Years ago, I encountered Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s great novel Love in the Time of Cholera, which (among other things) explores the nature of harmonious relationships.
In the story, a couple has been married for almost fifty years. In the routine they have evolved, the wife is responsible of restocking the bathroom with soap. One morning, however, her husband says: “For three days now I have been washing without soap.” The wife knows that she had neglected her responsibility, but rather than admit her fault, she snaps, “Well, I use the bathroom every day, and there has always been soap!”
The dispute erupts, threatening to tear the couple’s marriage apart. The husband is banished to the living room sofa. The conflict continues for months, becoming almost a routine for them. One night, however, the husband forgets to retire to his new living room quarters, and climbs into bed with his wife. She taps him on the shoulder to remind him to leave. “Let me stay,” he replies, “There was soap.”
It’s rarely the important things that divide us. In a free society, our relationships with others usually rest on a common vision and common beliefs. God, the universe and everything—these are not the problems most of the time. Rather, it’s the little differences that threaten to wreak havoc. Different forms of Garcia Marquez’s soap dispute can often tear apart marriages, friendships, and even entire communities.
In his Epistle to the Romans, Saint Paul exhorts his gentile audience to welcome converts from Judaism, “but not for disputes over opinions.” (Romans 14:1) What opinions are these? Nothing less than the Jewish Christians’ desire to observe the Sabbath and the distinction between clean and unclean foods! Although Saint Paul disagrees—“I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.” (Romans 14:14)—he recognizes that the Jewish practices do not strike at the heart of the Christian proclamation, and so counsels acceptance, urging his audience to “pursue what makes for peace and mutual upbuilding.” (Romans 14:19)
One is tempted to wonder how the same Jewish converts might fare under today’s Christian leaders, but we won’t go there… For Saint Paul, the matter is clear: “The kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 14:17-18) He then offers a way by which his flock can live in harmony: “We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves; let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to edify him … that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Romans 15:1-2, 6)
In matters of opinion, Saint Paul tells us that we must bear with the failings of the weak. Even if the other person is wrong, our challenge is to give up our right to be right. In Garcia Marquez’s story, the husband relinquished his obvious rightness for the sake of marital harmony. One might argue that he compromised, but compromise is something one does when a cherished principle—not soap—is at stake. The facts concerning soap (or any other point of dispute) may be important, but is it essential to the heart of the relationship?
That’s a question we need to ask about anything that threatens to divide our marriages, friendships and spiritual associations. “Is this the hill I am willing to die on?” Is it essential—a matter of profound principles? If the answer is no (which it usually is), are we willing to hold onto a right opinion at the expense of a relationship? Saint Paul wasn’t. And if the most influential Christian apostle could relinquish his right to be right, then the rest of us could probably do the same, for the sake of a little more harmony.