Today’s sermon focuses on a strategy from Philippians 2:3-8 that demonstrates a kingdom way to engage with other people during conflict: remembering that our “map” (our brain’s interpretation of sensory input) is an incomplete representation of reality, and to step into and seek to understand the other person’s “map”.
We all know how maps work. They are a 2-dimensional, small-scale representation of terrain, roads, and rivers. But suppose you encountered an alien who has never seen a map before. He’d say what is that? You’d say it’s the Twin Cities. He’d say Hmm, I thought the Twin Cities would be bigger than 2′ x 3′, and it would have animals, people, bugs etc. So you would then explain to him what a map is. A map is not the territory. It’s not the real space, just a small representation of it, with an even smaller subset of information including only that which is relevant to transportation.
Your brain is also a map. At any moment you are not experiencing the *real* world, but rather what your brain assembles as a result of all of your neurons firing and creating sensations of light, sound, smell, etc. Your brain is creating an approximation of reality for you. Really, our whole relationship with the outside world is mediated by “maps.” Also like a map, our brains delete a lot of information that is not relevant. Our brain processes so much data, it only offers a small percentage of that information to your conscious mind, because we can only pay attention to a few things at a time.
While every printed map is the same, no human neuro-map is the same. We interpret things differently from one another, filter out different pieces from another. In fact neurological studies have recently shown that the brain activity of liberals is fundamentally different from that of conservatives. An area of the brain called the right amygdala tends to be more active in conservatives, and by contrast liberals have a more active interior circular gyrus. These brain areas determine how we take in new information. Liberals tend to be more open to new information and therefore tend to be more “adventurous” whereas conservatives tend to view change as potentially dangerous. The conservative brain values loyalty to tradition, and institutions, and views new things with caution, especially if it conflicts with tradition. Liberals are the opposite — they tend to be skeptical of tradition, more embracing of new information, even more if it *conflicts* with tradition.
These are two fundamentally different ways of processing information, and they form a spectrum. Most of us fall somewhere in the middle. Neither is better. Just different– and we need one another, because none of us has a complete picture of reality, but rather our own narrow interpretation of it. Our past experiences help to shape our brain. Our brains can and do change due to education, beliefs, choices, and positive and negative experiences. Your brain– your map– is one of a kind. But like all maps, it is a narrow subset of what is real.
The problem is that people identify with their brain maps. We get feelings of security and significance from believing we are right, we believe that we have full and complete information and have drawn all the correct conclusions. Well, doing this assumes that our map IS the territory. So it creates anxiety and frustration when encountering someone with a different map, because we assume they are simply wrong, misinformed, or negligent. All conflicts are on some level a result of this common mistake: thinking your map is the territory. Civility hangs on our ability to interact with people who are fundamentally different from ourselves. And in our modern world, this is becoming more and more difficult. Reason number one: Cable news (and social media) is a driver of division. Because it allows people to only surround themselves with their own view. People are increasingly living in little echo chambers. This creates a rigid, inflexible brain, and a more and more convicted belief in the rightness of our map. We become less able to understand other views, and are less willing to run into others that disagree.
For example, Greg tries to switch between different cable news stations, because he wants to stay flexible, and not get sucked into an echo chamber. So the other day, first he turned on MSNBC, and they were talking about the Harry Weinstein story. And in no time it turned into discussion of Trump and his own history, at which point a commentator confidently declared that “every vote for Trump is a vote for sexual assault.” This is a classic rigid-map view, it does not take into account any other possible viewpoint or motivation. She couldn’t even fathom that there could be other legitimate reasons for voting for him. She is assuming her map is the territory.
Then he turned on Fox News. They were talking about the NFL players, saying they were dishonoring flag and country by kneeling during the anthem. This too is an incomplete map of the territory. If you interview the players they would say it has nothing to do with being patriotism or troops or the flag at all– in fact for them it *is* patriotic because they want the country to be better. But the conservative commentators could not fathom anything that might be a legitimate viewpoint. They could only understand what they would be feeling if they had kneeled, and so they project that motivation onto others. And when it comes to deeply held beliefs, this conflict with other viewpoints causes anxiety and fight/flight reactions which only enhance the divide because it reduces our motivation to understand the other.
