I suck at conflict. Hate it, hide from it, am allergic to its tension. I’m a people pleaser and harmonizer by birth, and was bred to sweep conflict aside or be passive aggressive about it. Nothing about dealing with conflict comes natural to me. But conflict itself is remarkably normal, ordinary, and natural. It’s everywhere, because I suppose, we’re everywhere.
What about you: do you like conflict? Do you feel you are good at dealing with conflict?
I’ve always assumed folks in Jesus’ day were as bad as I am at dealing with conflict, because he spoke about it repeatedly. This gives me hope I’ll not be the last schmuck standing. It also gives me the grace to be a learner, not an expert on loving enemies. Carolyn Schrock Shenk suggests learning to deal with conflict is part of the developmental process.
“Ironically, conflict is an opportunity to know. Without conflict we tend to keep ourselves carefully hidden from God and from others…Struggling through conflict can make us vulnerable, sharpen our senses, help us see our own inadequacy and narrow-mindedness, and open us to God and to others in new ways (Making Peace with Conflict, pg 26,27).”
The first time Jesus addresses conflict he suggests that if in worship we realize we’ve wronged someone, we are to leave and go to be “reconciled” (Matthew 5:21-16). That word, “reconciled,” means we exchange forgiveness, right? Perhaps not. In Greek it’s a compound word, “kata allaso,” meaning “against difference.” We are to oppose difference, or be against being different. This same word – against difference – is the Greek word for wedding. Which reminds me what the Bible says about marriage, “you shall leave father and mother and become one flesh.” To be reconciled with someone we’ve hurt, or who has hurt us, demands we place our relationship above the need to be right!
Not exactly easy, is it? And, as much as we might hate asking for forgiveness when we’re in the wrong, for many its’ even harder to confront someone who has hurt us.
Perhaps that’s why when Jesus addresses this issue he gives us the most specific, concrete and detailed instructions in all the gospels. Yep! When Jesus talks conflict, he’s clearly talking to me (and folks like me!) who would rather run from it than deal with it head on. He gives us a great 3 step plan in Matthew 18:15-22.
Step 1, you approach the person one on one. No triangle-ing, gossip, water-cooler reviews, or carrying the meeting into the parking lot allowed. Nope, straight and simple, take your issue to the person who has hurt you.
Step 2, if that doesn’t work, bring someone with you. Now’s the time to bring that person you want to vent to into the story, and ask them for some help. A pastor, mediator, or trusted authority are good possibilities here. I have to assume if these two steps were taken, 99% of the festering bitterness and conflict would evaporate with no further need. But Jesus gives us another step just in case.
Step 3, bring the issue up publicly to the community of faith.
Framing this most detailed, specific instruction are two stories that drip with grace, healing and hope. Prior to this Jesus tells about the shepherds deep-rooted desire to have all the sheep together again. No one is separated! Just after this precocious Peter asks Jesus if he should amazingly forgive an offender all of seven times. This would be beyond what most of us could fathom. Yet Jesus says, not seven times, but seventy times seven! Not having a cell phone to convert that hard math, Peter wouldn’t have known the answer to the riddle was 490, he would have heard you’re supposed to forgive pretty much every single time someone asks. Now that’s a lot of grace we’re called to give! That’s got to be at least part of what Jesus meant when he said “love your enemies.”
In other words, its’ about more than forgiveness or being right, it’s about the relationship. Being human, I’ve had more than enough practice at screwing up, being forgiven, being hurt, and offering forgiveness. I’ve also very intentionally studied, read, and learned all I can about dealing with conflict. So it’s likely I’m not as bad at conflict today as I once was. Which is good because Larry Dunn says in Making Peace with Conflict,
“Contrary to the commonly held notion that the church should be conflict-free, the church by its nature will be drawn into the business of dealing with conflicts…We might rightly conclude that the church is being the church when dealing with conflict. If our calling is to live out the reality that Christ has broken down false walls and ended the hostility between all people, then who we are as Christians is defined by how we deal with conflict.”
But ultimately, there are many times and many places where we’re never going to see eye to eye, and differences will persist. In these situations we must remain committed to reconciliation, to being “against difference.” One helpful way to approach this is through Agreeing and Disagreeing in Love, a fantastic document designed to place relationship above being right.
So if you’re terrible at conflict, don’t despair! You’re in good company, and we have a good teacher. If you’re worshipping this Sunday and realize you are not at peace, leave and go be reconciled. It’s that important. And when we do, we’re promised “where 2 or 3 are gathering [in conflict] I am with you.” Grace to you and peace!
This is the fourth in a sermon series on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount called “Citizens on the Hill.” You can link to the others here: Part 1: Community of the Damned; Part 2: How Christianity blocks me from following Jesus; Part 3: Remedy for the World’s biggest problems.