Thursday, September 28, 2006

spiritual competencies, week three: conflict

We’re going to look at conflict. We’re not going to look just at the appropriate way to resolve conflict. We’re actually going to talk specifically about how to handle yourself in the midst of a conflict. I think the Bible does a spectacular job of giving us an orientation towards what it means to live lives that are pleasing to God, that are kind, generous, self-emptying, and are lived in orientation in service towards other people. It also gives us very strict guidelines about how discipline issues within a Christian community ought to be handled.

One of the most famous passages of scripture when we talk about conflict is Matthew, Chapter 18 and we’re going to read from that in a moment. I want to read from that passage simply as a means of introduction, because this passage, while it’s not the only passage that talks about conflict resolution (There are probably about a dozen others, primarily dealt with in Paul’s letters.), it sets up how to appropriately handle conflict like how to go through the steps of reconciliation. It leads us also to wonder how we’re going to conduct ourselves—what we’re going to say, what we’re going to think, what we’re going to do, how we’re going to proceed—in the midst of a fight.

That’s the natural inclination; you start thinking, “There’s a reason that conflict resolution and conflict management is touched on in Scripture and that’s because conflict really is inevitable.” No matter what arena of your life you find yourself in you’re going to have conflict at some point, whether it’s in your marriage or your work or your friendly Christian soccer league. You’re going to find somebody to get irritated with in every part of your life or vice versa.

I wish that were different; I wish conflict was less and less frequent in the world, but if you have that new fangled device called a television, then you understand that the obverse is actually far more true. Conflict abounds in our world, not only at a local level, but, of course, in a geo-political level. Today we’re going to talk about how to handle yourself while you’re in the midst of heated conflict.

Let’s start with Matthew, Chapter 18. We’re going to read from Verses 15-17 in The Message translation of the Bible. This, again, talks about how to approach someone who has offended you.

If a fellow believer hurts, you, go and tell him—work it out between

the two of you. If he listens, you’ve made a friend. If he won’t listen,

take one or two others along so that the presence of witnesses will

keep things honest, and try again. If he still won’t listen, tell the church.

If he won’t listen to the church, you’ll have to start over from scratch,

confront him with the need for repentance, and offer again God’s

forgiving love.

I want to make a note here. In the NIV translation and many of the other translations of the Bible, that last piece of instruction reads quite a bit differently. In the NIV it says,

If he won’t listen to the whole church, then treat him as you would a

pagan or a tax collector.

I find it interesting that here in The Message translation he essentially tells us from other portions of the Bible how we ought to treat pagans and tax collectors.

Treat them with the need for repentance, start over from scratch and

offer again God’s forgiving love.

What we see here in this piece of the Bible is the beginning for our understanding of conflict in and of itself. Conflict needs to be resolved; you can’t just walk away from it. There’s something that will continue to eat away at you if you leave something unfinished. In the midst of your resolving conflict, your primary focus should be on resolving the conflict, not just getting it off your chest, but actually it coming to some further point of mutual reconciliation. You feel like, yes, you’ve spoken honestly and you’ve been able to hear from each other first. You’ve been able to admit you’re wrong and find common ground, but the point of good conflict is that it gets to be resolved.

Tell me, without raising your hand, just tell me by virtue of the blank stares I’m about to see how many of our conflicts typically get resolved. Typically, when you get into a fight with your boss, do you typically come to a mutual advantageous conclusion? Typically, when you get into an argument with your spouse, do you typically come out in a win-win situation or do you both go away a little bit pouty, kind of grumpy, to separate televisions in different rooms? Typically, we don’t resolve conflict fully.

I think we’ve got to talk about how to get from A to B from conflict to resolution without burying hurts more deeply and without acting in such a way it permanently deteriorates the basis for our relationship. More often than not, it’s not simply the issue over which we’re conflicting—who did the dishes, who got to spend what money, who’s right and who’s wrong. It’s not typically those things that sever or break relationships, but it’s the way we talk about those things that sever or break relationships. It’s the way we conflict over those things that sever or break relationships. It’s the way we handle ourselves in the midst of those conversations that cause us to break fellowship with friends and to end up ultimately a little bit worse off.

You’ve got some scriptures in your copy of the Draft. I wanted you to have those as reminders of how we continuously should be thinking about our lives as we endeavor to follow Jesus.

