Every week on our bulletin cover we have a list of what we call the Seven Marks of Discipleship. These seven marks should be part of our lives as Christians. 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 Conway Hall after worship for the wonderful cookies 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 infected with conflict?
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.)
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 process for managing conflict here in Matthew’s Gospel.
And the first thing to do is to reach out. Jesus said, “if a brother sins against you, GO.”
Most of us, SIT.
We sit and fume and agonize and get angrier and angrier.
If anything, we wait for the other person to come to us and apologize.
Yep – that’s going to be a long wait.
One of the problems with conflicts is that no one takes that first step – and Jesus tells us – GO. Take that first step.
There comes a time when we have to accept the fact that we have no right to nurse our grudges, whine about our wounds, and resist efforts at healing.
We are to take the first step - to risk the engagement that can lead to a restored relationship.
And that first step leads us to a one on one, private conversation with the person with whom we are in conflict.
Radical thinking – because many of us talk about our conflict with everyone EXCEPT the person with whom we are in conflict.
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.
If a wife has a problem with her husband, does she go directly to the husband, or to her sister?
If two co-workers have problems with one another, do they talk together, or does one go to the boss to complain?
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 neighbor, don’t go to the gang at the water cooler at work, go to your neighbor.
If you have a problem with your co-worker or classmate, don’t post it on Facebook, go to the co-worker or classmate.
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.
Jesus continues in this text by offering some other steps to conflict management – involving witnesses and mediators and going to the church for help. But the first step is that one on one, face to face approach.
What if none of this guidance from Jesus helps resolve the conflict?
Sadly, some conflicts will not be resolved.
Sometimes there is too much human sinfulness, too much human pride and stubbornness and frailty for us to resolve our differences.
It is at this point that Jesus says something that many commentators feel is unchristlike.
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. When other people would have nothing to do with tax collectors, Jesus dined with them and enjoyed their company. He did not accept their misconduct, but he accepted them as people.
Could it be that this verse is not to meant to be permission for us to reject the person, but to accept the person.
I say that because this whole business of conflict management in Matthew’s Gospel flows right into this perfectly timed question from Peter.
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 it 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, 2014
All Rights Reserved