The Problem is in Here

Posted: December 20, 2018 in Conflict Resolution

Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts (James 4:1-3).

“The problem in this conflict is you.”  At least that’s the way we often look at it.  The conflict is outside of me and if I could just correct you or that situation, then the conflict would disappear.  This is what people often seem to think when they divorce.  And several years into the next marriage they are having the same problems.

All our issues begin in the heart and then manifest themselves in some action.  Jesus said,

Out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander (Matt. 15:19).

Conflict often results because of a heart problem.  We want but don’t get what we want, so we become angry or agitated.

Of course, we think our wants are warranted or justified.  He wants to spend money on one thing, believing it to be best, and she wants to spend it on another, also believing it to be best.  Church conflicts often involve people who are reading the same Bible but seeing it differently.  But both think that they are seeing it right.

Many of our conflicts come down to simple pride.  I don’t want to admit that I’m wrong.  I don’t want your position to be right because I will have to make some changes that I don’t want to make.  I don’t want to consider another way of seeing the world because it will shake the foundations of the way I’ve been seeing it, and I would rather that that not take place.  So, we dig our heels in.  Some dig them deeper than others.

A group at University College London studied this phenomenon by asking people to look at two groups of dots and then determine which group had more dots.  Then they rated how confident they were in their choices.  Afterwards the researchers challenged the choices with some data that suggested that they might be wrong.  As a result, some people adjusted their opinion, but others did not.

The point of the study was to determine why some hold radical political views despite evidence that suggests that they are wrong.  The study seems to suggest what scripture stated long ago – pride.  “I have decided this is right and I cannot be wrong.”  This same pride causes personal, work, and church conflicts.

The cure for this malady is simple – humility.  “I could be wrong.”  But there are a lot of reasons I may not want to admit that I could be wrong.  I might look foolish.  People might use it against me in future disagreements.  It destroys a certain image of myself that I’ve created.

All of these are heart issues.  And if I want to deal with the conflicts in my life, I am going to have to deal with my own heart.  Why am I afraid of being wrong?  Why am I arguing this point so strongly when I know that the evidence supporting my position is not strong?  When we can begin answering these sorts of questions, we can begin dealing with some of the conflict in our lives.

Some, but not all.  Because I am in relationships with other people who are also dealing with the same heart issues as me.  But I can’t do much of anything about their heart.  It’s difficult enough to do anything about my own.

Paul’s admonition is appropriate here.

If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all (Rom. 12:18)

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In 1 Corinthians the apostle Paul tells us that love will never end (1 Cor. 13:8).  In the next life we will live in love with a God who is love (1 Jn. 4:7-8).  We will love God and love others, just as Jesus taught us (Matt. 22:34-40).

Love is a choice.  God loves us not because he must, but because he chooses to do so.  Jesus exemplified this love.  First, he loved God to the point of doing the will of the Father despite his struggles (Jn. 14:31; Lk. 22:42).  Since Jesus has been tempted like we are (Heb. 4:15), we must believe that Jesus could have chosen not to be obedient to the Father.  He could have chosen to not love God.

Second, Jesus exemplified love to those around him.  He loved those who loved him (Jn. 13:34) as well as those who did not (Rom. 5:6-8).  He loved those who loved their money more than God (Mk. 10:21).   He loved to such an extent that he emptied himself to become human (Php. 2:5-11).  In each case Jesus’s love was a choice.

Such love is held up as a model for us.  Paul spoke of Jesus emptying himself so that the Christians in Philippi would know how to interact with one another (Php. 2:1-4).  The apostle John encouraged Christians to love one another in the way that Christ has loved us by dying for us (1 Jn. 3:16).  But this love is also a choice.  If it was not, there would be no reason for John to encourage people to do it.

Does our ability to choose end when we pass into the next life?  If love never ends and love is a choice, it seems that the answer is “No.”  But this leads to another question; if we have free will in the next life, does this mean that we could sin in the next life?  Maybe.  But since scripture does not speak of this, it seems best not to speculate.

