Conflict Grows Us Closer

You cannot make old friends, only new ones. You can; however, keep friends so long that they become old friends.
— my dad.

I had been in San Francisco pastoring all of three months when, after a Sunday service, an enraged member backed me up into a corner, finger stabbing into my chest and said, "Your preaching is nothing but a bunch of rubbish, it's as worthless as a heap of sh%t."   

I am not completely sure why he was so mad at me.  I think it was partly the Bible translations I was using and partly the more conversational tones my preaching was delivered with, but whatever the case I was stunned and stumped.  I just took the finger in the chest, apologized and tried to keep my cool.   Eighie Hisatake, (Pastor, No Limits Worship Center) came walking up and mouthed, behind the man's back, "Do you want me to take him out?"  :-)

In the end, I never cleared the air with the guy, much less the heart.   I let him badger me around for another 6 months before he left.  I have a high tolerance for emotional pain, and just pushed through not dealing with him or it, trusting that time would heal it.  And although it's debatable whether time healed me, it never healed us, not the way Jesus longs for.

In Matthew 18, The How-To-Deal-With-Conflict passage, Jesus talks about what to do when someone hurts you.   The step-by-step instruction involves going to the person one-on-one and expressing how you were hurt.   Jesus is not merely calling his followers to avoid destructive gossip and slander, and let time heal something,  but to seek to grow closer through conflict; to see conflict as an opportunity for gaining depth and realness.    Conflict is a crossroads.  Mishandled conflict most often leads to termination of friendships, unresolved resentments and relational numbness; and yet Jesus saw conflict as opportunities for us to grow thicker and 'gain a brother'.  Conflict can make best-friends out of spouses, best-friends out of family, and best-friends out of friends, if navigated with humility and vulnerability.  

In the Matthew 18 passage Jesus is not merely dealing with ‘conflict’ but Jesus addresses the extreme cases of ‘sin.’ of when someone has ‘sinned’ against a brother/sister. I am abstracting Jesus’s commentary on community sin and finding principles for handling conflict on the grounds that “sin” is more flagrant and yet Jesus urges his followers to seek restoration and healing, even when sinned against. More importantly he promises to be present, in the midst of us when we are seeking to grow closer, in the thick of our sinfulness.

It's clear from Jesus's instructions that he places a high priority on communication and working things out.   He calls on those who are hurt to take the initiative and seek conversation with the one who hurt them.  

The question for me is how should the one who caused the hurt or misunderstanding respond?  

Several weeks ago I said something to a brother.  And although, as best as I can discern, my motives were genuine, the words I chose left some gaps for misunderstanding.   The brother was hurt, the hurt led to anger.  He tried to 'man up' and let time heal it, to deny his emotions, but it only frustrated him.    A mature brother came to him and suggested that he talk with me.  That mature and godly brother came with him to help support him (in the spirit of Matthew 18).  The hurting brother gained courage to approach me because he felt the Holy Spirit leading him to talk it out.  He had some real fears though,  fears that I might get angry with him and shut him out.   The other brother encouraged him and a few days later we met.  Our conversation went like this:

"Jeff, I want to say I am sorry for the way I have felt toward you since we talked last.   I have been feeling lately like I don't matter, that people value my valuables more than me.  After our conversation I started feeling negative toward you as well.  I am sorry.  I just was hurting."

Over the course of my life I have offended or hurt or been insensitive to people more than one time.   I've been insensitive to my wife, too demanding of my kids, inconsistent in keeping in touch with my friends, and negligent of communicating with my parents.  I have said things from public spaces that were imperceptive or took others for granted, which makes me susceptible to people drawing skewed conclusions about my intentions.

A word about assumptions (untrue conclusions, lies).   All of us have them.  Our assumptions stem from our fears and our insecurities.  They are like tinted glasses, we tend to see everything through them.   They enslave and bind us.  And only truth can free us.  And the assumptions come off like glasses when we talk through our feelings, realities, and perceptions with others.   


