Fights are common in hockey and if you have ever been to a professional game you know that some people are actually there hoping to see a fight. I played hockey for about 25 years. I started when I was 29 and quit a few years ago and in all that time I was never in a fight. That is not to say that I never had conflict or got angry. It doesn’t mean that I didn’t verbally confront people. In fact, I have to confess that a few times I preached at people right on the ice.
I hate the feeling when I am at odds with someone. I know that my nature would be to confront people verbally, but I often back off because I have found that that doesn’t really help. The on ice sermons are not really a good way to handle conflict. I have often wondered, in conflict situations, whether there is not a better way to handle things.
At our ministerial retreat in February, we had Dave Dyck from Mediation Services teach us about conflict resolution. One of the exercises he had us do was that he put a long piece of tape on the floor and had us pair off on opposite sides of the tape. Then he secretly told the group on one side of the tape that it was their task to get the person on the other side to come to their side of the tape. Then he took the other group aside and secretly told them the same thing. Well, it was interesting to see how people tried to accomplish this. It was very funny when two of the most petite, caring, gentle ladies from the ministerial tried to physically drag each other across the line. The purpose of the exercise was to try to find ways to resolve an impasse. By the end of the day we had learned some important lessons about resolving conflict and I would like to share some of these with you today.
There are three main things I would like to say today. First of all that conflict is neither good nor bad, but it depends on how we handle it. Secondly, I would like to demonstrate how conflict works and show you some of the things which happen in conflict. Finally, I would like to share with you a model for resolving conflict.
We will look at some examples of conflict in Scripture, but mostly I will share some of what we learned in the seminar. All of this is to think practically about the command in Ephesians 4:3 where we are told to “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
In the material we received we learned that “Conflict is often understood as bad because it is associated with unpleasant emotions and disruption in people’s lives.” That is something we can all identify with. For me there is an uncomfortable feeling right down in my stomach. I don’t like that feeling. We experience a lot of negative feelings when it comes to conflict and so most people believe that conflict is bad. Some people live by the understanding that a good person doesn’t rock the boat. Someone might believe that if you are in a good relationship with someone, you would never have conflict. Some people’s experience of conflict is that it always involves verbal or physical aggression. There are some people who approach conflict from the perspective that they always have to win. On the other hand, some people are afraid that if they raise any objections, they won’t be liked.
These are the feelings and beliefs that many of us experience when there is conflict. They are difficult feelings and we don’t like them, but are they the whole story?
Anyone who believes that in good relationships there is no conflict has never been married. In fact in all human relationships, conflicts are inevitable. Gil Rendle says, “Conflict is having more than one idea in the same room.”
One could even say that conflict arises out of the incredible variety with which God has created the universe. God has created human beings in His image, but he has also created them so that no two of are alike. In the Daily Bread on Friday there was a story about two women who viewed the Blue Heron’s in very different ways. One liked them because of their beauty and incredible wing span. The other hated them because they were eating fish out of her pond. Since we are different and have different perspectives, it is inevitable that we will not agree on everything and that there will be conflicts.
Sometimes that is a bad thing. When conflicts escalate to hatred and anger and division, that is not a good thing. However, it is not the conflict itself that is the problem. The material we received at the seminar indicated that, “Conflict is a natural and inevitable part of life and happens in the best personal and professional relationships. In itself, conflict is neither bad nor good. It can be constructive if handled well, destructive if handled poorly.”
Sometimes conflict can even be important as a way of leading us to deeper relationships. In the material we received it says, “Many of us will avoid conflict with the intention of keeping the peace. Often the result of this can be superficial community...”
If conflict is handled properly, it can develop even deeper relationships. If conflicts are always swept under the rug, after a while the rug gets lumpy and everyone needs to watch out that they don’t trip over it. Romans 12:18 reminds us, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” If we clean up the conflict, relationships can be opened and comfortable.
Not only can conflict be important for developing deeper relationships, it can also be a good thing for discerning truth.
In Acts 15, there is a story of conflict which happened in the early church. As Gentiles became Christians, the Jewish Christians struggled to know how they would be part of the church. Would they be required to observe the Jewish laws? Were all the laws relevant to them? These are serious questions. When some of the Jewish Christians from Jerusalem went to Antioch, a Gentile church, to insist that Gentile Christians should be circumcised, Paul did not agree and so a serious conflict arose.
The leaders of the church in Antioch were sent to Jerusalem to have a conversation with the Apostles and hopefully find a way through this conflict. At risk was Christian unity. At risk was basic Christian theology that the gospel is for all on the basis of faith. As they discussed and went through the process of resolving the conflict, they came to a new understanding of how the Gentiles should be Christian and they also developed some important theological truths about what it meant to be Christian. In his commentary, FF Bruce calls this conflict, “Epoch making.” In the end they were able to say, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.” So the conflict turned out to be a good thing to help the church develop some very important truths.
