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The good side of personal conflict

A sermon by Rod Benson

1 Corinthians 10:31-33

bushbonoAt U2 concerts in the early 90s, a regular part of the show featured criticism of George H.W. Bush. In fact, front man Bono used to call the White House in the middle of the concert to try to get a chance to speak to the 41st President.

When George H.W. Bush’s son George W. Bush became President in 2001, Bono was also a critic of his politics. George W. Bush didn’t go to war with the critic of himself and his father. Instead, in 2003, he invited Bono to talk about something they had a common passion for, saving lives in Africa.

They had lunch together in the White House Mess Hall, then Bush took him to the oval office where, for 40 minutes, they discussed A.I.D.S., malaria, and debt relief for the poorest nations. After the meeting, Bush started a program in Africa known as PEPFAR, which 14 years later is credited with saving over 11 million lives.

In May 2017, Bono was in Texas as part of the current U2 tour and paid a visit to his old friend, posing for a selfie with the former President.[1] It is amazing what can be accomplished when mature people find common ground for the good of all.

Today, and for the next few weeks, we will be looking at personal conflict and its resolution, and examining some of the resources in Scripture for interpersonal peacemaking.

What is conflict? We all know it when we experience it. We recognise it when we hear about it. But what exactly is conflict? Ken Sande, whose book The Peace Maker I’m drawing heavily on for this sermon series, defines conflict as “a difference in opinion or purpose that frustrates someone’s goals or desires.”[2]

People tend to respond to the presence of such differences in three ways:[3]

1. Escape: We respond by denying the existence of the conflict, or we try to run away; or we may even – in extreme circumstances – attempt suicide (e.g. 1 Sam 31:4).

2. Attack: We take this approach when winning a conflict is more important than preserving a relationship. We resort to force or intimidation; or seek to damage a person financially or professionally; or take them to court; or – again, in extreme circumstances – we try to kill our opponent(s). Sometimes we choose to attack because we are unwilling or unable to resort to the escape option.

3. Resolve: This is the option where there is a compelling desire to find a peaceful solution to the conflict. There are several different styles or methods of resolving conflict, and you will probably be familiar with most or all of them:

  • overlooking the offence: this is quite common, especially on insignificant issues, such as if I were to make you a cup of tea, and fail to add your usual serve of milk or sugar. This is a form of forgiveness where we make a deliberate effort not to talk about the problem, dwell on it, or allow it to fester into bitterness and anger (see Prov 19:11; Col 3:13; 1 Pet 4:8).
  • reconciliation: here we seek resolution by way of confessing the wrong, correcting inappropriate behaviour, and formally seeking forgiveness (see Mt 5:23f; Gal 6:1; Col 3:13).
  • negotiation: while reconciliation may resolve the relational issues at stake, material issues related to money, property and other rights may need to be negotiated through a cooperative bargaining process in order to reach a settlement that satisfies the legitimate needs of each party (see Php 2:3-4).
  • mediation: if the parties cannot reach private agreement, they may ask one or more objective persons to meet with them, helping them to communicate more effectively and explore possible solutions (see Mt 18:16). Many of you are aware that my first marriage ended in circumstances involving a high level of conflict over many months. Early on, I sought reconciliation, and when that proved unworkable, negotiation; and when that failed, we agreed to a process of mediation, which also sadly failed.
  • arbitration: when mediation fails, the parties may agree to appoint one or more arbitrators to listen to the relevant arguments and deliver a binding decision which settles the issue (see 1 Cor 6:1-8, especially v. 4). In my case, with high level marital conflict, and no possibility of reconciliation, and with the failure of mediation when the other party refused to accept what had been agreed in mediation, I took the matter to court and a court officer decided the matter and enforced terms and conditions. This is arbitration: the facts were presented, a way forward was proposed, a binding decision was made, and the matter settled.
  • accountability: in the New Testament, Jesus introduced a sixth means of resolving conflict. In certain circumstances, if a Christian becomes engaged in serious or protracted conflict with another Christian or Christians, and refuses to be reconciled and do what is morally right, the leaders of the church may formally intervene and hold the person accountable to the rule of Scripture, encouraging them to pursue a path of repentance, justice and forgiveness. They should do so cautiously, lovingly, redemptively, and with a view to restoration to healthy relationships (see Mt 18:17).

This too may not work, in which case more prayer and patience are called for! Sometimes time does heal wounds.

Stepping back from the fine details, and perhaps the memories of conflicts you have encountered and endured, let me encourage you with the good news that some conflict is not necessarily bad. Some differences of opinion or purpose between people are natural and beneficial. No two people will have all the same opinions, convictions, desires, perspectives and priorities. We are all different from one another, in many ways, just as we all share many similarities.

