Summary: Conflict avoidance is often an indicator of a shallowness of love.
Conflict is an Essential: Relational Skills from the Bible for Today
May 23, 2010. Gal. 1:11-3:5
This spring we have been looking at “Relationship Skills from the Bible for Today”. Last week I taught about the skill of listening, and so as a bridge from last week into this week, I wonder if any of you would be willing to share a story about a time when you really felt listened to. It would be ideal if it was from this past week, but I certainly wouldn’t limit it to that! I think we need to hear from each other, we need to hear stories of things that worked, and we especially need to hear about how it feels when someone really, deeply, listens to us, because that will help motivate us to do that in our relationships with one another. Anyone?
The relationship skill I want to talk about today is the skill of conflict. Yesterday I was taking a short break from working on my sermon, and so went upstairs to Joanne and Thomas and said, “I think I should pick a fight with you two.” Joanne said, with some concern, “why? Did we do something bad?” I replied, with a smile, “nope! But I’m preaching on conflict tomorrow and thought if I picked a fight I’d have a good illustration for my sermon…” They just laughed at me. Then came one of the most encouraging comments a pastor can hear – my 9yr old son said, “but dad, didn’t you just preach on that a few weeks ago, about caring about other people enough to confront them when they are wrong?” And Joanne said, “yes, you did, I remember it…” They were referring to my Valentines Day message, when my main point was exactly as Thomas described – to really love people means we will have conflict sometimes. We studied Matt. 18 together, and the process Jesus commanded us to follow when situations of conflict come up.
Today I want to come back and revisit that same theme, in the context of this sermon series on skills we need to build in order for us to have healthy relationships that lead us into the life Jesus described as “to the full.”
Our Current State:
I suspect that for many of us, the most highly developed skill in regards to conflict is “conflict avoidance”. And this is not a good thing… so I decided to reflect a little bit on why that might be. My first thoughts were related to the amount of effort it takes to engage conflict – especially emotional energy – and I observe that many of us (and often myself included) simply choose not to “go there” in interactions with people because it will be too much work. Then I thought of how many times in our lives and experiences conflict has made things worse – we’ve walked away hurt, sometimes deeply, and then we often don’t deal with that hurt in positive ways, and so we decide that conflict is bad because it gets us hurt, and then we avoid it in the future. Then I went to our cultural value of “tolerance”, which basically says we should always just accept anything anyone else says or believes without challenge because to challenge it would be considered “intolerant” and, perhaps ironically, “intolerance” is not tolerated in Canadian culture in 2010.
But when I boil it all down, I come back to my belief that conflict avoidance is often an indicator of a shallowness of love. Or perhaps a warped understanding of what love actually is. Now, a little caveat here is important, I am not dismissing the idea that we should “choose our battles”. I think that is sound advice. There are many places where conflict is not necessary, and I don’t recommend conflict for the sake of conflict. But I think what can happen is we decide that “choosing our battles” means “choosing not to battle”, and we have to be careful that we don’t let that principle become an excuse to not confront places that need confrontation.
I started to think of this avoidance of conflict like a pendulum that has swung too far back. In the past, as Christians we have swung way out to a place where our perceptions of “truth” have been the only thing that mattered, so Christians would walk up to complete strangers and tell them they were going to hell unless they accept Jesus. Other times in history are even worse – same message but with a sword on a throat and a death blow coming if the “heathen” did not “convert”. Not times of which we are proud. I’d call this side of the pendulum “High Confrontation, Low Regard for Others’ Feelings”. But the pendulum can swing too far back, to a side I’ll call “Consuming Regard for Others’ Feelings, No Confrontation.” When it gets over to that side, we are so concerned we might “upset” someone, or make them feel bad, that we choose not to say anything. And then we end up pretending. We end up being fake in our relationships. We end up suppressing our own feelings and then they leak out or explode out in harmful places on often innocent bystanders. And we end up NOT in Biblical community together, but rather in a fake plastic veneer that is a massive hypocritical turn-off to a world desperate for genuine, truthful, difficult authenticity.