“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.”
Letter of James, 1:2
God designs and brings us into conflict for our good and his glory.
Let’s begin thinking about peace-making by discussing pain.
Pain is a gift, a warning signal. God designed pain to get our attention.
Few normal people like conflict. That’s because there is pain involved. Quarrels and contentions hurt, especially when they are with people we love. Some would say that some broken relationships are like a living death. Who enjoys giving or receiving the cold shoulder, sleeping on the couch, or icy silence over dinner?
But few people pay attention to the pain. Rather, they think they can ignore it or avoid facing its cause.
The confusion and the clarity
People avoid it because strife and contention are confusing. People are mystified by their quarrels. What I almost always hear is something like this, “We are best friends and now we do not speak to each other. I have no idea what happened.”
Strangely, no matter how complex the conflict appears, there is one thing they are not confused about. They are certain they had little or no part in starting it. The other party is the problem.
“I may have teased them a little, but their reaction is way over the top.”
When I have my first meeting with a potential client I tell them it is likely that even though they cannot understand the situation, they are innocent and the other person may be a direct descendant of the devil.
I think that confusion, mixed with certainty of one’s innocence, and a fear of further pain is the recipe that compels us to avoid true reconciliation. And let me state that the major ingredient in this recipe is our sense of being faultless. That’s because we stake our identity on it. We intuit that we may be wrong, that facing the pain may show us our faults. That conclusion is unacceptable, so we would rather minimize conflict, deny alienation, avoid facing the problem, and hope it simply fades away. And then we will not have to look at ourselves in the mirror.
Rather than press into peace-making, we develop expansive capacities to live with low grade irritations and complaints against others. Those points of friction lie quietly in our hearts until provoked, or until we have a chance to vent to a friend about how awful that other person is.
The quick fix
Oh yes, a few “brave” souls are committed to “put their chips on the table” and to “acknowledge the elephant in the room.” They believe in the quick fix. The best way to resolve a quarrel is head on.
In some few cases, this works; in most it does not. It works because there is an abundance of love and goodwill already present. Everyone is leaning in.
What makes it ineffective is that being direct where there is no such love only fuels the fire. We go in with guns blazing. And it’s too late. Most of the time people determine to face the issues long after the warmth of love had faded.
But why wait?
Until it is too late
The email or text or phone call comes to me the day before they file divorce papers, after they hired an attorney to sue, or just before the church votes to dissolve. Take this as an example (it is based on a real case):
“Hey Mark, we have had a great deal of contention among our leaders. We wondered if you could help us?”
“Tell me about it.”
“It has gone on for years. The elders of the church fight about most of our decisions. We are frozen in discord. People in the church have sensed it or been brought into it. Our numbers have dwindled. Last night we called a meeting of the church to vote on dissolution. Someone heard about your work with conciliation, and we wanted to see if you can help.”
Long pause . . . “And what is it you want help with?”
“Maybe you could come to our next meeting and help us work out our differences.”
I wish I could say this is abnormal. It is not. We kick the can of conflict down the road until it destroys us. Why do we wait until there is a five-alarm fire before calling for help? We are avoiding the humiliation of seeing ourselves more clearly. Perhaps we were the ones in the wrong.
Pain and greater pain
I have a simple observation. That the desire to vindicate ourselves is so powerful that only great anguish forces our hand to pursue resolution.
No one seeks help until the pain of the conflict is greater than the pain of pursuing resolution.
We know, intuitively, that resolution will require work. It will be humbling. There may be things we have said or done for which we must take responsibility. Who wants to face their faults and flaws and wrong opinions when faking unity and peace requires far less effort? Who wants to address the elephant in the room when we are the elephant?
We don’t need help
There are many ways to avoid getting help. One is the posture of maturity.
“We are mature adults and committed Christians. We do not need help.”
I hear that all the time. It is true, people should be able to work out their disagreements by themselves. They should also be able to act unselfishly, never speak harshly, and always forgive. But we don’t. What we ought to be able to do and what we will do are not aligned.
There is something threatening about an outsider walking us through a process of making peace. We ask for help in other areas of need. I have not yet read a story of someone attempting to do bypass surgery on themselves. But it seems vulnerable to ask for help with relationships.
In the world of medicine, there is a saying about why doctors cannot treat themselves or their family. He who has himself for a physician has a fool for a physician. We are too close to ourselves to see ourselves objectively. We are too close to family too. You need help.
Pain is a gift
If I could get one point across to people in conflict it is this: listen to the pain. It tells you something is wrong. That does not mean you need help immediately. Try to work it out on your own, but only for a while. If the quarreling continues and the pain remains, get help. My suggestion to married couples is to wait no more than 3 weeks.
Conflicts that hurt, cause alienation, are unsolvable and nagging will not get better by themselves. They grow worse. Anger turns to bitterness. Being perplexed becomes hopelessness. Given enough time, chronic relational pain infects every area of our relationship. And then it either explodes or settles into the cold-hearted bitterness of two people living under the same roof or working in the same office.
Listen to the pain. Listen when it first speaks. It is lethal. Get help.