Sunday, May 20, 2012

Conflict Management

Matthew 18:15-20

“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

“Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

“Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”

Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”

Not long ago our Session adopted what we call the Seven Marks of Discipleship. These seven marks appear on our bulletins and newsletters. One of these Seven Marks is “To enjoy spiritual friendships.”

It is a terrible burden to go through life alone. It is a wonderful gift to go through life with family and friends. In the church, we should never find ourselves alone. When we face illness, when we grieve over the death of a spouse, or when we struggle with turmoil in our life, we should feel the love and support of other Christians. Likewise, when we face the joys of life, celebrate a marriage or anniversary, or rejoice at the birth of children, we should feel the love and support of other Christians.

We don’t just go to the Silver Hall after worship for the wonderful coffee and lemonade – we go there to build and enjoy those spiritual friendships.

But --- What happens when friendships wear down in conflict? What happens when friendships and relationships become a burden?

Writer Larry Crabb once wrote that “The difference between spiritual and unspiritual friendship is not whether conflict exists,” but in how we handle conflict. In a spiritual community, he says conflict is seen as an opportunity to grow spiritually. (Larry Crabb, The Safest Place on Earth (Nashville: Word Publishing, 1999), p. 40.)

There are few things I remember from my seminary training of long-ago, but one of the things I do remember was something we were taught in a counseling class, and that is that any conflict in life should be viewed “not only as difficulties to be overcome, but also as opportunities for growth and development.” (Seward Hiltner, “Pastoral Counseling” Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1945. page 25).

Conflicts happen. You can’t avoid them.

They happen in churches. They happen at work, in school, in families – where two or three are gathered, you have the potential for conflict.

Jesus knew that there would be conflicts even among his followers. In his Sermon on the Mount he told the people, “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.” (Matthew 5:23-24)

Jesus watched his disciples fuss and pick at each other. Once, while walking on the road, the disciples argued among themselves about which of them was the best disciple. (Luke 9:46).

The truth is that friendships and relationships can be strengthened through conflict! IF we manage them wisely and carefully. What makes or breaks friendships and relationships is what we choose to do within conflict.

Jesus gives us a good three step plan to use in interpersonal conflicts that can be helpful anytime we find our friendships or relationships suffering.

STEP #1: A private conversation.

This is where we most often miss it right off the bat!

In the Old Testament, Absalom had heard that his half-brother Amnon had abused his sister Tamar. Absalom did not go directly to Amnon to confront him personally in a private conversation. Instead, he deceitfully arranged for Amnon’s murder two years later and fled after the deed had been done (2 Samuel 13).

That is an extreme example. But many times, we, like Absalom, do not go directly to the person we have a conflict with. Instead, we go to others and undermine, gossip, about that person. We do things to destroy the reputation or to hurt the life of the other person.

But Jesus says, go straight to the person with whom you have a problem.

If you have a problem with your wife, don’t go to your children and tell them. Go to your wife.

If you have a problem with your boss, don’t go to the gang at the water cooler, go to your boss.

If you have a problem with your next door neighbor, don’t go to the lawyers, go first to your neighbor.

Unless it is a matter of abuse in which you need to go to the police, your conflict will be best handled if you go directly to the person with whom you have the conflict.

And the sooner the better.

Don’t put off the conflict for weeks or months in the hopes that it will go away. It won’t. It will only get worse as the anger and bitterness takes root in your soul. Remember what Jesus said about leaving your gift at the altar. The reason it is so urgent to the Lord is because of the damage it can create if gone untreated. If we had a broken leg, wouldn’t we want the injury repaired as soon as possible?

And when you have that private conversation, do it in person, face to face.

Jesus said, “GO and SHOW him his fault.” No e-mail. No phone call. No letter or note. Anything less than a face to face conversation places a barrier between the people involved.

Only by going face to face can you really listen to one another and hear one another. After all, the point is not to fight, win, or prove someone wrong. The point is to restore trust and harmony.

