“Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:2).
Jesus told us in John 13:35, “By this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” Our love for each other marks us as the people of Jesus! And on the night of His betrayal, Jesus prayed for our unity. “I pray also for those who will believe in Me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as You are in Me and I am in You.” (John 17:20-21)
Paul urged the people of Ephesus to do everything they could to keep that unity. And in that same passionate plea, he gives us a beautiful picture of why unity matters. He says in verses 15-16, “Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of Him who is the head, that is, Christ. From Him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.” We are the body of Christ that is to support, grow, and be built up. But that beautiful blessing is only possible through unity. As Jesus said, “A house divided against itself will not stand” (Matthew 12:25).
But does it matter enough to us? Are we making every effort to keep it? Although this call to unity was written almost 2000 years ago, it seems incredibly timely for us. We have brothers and sisters walking away from each other because of political views, leaving churches over perceived slights that are never confronted, and not speaking to one another because a differing preference or belief was shared on social media.
When confronted with the terrible fruit of disunity, it’s natural to ask ourselves, “How did we get here?” After all, I don’t believe that we ever join a church or gather with other believers with the goal of disunity. No one has ever completed our Discover Grace membership classes and told us, “I’m so happy to officially be a member of Grace. I can’t wait to find reasons to grow apart from people and leave!”
So why does disunity grow among God’s people? I believe that we have to provide a fertile soil for it: negativity.
Paul writes in Ephesians 4:29, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” “Unwholesome talk” is defined here as what tears down and what is not beneficial to the listener. It seems that Paul is saying that we nourish the seeds of disunity in the soil of negative speech: criticism, gossip, complaining, insults, murmuring, and doubt.
Think back to a time where you witnessed disunity between individuals, a group or even organization. Were the words being spoken about others positive or negative? Were the words being spoken about the leadership helpful? Were the words being spoken about the organization beneficial? Did you feel better or worse after conversations about what was going on? Our negative speech can allow hateful beliefs to grow in our hearts and overflow into the hearts of others. And when those beliefs are nurtured – they don’t care about me, she hates me, he can’t be trusted, they don’t know what they’re doing – our unity crumbles and we walk away from each other.
So how do we cultivate soil that nourishes unity? If negative speech fosters disunity, then positive speech will encourage unity. What form of positive speech “builds others up according to their needs” and is a “benefit to those who listen?”
Think about the last compliment you received. Was it beneficial to you? Did it build you up? Of course it did!
Jesus loved to compliment others.
He complimented people’s faith. He complimented Nathaniel as he called him to follow. He gave complimentary titles to James and John as “sons of thunder” and even to Peter as his “rock.” He said that no man born of a woman was a greater prophet than John the Baptist. He complimented the widow for giving a beautiful gift. Jesus loved to compliment people.
We need to nourish unity through the positive speech that Jesus modeled for us – an apt and honest word of complimentary encouragement. I am going to guess that most of us are not in the habit of receiving or giving compliments often. When it comes to complimenting others, there are two things I try to remember: be specific and be sincere.
I love to tell my kids that I’m proud of them. Every time I tell my son, Jude, that I’m proud of him, he responds the same way, “Why?” This is not a self-deprecating question. He wants to hear me tell him specifically what makes me proud. He wants to hear the compliment. And every time I tell him a reason, he grins from ear to ear. Our compliments need to be specific. When Jesus complimented a centurion’s faith he said, “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith” (Matthew 8:10). Platitudes and niceties are about as filling to the soul as a reduced fat rice cake is to the stomach. They are empty and therefore aren’t helpful to build others up. Why do we use platitudes? They’re easy. They’re stored up phrases in our brain that we can toss out without truly thinking about the person. Love requires work. So we must do the loving work to find specific praise for someone. Don’t speak in social niceties; think about what is truly praiseworthy in someone else, and tell them!
We may be tempted to say “nice things” because that’s what we are supposed to do. But that’s deceptive. The Bible’s word for a deceptive compliment is “flattery.” Proverbs goes so far as to call flattery a “trap” for someone. Aiming to flatter someone means you have a motive beyond their building up. Maybe you have a motive to get something out of them, make yourself look good, or even deceive them. We should be sincere in our praise of others. In other words, our compliments should express how we truly feel about the person. Before Jesus expressed His praise to the centurion, Luke tells us that Jesus marveled at the man’s response. Jesus’ compliment expressed how He truly felt! Our compliments should do the same.
What would happen to our unity as the people of God if we replaced our negative speech with positive encouragement? How unified would we be if our gossip was replaced with compliments, our criticism was replaced with praise, our complaining was replaced with thanksgiving? This is one simple effort we can make to maintain our unity – refuse to speak negatively and instead sincerely and specifically compliment one another because unity matters.