At times the paradox is painful, but it is nevertheless true. True Christians "receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon [us]" (Acts 1:8), yet even with that divine power there is much that we would like to do but cannot.
We can teach, but we cannot impart true spiritual understanding, until God first calls and prepares the hearer's mind (John 6:44, 65). We can accumulate financial and human resources, but we cannot fulfill Jesus' prophecy that the "gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world" until the time is perfect and God ordains that it be so. We can "sigh and cry" over the scattered state of the church, but we are powerless to directly bring about a change (Ecclesiastes 7:13). We are to "pursue peace with all people," (Hebrews 12:14) yet there are times when that peace will only come about through God's intervention (Proverbs 16:7).
Along similar lines, unity is a frequent topic in the church these days—and rightfully so—but it is often like the weather: there is a great deal of talk, but nobody ever does anything about it. That may seem like a flippant observation at first, but on closer inspection it will be seen that God is the sovereign of both. Even though He has put laws into motion that govern both the weather as well as relationships—seemingly without His action—the Bible is replete with examples of His intervention when He desires an occurrence that is out of the ordinary.
True unity among people is certainly such an occurrence. The human heart has an ever-present inward pull that is always working against unity. Even with conversion, and the power that comes with the receipt of the Holy Spirit, our latent self-concern still reaches out and damages relationships, destroying unity. Even when there are the best of intentions, there are still misunderstandings caused by differing levels of conversion, differing viewpoints, differing experiences, differing generations, and differing dictions. While we may pour ourselves into abiding by the laws that govern relationships, because of the human nature that remains within us, it takes an act of God for the extraordinary to happen and true unity be produced. God holds the key to the problem of disunity; our own efforts will be a mixed bag at best.
In Jesus' last prayer with His disciples, He specifically and repeatedly asked the Father to make His present and future disciples one, just as the Father and the Son are one with each other (John 17). They enjoy perfect unity, and are the source of it. Jesus would not have used, as it were, that final prayer with the disciples on something that they could have brought about on their own. Part of the Father's answer to that prayer—just a few hours later—was the giving of His Son to pay the penalty for sin, which is the source of disunity between God and man (Isaiah 59:1-2). With that gulf bridged, the way is opened for redeemed men to become one with God.
Our relationship with God is the key to unity with the brethren, because that relationship exists for the purpose of bringing us into the same spiritual image as God—the "measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ" (Ephesians 4:13; see Genesis 1:26). When we all perfectly resemble Jesus Christ, we will also all resemble each other—and there will be unity. Just as two stones fit together when there is a uniform, smooth surface between them, so will we fit together when our lives exactly match the same spiritual standard—Jesus Christ. Thus, the general cause of disunity among brethren is a breakdown somewhere in the relationship with God. By extension, the solution to disunity is not to try to get everybody together, but rather to restore the relationship with God. This can, of course, only be done on an individual basis—while a brother may be able to give advice, encouragement, and exhortation, he cannot fix somebody else's relationship.
While there are many things that we would like to be able to do but cannot, the one thing we can do is try to perfect our unity with God. Greater unity with others who are likewise pursuing God's spiritual image will be a result, but it can only happen in that order. Pursuing unity among men first while leaving God in the background inevitably leads to compromise.
Proverbs 18:19 tells us, "A brother offended is harder to win than a strong city, and contentions are like the bars of a castle." It does not say it is impossible—it implies that it is extremely difficult. Yet how many strong cities and castle defenses were the Israelites able to overcome when God was on their side? How many did they overcome when He was not? With God on our side, even offended brethren can eventually be won over, for "when a man's ways please the Lord, He makes even his enemies to be at peace with him." (Proverbs 16:7) Again, the key to unity lies with God, not in the efforts that we can—and should—put forth.
There is a specific condition for that verse to be fulfilled, though: a man's ways must be pleasing to the Lord, which is a description of the man's relationship with His Creator. Similarly, Isaiah 66:2 gives a description of the man whom God is going to pay attention to when he asks for something like unity: "…But on this one will I look: on him who is poor and of a contrite spirit, and who trembles at My word." A man who is growing in unity with God is one whom God will be glad to help in overcoming the problems of disunity.
- David C. Grabbe