by William Gurnall
"Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds!" Habakkuk 1:3
Contention is uncomfortable, with whoever we fall out: neighbors or friends, wife or husband, children or servants; but worst of all with God.
Consider the unhappy contentions and divisions that are found among the people of God. Contentions ever portend ill. Christ sets up the light of His gospel to walk and work by — not to fight and wrangle. And therefore, it were no wonder at all, if He should put it out, and so end the dispute. If these storms which have been of late years upon us, and are not yet off, had but made Christians, as that did the disciples (Mark 6:48), ply their oars, and lovingly row all one way — it would have been happy. We might then have expected Christ to come walking toward us in mercy, and help us safely to land; but when we throw away the oar, and fall to strife in the ship, while the wind continues loud about us — truly we are more likely to drive Christ from us, than to invite Him to us; we are in a more probable way of sinking than saving of the ship and ourselves in it.
There is nothing (next to Christ and Heaven) that the devil grudges believers more, than their unity and mutual love. If he cannot rend them from Christ, stop them from getting Heaven — yet he takes some pleasure to see them go there in a storm, like a shattered fleet severed from one another, that they may have no assistance from, nor comfort of each other's company all the way. One ship is easier taken, than a squadron.
If the gospel will not allow us to pay our enemies in their own coin, and give them wrath for wrath — much less will it allow brethren to spit fire at one another's face.
When children fight and wrangle, now is the time they may expect their father to come and part them with his rod! "He shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse" (Mal. 4:6). Strife and contention set a people next door to a curse. God brings a heavy judgment upon a people, when He Himself leaves them. "Be of one mind," says the apostle, "live in peace — and the God of love and peace shall be with you" (2 Corinthians 13:11), implying that if they did not live in peace, they must not look to have His company long with them.
In our divided times, wherein there is so much difference of judgment, had there been less wrangling among ourselves and more wrestling with God — we would have been in a fairer way to find the door of truth, which so many are yet groping for. The way of controversy is dusty, and contentious disputes raise this dust, and blows it most into their eyes who gallop fastest in it, so that they miss the truth, which humble souls find upon their knees at the throne of grace.
Sinning times have ever been the saint's praying times: this sent Ezra with a heavy heart to confess the sin of his people (Ezra 9). And Jeremiah tells the wicked of his degenerate age, that his "soul should weep in secret places for their pride" (Jeremiah 13:17).
"The love of many shall wax cold," and no wonder when self-love waxes so hot. It was foretold also by the apostle (2 Timothy 3:1, 2), "In the last days . . . men shall be lovers of their own selves"; and what a black regiment follows this captain, sin! If once a man makes self the whole of his aim, farewell loving of, or praying for others. Charity cannot dwell in so narrow a house as the self-lover's heart; yes, it is opposed to it: "Love seeks not her own" (1 Corinthians 13:5).
They were none of the best Christians of whom Paul gives this character, "They sought their own." As the heart advances in grace, so it grows more public-spirited. The higher a man ascends a hill, the larger will be his prospect: his eye is not confined within the compass of his own wall. The carnal spirit thinks of none but himself; whereas grace elevates the soul, and the more grace a man has, the more it will enable him to look from himself into the condition of his brethren.
I have known one who when he had some envious unkind thoughts stirring in him against anyone (and who so holy as may not find such vermin sometimes creeping in his mind), he would go to the throne of grace where he would most earnestly pray for the increase of those good things in them which he before had seemed to grudge.
When love has once calmed the dust which passion and prejudice have blown in our eyes, we shall then stand at greater advantage for finding out truth. Pity your weak brother, and take him by the hand to help him — but despise him not; God can make him to stand — and allow you to fall. Christ does not quench the smoking flax — why should we?
The persecutor's sword is not at the church's throat among us — but Christians falling out among themselves! The question has often been asked, why the word preached has been no more effectual to convert the wicked, or to edify the saints? One of the chief causes, is the divisions among those who have made the greatest profession of the truth. The body of Christ is edified by love (Ephesians 4:16). The apostles themselves, when wrangling got little good by Christ's sermon, or the supper itself, administered by Christ unto them. One would have thought that was such a meal, in the strength whereof (as so many Elijahs) they might have gone a long journey; but, alas! we see how weak they arise from it; one denies his Master, and the rest in alarm forsake Him.