But if we have free will in the next life then it is also possible to have disagreements in the next life.  In fact, we should expect it.  Of course, someone will argue that this cannot be because there will not be sin in the next life.  But not all disagreements are sinful. Consider the most common disagreement between married couples after worship on Sunday morning: “Where do you want to eat?”  The disagreement is not about where but about who will decide.  “I decided last time,” says one.  “It’s your turn.”

My point here is just that people can have differences of opinion without those differences being sinful.  What will be sinful is how those differences are handled.  Which brings us back to that which never ends – love.

Could it be that we will have differences of opinion in the next life but because of love, which has been perfected in us, we have learned how to handle those differences without sinning?  If that is the case, then what we are experiencing in this life is a training ground, of sorts, for that life.  We are learning to love now as we will love then.   Or, to express it in terms that Jesus provided, we are learning to live “On earth as it is in heaven.”

The Value of Conflict

Posted: November 14, 2018 in Conflict Resolution

You’ve taken your car to a mechanic who is also a member of your congregation.  When the car is repaired you pick it up and pay the bill.  But after you leave you get to thinking about the charge.  It seemed a little high.  Should you go back and say something to him?  This seems a little confrontational, so you decide to let it slide but never use him for car repairs again

You have just followed one of the most common ways of dealing with conflicts – NOT dealing with them.  Fear of what might happen if we act assertively often leads us to avoidance.  If I talk to him about being charged too much, he is going to become defensive and angry and our relationship will be ruined.

So, we avoid.  This, of course, does not make the problem go away.  It just sweeps it under the rug.  And the concern about the relationship being ruined develops anyway because now we are avoiding him, and we have no relationship

Many of us have a great distaste for conflict and regularly practice avoidance.  But by avoiding conflict we may be missing out on opportunities.  In his book, The Peacemaker, Ken Sande provides several benefits that can come from conflict.  I offer a few of them here.

  1. Conflict provides an opportunity for you to carry your opponent’s burden (Gal. 6:2, 9-10). You may have had someone lash out at you, but they were really not upset with you.  Something else was bothering them and you became the target.  By engaging rather than avoiding you may be able to help this person deal with the problem.
  2. The Lord might use you to help the other person see where they need to make some changes. By avoiding the conflict, we might also be avoiding an opportunity to help the other person to grow.
  3. The Lord might use the other person to help expose some sin in your own life. One of the reasons we may wish to avoid conflict is that we don’t want to deal with that sin.  But avoiding it will not make it go away.  If we can overcome our pride we might find ourselves saying, “You’re right.  I’m sorry.”  What a growth moment that will be.
  4. Handling conflict in a godly manner provides a testimony about Christ and his kingdom. Whenever we do not behave as others typically do, it stands out.

Might there be conflicts that we should avoid?  Certainly.  Someone may be out of control and act violently.  It would be best not to fuel their fire.  And some issues are so minimal that there is no sense in engaging in conflict over them.

But some conflicts provide real opportunities for growth.  We avoid them because they make us uncomfortable, but, as Ken Sande put it, “God’s highest purpose for you is not to make you comfortable, wealthy, or happy….he plans to conform you to the likeness of his Son!”

Next time you face a situation of conflict and you feel the impulse to avoid, ask yourself what might be gained by engaging rather than avoiding.

About ten years ago I started noticing that I was having trouble reading my Bible in the mornings.  The poor light was not helping, but there was a larger problem; my sight was beginning to diminish.  So, I went to see the doctor who provided my first of many eye glass prescriptions.  Now I can only read my Bible through the lens of my glasses.

The truth is, everyone reads the Bible through a lens.  Some claim that “The Bible means what it says, and it says what it means.”  What they mean is that we should take the Bible at face value.  And yet, if you should listen to them long enough, you will find that they do not do this themselves.

As an example, I have heard some say that, despite the teaching and example of Jesus about washing feet, Christians are not required to do so because this came under the old covenant and Christians are no longer bound by that covenant.  This position is not the result of a clear reading of the Bible, but the result of reading the Bible through a particular lens.  If one accepts that lens, then the Bible easily “Means what it says and says what it means.”

