Conflict As Opportunity

I hate conflict. I hate lying in bed, sleepless, revved on the adrenaline of anger. I hate obsessing over accusations and defending myself in my mind, coming to a verdict, and then doing it twenty more times. I hate falling into the despair that accompanies conflict, the despair that makes me a grim presence.

But I need conflict. The church needs conflict. Here are four reasons why.

1. It is part of the price we pay for relating to people who are different.

I love Emma Goldman’s sentiment that “If I can't dance, it's not my revolution!” Similarly, if the Jesus revolution doesn’t bring together rich and poor, black and white, male and female, L’s and G’s and B’s and T’s, and even liberals and conservatives, then it isn’t the banquet of God.

Difference will mean conflict. The alternatives are: a) get together with people as much like me as possible to minimize conflict, b) use force or coercion or shame or guilt to silence the people I disagree with, or c) betray myself, and don’t say what I think. Ultimately I don’t want to do any of these. So as difficult as it is, I realize I need to accept conflict.

2. Sometimes it is our critics who tell us the needed truth about ourselves. 

Once, I was in a small Nicaraguan town, Cara del Mono, trying to learn about the poor. I wanted to write about my experiences and submit the story to my hometown newspaper. Because my Spanish was rudimentary, and the accent of people was different from the one I had learned, I asked the local Irish priest to translate for me as I spoke to a couple of residents. He said something like, “No, I won’t translate for you. You’re not committed to these people. You’re just using them for a story that will make you look good and then you’ll move on. If you were actually doing anything for them that involved some self-sacrifice on your part, I might consider it.”

While harsh, as I look back on my nine months in Central America, his words to me were the most transformative. They caused me to take a hard look at myself and examine my deepest motivations. I’m grateful that he had to courage to speak so straightforwardly.

Sometimes our critics are the people who have obsessed over our faults and can describe them most accurately. Although it’s crucial to limit our exposure to negativity, and ground ourselves firmly in God’s love and grace, it is a missed opportunity to not listen to our critics for the sake of our own self-knowledge.

3. The pain of conflict can motivate positive change.

I’m tempted by author Chad Kultgen’s cynical sentiment, “people don't change, they just have momentary steps outside of their true character.” As a pastor I’m constantly trying to engineer change, but truth be told, I rarely achieve it in myself let alone others.

The pain of conflict is one of the few levers powerful enough to move us. In relationships of importance, I realize that if I don’t face my part and change, the relationship will suffer. Or, in relationships of permanence, I realize that if I don’t change the pain of conflict will be ongoing. Since, as I said at the beginning, I hate conflict (and love relationships) conflict inspires me to change.

I tend to go through life protecting myself against conflict: deflecting criticism, insulating myself against judgments, radiating vibes of defensiveness. But I’m learning that if I can face it and even invite it, conflict is one of the most powerful tools to help me grow up.

4. It is as we go through conflict, and learn the ways of peace, that we are a light to others. 

Some Christians seem to think we have a morality hotline to heaven. In this view, the way we bless and serve the world is by giving the “right” answer on topics like abortion, gay marriage, divorce, drugs, and war. But I suspect few people are holding their breath for the church’s pronouncements. Others seem to think that we offer a “get out of hell free” card. But few people are looking for that either.

What is destroying the world is conflict. We follow the example of a man who faced conflict and redeemed it. He did that through practices of truth-telling, suffering, grace-giving, patience, and forgiveness. As we learn those practices, and learn how to transform conflict into an authentic peace, I think the world will be interested. But if that is going to happen we’ve got to face into it. We need to see conflict as an opportunity.

Image: "Jesús en casa de Anás Museo del Prado José de Madrazo" by José de Madrazo Agudo (1781-1859) - Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons