Updated: Jun 14, 2021
Conflict, discord, clash, dispute, disagreement... aargh! So uncomfortable, awkward... and even painful.
Whether the tension exists around a difference of values, convictions, perspectives, or preferences... it is rarely pleasant. Perhaps your three year old refuses to eat green veggies or your teen declares the boundaries are too strict. Maybe a difference of perspective with a friend gets emotionally tangled, an authority over you will not align with your argument, or one you lead will not submit. Conflict can be loud or strangely quiet. Emotionally and mentally, even spiritually, it can be exhausting and painful to engage conflict. But can I engage conflict well--without being driven to win or withdrawing in fear? This has been an ongoing learning for me... and perhaps for you too.
In the past couple of weeks, once again, I was caught in conflict. It felt personal, hard, and emotionally intense at times. So what do I do when I am faced with conflict? I still remember a friend challenging me years ago that compliance is not a virtue, although it may be a necessary action at times. Avoiding conflict to escape discomfort is not loving well--it is withdrawing, often because of fear. But, the opposite posture, engaging conflict as a war to be won is destructive and dangerous. As a Jesus follower, we seek to engage relationship whole-heartedly: to listen well, speak our convictions, hold healthy boundaries, and offer appropriate vulnerability and compassion. Sometimes God will lead us to submit in humility, and sometimes God will lead us to stand firm with courage. But Jesus always calls us to choose love... even when in conflict with an enemy.
Sometimes conflict emerges around preferences... I like blue and green together, the colors of calm and growth, you like blue and orange together, the colors of contrast and energy, and another prefers black and white, the colors of definition. Sometimes we can navigate preferences with more grace and less tension if we recognize them as such, because preferences are not about right and wrong. Unless of course, you and your spouse are trying to decide what color to paint the living room and you will need to live with the decision for nearly forever... then the stakes are higher. But what does love choose?
There are disagreements that are rooted in subjective evaluation and personality bent. Perhaps as an introvert, I experience a sunset at a vacant beach as beautiful. But as an extrovert, you find the hustle, bustle, and culture of the city engaging and attractive. This may simply make for interesting conversation, unless we are planning a vacation together. Then what is restful and restorative for you, may be exhausting and draining for me, and the reverse is true too. Then discernment will be required as decisions are made.
What about conflict that debates, "What is true?" It seems simple, only requiring good critical thinking skills or a trustworthy authority. But even when we agree we may get there by different paths. You say 2+2 equals 4, but for some reason I insist that 4 equals 3+1. Both are true, but we come at it a different way. But if I say that 1+2 equals 4 I am incorrect--at least mathmatically. As a follower of Jesus I seek to be guided by the truth of God's Word and the leading of the Spirit of God as my primary authorities. But if emotions, fear, or pride are driving me, then truth and the Spirit are not the guides I am following in conflict.
The conflict I tumbled into recently was rooted in differing perspectives on living out a good value. I was in agreement with the value behind the conflict. But I desired a different expression of that value, and I also believed there were other values that needed to be considered. I did not hold the authority in this situation. So despite showing up for the conversation, I was sad and frustrated by how the final decision unfolded.
As a 9 on the enneagram I am not a fan of "doing battle." Learning to show up for conflict in holy and healthy ways has been a significant part of my own story. I wanted to navigate this recent conflict with grace and integrity, but it was messier then I preferred. And it felt deeply personal. It required me to show up for the conversation, seek to listen well, express vulnerability and a strong voice, and ultimately, since I did not hold the authority, submit to the final decision.
Honestly... I did not feel understood, but that is rarely a fatal blow. And there may yet be opportunity to deepen understanding all around. I know God is active. Even though things may be hard or painful God will leverage all that is yielded to Him for good (Romans 8:28). Sometimes I wish it was easier. But as I heard Andy Crouch say on a Trinity Forum webinar this afternoon, "It is not the easy thing that forms us..." Or transforms us. It is so often in the midst of the hard thing, the suffering, the difficulties, and yes, the conflict, where God may be working to refine and transform us.
We are coming through a season where not only the pandemic has worn us down as a nation and the church, conflict has tumbled us. We are bruised and battered. We feel judged, and we have judged. We have been instructed to look for the enemy and to judge the opposing perspective. But if we do not sit down eye-to-eye with an open-heart, listen well, speak with vulnerability and conviction, and ask God for compassion... we simply end up angry. We truly can disagree and still live out our convictions with grace. There are real consequences to our convictions... and the conversation gets weightier as we seek to pursue justice and unmask injustice. But as we fix our eyes on Jesus clarity deepens, humility expands my heart, and the path becomes clear.
After all... it is so easy to think I am right. I wouldn't think the way I do if I didn't believe I was right. But how I engage in relationship with God first, and with others second, is central. Remember the story of Martha and Mary in the gospels (Luke 10:38-42). Martha felt so justified in her anger towards Mary and Jesus that she actually demanded that Jesus align with her perspective. But she was askew, disoriented, off-center.
Martha turned her anger toward Jesus, perhaps to try and get what she wanted... but she turned toward healing when she turned to Jesus. Jesus is always able to handle a stirred up heart. If I turn my anger and angst toward Jesus and engage with Him, he will guide me and love me. That is my favorite part of that story in Scripture. For me, I took a couple of rather intense prayer walks with Jesus as I sorted out emotions and convictions in the conflict I tumbled into most recently. And God is faithful.
What does it mean to keep God at the center... especially in conflict?