Christ prays for His people's unity, "That the world may believe that you have sent me" (John 17:21). This should stir up all that wish well to the gospel, to pray for the reunion of divided hearts. Hot disputes will not do it; prayer will, or nothing will. The God of peace can only set us at peace: if ever we are wise to agree, we must obtain our wisdom from above; this alone is pure and peaceable.
The unreasonableness of the strife between Abraham's herdsmen and Lot's, is aggravated by the near neighborhood of the heathens to them, "And there was a strife between the herdsmen of Abram's cattle and the herdsmen of Lot's cattle: and the Canaanite and Perizzite dwelled then in the land" (Genesis 13:7).
O Christians, shall Herod and Pilate put you to shame? They clapped up a peace to strengthen their hands against Christ; and will not you unite against your common enemy?
Contentions put a stop to the growth of grace. The body may as well thrive in a fever — as the soul prosper when on a flame with strife and contention. Observe Ephesians 4:15: "But speaking the truth in love," or being sincere in love, "may grow up into Him in all things." The apostle is upon a cure, showing how souls may come to thrive and flourish; and the formula he gives is a composition of these two rare drugs, sincerity and love; preserve these and all will go well.
There may be preaching — but no edifying, without love. You cut off your trade with Heaven, at the throne of grace; you will be little in prayer to God — if much in squabbling with your brethren. It is impossible to go from wrangling to praying, with a free spirit. And if you would be so bold as to knock at God's door, you are sure to have cold welcome, "Leave your gift before the altar, and go your way; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift."
As we cut off our trade with Heaven, so with one another; when two countries fall out, they must needs both pinch by the war. No Christian could well live without borrowing from his brethren. There is that "which every joint supplies according to the effectual working in the measure of every part" (Ephesians 4:16). Contentions and divisions, spoil all fellowship among believers. Communication flows from communion, and communion is founded upon union. The church grows under persecution; that sheds the seed all over the field, and brings the gospel where else it had not been heard of. But divisions and contentions, like a furious storm, washes the seed out of the land, with its heart, fatness, and all.
Contentions not only hazard the decay of grace — but growth of sin. "If you have bitter envying, and strife in your hearts, glory not; . . . for where envying and strife is, there is confusion and every evil work." Contention is the devil's forge, in which if he can but give a Christian a heat or two — he will soften him for his hammer of temptation. Moses himself, when his spirit was a little hot, "spoke unadvisedly with his lips."
We are prone to mistake our heat for zeal, whereas commonly in strife between saints it is a fire-ship sent in by Satan to break their unity and order; wherein while they stand they are an invincible armada: and Satan knows he has no other way but this to shatter them. When the Christians' language, which should be one, begins to be confounded, they are then near scattering.
Was there ever less love, charity, self-denial, heavenly mindedness, or the power of holiness — than in this sad age of ours? Alas! these are in great danger of perishing in the fire of contention and division, which a perverse zeal in less things has kindled among us.
Lay this deep in your heart, that God, who gives an eye to see truth — must give a hand to hold it fast when we have it. What we have from God, we cannot keep without God; keep therefore your acquaintance with God, or else truth will not keep her acquaintance long with you. God is light: you are going into the dark, as soon as you turn your back upon Him. We stand it better advantage to find truth, and keep it also, when devoutly praying for it — than fiercely wrangling and contending about it. Disputes soil the soul and raise the dust of passion; prayer sweetly composes the mind, and lays the passions which disputes draw forth; and I am sure a man may see further in a still, clear day, than in a windy and cloudy day. When a person talks much and rests little, we have great cause to fear his brain will not long hold out; and truly, when a person shall be much in talking and disputing about truth, without a humble spirit in prayer to be led into it, God may justly punish that man's pride with a spiritual frenzy in his mind, that he shall not know error from truth.
A truth under dispute is stopped in the head — it cannot commence in the heart, or become practical in the life.
Many a sharp conflict there has been between saint and saint, scuffling in the dark through misunderstanding of the truth and each other.
There is a day coming, and it cannot be far from us, in which we shall meet lovingly in Heaven, and sit at one feast — full fruition of God shall be the feast, and peace and love the sweet music that shall sound to it; and what folly it is for us to fight here who shall feast there.
From The Christian in Complete Armour by William Gurnall