Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Embracing Conflict

Through relationships, leadership positions, ministry, and just day-to-day life, I've learned a lot about conflicts.  The thing that always surprises me most, though, is the length people will go to avoid them.

I personally hate conflict.  No, hate is not a powerful enough word.  I detest it.  It shakes me up to the core of my being.  It makes me physically ill.  One conflict from my past upset me so much that I couldn't eat for months and eventually I lost so much weight, that my hair was falling out and I developed asthma!  My major insecurities are all about whether people like me or think good about me.  I'm a people-pleaser with a constant fear of abandonment.  Conflict is nothing but pure torture for me.  I, in complete seriousness, liken it to water-boarding.

But I have learned one of the hard truths of life...if you want to move forward, if you want to grow, if you want to build things, change things, and create things, if you want deeper relationships, if you want to love and be loved, you have got to risk conflict.
Achieving great things and making the world a better place requires you to metaphorically take the sharpened bamboo shoots and shove them under your fingernails!  You have to be willing to confront problems and deal with bad situations.

Christians, especially, seem to have a hard time with this, but God didn't mean for it to be that way.  Many of us see the Christian life as an escape from all the conflicts and fighting that goes on in the outside world.  When we hear about finding peace in the Lord, we think that should mean that everything should be conflict free, instead of realizing that it means we should be able to be at peace in the middle of conflict, much like the eye of a hurricane.  We tell ourselves and each other that we should give one another "grace", but what we do instead is cheapen grace by ignoring the other person's problem traits and pretending like they don't bother us.  We keep an unnatural distance between each other and put "perceived peace" above authentic relationships.  And in the end, we are taking our eyes off of the Cross and instead putting our eyes on ourselves and what makes us feel good and look good.

The purpose of this blog post isn't on HOW to handle conflict.  There are plenty of good books out there, like the Boundaries books by Cloud and Townsend or anything written by Dr. Michael Sedler.  Instead, I want to look at why conflict is one of our greatest allies and why it's something we should embrace instead of avoid.

One doesn't have to look far in the Bible to see that God embraces conflict.  One of the most encouraging Bible passages for me when I know I need to man up and confront a situation is Deuteronomy 1.  Moses is leading the Israelites through the desert and they arrive at the land of the Amorites, which God has promised them.  Instead of entering into the conflict with the Amorites to claim what God has promised them, they begin to second guess the plan and send spies into the land to "see what routes to take".  Instead, ten of the spies came back and pretty much said, "We can't do it, it's too scary," and the other two said, "Let's trust God and do this thing."  The Israelites decided not to trust God and to avoid the conflict.  Moses was punished as the leader who allowed this by not being able to take the land in his lifetime and the only Israelites to inherit the land were to be the tribes of the two who said, "Let's trust God and do this thing."

I love this passage because it is so clearly parallel to what goes through our minds when we face conflict.  If we are going into a conflict with the heart of Jesus, we know that our end goal should be something God has promised us, whether it be a project for His kingdom or a closer walk with Him or whatever.  Instead of facing the conflict knowing who God says we are, who God is and that He delivers on His promises, we hedge our bets and begin to doubt His sovereignty.  Then we have a decision to make, do we follow our desire to keep the peace and maintain the status quo or do we risk conflict to take hold of what God has laid before us?  For whatever reason, and I suspect the fall of man has much to do with it, God's blessings only come once we have walked through the fire.  Don't fear the fire, love it, because that means something good is coming.

The other scripture that really speaks to me when it comes to conflict is Proverbs 27:6, "Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses."  Who is really your friend, the one who is willing to go into a conflict with you in order for you both to claim what God has promised you, or the one that smothers you with kisses so that you feel good and are content with them?  If we surround ourselves with good friends, they can be the most challenging people in our lives, but also the most helpful if we have the end goal of Heaven in our mind.

Now, I know some people who cling to the status quo are going to throw verses like Matthew 5:9 (Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God) and Hebrews 12:14 (Make every effort to live in peace with everyone).  But if there is a conflict that you are avoiding, is there really peace?  Even if you swallow the issue, never to bring it out in the open, are you at peace?  God is more concerned with what is going on in our hearts than with our outward behavior.  Would it not be better to risk some conflict to get things out in the open and then do the hard work of restoring relationships and situations than to live in a way that your heart does not match what you preach?  Isn't that what the hard work of being a peacemaker really is...actually making peace instead of ignoring problems?  Ignoring something or shoving our feeling down deep is not making peace.

And what about Hebrews 13:17 (Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you.)?  Any smart leader wants to know when people under them are struggling.  Part of being a good leader is being willing to risk confrontation for the sake of vision and for the good of relationships.  Yes, there are times as a follower where we just need to swallow our pride and follow and that is what this addresses.  But what if the leader is such that you are constantly in a struggle with them?  First, make sure your struggle is toward something Jesus centered and not self-centered.  If it is Jesus-centered and conflicts are constant, then it is time to put yourself under other, and most likely more competent, leadership.

Here are a few final thoughts about why it is smarter to embrace conflict than to avoid it:

1.  While unresolved conflict makes relationships weaker, resolved conflict makes relationships stronger.  If two people can be honest with their wants, needs, ideas, feelings, etc., address the sticking points between them, and then find a resolution or at least acknowledge and respect each other as separate individuals, the depth and strength of the relationship after the conflict will always be more than if there had been no conflict at all.  This is because both parties have affirmed that they can trust the other party with an open and honest version of themselves.  This helps communication and especially builds leader/follower relationships.

2.  Embracing conflict is a sign you care and consider the person/issue valuable and important.  Everyone risks something when engaging in conflict, whether they are comfortable with conflict or not.  By being willing to step up and hash things out, you are telling the other party, "You are worth the risk that this interaction entails."

3.  You learn a lot more about people when you are in conflict with them than when you are at peace with them.  You learn how mature someone is.  You learn what their values are.  You see what their idols are.  You see who is trust worthy.  And most importantly, you see who is loyal.  Personally, I have a rule that unless a person and I can confront each other, talk through it and come out the other side better off, I don't want anything more than a simple, cordial relationship with them.  If I am going to develop a friendship, work closely with someone or be around someone on a regular basis, they have to be able to work through conflict.

4.  You never know the depth of a relationship until you experience conflict.  You may think you are best friends with a person, but you can never be sure if your relationship is peaceful all the time.  No two people ever are honestly happy with each other 24/7.  If you never have a hard discussion, assume the other person is hiding something.

5.  Conflict, by its very nature, suggests movement.  If you are stuck and things aren't moving forward, there is a conflict you are avoiding.  We aren't in Heaven.  Everything isn't perfect, nor should it be.  Moving forward, growth and building things are all going to have a component of conflict in them.  By avoiding it, you are stopping forward momentum dead in its tracks.

6.  One day you will be held accountable by God for the people He put in your path.  If they don't experience the blessings God has planned for them because you were more concerned with keeping the peace instead of challenging them and making them walk through the conflict, God is not going to accept, "Well, I don't like conflict," as a valid excuse.  You were the Moses, allowing the Israelites to not trust God.

7.  Yes, there are people that you will confront and who will react badly.  That is not your problem.  Who is your God?  Is it the Almighty or is it something else?  Do you have Godly confidence behind you or are you trying to prove yourself?  As long as you are right there with God, you are like the God and take your land.  If you are on your own, you have something to fear.

Confrontation isn't easy, nor is it enjoyable.  But avoiding it is not the answer.  The Lord goes before you.  Conflict isn't a problem, it's a part of living a fallen life.  For whatever reason, we have to go through it in order to get what God has promised us.  Don't ignore the blessings God has for you on the other side of the conflict.

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