Dale, a man in my church, showed up one day to a Bible study I was leading on the Sermon on the Mount. Within minutes, he raised objections to my take on Jesus’ teaching. When I tried to respond, he appeared satisfied, and the next week he showed up again, this time with a couple of his buddies. But almost before we began, the arguments started flying. Soon Dale was accusing me of teaching a false, socialistic gospel. I ended the session earlier than usual, and afterward suggested to Dale that he find some other Bible study to attend. He stormed out.
A few days later Dale asked to meet me for lunch. Was this a setup? I hated conflict. Would the ranting continue? But our meeting began in a surprising way. Dale apologized for his behavior – he felt bad for being a disturbance, though it was clear he still thought I was off-base. Then he went on to talk about his past: how his father had been blown to bits in Vietnam, how his mother drank herself to death, how he managed to put himself through college on an ROTC scholarship, and how he proudly served in the Army for four years. At one point in the conversation, his eyes welled up and he looked at me with a helpless, boyish expression. He told me that I didn’t have to worry about him coming around anymore and abruptly said he had to go. I never saw Dale again.
A couple of years later I decided to move to Denver’s inner city with some friends from seminary. We started working with a nearby church ministry that provided people on the street a kind of living room that served free coffee day and night. Joe, the pastor of the church, didn’t appreciate our growing presence. It didn’t take long before we were accused of stealing sheep. In the face-to-face confrontation that followed, Joe wouldn’t budge, and neither would Paul, one of the members of our household. So Paul skipped town to start another ministry, leaving the rest of us to fend for ourselves.
As I got to know Joe, I learned that he was a victim of the 1960s drug culture. He had not only stoned himself into a semi-permanent stupor, he also started to hear voices. He decided to live in a teepee in the foothills on Denver’s outskirts to become a hermit. He had gone insane, he told me, and might well have died but for his parents’ intervention. Joe’s conversion to Jesus, however, led him out of insanity. It also brought him among the emotionally dysfunctional people who lived under bridges and in the back alleys of Denver’s “skid row.” He admitted that he was still battling the voices, but the voices now lived in society’s rejected and abandoned. He was now their defender; they were his sheep.
My encounters with Dale and Joe got me thinking more about conflict and what to do about it. I had learned as a child to avoid any kind of friction at all possible costs. Dad exploded one too many times, so I learned to hide. I tried everything I could to eliminate conflict in my life. But I soon found that this would not be possible if I hoped to have meaningful and lasting relationships, the kind I read about in the New Testament church.
If avoiding conflict was not the answer, and neither was a winner-take-all style of confrontation, then what was the answer? It gradually dawned on me that though conflict is inevitable, it isn’t irredeemable. Jesus not only came into a world ridden with conflict, but he also shows us how it can be overcome. Because of conflict we can know the blessedness of being peacemakers. Because we hurt each other we can practice Jesus’ command to forgive seventy times seven. Because of our differences we can come to know real unity. Christ shows us how instead of avoiding conflict, or escalating its damages, we can follow him through it.
In Our Journey Home, Jean Vanier writes, “Community life can become a real school for growth and love; it reveals differences – differences which irritate or are painful; it reveals the wounds and shadows inside us, the plank in our own eye, our capacity for judging and rejecting others, the difficulty we have in listening to and accepting others. These difficulties can lead people to run away from community . . . or lead them to work on themselves and understand and serve others and their needs better.”
Relationships by their very nature breed conflict. But in Christ, conflict is a school in which love can be tested and refined, where we learn to forgive and be forgiven, and where the illusions we have of ourselves can come into the light and be transformed.
Several years ago my wife and I were helping to oversee a fledgling community in Albany, New York. Living quarters were tight, the tasks endless, and the personalities of the twenty individuals differed widely. I kept butting heads with a fellow member, James, who was several years older than me. Our conflicts mostly revolved around practical matters. One day I blew up. James simply didn’t do what we had agreed on regarding the fencing project in our backyard. I had had enough.