Conflict. If you’ve been in church work for long, you know what it’s like. People abound, and conflict happens. Then there’s the big blow up or the cold exit or, even scarier, the explosive exit. I’ve been in church work for a decade and a half now, and big blowups and bad exits seem to be the default setting for church conflict. I don’t like this kind of conflict. I run away from it – and from the scary people who cause it.
Kay Bruner likes to say that there are difficult people on the field. I say yes. Yes, there are difficult people on the field, and sometimes, they are ME. Sometimes I’m difficult, and sometimes conflict comes because I am difficult. Not because I mean to be, of course – but my good intentions don’t remove my propensity to offend.
I have a hard time fessing up when I offend, and my reason for this is two-fold. First, I don’t really like the fact that I’m still not perfect and that I still sin against others. The acknowledgement is still so cumbersome to me. But secondly (and perhaps more importantly), I fear I won’t be forgiven. Oh, I know God forgives me; I have full assurance of that. But I still don’t trust God’s people to forgive me. I’ve been in too many relationships where people said they would forgive, but they never really did.
Lately, however, I’ve had ample opportunity to seek forgiveness, and God’s people are proving me wrong. They are forgiving me and showing me the love of Christ in tangible ways. Receiving their forgiveness and their assurance of committed love is an almost sacramental experience. It’s a direct connection with my Savior: someone is sticking with me. Someone is forgiving me, giving me a second chance. That is Jesus in bodily form.
Receiving compassion for our dustlikeness helps us to be more compassionate towards ourselves – and towards others. It helps us to forgive ourselves, and in turn, to forgive others. Unmerited forgiveness is a gift we believers give each other. It points other people to Jesus and is because of Jesus. And while the usual take on conflict and reconciliation is usually “humility,” I think if we focus on that, we are missing the point. The point is, God can forgive, and God’s people can forgive, and wherever you find restoration and reconciliation happening, the Spirit of God is moving among His people.
In this way, conflict can be a conduit for grace. The only catch (yes there is a catch) is that the forgiveness, reconciliation, and move of God that I’m talking about only happen in community. And I’m convinced that one of the bravest things we can do is to stay in that community. When it gets hard, when it gets uncomfortable, when conflict starts to escalate, can we stay in relationship with others? Not in pathological or dangerous relationships, but in regular, everyday fallen relationships?
All of our relationships will have a degree of unhealth, because all of our relationships have people. Our relationships are not going to be perfect, and our community will disappoint us. And sometimes our community will be unhealthy because WE are unhealthy. Other times we will make allowances for other people’s issues, because they – and God – make allowances for ours. Let’s not make a cold or explosive exit too soon, for unconditional love is only proved unconditional when we stay.
So the next time you’re in conflict with someone on the field, think of me, the difficult one, and be kind. Be kind to your difficult person. Show them Christ’s love, and give them another chance. Or a second or a third or a seventy-seventh. If they prove to you that they intend to be difficult or abusive, then by all means draw some boundaries and don’t give them limitless chances to harm you. But maybe by giving them a second chance, you’ll prove to them what God’s love looks like, and they, like me, will recognize grace and be grateful — and you will have won a brother or a sister over.
Have you ever experienced God’s love in the midst of conflict?