In the first article, we saw how revolutionary St. Paul’s Letter to Philemon was. Not only did Paul ask Philemon to reject traditional divisions by taking back a runaway slave, but he also asked him to receive this slave as his own brother in the Lord. Paul could make such a bold request of Philemon because he knew that their experience of faith in Christ Jesus had transformed their relationship.
Paul faced similar challenges in every Christian community. In fact, one of his primary concerns was keeping the young churches together as he urged the believers to persevere in loving one another. One dramatic example is the church in the Roman province of Galatia. For these believers, the issue wasn’t runaway slaves or economic division. It was the centuries-old animosity between Jews and Gentiles. And at the heart of their struggle was the fundamental question of what it meant to be a Christian.
The Church in Galatia. What happened in Galatia? It seems that some converts from Judaism coming from Jerusalem had visited the church there and were teaching that Christians who weren’t already Jewish like themselves needed to accept circumcision and follow the Law of Moses. It wasn’t enough to experience a conversion and be baptized, they taught. Gentiles had to become Jews if they wanted to complete their salvation. Naturally, this false teaching caused a great deal of confusion and tension. Wasn’t Jesus’ death and resurrection by itself enough to save Gentiles? The tension became so strong that they began fighting among themselves—“biting and devouring one another,” as Paul put it. He was afraid that if they persisted, they would end up being “consumed by one another” (Galatians 5:15).
In response, Paul wrote an impassioned letter begging the people to renounce this false teaching and to relate to each other—all of their brothers and sisters in Christ—in the way of the Spirit. He knew that if they recommitted themselves to being led by the Spirit, their relationships would look markedly different. They would not be characterized by “hatreds, rivalry, jealousy, outbursts of fury, acts of selfishness,” and the like, but by “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:20, 22-23).
If we were to look specifically at the Galatians’ troubles, we would probably conclude that the fruit of the Spirit they needed most desperately was peace. Similarly, as we look at our world today, which has so much division, we could come to the same conclusion. We all need to learn to live in peace, so how can we grow in the peace of the Holy Spirit?
What Is Peace? Let’s take a look at some ways that the Galatians could have worked toward peace—ways that we can also adopt in our relationships with our brothers and sisters in Christ.
At its heart, peace is much more than the absence of conflict. We all know the tendency to keep our disagreements just below the surface while presenting a calm face to someone we have a hard time with. We also know how challenging, and unhealthy, it can be to keep a lid on our feelings for too long. Sooner or later, our real feelings may seep out or even explode.
The peace of Christ is not this kind of calm before the storm. Rather, it’s the peace that comes from living in good, healthy relationships with each other. It’s the peace that comes from living out our Christian commitment together. Paul implored the Galatians, “Let us not be conceited, provoking one another, envious of one other” (5:26). This can happen if we lose sight of our calling to be humble toward each other and to respect each other as children of God. Without this, we risk focusing on our differences or comparing ourselves to each other.
This isn’t always easy to do. Perhaps someone has hurt us. Perhaps someone has wronged a loved one. Or perhaps we simply can’t agree with someone about some issue, and our disagreement grows and begins to take on a life of its own. Conflicts are a normal part of life, after all. But what can we do when peace breaks down? How can we work through conflicts in a way that brings healing and unity?
Right and Wrong? One of the most important things we can do is to step back and ask ourselves one important question: “What are we really fighting over?” It’s tempting to hold on to our positions simply because we don’t want to lose. Or it’s possible we have taken a small issue and turned it into a much bigger problem than it truly is. So a brief pause is always helpful—a time to reconnect with the Lord and ask him to help us see the problem through his eyes.
If we step back, we can begin to see whether God views the issue as a matter of right or wrong or whether it’s an issue we can agree to disagree about.
For example, when St. Paul wrote to the Galatians, he understood that something essential was at stake: is Jesus enough, or do we need to add to his sacrifice? Of course, he knew the answer. Only Jesus can overcome sin and rescue us from death. This was an issue of basic truth, a matter of right and wrong. There could be no acceptable compromise, especially among those who call themselves Christians. So Paul addressed the issue directly.
Similarly, when we disagree over a matter of right or wrong, we need to be just as forthright—loving and respectful, yet firm. Abortion, for instance, is always wrong. So too are adultery and theft and openly, actively dishonoring the Lord. In situations like these, we shouldn’t just wait and hope that the other person will change. This is how Paul counseled the Galatians: “If a person is caught in some transgression, you who are spiritual should correct that one in a gentle spirit, looking to yourself, so that you also may not be tempted” (Galatians 6:1).
At the same time, we should be ready to ask forgiveness for any way we may have contributed to the problem—and ready to forgive whatever has been done to us. In that atmosphere of openness and humility, we give the Holy Spirit the opportunity to help us work together toward reconciliation.
Good or Better? However, it’s fairly rare that our conflicts are such blatant matters of right and wrong. Most are matters of prudence or personal preference. For instance, maybe a husband and wife are arguing over whether their son should join the baseball team or the soccer team. Or maybe two parishioners are at odds over the hymns chosen for a special Mass.
In these kinds of situations, we should recognize that it’s not an issue of right or wrong, and that it’s okay to disagree, even if the issue seems important to us. Perhaps the husband will defer to the wife, recognizing that his son will gain just as much from one sport as the other. Or perhaps the two parishioners will agree that their relationship and their witness to Christian love are more important, and they will find a way to compromise.
Again, this is where humility and gentleness are the best approach. If we can try to “be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ,” we will help establish an environment of mutual trust and respect that will only deepen our bonds with each other (Ephesians 5:21).
The key, for St. Paul, is forbearance: “Live in a manner worthy of the call you have received, . . . with patience, bearing with one another through love” (Ephesians 4:1-2).
Bearing with one another can be hard at times, but it is often the most helpful response. Most disagreements can be resolved with forbearance on our part. Keep the other person at the center of your concerns. Uphold their dignity, and be eager to help them carry whatever burdens they might have. Try to walk in their shoes, and take every opportunity to defer to their needs.
This is exactly where the Galatians lost their way. They were fighting over whether all Christians should follow the Law of Moses, but their real problem went beyond a failure of theology. It was a failure of love. They were not treating each other as true brothers and sisters. Of course, doctrine and theology are important, but Paul made it clear that even in these situations, “the whole law is fulfilled in one statement, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Galatians 5:14).
The Spirit Is the Peacemaker. It’s not always easy to live in peace. The temptation to pride and division can be strong. Given our fallen human nature, we end up giving in to that temptation and allowing words of anger to slip out before we even recognize it. But Jesus has given us his Spirit, “the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). So when we lash out or hurt someone, we need to simply ask the Lord to forgive us and ask the other person to forgive us as well. Jesus assures us that it’s never too late to be reconciled.
It really is possible to know the peace of Christ in our relationships with other believers. In the Holy Spirit, Jesus has given us all the grace we need to uphold each other, and he asks us to take hold of this grace. May we all become a people united in the love of God!