During this final sermon in our Next Level Relationships series, Greg and Kevin have a conversation where we learn about the cycle of conflict. They discuss why we find it so easy to get pulled in, and more importantly, some tools from Jesus that we can use to short-circuit the cycle.
Why do we get caught up in conflict?
When a conflict occurs, it’s hard not to get sucked into it. Starting from when we are children, this experience is universal. And we continue to build on those experiences so that by the time we are adults, we come into every situations with a lifetime of past experiences — some good and some bad. Those experiences color our interpretation of events. The bad experiences leave us with what Kevin calls “wound-based filters” — these are patterns that we repeat (or see repeating, even if they aren’t actually) with the expectation of a hurtful past event to occur again. For example if you go to adopt a dog from a shelter, when you first try to pet it, it might wag, or it may snarl, depending on what kind of past experiences that dog has had. When he snarls, you know this dog has been hurt in the past. He interprets a human hand reaching out for him as a threat. In this example, that dog is reacting out of a wound-based filter.
Our wound-based filters basically mean that we all have buttons just waiting to be pushed, so we come into every situation in an “irritate-able” or “offend-able” state. Our pump is primed for conflict.
The Conflict Cycle:
There are 5 basic elements to the conflict cycle. This cycle is what keeps us striking at each other over and over.
We are fortunate to live in a society where we all have rights and we are made aware of them. But in a conflict situation, our concern over our own personal rights cause us to become self-centered, our rights become like entitlements. A conflict begins when we feel that someone has stepped on our rights in some way. When we view our rights as inalienable, they can feel almost sacred, so we go to great lengths to defend them. Our rights (and our belief in our entitlement them) become a form of power over the other person.
When we sense our rights are being violated, (our wound-based filters have detected something that feels like a familiar threat that must be fought against) our amygdala becomes activated and we will react. We experience an inner reaction of negative feelings, thoughts and impulses. And our past wounds may amplify these feelings. Imagine carrying a glass filled very full with wine and being bumped into. Our past wounds tend to be the wine. Author and theologian NT Wright said it this way: “‘When you’re jolted, what spills out is whatever is filling you.’ When you’re suddenly put to the test and don’t have time to think about how you’re coming across, your real nature will come out. That’s why character needs to go all the way through: whatever fills you will spill out.” (From After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters)
Revenge is the desire to get back at the person and make them pay. Our fallen understanding of the idea of Justice mistakenly thinks justice means making somebody pay for wrongdoing. (That is not justice; it’s retribution, thinking the other person needs to feel as bad as I do.) And since we feel that they have stepped on our rights, we think we now have “the right” to make them feel equally bad or worse. This can look like fighting, or it can look like a passive punishment like a cold shoulder. Both are ways of making the person pay. Brain science actually proves that revenge activates our brain’s pleasure centers. It does make us feel better. But of course it only makes the conflict worse.
God’s justice is achieved through reconciliation and healing. Jesus was never vindictive. He explicitly repudiates the eye for an eye mentality.
4) Rumors (gossip)
Rumors are in a sense, another form of revenge, but they are also their own phase of the conflict cycle. If you are assertive and confident you can go to talk directly to the person who wronged you. But often we will be conflict-avoidant, so we talk to others instead of the primary person. We tell our side of the story, wanting the jury of public opinion to convict the other person and acquit me. It’s an example of our desire to be right. But this “rightness” is an illusion, since don’t forget that the person you had the conflict with is most likely doing the very same thing, about you! In either case, all gossip does is fuel resentments. When you gossip about your conflict with someone else it actually makes you relive the experience and feel all those negative emotions even more strongly. So, far from healing a conflict, gossip actually exacerbates it. We can engage in gossip as a listener, too. When someone gossips TO us, we need to not engage with that.
The Bible condemns gossip repeatedly. It’s one of the most-mentioned sins. But somehow, Christians tend to dismiss it. And yet James says the tongue can be a small spark that sets an entire forest on fire.
We CAN however talk about a situation with another person if we are actually seeking wise counsel. So if you need to discuss your conflict with another person, invite your confidant to challenge your point of view, or suggest things you can change in yourself to heal the rift. Sometimes the distinction can be subtle, but in general, when you are focusing on the other person’s flaws or wrongdoing, you’re gossiping. But when you are focusing on your own flaws or wrongdoings with the goal of finding peace and resolution, that’s is seeking counsel and is helpful.
