Some people love conflict. Some avoid it like the plague. Conflict has become a popular form of entertainment. How many “reality” shows are really just setting people up to be in conflict for the entertainment of others?
Conflict is a reality of life. We are not robots, we are individuals, so we will want different things, and disagree about many things. To be a social being is to be in conflict.
With all this experience and observation of conflict, you’d think we’d get pretty good at it. Alas, I see little evidence of that. If anything, our ability to handle conflict seems to decline.
That person who can be in the midst of conflict without getting caught up in it, and bring those in conflict to stop screaming, and even build community is a rare treasure indeed.
Conflict is not new. Jesus dealt with lots of conflict, not just with the leaders of the day but even among the disciples. We’re told about some in the Bible, but I’m sure there was much more that never made it to the holy pages.
In Sunday’s Gospel lesson from Matthew (click here), Jesus gives us a pattern which, sadly, is rarely used. Jesus’ step one was to go directly to the other person involved. Imagine if we consistently addressed conflict directly and only with the person or persons involved? And underneath Jesus’ next steps is even more that we could learn about handling conflict in a way that builds everyone up, drawing us all closer to God.
I think it is worth drawing a couple of principles from Jesus’ words. First, take the direct route. Don’t go gossiping, don’t immediately go to the whole church. It may be worthwhile to talk with a trusted confidant to be sure your own thinking is clear, but gossip and talking behind people’s backs does not take us to a better place.
Second, the goal is always restoration. We should desire that all involved be first reconciled to God, to grow closer to Him and be restored to fellowship with one another. Alas, being sinful and flawed human beings, that is not always possible. Dealing with a serial abuser, for example, the time may come to cut off the relationship. That may be a necessary outcome in some cases, but the desire should always be restoration. If you just want to score points or vindicate yourself or look strong to others or vent, then you are not yet ready to confront the person with whom you are in conflict.
Third, how we handle conflict matters. A lot. Note that right after this description of handling conflict, Jesus returns to a familiar theme: what we bind on earth is bound in heaven and what it loosed on earth is loosed in heaven. One could easily write a whole book parsing that out, but I want to note just a simple point. Just two chapters earlier (Matthew 16:18-19, click here), Jesus says this to Peter, the rock on which the church will be built. In Mt. 16, the pronoun “you” is singular in the original Greek, indicating that he is speaking specifically to Peter. Here in Mt. 18, it is plural, Jesus speaks to the church as a whole. This is a burden that we as the Body of Christ carry. And what we do impacts both earth and heaven. That is a serious weight.
Dealing with conflict well takes a lifetime, but it begins with small steps. Where is there conflict in your life, and what might be your next step to bring healing and restoration?
This column appeared in the September 6, 2020 edition of St. John’s eNews. Click here for the complete issue.
If you are reading this at a different time, you may click here for the current eNews.