Many years ago a man came to our church.  He was at a low point in his life--business failing and living in the back shed of an industrial park, his wife (and kids) had left him.   He had made some mistakes at another church and was asked to leave, his desperate situation brought him to Lighthouse.   He came on a Sunday and asked to speak with me.   I was busy, brushed him off with something like a, "Sure.  Later."   The later became much, much later.  And he assumed that I too was conspiring to hurt him.   A month or so after his visit someone told me about his situation and how offended he was with me, and consequently Lighthouse.   That late afternoon I drove out to the industrial park.   He was hurt, angry, afraid, and I ached for how my negligence fed into these fears.  I asked for his forgiveness, shouldering the blame.   In the end, I gained a loyal friend for life, a brother was restored, and the assumptions were brought to the light by the Holy Spirit through his own admission (not by me pointing them out).  

The 4 ways we typically deal with conflict.  Jesus calls us to be assertive and cooperative.

There have been occasions, however, when someone has courageously approached me about my words or actions, and I have responded from my own fears and insecurities, and partially because I just didn't know how.  I remember our beloved and now deceased brother Jeffry St. Claire telling me how a particular word I used on a Sunday had offended him.   Initially, I got defensive (I thought he was attacking me) and made it all about myself as I argued for the benign nature of the word that was offending him.  Candidly, I was insecure and felt I needed to be right in order to be his pastor.   The Holy Spirit corrected me, reminding me that it was not about me, it was not about the word, it was about a hurting brother, and how I was making it about me, he wasn't. 

 We often go into these conversations with a demeanor that says, "I have to prove I am right and they are wrong, or I will appear weak." (Valuing my pride over a person)  Or, "I just need to get this conversation over with, I really don't have time for this."   (Valuing my time over a human.)   Christ calls us to see conflict as the stuff that makes relationships real and meaningful, because its only in conflict that you really get to know the truest part of each other.

Christ redeems everything! And yes, that includes conflict, even conflict can be redeemed, as what was meant to estrange us from each other, now endears us to each other and to God.

Something was very different for me this past week, when I was approached by a brother with a misunderstanding.  I think a lot of it had to do with observing James Lee, my Nam-dong-saeng (younger brother), and how he believes and lives in the grace that Christ redeems everything, even conflict.   I have watched him honor and digify others in their conflict in such a way that authentic depth and rare trust was nurtured.   

I thought I would share what I observed in James, as well as what I have learned thought the years of my own trial-and-error.

 How to Use Conflict to Grow Closer.