But we don’t all agree on that lens, or many others.

Some read the Bible through a self-help lens.  They look for pithy statements that will help them in life.  Such folks love Jeremiah 29:11.

Others think of the Bible as a constitution for the church.  Since we tend to think of laws when we think of a constitution, the Bible becomes a rule book.  For instance, one might read through the New Testament and find all of the texts that speak of the worship of the church, collate them and develop a check list of what is expected in worship.

Others find that approach to be “Looking at the forest and missing the trees.”  Instead, they prefer to focus on the forest of scripture.  Some who have taken this approach like to give attention to social justice.  The Bible is then read through the social justice lens.

All of us in the western world, to one degree or another, read the Bible through the lens of science.  Things that the Bible plainly says we accept to be figures of speech (see Eccl. 1:5).  However, some go so far as to reject anything in the Bible that seems to contradict science.  In response to those folks, others work hard to make the Bible agree with scientific discoveries (are the days of creation literal twenty-four hour days?).

Early Christians often read the Bible through the lens of Greek philosophy.  Despite Tertullian’s claim that Athens has nothing to do with Jerusalem, many of those church leaders tried to make the Bible and Plato fit together.

I say all of this only to point out that God-loving, Christ-centered, Bible-believing people will often disagree with one another because they do not read the Bible with the same lens.  It may be that, through much discussion and study, one or the other will change their lens.  But it also may never happen.

So, what will Christians and churches do when they come to an impasse over something that impacts everyone in the congregation?  What should I do when my lens clashes with yours?

The answer to these questions is quite complex, but I think I can offer a good starting point.

What if we began by thinking the best of one another?  What if we began by giving each other the benefit of the doubt?  Instead of thinking “They’re just liberals” or “They’re just being pharisaical,” what if we thought, “I know that they disagree with me, but I also know that they love God, Christ, the Bible and the church?”  It may not fix our problems, but it might help us to come to the table to discuss them.

 

“The Bible is the word of God and I think we should just follow it!”

These words could be spoken by either side of a church split.

Within Churches of Christ we have seen splits over premillennialism, multiple cups in communion, Bible classes, located ministers, kitchens in the church building, supporting orphan homes out of the budget, instrumental music, worship teams, and the role of women in worship.  And each side in these splits believe that they are following the Bible.

This is odd for a people that started off wanting to unify Christians, don’t you think?

A common mantra for the founders of our movement was “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, love.”  This sounds good, doesn’t it?  The difficulty, of course, is that we have had a difficult time agreeing on what constitutes an “essential” and what constitutes an “opinion.”  And so we went our separate ways.

Is that it?  Are we destined to continue to splinter?

It may be that Christians will have to discontinue worshipping together because they cannot agree on something that at least one side considers an essential.  But I wonder if we have been too quick to break away.  And I also wonder how much personalities and pride play a bigger role in the splits than actual doctrinal matters.

It is good and right to want to be obedient to the Lord, but in our rush to be obedient to such an extent that the church splits, we then put ourselves into a position of disobedience.   Because the Lord does not want us to split!  Proverbs tell us that one of the things that the Lord hates is one who sows discord among brothers and sisters (Prov. 6:6-11).  And we know that the Lord prayed for his followers to be unified (Jn. 17:20-23).

How important is unity to the Lord?  Listen to Jesus.

Matthew 5:23-24  

“So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” (NRSV)

Your relationship with God is directly related to your brother and sister.  The apostle John tells us the same thing.

1 John 4:20

“Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.”

Some of us want to take a firm stand for truth.  That’s fine, but are you willing to take the same firm stand for the truth that God does not want us divided?

October 31st of this year marked the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg.  On that same date the Bishop of the Catholic Church in Tyler (Joseph E. Strickland) published a paid announcement in the Daily Sentinel (the Nacogdoches newspaper).  In that announcement the Bishop said “…rather than celebrate choices which lead to the fracturing of the body of Christ, I urge all Christians to seek deeper unity.”

