpretations for it. I think both have their merits, and they could be equally true at the same time.

When we are in conflict, our minds tend to spool, re-hashing each thing the other person has said and done. We become obsessed with their misdeeds, whether real or fantasized. But if we allow this to happen, we greatly increase our chances of sinning, and also of allowing bitterness to enter our hearts. It is possible, however, to take our thoughts captive. We can choose not to engage in bitter obsessions but instead wilfully turn our focus onto Jesus, and things that are honourable, right, pure, lovely, and so on.
Jesus' command to love each other as Christ loved us [6] does not stop when conflict begins. We are still under an obligation to love and value each other. How can we do this? By wilfully focusing our attention on the good and lovely things that are still present in the other person. In this way, we can still retain a sense of love for them. From this love comes our ability to bless those who curse us, do good to those who hate us, and pray for those who mistreat us. [7]
I'm feeling very challenged with these new thoughts. I know I can't make these changes without Jesus' help. How thankful I am that He has promised to never leave nor forsake us [8], but to complete the good work that He has started in us! [9]


NOTES

[1] Psalm 133:1.

[2] Ephesians 4:13.

[3] Ephesians 4:3.

[4] Philippians 4:2-9.

[5] NIV Application commentary: Philippians, Philippians 4:5 entry.

[6] John 15:12.

[7] Luke 6:27-28.

[8] Hebrews 13:5.

[9] Philippians 1:6.



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