The result of all of this is that we are losing our ability to empathize with other perspectives. Studies also show that this essential part of people’s brains is becoming less active — it’s atrophying. This is a grave problem. Humans are social animals and we are losing an essential skill to living in a group! History teaches us that the greatest threat to a country’s stability is this growing divide; the fall starts when empires erode from within. But the problem is more pervasive than politics; it shows up in our marriages, friendships, and in the workplace.
So, what is the solution? Unfortunately, Greg doesn’t have a solution for the world. Thankfully fixing the world is not his job! He is called to be faithful. But there IS a solution for kingdom people, found in the person of Jesus Christ. Today we look to Philippians 2:3-8 for this answer. First, Paul says do not do things with selfish ambition or conceit, rather, in humility regard others as better than yourself. Going into a conflict with the assumption that you have the correct map, instead of adopting a posture that is humble and willing to learn from the other, IS a kind of selfish ambition and conceit. Because you are assuming your brain map is somehow more accurate than someone else’s, you implicitly assume that their map is somehow flawed. Place the interest of the other above your own. Suspend your own purposes and your attachment to your brain map to enter into mindset of the other. Ask what drives your coworker or husband or child or sister.
We are to take the same mindset that Christ took, when he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave. He humbled himself and became obedient to point of death on cross. Jesus was willing to set aside his own take on reality (and his divinity), and enter into our reality and our sin. This is what love does. Remember that your map is not the territory. Have humility when you engage in conflicts. Greg offers three tips to accomplish this:
1. You’ve probably heard this many times at this church but you can’t hear it too much — get your life from Jesus. And by “life” we mean love, worth, significance and security. Don’t try to get your life from being right or righteous or any other external measure. You must be willing to set your perspective aside to hear and understand that of another, but you can only do this if your source of life is God. Only then you will not be threatened by someone’s competing view of reality. Greg sometimes finds it helpful to repeat to himself during a conflict “Life is Christ and nothing else matters.” Make sure you are being fueled only by the love of Christ and his love for you and the other person. Remind yourself of this — keep repeating it if necessary.
Also, it helps to make a habit of spending time with Jesus and let him pour his life into you. Engage your imagination and see him, hear him saying to you all the things that the Bible says are true. You can only be compelled by the love of Christ if you feel it.
2. Speak calmly (detached from your emotions) and remain humble. You will be empowered to do this when you get your life from Christ. Humility means that when you state your viewpoint, always qualify that this is what *you* think. Do not assume you have all the facts or information because no matter how well read you think you are, you don’t! Only God has the complete map of reality. So always present your views just as your own perspective. Use “I” statements. Also, don’t assume you know the motives of another. The cable news examples above are great examples of what NOT to do — don’t accuse people of being in favor of sexual assault, or unpatriotic, etc. Don’t assume any motivations at all. To place the interest of others above yourself, it is infinitely more useful to ASK them why they do / believe the things they do.
3. Which brings us to the third tip: Be willing to suspend your map entirely and just focus on entering into the map of another. This is what Jesus did; God entered so completely into our reality that he became one of us. So this is what we should be doing. Do not try to get people to agree with your map. Our role should be to “incarnate” ourselves into the other person’s perspective. One trick is to pretend you are the other person when in a conflict, opposing yourself. What does that feel like? This technique helps to get inside their head.
As mentioned above, never assume a motivation or accuse people of believing things. Instead, (assuming you get your security from Christ) try to ASK people for their viewpoint and motivation — then stop talking and listen to their answer. Once you have their answer, you must then honor this answer (and stop insisting they have some other motivation). Most of all, honor the fact that you just learned something new about the heart of this other person– be grateful to them for sharing it with you.
This is a fundamentally different way — a kingdom way — of engaging in conflict. Rather than trying to win, let’s abandon the worldly concepts of winning and losing entirely, release our urge to judge, and instead seek ONLY to understand and honor. This is how the kingdom does conflict!
Hide Extended Summary