Have you ever rubbed sandpaper back and forth against a rough piece of wood? It takes a lot of work to produce something solid and silky beneath your fingers, with no rough edges or splinters. That’s a picture of how God sometimes works, placing us in community with different kinds of believers, some of whom rub us the wrong way.
In fact, the people who get on our nerves or who see things differently than we do can render a priceless service. Though they can make life difficult at times, they can also be instruments God uses to work peace into our lives. How? By showing us how to speak the truth in love, exercise forbearance, benefit from criticism, handle conflict, show patience, demonstrate Christ’s love, and stay accountable. They can help us grow up spiritually and emotionally. And we can do the same for them.
I remember early in my career working with a colleague I’ll call Ed. Both of us were editors who wanted to publish books that would build up the church and God’s people. But we had very different ideas of how to do that. He wanted to publish books I was convinced no one wanted to read. And I wanted to publish books that failed to interest him. The tension between us made working together difficult, and I was tempted to conclude that Ed was both stubborn and clueless. Likely he thought the same of me.
Eventually Ed left the company. But it wasn’t long before we found ourselves working together again. Both of us had helped launch a ministry to disadvantaged women. This time, the Ed I saw in action was quite effective, using his skills to grow the ministry. A gifted writer, Ed composed letters to donors and kept the organization afloat financially. As we worked together in this new setting, the tension that had characterized our earlier relationship vanished and we began to forge a genuine friendship.
Over the years, Ed and I had worked on each other’s personalities like sandpaper, smoothing out the rough edges. To echo the words of Parker Palmer: “Community will teach us that our grip on truth is fragile and incomplete, that we need many ears to hear the fullness of God’s word for our lives.”1
1Parker Palmer, quoted in Catherine Whitmire, Plain Living: A Quaker Path to Simplicity (Notre Dame, IN: Sorin Books, 2001), 143.