April 11, 1970 saw the successful launch of the seventh manned mission in NASA’s Apollo space program.
Two days later, after one of the craft’s oxygen tanks exploded and severely crippled the craft’s oxygen and power supplies, Apollo commander Jim Lovell uttered the famous words: “Houston, we have a problem!”
Suddenly, the focus of the Apollo 13 mission changed from moon landing and exploration to saving the lives of the three astronauts and returning them safely back home. Mission controllers back at Kennedy Space Center were tasked with developing and testing ways of repairing the damaged systems within the crippled craft.
In order for this to occur, several things became vital. First, everyone needed to be working towards the same goal. This meant that people from various fields of expertise needed to find ways of cooperatively working together for a single, unified purpose. Personal agendas were set aside, discipline-specific language barriers were overcome, and divergent approaches were welded together in the name of saving the lives of the otherwise perishing astronauts.
Second, theory needed to be translated into practice with potential solutions actually tested in the Space Center before being implemented by the crew of Apollo 13. Given the limits of time, resources and other factors aboard Apollo 13, any solution that would not enhance the chances of survival while also minimizing the risk of further harm to the craft or the astronauts, or that could not practically be implemented by them, was rejected. Only theory that actually worked in practice was of value.
As a consequence of a diversity of specialists being able to work together, unified by the common purpose of the ‘salvation’ of the three Apollo 13 astronauts, and able to translate theoretical ideas into actual solutions, the Apollo 13 crew all returned to earth safely on April 17, six days after launch.
“Houston, we have a problem!”
We all know that in our church, we have a problem, and that’s why we’ve been studying lessons on unity. Throughout this last quarter as I have reflected upon the relationship between love, truth and unity, two key questions have stuck in my mind:
- What is the basis of genuine unity?
- What is the role of truth/doctrine in fostering genuine unity?
I’ve reflected on Christ’s prayer in John 17, where He prays specifically for the same unity among His followers that He experiences with His Father. John 17:3,4,11 taken together outline the basis of the unity that exists between Jesus and His Father. This basis is the nature and character of God. Thus when Jesus prayed in John 17: 11 “so that they may be one just as we are,” He was stating that the same nature and character that united Him with His Father would also unify believers.
1 John 4:8 reveals that the core of God’s nature and character is self-renouncing love. 1God’s revelation of His nature and character to Moses in Exodus 34:6,7 provides insight into the attributes of God’s character that arise from this self-renouncing love – compassion, grace, patience, mercy, faithfulness, truthfulness and integrity. Paul similarly unpacks what this king of love looks like in 1 Corinthians 13.
So, according to Christ’s prayer in John 17, unity is the natural outflow among all who share a self-renouncing nature and character.
Could love be the answer?
When speaking with the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus explained that He was offering to restore each willing person back into harmony with this absolutely essential nature and character. And Jesus pointed out that the result of being restored back to this base of life would be a “spring of living water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14) within each person.
Some might think that unity arising as the natural by-product of a life based upon self-renouncing love/giving is too idealistic. True, it is ‘idealistic.’ But it is also a necessity. It is how reality works. In fact, self-renouncing love/giving is the only basis upon which abundant life (John 10:10) is actually possible.
So, though unity as a natural by-product of self-renouncing love may be idealistic, it is also realistic. Paul outlines how he was able grow in self-renouncing love in his own life:
“Brothers and sisters, I do not consider that I have made it (a Christlike nature and character of self-renouncing love) my own yet. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 3:13-15).
The Bible repeatedly calls us to take hold of God and to journey step-by-step with Him towards the ideal of living in self-renouncing love in all aspects of our daily living. This is because God passionately wants to restore every aspect of our lives back to the wholeness that is necessary for us to experience the ‘abundant life’ for which we were originally created.
As revealed in Hebrews 4:15-16, God also understands reality. He understands that while we are journeying towards this goal, we will at times ‘fall.’ And when we do, Satan is there at every point to discourage us so that we give up, believing it is too hard. But God is also there – patiently encouraging us to get up, dust ourselves off and continue once again, back on track. While Satan is quick to remind us how many times we’ve fallen, God keeps no count!
What’s the role of truth and doctrine?
Satan has insinuated that God is arbitrary, confining humanity to a ‘glass ceiling’ when a much higher reality could be experienced (Gen 3:4,5). The rest of earth’s history from these verses onwards is evidence that this insinuation is not true. Contrary to the claim that God and His ways are arbitrary, everything that God outlines as necessary (i.e. ‘commands’) is because that is how reality operates.
Truth is simply the revealing, or revelation, of what is real. Consequently, the purpose of truth is to guide us in how to live life abundantly (John 10:10). Truth shows us what will lead us towards abundant life, and what will lead us away from it. Truth, by its very nature, is inseparably tied to daily life and living.
I propose that, because truth is a statement of how reality actually operates, the test of truth is that it actually impacts how we live. Truth is not merely an abstract statement without direct connections to reality.
Another name for a truth statement is “doctrine.” There have been many arguments over the centuries in regard to doctrines. This is one of the reasons there are so many religions and denominations in the world.
How do we know which doctrines are essential and which ones are not?
I propose that essential doctrines are those that represent truth statements anchored in reality and therefore actually impact how we live our daily lives. And I suggest a question to test whether or not a doctrine is essential: Will it provide practical guidance to me in my daily walk to abundant life?
So, in conclusion, I would suggest the following converging points describe the interrelationship between love, truth and unity that Jesus desired his followers would experience down through the ages:
- God and Jesus are unified in that they both share the same essential nature and character.
- Every aspect of the nature and character that God and Jesus share in common is founded upon the principle of self-renouncing love/giving.
- Self-renouncing love/giving is a perpetual principle and is the only viable basis for abundant life now and for eternity.
- All attributes that characterize abundant living are anchored in the core life principle of self-self-renouncing love/giving.
- Truth that matters is anchored in reality and directly impacts our daily life and living.
- Essential doctrines will, by nature, impact our daily life and living by aiding us in developing an ever more Christlike nature and character.
- The development of this nature and character is the believer’s goal to which we keep pressing on, regardless of how many times we slip up.