Let’s talk a little bit about conflict. My best friend’s dad was our premarital counselor when Carmel and I got married. He talked only about three things over the course of about a dozen sessions. He talked about sex for ten of them and then he talked about how to fight clean for the other two. It was really an important concept for us, a really healthy understanding was that there are ways in the midst of conflict to fight either clean or dirty.

Probably before we began the premarital counseling, I always just thought of conflict as an argument. You make mad; I yell, I storm, I get sarcastic, I thunder around, I am the Alpha male, the Patriarch, the priest of the home—all those funny, silly, little things men think. Then the conflict goes away because Carmel would hate me and go to a different room. That’s probably how I had the latent concept of conflict in my mind.

As you begin to explore your emotional self, your own stages of indifference or anger, you realize very, very quickly there is accountability in the midst of conflict. There is an ethic of conflict. We get into those arguments precisely because we’re angry. It’s not like you’re in a conflict when you’re at your best—when someone just gave you a million dollars and you’re so happy you want to share it with everyone and you’re everyone’s best friend. No, that’s not when we find ourselves in conflict. We find ourselves in conflict in bad moments and in the midst of those bad moments, there are ethics about how we conduct ourselves. There are rules we establish for ourselves, based on scripture, about how we ought to conduct ourselves.

We sat down with our premarital counselor and talked through what our issues were. Do you want to know mine? For me, when I would get angry, I would be very sarcastic. I’m not a yeller, I don’t typically get really angry, but I get wickedly sarcastic when I conflict. So, by the grace of God, of course this is something we’ve worked on very hard to be able to identify when I begin to cross that line. You know when you conflicting, whether it’s with your spouse or whatever association, that evil part of you is going to come out. In my case, I’m going to be sarcastic. When I hear myself say sarcastic things, I need to keep myself in check. I need Carmel, and she’s very good at this, to say, “Dave, are you being a little sarcastic right now, per chance?”

You need to be able to keep your self in check so you fight clean. How come? When you fight clean, you get out of the fight earlier; you get out of the fight better. You get out of the fight without really creating another series of fights about how sarcastic Dave McDonald is. The issue stays the same issue. That’s why we say here: Keep it clean and keep it true. When you avoid whatever your pet little sins are and fight fair, you’re able to focus on what the conflict really is about. Because the purpose of all good conflict is for resolution, you’re, therefore, able to resolve the conflict a little soon and a little better off.

Just to speak autobiographically for a second, this was a huge help for our relationship. It filtered into everything we would do from grocery shopping to working out. Every area of your life this begins to filter through as you learn how to manage yourself. This morning I got home from a run and I came in the front door feeling ornery and Carmel said something to me that was meant in the most beautiful voice and immediately I felt myself getting angry. This first thing I do is I put the darts out of mind, I walk into the other room, take deep breaths and all I’m thinking to myself is, “Don’t say a word. Nothing you say is going to make Jesus proud of you in any way. Just walk away. You love your family; you love this woman.” I know for me in those moments I’m not the person I want to be and trying hard to become. I’m not in any way a reflection of Jesus living inside of me. In those moments I’m evil and you’ve got to learn to keep it clean so you can keep it true so the conflict can be about being resolved.

Another thing, of course, you’ve got to keep straight in your mind is you’ve got to know why you’re fighting. I’m terribly white and very, very Caucasian and I’m from Canada, so in your notes it says, “Keep it real,” but I don’t really think I can pull that phrase off. Instead, we have here, “Know why you’re fighting.” Keep it to the issue at hand; know why you’re involved in this conflict. Be aware of how tired you are or what you’ve had to eat or other things that have gone in your day so when you find yourself conflicting with someone else, you don’t confuse the issues.

I love my little boy more than anything; I just love being a dad. I love my daughter, I love my wife; I’m just a family man in a way I never thought I could be. There are days, when I get home, my little guy is playing trucks in his sister’s face and I feel myself getting more and more angry and upset at all the things that are happening in my home. But I know really what I’m angry about is I skipped lunch because I was too busy and all I had to drink was about six pots of coffee. I know what I’m really angry about is something other than what turns out to be fairly harmless playing by the kids. If my kids are rambunctious or excited, I know that’s not what’s making me angry. What’s making me angry is host of internal factors. When we talk about conflict, one of the most important things we can understand is a sense of self awareness. You’ve got to know what’s going on inside of you.

