On Sept. 11, 2001, I was aboard a ballistic nuclear submarine miles beneath the Pacific Ocean. I was the deputy chief of chaplains for the United States Navy and had been visiting sailors aboard this marvelous vessel when we were informed that our nation had been attacked.
Suddenly, my ministry was transformed by sailors who desired to seek God in prayer. They united in asking God to place a hedge of protection around our nation and world. That day I rediscovered the power of a shared tragedy to unite people from diverse backgrounds, finding cohesion as they looked heavenward.
Why do we wait for tragedies to prompt us to look toward heaven? Why can’t we seek God and find greater unity before fear strikes us from without and within?
One reason we should look heavenward to unite a divided world is because God sees unity as pleasant and precious. In Psalm 133:1 we find these words, “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!” God sees preciousness in our unity because we all belong to him. Even as parents can find delight in watching their children working harmoniously together, so our Heavenly Father finds beauty when we are on one accord.
Why is unity so pleasant and precious? Unity helps believers give a positive example to the world, drawing others to embrace the walk of faith. This is indeed pleasant. Unity also encourages cooperation in a body of believers, enabling them to accomplish much more than they could if divided. This is indeed precious. I have seen the pleasantness and preciousness of unity renew and revitalize the efforts of those who seek to accomplish great things for God’s glory.
A second reason we should look heavenward to unite a divided world is because God above owns everything and we are accountable to him. Psalm 24:1-2 reminds us, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it; for he founded it on the seas and established it on the waters.” This sovereign God owns the heartbeats we borrow from him each day and has enabled us to be stewards of his bounty.
The kind of unity that produces this responsible stewardship does not mean that people will agree on everything. You can maintain harmony even when there are many opinions, just as there are multiple notes in a musical chord. This unity instead means making a commitment to agree on a common purpose and a willingness to work together for the God who unites us. Such unity was seen during the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott, led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1955 that helped to usher in the modern civil rights movement that brought greater equality for marginalized people.
A third reason we should look heavenward for unity is because people who believe in the reality of God are already a part of his family. God, therefore, expects them to be united. 1 John 3:1-2 reminds us of our divine family connection by stating, “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”
Because God is the parent of the human family, he instructs us through his son to pray to our Father in heaven. The rest of the prayer uses plural pronouns. We are taught to pray, give us this day our daily bread, not give me. We are taught to pray, lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
John Donne, the British poet, was on target when he declared, “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” King resonated with this sentiment when he declared about humanity, “We are wrapped in a blanket of mutuality, tied to a single garment of destiny.”
Perhaps the most important reason we should look heavenward to unite a divided world is found in 2 Chronicles 7:1, which states, “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”
This conditional promise from God was given to Israel after Solomon had finished building the temple to honor God. Solomon asked God to give him guidance regarding what to do if the people of Israel deviated from the path of integrity, and reaped a bitter harvest for their sins. God responded to Solomon’s request by providing him with a strategy to bring healing and unity to the nation.
The first part of this strategy is to humble ourselves by admitting our sins. The Bible reminds us that if we humble ourselves before God, he will exalt us in due time. When David confessed his sins, in the penitential Psalm 51, God forgave him and did not remove him from the throne. In Jonah 4, the people of Nineveh repented of their sins by fasting and praying and were able to prompt God to keep them from the punishment they deserved. Humility and contrition matter.
A second factor of this strategy for unity is to seek God continually. Jeremiah 29:13 says, “You will seek me and find me when you have searched for me with all your heart.” Matthew 7:7 reminds us to keep on seeking and we will find; keep on asking and we will receive; keep on knocking and the door will be opened.
This seeking for God is often triggered by a desperate situation caused by disunity, but God has the power to bring people together, transforming cacophony into harmony. You see, fervency moves God’s heart, as read in the book of James, Chapter 5, for “effectual, fervent prayers from righteous people avail much.”
Another crucial element in this strategic blueprint is to turn from sinful behavior. It is not enough to confess our sins, we must be willing to forsake our sins as well. This turning from sinful behavior is sometimes called repentance. It means having a change of heart regarding the sinful path on which we are walking. When we humble ourselves, pray for forgiveness, seek God continually and turn from sinful behavior, forsaking evil, the miracle happens. God promises to hear our prayers, forgive our sins and heal our land.
Making it a habit to look heavenward can unite a divided world. By looking heavenward and following the guidance of God, we will be more prone to habitually obey the admonition given to us in Colossians 3:1-2, which states, “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.”
Imagine the healing that could come to this nation if believers across the spectrum of denominations and religious traditions would humble themselves by admitting our culpability in our national division. Imagine what would ensue if this repentance led to a fervent hunger and thirst for God’s providence to prevail. I believe such a sanctified undertaking would have a transformative impact on our nation and world, and healing showers of unity would produce a harvest of peace, hope and love.
Perhaps the healing that will come to our nation and land will hasten the day when a unity described in Revelation 7:9 occurs. The seer from Patmos, John the Beloved, wrote these words: “After this I saw a vast crowd, too great to count, from every nation and tribe and people and language, standing in front of the throne and before the Lamb. They were clothed in white robes and held palm branches in their hands.” John envisioned a day when people from every nation, tribe and people would celebrate their unity, not just for time, but for eternity. Heaven awaits our fervent pursuit of this kind of unity.
The Rev. Barry C. Black is the chaplain of the United States Senate.