Therefore, we should not fear conflict as much as we do. It can be bad, but it can also be good. It can build community and can also help us understand God’s truth.
So the key becomes, how can we handle conflict well? How can we respond to conflict rather than reacting to it? If we understand what happens in conflict, perhaps we can move towards allowing conflict to be a way of growth and blessing.
Those of you who have lived in this community for a long side are familiar with the historical division between the EMC churches on this side of the Red River and those on the other side. In Low German we often hear about this as “dit sied” and “jant sied.” Well, I have a true “dit sied,” “jant sied” story for you from the Bible.
Joshua led the people of Israel across the Jordan River in order to conquer the Promised Land. During the 40 years in which they had been wandering in the wilderness, they had conquered a number of nations on the east side of the Jordan River. At that time the tribes of Reuben, Gad and the half tribe of Manasseh had asked if they could settle on the East side of the river. They inquired of God and were told that if the warriors went along across the Jordan to help conquer the land, they would be permitted to settle in that area. This is what happened and when we come to Joshua 22, we find that the land had been conquered and they had peace. Now was the time for the two and a half tribes to return across to the east side of the Jordan and go and settle their land. Joshua encouraged them, in Joshua 22:5 to keep the commands of Moses and to “love the Lord your God and walk in all his ways.” He then blessed them and sent them away.
As they came to the Jordan River and were about to cross the Jordan an assumption, rose up in their minds that perhaps the day would come when the rest of Israel on the west side of the river would forget that they belonged together. They feared that the river would become a dividing point that would cause the main group to reject them and refuse to allow them to worship in their tent of meeting. This is understandable because water can divide people quite naturally. So in order to make sure that everyone would know that they belonged together, they built a large altar which Joshua 22:10 calls an “imposing altar.”
The people of Israel from the west side of the Jordan saw this huge altar and they made an assumption. They thought that the two and a half tribes were establishing another place of worship. They were terrified that God would punish the whole nation for this disobedience to God’s law and so they gathered an army in order to punish them. However, instead of going right to war, they sent some people to talk to them and see what was going on. They came and we read in verse 16 that they accused the two and a half tribes and said to them, “How could you break faith with the God of Israel like this?” They explained how such a sin would surely bring the wrath of God and the whole nation would be under God’s judgment.
The two and a half tribes responded, patiently and assured the whole group that they were not rebelling against God. They agreed that if they were, they should be punished, but they were not doing that at all. Instead, they explained, that they were making a stone of witness so that the people of the rest of Israel would not forget that they belonged to the nation.
This explanation was accepted and the truth that they were one nation was affirmed. I think that the conflict became an important part of reconciliation and a point was made that carried into the future. It also was an occasion to reinforce allegiance to God and to the proper worship of God. I don’t recall off hand that the Jordan ever became a dividing line between the people of Israel.
The story shows us quite clearly how conflict often works and demonstrates the points at which a conflict can become a division. In this case it worked out well, but there are so many ways in which it could have gone wrong.
At the seminar we were shown a model to help us understand conflict, which I think is very helpful. In a conflict, there are some things which happen in the public arena and there some which happen in the private arena. That is, there are things that are known by all and there are things that are known only to ourselves.
That which is in the public arena is the action. In a conflict it is not usually difficult to discern what the action was. In the story above, the offending action was that the two and a half tribes built an altar.
What is in the private arena is, first of all, the intent. The intent of the people who built the altar was to make sure that there would be unity in all of Israel. This intent, however, was not known to the rest of Israel.
The other thing in the private arena is the effect of the action. The effect of the action on the rest of Israel was that they were afraid that the whole nation would be destroyed by the wrath of God. They feared for their lives because, as they describe Joshua 22:17-20, in the past the sinful act of one man or one group had resulted in the destruction of many people.
In this story, we also see very clearly where a conflict can fall apart and become a disaster.
Problems can quickly escalate when we assume intent. When the altar was built, the people of the rest of Israel assumed that the intent was to build the altar for the purpose of setting up a rival place of worship. The assumption was wrong, but they acted on that wrong assumption and were ready to go to war. If they had not gone to talk to the people first, there would have been bloodshed and the nation truly would have been divided.
Problems can also escalate when we don’t think about the effect of our action. The two and a half tribes did not think about what effect their action would have on the people of the rest of Israel. Fortunately they talked and became aware of their concern and agreed that it was a legitimate concern and disaster was averted.
This is what so often happens in conflict. What is known and recognized is the offending action. The problems begin when people assume that they know what the intent was, but just as in the story above, they are often completely wrong. On the other hand, the action often has an effect on people, but those who do the action don’t realize what that effect is. If effect is not known and if intent is assumed, it is easy to see how quickly a conflict can become something that divides.