In other words, he did not think that we should celebrate Martin Luther’s actions because those led to division within the body of Christ.  In response to Bishop Strickland’s suggestion, I wrote a letter to the editor.  For reasons of their own they chose not to publish it.  But I offer it here as an opportunity for dialogue regarding church unity.

Should we celebrate when someone has stood up to a bully and stopped the bullying?  What if that bully is an institution that promises a man safe passage to hear charges, but then reneges on the promise and burns him at the stake?  This is what happened to Jan Hus in 1415.  Although he was promised safe passage to answer charges at the Council of Konstanz, the clerics prevailed upon the Holy Roman Emperor to revoke the promise.

It was abuses such as this that led Martin Luther to nail his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517, an act considered to be the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.  On October 31 of this year, Bishop Joseph E. Strickland of Tyler encouraged us not to celebrate this because it has divided the church.  Although I understand his point, I disagree with the Bishop.

I do not celebrate it because of the division it brought.  I celebrate it because we cannot have unity without justice.  Martin Luther stood for justice against an institution that was not poised to reform itself.  Unity cannot come without justice.  Jesus would not have countenanced unity with the religious leaders of his day who stood against the Gospel and abused their own people.

I agree with the Bishop that the disunity that came about is not what Jesus would have wanted.  He is right; none of us were there, and we played no part in the division.  But we can play a role in unity.  This is why I am a member of the Ministerial Alliance in Nacogdoches along with a representative from Sacred Heart Catholic Church.  We must work together where we can, in the name of Jesus Christ.  And we can continue conversations about those things on which we might disagree.

But we cannot forget the past lest we repeat it.  This includes abuses committed by Protestant Christians.

What are your thoughts?

The Happiness of Salvation

Posted: March 23, 2017 in Happiness

“… Christian theology is skittish about temporal happiness, not because the tradition has not engaged the subject but because happiness has been primarily construed in terms of eschatology” (Ellen Charry, God and the Art of Happiness).

For a lot of Christians, salvation amounts to going to heaven when you die.  While most Christians don’t have a clear idea what heaven is actually like (given the sparse discussion in scripture), they are all certain that it is a place of bliss.  There are no tears in heaven.  Heaven is a place of happiness.  That is salvation.

This is what Charry is getting at in the quote above.  Happiness does come to the follower of Christ, but it is often pushed off to the “sweet by and by.”  You will suck it up and do the drudgery of following God now so you can have your mansion just over the hilltop later.

There is a story (possibly apocryphal) of biblical scholar and Anglican Bishop B. F. Westcott being stopped on the street and asked by a well-meaning evangelist if he was saved, to which the scholar responded, “Do you mean esothen (I was saved), sozomai (I am being saved), or sothesomai? (I shall be saved).”

The response was a challenge to a popular notion that salvation can be relegated to a point in time in which you got your ticket punched.  Instead scripture speaks of salvation in past (Eph. 2:5, 8), present (Acts 2:47; 1 Cor. 1:18) and future (Matt. 10:22; Acts 2:21) tenses.

Salvation is evidently more holistic than is often imagined.

When salvation is only about what happens in the next life, this life can be seen as a purgatory to be endured in the meantime.  That some seem to believe this is witnessed by their countenance during worship.  They would certainly rather be somewhere else, but they are present to sing songs and endure prayers and sermons so that they can make sure that their ticket stays punched.

While it is certainly true that our flourishing will find its full significance in the coming of the Lord and the new creation, must Christ followers be confined to drudgery until that time?  Can there be no happiness now?

Given the sickness, abuse and death in the world one might answer in the negative.  And yet those who have traveled on mission trips to third world countries have often found Christ followers in severe poverty who are filled with great joy.  How is that possible?  Maybe it is because they, like the apostle Paul, have learned the secret of being content in every situation (Php. 4:12).  Neither they nor the circumstances are what God intends, and yet they have the happiness of God all the same.

But we are obviously not there yet, so we grow up in our salvation (1 Pet. 2:2).  Charry writes, “Salvation is growing into the wisdom of divine love and enjoying oneself in the process.”   What we are enjoying are the firstfruit that God provides (Rom. 8:23), which brings about a certain amount of happiness. THAT is salvation!