For the past several weeks we have been part of a group that has been discussing the hurt in our world from the painful ways the American society is engaging in conflict over political, economic, and even theological issues.
As God’s people, we are called to respond to conflict in a way that is remarkably different from the way the world deals with conflict. We certainly didn’t come up with answers to all that we need to know to be civil in our engaging in conflicts, but we did discover ideas that seemed helpful to many of us and may be of help to others.
We began with the fact that conflict is a part of life
“As long as we are on earth, the love that unites us will bring us suffering by our very contact with one another, because this love is the resetting of a Body of broken bones. Even saints cannot live with saints on this earth without some anguish, without some pain at the differences that come between them. It is principally in the suffering and sacrifice that are demanded for people to live together in peace and harmony that love is perfected in us.” Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton
Conflict is not necessarily bad or destructive. We believe conflict provides an opportunity to glorify God, serve other people, and grow to be like Christ. Even when conflict is caused by sin and causes a great deal of stress, God can use it for good.
What are some ways that conflict is a positive factor in our relationships?
- It encourages us to open our minds and hearts to new ways of thinking and experiencing life.
- We have an opportunity to know others in depth.
- It can bring light and air to previously hidden problems.
- We learn to love and to trust those with whom we do not agree because of God’s love in us and in them.
Ideas that may help us deal with conflict in ways that deepen our friendships rather than diminish them
Barbara Brown Taylor is clear about one of our issues: “Because church people tend to think they should not fight, most of them are really bad at it.” We need to learn how to “fight” in ways that bring healing to our world.
To learn to fight well—to deal with conflict as God desires—it’s important to begin with Matthew 7:5, “First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” as we consider the call to “go and tell your brother his fault” (Matthew 18:15). Jesus doesn’t say “Don’t get the speck out of your brother’s eye,” but rather to examine ourselves first, before we go. There is a major difference between judging a situation and being “judgmental”. One is discerning and the other is showing contempt.
When examining ourselves and trying to see our own “log,” there are many things to look for which are giving us distorted vision:
- Often our own attitudes and biases blind us to truth. Often we are prone to hear something as being much more hurtful than was actually communicated.
- Or maybe we are holding this person responsible for an old wound, and therefore anything he/she does is perceived as rude and insensitive.
- Then there are our sinful words and actions. We need to take responsibility for these, ask for forgiveness, and repent from them no matter how small we think they are.
- And too often we are shaped by the culture of those who think like we think and that keeps us from seeing clearly truth as told by others.
We must lean on God’s Spirit, God’s Word, and God’s people to help us see what we can’t see. When we have removed the log from our own eye, we may find that the speck in the other’s eye is nothing, or much smaller than we initially thought. And we can then see clearly to deal with the issue.
“Choosing to be unoffendable, or relinquishing my right to anger, does not mean accepting injustice. It means actively seeking justice, and loving mercy, while walking humbly with God. And that means remembering I’m not Him.” Unoffendable by Brant Hansen
“Put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” ~ Colossians 3:14
If we’ve been trying to overlook an offense for days, weeks, or months, and it’s still irking us, we should consider that perhaps this is God’s way of prompting us that we need to go and talk it through with the other person. But we need to lead with love. The reason we go and discuss an offense with another person is never to prove a point or shame them. By contrast, our goal should be honest communication so that we can learn/repent/forgive and move forward together.
Thoughts on moving forward with love
We need to understand the underlying issue that brings anger to a boil in us. The issue that most often creates anger in us is that we are focused on ourselves rather than on Jesus and others.
Paul Billheimer states this clearly:
“No breach in the Body of Christ is caused primarily by superior knowledge, differing convictions, or divergent views of truth; but by one thing and only one – lack of agape love.”
And he raises an underlying issue that diminishes our expression of love:
“To sacrifice one’s opinions to the opinions of another requires humility strange to most of us. Our opinions seem to be among our most priceless possessions.” Love Covers by Paul E. Billheimer
And another issue
“Jesus did not lace his relationships with expectations, and he refused to be trapped when others sought to put these expectations on him. He refused to manipulate people even for their own good. Expectations are resentments waiting to happen. People who live with expectations will always be disappointed as they engage with others.” Authentic Relationships by Wayne Jacobsen
Brian McLaren gives some wisdom about how to approach another that will help us resolve conflict in a civil way:
“Ask them questions. Display unexpected interest in them, their traditions, their beliefs, and their stories. Learn why they left what they left, why they stay where they stay, and why they love what they love. Enter their world and welcome them into your world without judgment. If they reciprocate, welcome their reciprocation; if not, welcome their non-reciprocation. Experience conviviality. Join the conspiracy of plotting for the common good together.”
But What About Enemies?
As difficult as it is to stay reconciled with those with whom we walk with Jesus, the issues get much more intense when we relate to those who don’t like our ideas and they don’t even like us – and too often we find ourselves responding in kind. We know that Jesus said, “I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” But it is another thing to live this truth with people we don’t like. How can we live this clear teaching of Jesus in a world of people who we know have wrong ideas, wrong motives, and are doing harm in the world?
In our discussion times both Cynthia Noble and Ken Morse kept coming back to the truth that dealing with small or large conflicts with a civility that comes from love is very, very hard. Some thoughts on that struggle as we seek to do this:
The Dali Lama said: Conquer yourself. Are you the master or the slave of your own feelings?
Martin Luther King, Jr. said: “Love is the only force that can transfer an enemy into a friend.” So we have to lead with love. This means we have to let go of judgement and contempt.
“It’s true that sometimes people try to offend us, and they’re intentionally hurtful and spiteful. And yet, there Jesus is, on the cross, saying, “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing.” Is that same Jesus living in and through us, still saying that?” Unoffendable by Brant Hanson
“Contempt is a greater evil than anger and so is deserving of greater condemnation. Unlike innocent anger it is a kind of studied degradation of another and it also is more pervasive in life than anger. It is never justified or good. The intent and the effect of contempt is always to exclude someone, push them away, leave them out and isolated. Those who are ‘excluded’ are thereby made fair game for worse treatment.” The Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard
(Note: the Hutu radio broadcasts during the massacre of 800,000 Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994 kept shouting out, “Kill the cockroaches” – not “Kill your Tutsi neighbors.”)
“Always and everywhere you are called to rise above oppositions and divisions as you live the universal love of Christ. Always look for what unites and fight everything that estranges and separates us from one another.” Rule for a New Brother by H. van der Looy
“Amazingly enough, radical acceptance does what condemnation and judgmentalism and self-superiority could not do: produce a changed life. What if we were to cease ever again attacking people’s worth or holding them in contempt? Imagine becoming known as one who will never pick up a stone!” Everybody’ Normal Until you get to Know Them by John Ortberg
As we discussed this impossible task of loving enemies it became clear that we cannot deal with conflict in a loving way in our own strength. There is nothing in our culture, or ourselves, that makes us people who do this. That is why the Apostle Paul wrote to his friends in Asia Minor—who were struggling with conflict in their fellowships:
The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
All of these things are necessary when it comes to resolving conflicts in ways that bring healing—AND we only become this kind of a person as we receive the transformation of our character from the Spirit. We then begin to experience being changed from our natural self-centeredness to being one who lives life in the Jesus style. Then we can lead with love—the love of God.