I was talking to a couple not too long ago in some martial counseling with them and I heard the fellow say, “When we start to argue, I just get so mad I lose it.” The arguments ranged from everything about where he put his car keys to something significant, a financial reversal. His response to every situation was to blow up. I think the more aware we become about ourselves, the more we begin to understand there should be graded responses. Losing your car keys probably doesn’t justify breaking things. Having serious financial reversal and going bankrupt probably doesn’t justify violence either, but at least you can understand why someone would be very angry or burst into tears.

I think so often, irregardless of our religious affiliation, our knee jerk reaction to everything that happens is to just blow up. We overreact to things all of the time, but when we can cultivate that sense of self awareness, we begin to realize, “No, this isn’t a Level-Ten worthy response. I’ve just lost my keys; I just need to chill out, relax and check both bedside tables.” You need to have these experiences; you need to know yourself, because it’s not all the end of the world. When we know what causing us to conflict and we have that sense of self awareness, I think we can be able to ramp down just a little bit to be a little more self-controlled.

For those of you who are here for the first time, tonight is our last night in a series on Spiritual Competencies. These are core, key areas of spirituality we think everyone ought to be a little aware of. One of things that seem to happen so often in conflict is we drag other people into it. You remember the words of Jesus in Matthew 18, “If someone offends you, go to them one-on-one and address them. If they’ll receive your correction, great, you’ve gained a friend. If not, then you need to approach someone else and bring them into the conflict as a mediator, not to gang up on someone, but to have someone there who is impartial and who can say, ‘This is something we ought to talk about.’”

Too often what happens is we get into conversations and we say things like, “Everyone thinks you’re this way,” or “Do you know everyone sees how you always…,” and these conflicts then, instead of being about the actual conflict, they begin to escalate and become about something far more ridiculous than what we’re actually conflicting over. Instead of an issue being of financial awareness or hurt feelings, which, to be honest, really aren’t that tricky to address, it becomes about the way in which we conflict.

Psychologists and physiologists refer to this as triangulation. You find someone else who thinks the way you think about someone else and you align yourselves with them. You find an ally and then you come and say, “We really feel like…...” but that’s not the Jesus way. That messes things up and muddies the water that destroys relationships. It makes the person you’re confronting feel defensive and isolated and people never respond with the most open kind of resolution-oriented selves when we attack.

A far healthier approach is to speak with your own voice like we’re instructed in Matthew 18 and to use statements physiologists often refer to as “I” statements. I sometimes feel this way when this happens.” I feel like maybe in this situation I’m being left out,” or “I feel like I’m being overlooked.” Whatever it is, however trivial, bring it back to ourselves, instead of saying “you” statements. You do this,” or “You do that,” or “You make me feel isolated.”

We try and stay away from “always” statements. Have you ever been the victim of an always statement? People say to you, “You always do this,” or “You always do that.” The reality is, nobody always does one or the other thing. Nobody always falls into those same traps, because by-and-large we’re at the very least sometimes aware we don’t represent ourselves in a way that feels true or honest. We have to speak with our own voice; we have to manage what we say. We have to manage the way in which we say it, because one of the great dangers here is the relationship between the people who are conflicting will be damaged, perhaps irreparably.

Anyone you have conflict with you have some relationship with. It could be a distance relationship, but you’ve got some inter-personal connection to that person. We believe, based on the understanding of Jesus and the Scripture, we’re called to love all of humanity. We have to find a way not to severe those relationships through lack of cultivation, but instead we have to find a way to manage ourselves to grow those relationships.

Lastly, we’re ultimately going to find ourselves, thankfully, at the end of a conflict. They don’t always end well, but even when they do, we’ve got to have the mindset of making things better afterwards. You get into an argument with someone and let’s just say they were wrong and you were right and you get that feeling like, “Glad that’s over.” You confront them, they apologize and you say, “That’s okay, it didn’t really bother me anyway,” but then at the end you’ve got to makes things better. You’ve got to ask yourself, “How do I make this right for all time?”