What then is good about conflict? The Bible, perhaps surprisingly, gives us many hints and suggestions as to the positive benefits of conflict in our lives. Here are four of them.

1. Conflict encourages respect for diversity.

Many of the principled differences between us are not inherently right and wrong, but are the result of God-given diversity and personal preferences (see 1 Cor 12:21-31). As Ken Sande says, “When properly handled, disagreement in these areas can stimulate productive dialogue, encourage creativity, promote helpful change, and generally make life more interesting.”[4] We should always aim for relational unity, and we should never demand or expect rigid uniformity (see Eph 4:1-13).

God takes pleasure in some of the differences between us, and blesses us through our diversity. It is through our unity amid diversity that God’s kingdom arrives and grows within and among us. So there is much to rejoice in, and praise God for, in the healthy differences evident among us!

2. Conflict fosters spiritual growth.

Someone has said that “Adversity Builds Character.” Ken Sande applies that basic moral principle, arguing that

As you worry less about going through conflict and focus more on growing through conflict, you will enhance [the process of your spiritual growth], and experience the incomparable blessing of being conformed to the likeness of Christ.[5]

We will return to this theme in point 4 below, but for the moment see Rom 8:28f; 2 Cor 3:18.

One of the most profound and powerful markers of spiritual growth, for a person or a church, is to what extent we are willing to radically trust God. Ken Sande puts it like this:

When you are involved in a conflict, you … must decide whether or not you will trust God. Trusting God does not mean believing that he will do all that you want, but rather believing that he will do everything he knows is good.

If you do not trust God, you will inevitably place your trust in yourself or another person, which ultimately leads to grief.

On the other hand, if you believe that God is sovereign, and that he will never allow anything in your life unless it can be used for good, you will see conflicts not as accidents but as opportunities. This kind of trust glorifies God and inspires the faithfulness needed for effective peacemaking.[6]

3. Conflict exposes sinful attitudes and habits, and invites us to practise new godly ones.

When we experience real conflict, many of our masks fall from our faces and others see who we really are when no one is looking. As Ken Sande observes,

Conflict is especially effective in breaking down appearances and revealing stubborn pride, a bitter and unforgiving heart, or a critical tongue. When you are squeezed through controversy and these sinful characteristics are brought to the surface, you will have an opportunity to recognize their existence and ask for God’s help in overcoming them.[7]

See James 4:1f; Ps 119:67.

4. Conflict builds Christlike character.

Contrary to what many popular religious leaders urge, it is not God’s purpose or duty to make you comfortable, wealthy or happy. God is not obliged to make you lose weight, or get that job, or a host of other legitimate desires we may entertain from time to time.

God’s job is to help you to grow and flourish so that you become more like his Son Jesus Christ. And experiencing conflict, and seeking conflict resolution, “is one of the many tools God will use to help you develop a more Christ-like character.”[8] Moreover,

the Bible teaches that we should see conflict neither as an inconvenience nor as an occasion to force our will on others, but rather as an opportunity to demonstrate the love and power of God in our lives …

When displaying the riches of God’s love and pleasing him is more important than holding onto worldly things and pleasing yourself, it becomes increasingly natural to respond to conflict graciously, wisely, and with self-control. This approach brings glory to God and sets the stage for effective peacemaking.[9]

See 1 Cor 10:31-11:1.

What can we learn from all of this? We have seen how conflict helps us to respect the diversity and healthy differences among us.

We have seen that conflict often presents opportunities for growth – particularly spiritual growth. We have seen, on the other hand, that conflict may also expose sinful attitudes and habits, and invite us to adopt new and godly alternatives. And we have seen that conflict, done well, fosters a Christ-like character: as we follow Jesus into the challenges and opportunities presented by a particular conflict, we are given the freedom to become more like Jesus in our attitudes, thoughts, words, actions and habits.

Above all, we should consider: How can I best please God, and honour God, in this conflict situation? What will most surely bring glory to God, and not to me, as I engage with others in bringing about a just and timely resolution to the conflict?


Sermon 740 copyright © 2017 Rod Benson. Preached at Lithgow Baptist Church, Australia, on Sunday 9 July 2017. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).


References

[1] http://allhumanity.org/allhumanity-articles/bush-bono-pepfar, accessed 15 July 2017.

[2] Ken Sande, The Peace Maker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict (3rd edn; Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2004), p. 29.

[3] Ibid., pp. 22-27.

[4] Ibid., p. 30.

[5] Ibid., p. 37.

[6] Ibid., p. 72, original emphasis.

[7] Ibid., p. 37.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., p. 31.

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