When conflict occurs, there are some common responses, but many of them do not resolve the issue or help the situation. I have often wrestled to know how best to respond in a conflict.
One common response is to pretend that nothing is wrong. We smile no matter what. Sometimes that is the right thing to do. Some things are just so small that they are not worth confronting. But if we make that decision, we better stick to it. If we choose not to confront the person who has wronged us, then we better be sure that it will not become a cause of bitterness or anger and we had better not bring it up again. Otherwise the issue is not resolved and bitterness may begin.
Another common response is to speak to someone else about it. This may release some of the pressure within us, but it also creates some other issues. It does not resolve the conflict, it may reinforce wrong assumptions and it has the danger of spreading slander because sometimes we don’t know when to stop venting.
Striking out at the person who has wronged us, either physically or verbally or in some underhanded way is a very powerful temptation. When we do that, we may derive some satisfaction, but the problem is that now the conflict escalates and things just get worse. The American military philosophy of “first strike” or “shoot first and ask questions later” clearly increases conflict. In smaller conflicts between people it has the same effect.
I have heard people who are quick to blame themselves and rebuke themselves for ever letting the conflict happen. There are a lot of problems with that. It amounts to being blind to the wrongs done and it also opens the way for bitterness. We blame ourselves, but we have a suspicion that we are not really wrong. This way the other person may continue to repeat the wrong done and never learn from their mistake.
It is also easy to become sarcastic. Instead of admitting that something is wrong, our jabs come from the side and the result is that the issue is never clearly confronted and we also may be stating our sarcasm as an expression of heart bitterness.
Sometimes we determine that we will go and talk to the person, but if we do not do that well, we can also contribute to an escalation of conflict rather than peace. When the rest of Israel came to talk to the two and a half tribes, they came with “both guns blazing.” They accused them of apostasy and rebellion. If the two and a half tribes had not been so gracious and patient and if they had not clearly corrected them it could have turned out badly.
Even spiritual exercises like journaling and praying do not necessarily address the issue. They are good things to do and certainly must be part of the process, but they do not in themselves solve the problem.
Conflict is a frustrating thing. I admit that at one time or another I have tried all of these things and have found that they do not really help to solve the problem.
How can we get through conflict well? Ephesians 4:15 encourages us that we should “speak the truth in love,” but how do we do that practically?
The model which I mentioned a moment ago in which we recognize intentàactionàeffect can help us organize our thinking to respond to conflict in a helpful way. We know that there are two sides to every issue. This helps us realize that we do not have the whole truth, but it also helps us understand that we do have some of the truth. Any good model of conflict resolution must acknowledge both of these things.
If we have been wronged or hurt by the action of another person, how can we respond well?
If assuming intent is one of the problems which escalates conflict, a good step to conflict resolution is to go directly to the person and ask them what their intent was.
Here is a good way to do that. Go to the person. Ask them, “Can we talk?” Then, gently and openly remind them of the action and without judgment or accusation in our voice, ask them “what was your intent in that action.” If the rest of Israel had gone to the two and a half tribes and instead of accusing them of rebellion, would have asked them, “what were you intending to do when you built this altar.” They could have saved a lot of anger and the time they spent gathering for war. A clear explanation of intent may well settle the conflict right there.
But that is not the only part of it. After carefully hearing the response, then it would be up to us to say to the person something like, “you may not be aware of it, but when you did that, this is the effect it had on me.” If the rest of Israel had said to the two and a half tribes, “When you built the altar, we were afraid that you were rebelling against God and we were afraid that we would be destroyed by God’s wrath because of your action” it would have helped them understand the effect of their action. In the end, that is what happened. In such an exchange, you can see that the issue would have been cleared up very quickly and the fear would have been removed and the two and a half tribes could have, easily and gracefully apologized for the effect it had on the rest of Israel.
We can also use this method if we are the ones who have hurt another person. If we feel that we have been the offender, we can go to the other person and ask, “Can we talk?” Then we can explain, “Yesterday, when I did such and such, I noticed that you seemed a little distance. What was the effect of my action on you?” Once again, it would then be time to listen and hear what the effect of the action was. Once you have listened well, then you would have the chance to assure the person that you did not intend to wrong them.
What I like about this model is that it comes in humility and not with a judgmental attitude, it opens the door for reconciliation, it removes false assumptions, it allows the effect to be expressed and it can build understanding.
As soon as there is more than one person in a relationship – you can’t have a relationship with only yourself – there will be conflict. The material we were given says, “In any relationship between two or more people, differences are bound to arise.” Therefore, in a church, we will have conflicts. If we can handle our conflicts well, we have the opportunity to build greater understanding of God’s truth and engage in deep and genuine relationships.
That is God’s will for His church! My prayer for us is that we will look to God and learn how to “keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”