God made us to live in community. John Donne said it famously:
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind…
This is how God made us from the beginning. In Genesis 2:18 God said it was not good for Adam to be alone, and because of that Woman (Genesis 2:23; she isn’t called Eve until Genesis 3:20) was made to complete him. This is, in my opinion, a reflection of the Trinity and is a good thing. Just as God, the infinite Three-In-One, lives in perfect community He has made us to live in community.
That sounds all well and good. God lives in perfect harmony within Himself as Father, Son, and Spirit and we are called to live in harmony too. The problem is that life seldom is so simple. Humans are fallen (Genesis 3 tells the story), and because of the Fall we have conflict. We see this from very close to the beginning too, as Cain and his little brother Abel have the first family squabble in Genesis 4. That family squabble turns into the first murder!
Though Christians admit that we are flawed, imperfect, sinful, and prone to doing wrong (Romans 7:14-24) in a general sense we have a hard time admitting that to others in particular issues and with specifics. We expect our Christian lives to be lives of perfect harmony and unity, always getting along and always reflecting the amazing standard of the church in Acts 2:42-47:
42 They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles. 44 And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; 45 and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. 46 Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved.
We don’t think about Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5 lying to the church and causing problems, or the issue of racism that crept into the church in Acts 6. We seldom consider the major problems the church in Corinth faced, which Paul addressed in 1 Cor 5 and 6. (heck, the whole letter is written to a church that had a bad case of disunity and bickering, backstabbing and sin!)
Wherever there is community there is bound to be conflict, even among good and godly people. We miscommunicate, take things the wrong way, have differing priorities and perspectives on life and ministry. Since life is seldom simple there are often several ways to see a given issue, and that means that well-meaning Christians will disagree on how to deal with them. This leads to conflict within the body. Add to this our “flesh” or sinful nature, and the fact that we can and do offend one another and sin against one another, and it can make a deadly brew of disunity and fighting.
The past couple of weeks have had a bunch of conflict in my life. I had a student ask for prayer because she had to confront her pastor and his wife over an issue of a promise that was not kept. I sent out notices to several other students that they were failing my class and that we needed to talk about their performance. I offended a family in our church unintentionally through some miscommunication. (and was told of this by one of my elders who heard about it from them) I had to participate in a conflict between two people in ministry where a lot of hurt had built up and emotions ran strong. (take a moment and write your pastor a quick thank-you email…this is the stuff you pay him to do!) I also had to talk with a family member about the movie they wanted my son to watch with them that Laura and I were uncomfortable with.
You might be thinking that this is where the blog post turns into me venting about not being understood, lamenting people leaving church or talking bad about me. (plaintiff’s exhibit one, your honor) Not this time! This week I taught in Gospels class in Matthew 18:15-17,
15 “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. 16 “But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. 17 “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
God has really been working on me in this area. He has brought to mind Romans 12:18, “If possible, so far as depends on you, be at peace with all men” as I have worked through these disagreements. In Acts 5 and 6, I see the church maintaining unity and joy through their internal conflicts by focusing on God’s priorities and talking them out, loving each other and fighting fair. (and, in the case of Ananias and Sapphira, a little divine discipline)
I also have been hearing in my head a statement that I believe is from God for me at this time*: “Sheep bite, but only when they are hurt.” Most people that I know are not wolves; they are not predators looking to make a meal out of me. As a shepherd I seek to help the flock by grazing, guarding, and guiding them. A shepherd checks his sheep, and occasionally touches a sore spot for one of them. If a shepherd is bit by a sheep it is not because the sheep is looking for a meal but as a defense against the pain. That perspective has made all the difference.
The student who needed prayer had the talk with her pastor and his wife (not me, btw) and came away with a profound respect for them as people. I talked with the students who I sent emails to, and every one was thankful for the communication and grateful that I took time to help them see how they could improve their performance and pass my class. I sent an email and then called the family I had offended. They accepted my apology and we cleared up the miscommunication. I had several emails back and forth with the folks who were involved in the ministry conflict and was amazingly blessed by watching God salve wounds and lead people toward peace and blessing in ministry.**
I must say it is amazingly cool to watch God’s people do things God’s way and see Him bring the type of healing and resolution that we see in the book of Acts. It really encouraged me as I saw God heal hearts and reconcile relationships that had some resentment between them. It doesn’t always work this way (I have had people call me the worst excuse for a pastor ever and leave our church without even giving me the time of day), but when it does it is a reminder that God’s way is always best. Even though I loathe confrontation and get ill when I have to confront, I have seen God work through it enough that I am committed to His way in this.
I can’t encourage you enough to try it His way and see what happens. Pray a bunch, make sure that you try to see it from their perspective and admit more than your share of the fault. Seek reconciliation rather than admission of how right you are and see what He does. Maybe, just maybe He will bring similar results in your life.
*I am not normally a “God told me something” kind of guy. He speaks directly to me seldom. In August, though, I believe He really asked me if my ministry was about my kingdom or His. (that was painful!) In September this thought came in prayer about sheep biting and has been very helpful in ministry and perspective. Who am I to put God in a box that He cannot speak directly to my heart?
**The family issue is still hanging a little. I know God can and will bring resolution, but this one is not necessarily between Christians. Thanks for praying with me over it that Laura and I would be the parents we need to be while obeying Exodus 20:12.