As I and many others return home from our annual conferences I imagine the word we heard most often was “unity.” If not during annual conference then you no doubt have read about or heard a sermon on unity many times in the past year. Unity, it appears, has become the goal for we who call ourselves United Methodists. I want to share here why this should never be the case.
I’m reading a wonderful book by Dr. Larry Crabb entitled The Marriage Builder. About half way through he writes about how to achieve soul oneness with one’s spouse and suggests that the reason so many couples fail to achieve soul oneness is because they do not understand that goals and desires are not the same thing, or worse yet (and more likely) they mistakenly believe that their desires are goals and vice versa.
Dr. Crabb defines a goal as an objective that is under my control. When reaching an objective requires that I do certain things, that objective can reasonably be called a goal. In relation to marriage, ministry to one’s spouse can be a reasonable (and healthy!) goal. One can choose to minister to another regardless of the way one feels or how the recipient responds.
A desire, on the other hand, is an objective that I may legitimately and fervently want, but cannot reach through my efforts alone. A desire requires the uncertain cooperation of people and forces outside of myself. In relation to marriage, a husband may desire that his wife be more attentive to his needs but to make it his goal to change her is to assume a power he does not have. To make this his goal, he must think in terms of his response to her rather than her response to anyone else.
Whether we perceive our objective as a goal or a desire makes a world of difference in how we live. If, for example, my objective is that it rain today, I will only end up frustrated and angry when I go about trying to make it rain and fail (or, on the off chance it does rain I will become full of pride in my delusion of success). All I can do is pray that the One who is in control will allow my objective to become realized.
A legitimate goal, on the other hand, can be reached through my efforts. I may not feel like doing what is necessary to reach my goal, but I can do it if I choose. My desire may be that it rain, but my goal is that my lawn receives water. I can choose to go to the store and buy a sprinkler to water my lawn. I may not want to drive to the store and spend the money, but I can choose to do so if I wish to reach my goal.
Dr. Crabb goes on to say that the proper response to a desire, then, is prayer. To a goal, the appropriate response is a set of responsible actions. A good principle to remember:
Pray for your desires and assume responsibility for your goals.
What is true for marriage is true for the church. Because unity requires the uncertain cooperation of people and forces outside of ourselves it is a legitimate desire but an illegitimate goal. It is something that can be hoped for only. We can pray for unity, as Jesus did in John 17, but if we make it our goal we will only end up frustrated and angry, and even worse, missing our God-given goals.
So what is the goal? Throughout scripture the goal is always faithfulness. Faithfulness to God’s truth. Faithfulness to the church. Faithfulness to our spouse. Faithfulness to one another. Faithfulness is a legitimate goal because you and I can choose today to do what is necessary to remain faithful. We may not feel like it, and many times it may inconvenience us, but if our goal is to be faithful to God we will make the necessary choices and sacrifices to achieve our objective.
In the church in which I serve, I desire greatly that we be united but if that were my goal it would cause me to do many things that would be unfaithful to God’s higher calling. I wonder if those who have been making unity the goal of the United Methodist Church would change how they do church in order to cater to the desires of someone deciding they are leaving their church? If unity is our goal, we will fall prey to and become servants of the shifting sands of desire. Unity is a terrible goal, but a healthy desire.
The wonderful thing about faithfulness is that it oftentimes begets unity. As the Holy Spirit was poured out into the early church, we find they were devoting themselves to the apostles teaching and worship and fellowship. They were choosing to be faithful in the things they had control over. And when they did this, God showed up, bringing “awe” and “wonders and signs” and then, and only then, do we find that they were united, having all things in common.
Many of us in the United Methodist Church have mistakenly made unity our goal. It’s a bad goal. A legitimate and healthy goal is faithfulness. If and should we make faithfulness our goal, we will find people remaining faithful to God, to the church, to the orders of elders and deacons whom we are in covenant with, and to the vows we made when we became United Methodists. We will do this even when we do not feel like it or when it costs us something. And as we are being faithful, we may pray fervently for unity, and wait with hopeful expectation that God will show up and give us the desires of our heart.
Let us pray for our desires and assume responsibility for our goals.