Fortunately, many conflicts can be resolved in this first stage. But not all of them can be resolved so quickly. What happens if going to someone face to face doesn’t help?

Then go to the next step.

Step #2: Take Witnesses.

Now, this almost sounds like a court of law – you have witnesses. A witness for the defense and a witness for the prosecution. But that is not what Jesus is talking about here.

The function of these witnesses is not to bring evidence, but to bring reconciliation.

A 21st Century word for this would be “mediator” rather than witness. Someone who is a neutral person. Someone who can help keep emotions in check and help clarify the issues.

If that doesn’t bring resolution, then the next step comes into the picture. The third step is the most drastic.

Step #3: Take it to the church.

Notice it does not say, “Make an announcement from the pulpit.” THAT would be wild, and nothing would promote more conflict than making public announcements that John Doe is angry with Jane Doe and the two can’t get along.

What it means is that it sometimes takes more than one or two mediators to help resolve a conflict.

St. Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, wrote regretfully about how Christians would often take other Christians into a civil court of law. Lawsuits were all the rage back then – sounds like today!

You get mad at someone, sue them!

Paul had this to say in First Corinthians, chapter 6:

“How dare you take each other to court! When you think you have been wronged, does it make any sense to go before a court that knows nothing of God's ways instead of a family of Christians? … I say this as bluntly as I can to wake you up to the stupidity of what you're doing. Is it possible that there in NOT one levelheaded person among you who can make fair decisions when disagreements and disputes come up? I don't believe it. And here you are taking each other to court before people who don't even believe in God! How can they render justice if they don't believe in the God of justice?”

Paul went onto say “These court cases are an ugly blot on your community. Wouldn't it be far better to just take it, to let yourselves be wronged and forget it? All you're doing is providing fuel for more wrong, more injustice, bringing more hurt to the people of your own spiritual family.”

Now what if that does not work either?

Sadly, some conflicts will not be resolved. Ever. Sometimes there is too much human sinfulness, too much human pride and stubbornness and frailty for us to resolve our differences.

Then step four is to break off the relationship.

If you cannot reach agreement or even agree to disagree, then separation is called for.

Jesus said to treat them as a pagan or tax collector. Does that mean treat them like scoundrels? Does it mean to disrespect them? No. Jesus loved pagans and tax collectors. He walked in love with them in the hope of winning them over.

St. Paul said in the New Testament book of Romans, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace.”

Ponder that for a moment.

“If it is possible” – the word “if” indicates that it may not be possible.

But “if it is possible, as far as it depends on you” means that you only have to do your part. You can’t do the other person’s part. You can only do your part.

You can’t make your spouse faithful to you, you can only be faithful to your spouse.

You can’t make another person tell the truth about you, you can only tell the truth about the other person.

You can’t make the other person act with respect toward you, you can only act respectfully to the other person.

“If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace.” That is the goal for how you are to live.

One final word about this business of conflict. Right after teaching his disciples about how to handle conflict, Peter asked Jesus about forgiving others. He wants to know how many times he has to forgive someone. Peter thinks he’s being generous by suggesting a high number. “Jesus,” says Peter, “How many times do I have to forgive my brother? As many as seven times?”

And Jesus says, “Oh no – let’s make seventy-seven.” That’s not a literal number – but Jesus is saying, let’s forgive people so many times you keep track.

You see, when you get to the point that you can’t resolve the conflict, and you even get to the point at which you have to break off the relationship, forgiveness is all that is left. The relationship may never be healed. Your friendship may be gone forever. And all that is left that you can possibly do is to forgive and walk away.

The forgiveness is not just for the benefit of the person who lied about you, accused you, gossiped about you, tried to destroy your career, who hurt you – it is for your benefit, for your sanity, for your freedom so that you can get on with life.

Copyright Maynard Pittendreigh, 2012

All Rights Reserved