One of the simple ways to do that, to overcome the sense of shame at having goofed up, is to just call them in the next couple of days to talk to them, to seek out some other form of communication with them to let them know things are cool. That doesn’t always have to be verbal; you don’t have to send them an email two days after a conflict and say, “Just so you know I forgive you again for being a jerk. Let’s go ahead and keep forgiving you and reminding you of the thing you committed years ago.” You’ve got to move past those things and try and create some additional space.

If, hypothetically, I did stand John up for an appointment and he wouldn’t let it go for years and made a video about it, the key for us would then be to resolve our conflict and then to spend some time together that has nothing to do with that conflict. To go to Starbucks and just hang out; to do something that involves us creating a positive or safe memory. To do something other than have our last time together be about our conflict, so you kind of put a bookend to all that’s happened. I think this is biblical; I think we see this represented in the New Testament, because our relationships endure. Even the people you’ve had a run-in with years ago, you’re likely to run into them again.

Before we moved here, I made a list of all the people I felt like, “My relationship with these people really south.” There were probably half dozen names on the list of people who I really felt like, “I’ve got to make this right before I leave, because I might never see them again. I know, in all likelihood, I will, but I just don’t want to have that monkey on my back.” I went through and made phones calls and I made personal visits.

Do you know what it takes to go through something like that? I’m not even sure in these situations these are people that we had a conflict, but they just didn’t like me. Whatever I was selling, they didn’t like—they didn’t like the way I looked, they don’t think I’m funny, whatever. I knew this and they were in my circle of relationships. I had to eat humble pie with every one of those people; I just had to choke it down and really, honestly say to people, “I know you hate me, but I realize probably the hard feelings you have against me have some legitimacy to them. I can be short-tempered, narrow-minded, a jerk and all of these awful things that I really am. I’m not being false about it in front of you; these are really the things I struggle with.”

We had to go through these long conversations in the process of restoration between myself and people with whom I had broken relationships. Preserving those relationships for the future in order that in some way I might maybe later speak into their lives or in some way they might have the moral authority to speak into mine to rebuke me or to correct me or to set me straight. If nothing else came of that, I think Jesus is so happy when we take those steps to do what we can to make things right, to manage ourselves in the middle of conflicts.

Just imagine what those conversations might be like for you. When someone doesn’t like you, they don’t like you. It’s not like you calling and saying, “I’m sorry you don’t like me,” and it’s going to make them like you. They’re going to tell you all the reasons why they don’t like you. You’re going to sit there on the phone for hours or at a coffee shop and have people tell you all the things about you they don’t like. I think the strength in those moments it takes to shut up and to listen and to say, “I think there’s some truth in what you’re saying and I need to learn from that. Please forgive me for the parts of those that are entirely my fault.”

The strength that takes forms us. It’s modeled in the very life of Jesus, in the Via Dolorosa and Christ’s brutal murder, betrayal and crucifixion. He was able to stand up to painful untruths and love in the midst of it. That’s our ethic of conflict, to be in conflict and still be loving—not to just be loving when it’s easy, but to be loving when it’s personally painful. To redress wrongs, yes, to try and set things straight, yes, but also to be strong enough and secure enough in the presence of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit to have people take knocks at who you are and know your identity doesn’t come from what they don’t like. Instead, cultivate the person you want to be in the midst of those conversations.

When we think about our lives in conflict, we need to see that as a special area, its own little area, of spiritual growth and development—something that for the rest of our lives we will be trying to get better at. My sincerest hope is today for any of us who might not have thought of that as being worth our attention or being an area that has special consideration, we leave here and go, “I need to learn how to fight a little bit better. I need to learn how to conflict in a little more God-honoring way. I need to learn how to be self-controlled when I’ve lost my self-control, to manage who I am, to have an awareness of what I’m doing to and with this other person. Even in the midst of tension and difficulty, even in the midst of trials and frustration and irritation I can find some way to represent Jesus.”

Lord, thanks so much for taking this same ethic and living it on our behalf. Thank you that our most passionate moments taken from your life are those moments where you were brutally beaten, those moments where you suffered isolation and pain, those moments where you were your weakest, where you were the most human. Thank you that’s it’s there in those moments we learn how to be most Christian. We give ourselves to you, Jesus, in your name. Amen.

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