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Taking the sting out of personal disagreements

A sermon by Rod Benson

Matthew 7:1-5

“You hypocrite! First take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

Some of us are so familiar with hearing these words of Jesus, recorded in Matthew 7:5, that the shock they presented to his original audience is completely lost on us.

Hear the words freshly today. Hypocrisy. Smugness. Moral blindness. Lack of self-awareness. Inability to do good in the world. If that is how others see me, and if that is how God views me, then there is work to be done. Good work. Painful work. The work of transformation and growth.

As Christians, we need to think of conflict as one of the surprising tools God uses to shape and reshape us, incrementally transforming us – with all our limitations, faults and failures – into the image of his glorious Son, Jesus Christ. This is the goal of Christian discipleship.

These challenging words of Jesus in Matthew 7:1-5, which form part of his great Sermon on the Mount, provide one of the basic principles empowering such transformation: honest self-knowledge, sobering self-awareness, the realisation that one of the major causes of conflict, and one of the chief blockages to peace and harmony with others, is me.

The path to peace lies between my ears, and behind my eyes, and in my heart. So in the spirit of clearing the “log” from my own eye, and restoring good vision, so I can see more clearly what is at stake and whether it matters in the conflict, I want to explore with you today how each of us can demonstrate our Christian discipleship, and recognise the beautiful work of God within us and among us by taking responsibility for our own contribution to a conflict that may have arisen.

This is the second of four talks on biblical principles for conflict resolution – last week we looked at the positive side of conflict, and how we might please and honour God in a particular conflict situation.

I’m sure you are all familiar with the Golden Rule, expressed by Jesus in Matthew 7:12, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” The Golden Result declares that “people will usually treat you as you treat them.” Put negatively, we might say that God humbles those who seek to humble others.

Achieving the Golden Result in your life requires a measure of grace and courage. If I blame you for a problem I experience, you may well respond with counter-blame and justification for your actions.

But if I was partly to blame, and I acknowledge my fault rather than going on the offensive, it is amazing how often the response is more emotionally restrained and even conciliatory. My opponent may even say something like, “It’s not all your fault. I was to blame as well. Let’s fix this.” And we move forward together.

We might paraphrase Matthew 7:5 as, “Before you challenge others about their faults, be sure to face up to your own.” Or as Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message paraphrase, “Wipe that ugly sneer off your own face, and you might be fit to offer a washcloth to your neighbor.”

Many issues are not worth fighting over. For the rest, the first thing one should do, before even gathering the facts, is to check one’s own attitude to the problem and the person or persons involved.

In Paul’s day, there were two feuding members of a local church at Philippi, Euodia and Syntyche, and Paul’s advice to them aimed at conflict resolution is a good model for us too (Php 4:2-9). Here is Paul’s advice in summary:

  1. Place God at the centre of your life (“Rejoice in the lord”);
  2. Model Christian grace in your relationships (“Let your gentleness be evident to all”);
  3. Replace anxiety with prayer (“Be anxious about nothing…”);
  4. Embrace positive thinking, and see things as they really are (“Whatever is true…”);
  5. Put into practice what you have learned (“Whatever you have learned…”).[1]

The alternative is to let the conflict grow, and fester, and we all know that unresolved conflict can be very costly in terms of time, money, emotional distress, and spiritual exhaustion.

Often in life’s large or small conflicts with others, we come to a crossroads and consider whether to continue the conflict or seek to resolve it. The challenging and disarming teaching of Jesus in Matthew 7:5 prompts the following questions:

  1. What good can I say about my opponent?
  2. What good memories of them do I possess?
  3. What is just and right about their concerns?
  4. How has God used that person to bless me?
  5. What biblical principles for conflict resolution are most difficult for me to implement, and why is this so?

There is a further searching question worth asking: What effect is this dispute having, or likely to have, on my witness for Jesus Christ; my family; my occupation; my finances and property; my friendships; my service to church and community; and my relationship with God?

To be a peacemaker, I need to put the whole situation into context, and seek to understand my contribution to it, and deal honestly and soberly with it.

Paul says to the young leader Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:21, “Those who cleanse themselves from [sin] will be instruments for special purposes, made holy, useful to the Master and prepared to do any good work.” Those are amazing words. As Ken Sande says in The Peace Maker,

This cleansing process is inspired by Jesus’ promise that he has forgiven our sins and wants to purify us from the idols and habits that cause conflict (1 John 1:9). He calls us to cooperate in this process of repentance, self-examination, confession, and personal change. The more faithfully you draw on his grace and pursue these steps, the more useful you will be to him in making peace. At the same time, after you get the log out of your own eye, you will be better prepared to gently restore others.[2]

Think of a conflict you are presently in, or a recent one.

  1. As you reflect on how you handled the conflict, do you see a need for repentance on your part? Is there a need to confess a fault? If so, are you willing to do something positive about it?
  2. How have you used your words as a weapon to wound others? Reckless words, complaining, telling half-truths or falsehoods in order to evade or escalate the conflict; gossip, slander, worthless talk that harms the reputations of others?
  3. Have you sought to manipulate or control other people, or information, in the situation? What motivated these actions?
  4. How has your personal character contributed to this conflict?
  5. How might you change for the better as a result of this conflict? What is God saying to you today? What steps will you take this week to be a peace-maker?

The challenge of Jesus in Matthew 7:1-5 reminds us that when we criticise others, we spur them to look more diligently and critically at us, seeking to find fault with us, and counter our criticism.

Sometimes, as I suggested last week, it is better to let sleeping dogs lie, and confrontation (even when aimed at peace) is not worth the cost of continuing conflict. But there are times when criticism, even rebuke, is necessary, where the goal is not to humiliate but to help. Leadership expert John Maxwell suggests three questions we can ask ourselves that will test our motives in pursuing criticism of others:

  1. Would I criticise if this were not a personal matter?
  2. Will criticism make me look better?
  3. Does this criticism bring pleasure or pain to me?

If it is painful, you are probably doing the right thing. Keep doing that. If you gain pleasure from going on the attack, you should hold your tongue, and rethink your actions and motives.[3]

I close with those beautiful words of Paul to the Philippians:

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things (Php 4:8).

 

May God give you the grace and other resources to do what you need to do to take the sting out of personal disagreements in your world, and become a true healer and peace-maker.

 


Sermon 741 copyright © 2017 Rod Benson. Preached at Lithgow Baptist Church, Australia, on Sunday 16 July 2017. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).


References

[1] Adapted from Ken Sande, The Peace Maker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict (third edn; Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2004), pp. 83-90.

[2] Ibid., pp. 135f.

[3] http://prepareinternational.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/11/e-givingcriticism.pdf, accessed 15 July 2017.

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