These are what’s leftover after the previous four phases of conflict. It’s a cesspool of negativity, grudges and unforgiveness. Kevin heard unforgiveness described as “drinking poison and hoping the other person dies.” This then, causes our next interaction to go badly, and just adds to our mound of wound-based filters, priming us for the next conflict.
Every cycle needs an energy source. The resentments we carry are the fuel that keeps this whole conflict cycle going. This is why in Ephesians 4:26 Paul tells us to not let the sun go down on your anger — he’s referring to this insidious submerged anger and bitterness. When you stuff it down, it festers and you give the devil a foothold. The prince of darkness lives in this cesspool of negativity and bitterness. You need to drain that nasty wound!
The 5 elements of conflict all reinforce each other. But Jesus addresses every one of the stages of this cycle with a kingdom-based cycle-breaking principle.
Jesus’ five conflict-breaking principles:
Jesus teaches to deny yourself and take up your cross, laying down your life for your enemy. To be sure this also means letting go of our rights. When your rights are violated, self denial says “let it go.” It’s almost the exact opposite of what the world teaches us (which is self-fulfillment and defending our rights). Instead, Jesus instructs us to lay down our rights and our life, considering others to be as just as important as yourself.
Note that turning the other cheek is not the same as being a doormat. A doormat does so out of fear. But self-denial is done out of love.
Something to remember is that rights do not equal worth. So you don’t need to cling to your rights. Sacrifice them! You’ll find it is incredibly freeing to opt out of the whole who-wronged-whom game and just die to all of that. Freedom comes from unplugging from the world of people/status as our source of life, and instead plugging into God as our only and undying source of life.
Another note on this: the principle of people having inalienable rights is not actually biblical. In our country we hear that people have certain inalienable rights, but biblically speaking, rights are not inalienable — only our VALUE is. What the bible talks about more is not rights but righteousness. In the Bible, righteousness means “right doing.” It’s not about “getting” but doing. So instead of “asserting our rights” we should be expressing worth and value (of both people in a conflict).
2) Security in Christ
This is the product of plugging into God as our one and only lifeline. If you get all of your security in Jesus, you will not need to defend your status of being “right” — you will have the courage to potentially look weak or flawed or wrong which is the very thing that can help us to let it go when someone violates our rights, thus short circuiting this phase of the conflict cycle. Remind yourself of the mantra Greg talked about last week: “Life is Christ, nothing else matters.” Jesus gives us an example of this the night before he was crucified. In John 13:3, he knew who he was and where he was going — his identity in God was solid. Because of that he was able to kneel down and wash the feet of his disciples, (even though Peter thought this should have been beneath him).
3) Sacrificial Suffering
This is the primary tenet that Jesus calls us to in our life: be willing to endure suffering for sake of others. A willingness to suffer allows us to enter into relationships in brand new way. When I am willing to accept pain from you, I am not going to jump up to protect myself. God accepts pain from us every day. Love bears all things/endures all things.
But, again this is not the same as letting yourself get beaten up over and over again, since that is not best for the other person. Love sometimes lets go as a loving response. Notice that in this case it’s a response as opposed to a reaction. (Reactions are in-the-moment, intended usually to hurt the other person, whereas responses are carefully considered outside of the heat of the moment, with the well-being of both people in mind).
Non-resistance is another example of sacrificial suffering, like we saw Martin Luther King Jr advocate for. This willingness to suffer deflates a conflict.
4) Seeking Reconciliation
In Matthew 5:24 Jesus tells us not to go to the altar if you are fighting with your brother, first go and be reconciled. The anti-conflict opposite of gossip is going to the other person directly and talking about your conflict, with the purpose of finding resolution. No matter who caused the breach, it’s up to you to take the initiative to resolve it.
Sometimes the other person that you are in conflict with is not able to work with you to find resolution, so whether you can get there or not, that is why in all situations we have Jesus’ rule #5:
5) 70 x 7 Forgiveness
In the Bible the number 7 represents completion, fullness. So when Jesus in Matthew 18:22 tells his disciples to forgive 7 x 70 times, he is saying to make forgiveness infinite and never-ending. EVERY time you are wronged, let it go and forgive. Forgiveness does not need to be earned, the other person does not need to repent. After all, God unilaterally forgives us, he does not wait for us to repent first. Not only does forgiving follow God’s model but it also is for our own good. Releasing that heavy debt of “you owe me” frees us from carrying around resentment, thus depriving the cycle of its fuel.
With God as our sole source of life, and these tools that Jesus gives us, we can step back and view conflict as an opportunity to sow peace and reconciliation wherever there is conflict.
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