  1. Love.   I usually react to someone's negative interaction toward me with whatever I have inside.  If I am insecure I will react with defensiveness, self-justification, and blame-shifting.  When I am angry I respond with anger and when I am frustrated, I respond with frustration.   Therefore, its important that I open my heart to receive God's love and remain full of his love.  Reminding myself, I am a beloved disciple, therefore I am constantly learning how to love and be-loved.   For me, meditation is the discipline I use to stuff my heart full of God's love.   When I am meditating on God's love I don't react.
  2. See.  Open my eyes to see the person.  I must discipline myself to not be focused on me while they are sharing.  The fact that they are coming to me means they value me enough to have the conversation and grow deeper and they hope to gain me.   I Imagine that this conversation is an opportunity to make God's family stronger.   I must resist the urge to see them as an object in the way of my happy day, and instead see them as part of what God is doing to grow me closer.  I ask myself, "What's God want to do through this?"
  3. Listen.  I listen carefully to what the other person is saying.  I listen so that I can ask questions and gain clarity.   They are not being heard if while they are talking I am putting together my rebuttal. Most of the healing in the relationship happens when their words are valued and received and not refuted and rejected.   While they are talking I internally ask, "What's going on for the other person?"  "What fears or hurts have led to their understanding?" 
  4. Ask Questions.   I ask questions so that I understand what was misunderstood, or what I did that hurt them.  Seek clarity before certainty.  There is a real temptation, when our ego gets in the way, to be certain before we are clear.  I can be drawn closer to them through this if I slow down and ask questions about:
    1. (a) the facts. "What happened and when did it happen?"  (this is not the time to argue about the facts, but to hear the facts that are forming their reality.  And their reality is pain.)
    2. (b) reflections on the heart and feelings of the matter, "I can see how my words hurt you, were there any other feelings that you experienced in this?"   "It makes complete sense now, why you were so upset, what else may have contributed to this?"  
    3. (c) and then discuss what they sense is presently wrong and what they hope to gain from this conversation, "What do you hope the outcome will be of our conversation today?  I know for me, I want to grow closer through this."
  5. Restate What I Understood Them To Say.   Restate what I heard them say, and then ask them, "Is my understanding accurate?"  There can be no resolution without a solution and there can be no solution without articulation.  This listening and asking questions and articulating is the most important piece.   James would always validate their hurt and ache saying, "Your pain and hurt are real.  What you experienced is understandable and given the way you have articulated this I can see how hurt and frustrated you are."
  6. Respond from their Perspective.  Here are some questions I seek to answer when I start talking:
    1. (a) What can I say or do that will help them?  
    2. (b) How did I contribute to the misunderstanding, the insensitivity, or the hurt?  
    3. (c) What good can come from this?
  7. Express How You Feel.   If there is going to be depth and realness then it's important that I express both how I feel.  I may feel embarrassed, ashamed, hurt that I hurt them, upset that they were so sensitive.  In the spirit of being real, share how you are feeling in the moment.   "Candidly, I am embarrassed that I caused you pain."  "I have a lot of pride and I want to go on the defensive...." 
  8. Express My Perspective.  If the facts were interpreted wrongly, this is where you want to share your motives, your intents, what you should have said or what was misunderstood, all from a heart that seeks to grow closer.  If you were wrong, and your intentions were wrong, and they have pointed out a flaw in your character this is where you admit that and ask forgiveness.   It's important at this point to say, "Please forgive me for ___________." Or, "I am sorry for causing you such grief."  
  9. Confess What is True.  It is equally important that I speak what is true.  It's true that there will be conflict and that courageous people work through it.  It's true that forgiveness is a synonymous with Christianity.   It's true that I have been forgiven by God... so that i can be a forgiver and a receiver of forgiveness.  It's true I am human.  It's true that I value my brothers and sisters (family) more than I value being right (pride).  It's true that family stuff gets messy, but God has promised to be present in thick of our mess when we are seeking to work it out.  Its true that properly handled conflict grows us closer than we ever would have been without it.

As my brother shared with me how he had been hurt by our misunderstanding, my heart opened wide to him.  He said, "I was afraid to have this conversation with you."

I gently asked him, "Why were you afraid?  What were you afraid of?" 

"I thought you would reject me.  I thought I would suffer more for expressing how I felt.  Most of these fears come from my childhood and how I was raised to not speak my feelings."  he replied.

In that one moment I saw the courage in his heart and I heard the pain and ache in his soul.    Something else happened in that moment.  Jesus appeared.  In the brother that brought us both together.  I saw him.  In the brother that was hurt, I saw him.  And in me, I could see him.  He was in our midst.   I felt like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, my eyes were opened and I could see him there with us.

Something lasting and paradoxal happened in that moment.  What was typical of conflict and misunderstandings--communal divisiveness and relational termination--was reversed and a new closeness and compassion was experienced.   Both brothers experienced healing and redemption.   Brother experiencing Christ.

My experience this past week in growing closer through conflict made these words from Paul (Eph 2, MSG)  real in a new kind of way.   

13 Now because of Christ—dying that death, shedding that blood—you who were once out of it altogether are in on everything.

14-15 The Messiah has made things up between us so that we’re now together on this, both non-Jewish outsiders and Jewish insiders. He tore down the wall we used to keep each other at a distance. He repealed the law code that had become so clogged with fine print and footnotes that it hindered more than it helped. Then he started over. Instead of continuing with two groups of people separated by centuries of animosity and suspicion, he created a new kind of human being, a fresh start for everybody.

16-18 Christ brought us together through his death on the cross. The Cross got us to embrace, and that was the end of the hostility. Christ came and preached peace to you outsiders and peace to us insiders. He treated us as equals, and so made us equals. Through him we both share the same Spirit and have equal access to the Father.