Sermon series: Following Jesus
In a "Peanuts" cartoon, Lucy says to Snoopy: "There are times when you really bug me, but I must admit there are also times when I feel like giving you a big hug."
Snoopy replies: "That's the way I am . . . huggable and buggable."
And so it is with us and our relationships. We need each other, yet we annoy each other.
We are like the two porcupines that were huddled close together on a cold, cold night in northern Canada. The closer they came into contact with each other in order to stay warm, the more their quills pricked each other, making it virtually impossible for them to remain side by side. Silently, they scooted apart. Before long, they were shivering in the wintry gale, so they came back together. Soon both were poking and jabbing each other, so they separated again. Same story, same result.
They needed each other, but they needled each other.
Often we play this disruptive dance of disharmony. The people to whom we are the closest are those with whom we experience the most conflict. In friendships, we are off again and on again. Before marriage opposites attract, but after marriage opposites attack. In church, as the old saying goes: "We long to live in heaven, together in God's glory. To live together down on earth, well, that's another story."
Peter instructed, "All of you should be like-minded and sympathetic, should love believers, and be compassionate and humble" (1 Peter 3:8) or as the NIV translates it "All of you, live in harmony with one another." "All of you" pretty much covers everyone, doesn't it? No one can say "I'm exempt," or "it doesn't apply to me."
"Live in harmony" doesn't imply uniformity, nor does it imply unanimity, nor does it imply, union, where everyone is affiliated with each other, but there is no common bond. Harmony is to have a oneness of heart, a similarity of purpose. "With one another" is the relational rub. What are we to do?
Conflict is inevitable. When more than two people come together the potential for disagreement increases. Any moving machine will experience friction. The only way to eliminate is to stop the machine. Likewise, any living relationship will experience some degree of conflict. The only way to stop conflict is to kill the relationship. The goal in operating a machine is to reduce the friction as much as possible. This improves efficiency and prolongs life. The goal of any relationship is the same.
The following principles will help defuse conflict in relationships.
I. Walk in another's shoes (v. 8a)
To be sympathetic means to understand and validate someone's feelings. It does not that we validate their ideas. Sympathy meets two basic needs in our lives: the need to be understood and the need to feel affirmed.
When we are sympathetic we seek to understand where people are coming from - their background and temperament, the circumstances that have shaped them, their attitudes toward issues.
A wise Indian once said, "I will not criticize my brother until I have walked a mile in his moccasins." Habit 5 in Steven Covey's book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, is the Indian saying in our language today, "Seek first to understand, then to be understood."
St. Francis of Assisi prayed, "Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace. . . . O Divine Master, grant that I may . . . not so much seek to be understood as to understand." We may not know all the reasons why conflict has arisen, but trying to understand its roots is the first step in defusing it.
II. Remember you are on the same team (v. 8b).
Peter is saying that we are on the same team, we are in same marriage, we are in the same family. We are brothers and sisters. We don't compete with each other. We compliment each other. We minimize conflict by maximizing cooperation.
Teammates display three important actions that defuse conflict. Notice the three key words here: Love, compassion, and humility.
Love says I will look out for the other's best interests. It says let's stop attacking each other and let's attack the problem.
Compassion says let's not just talk about loving each other. Let's demonstrate that love by what we say and how we act toward each other.
Humility says that love is not proud. It admits fault. It is honest about our weaknesses, our needs, and our failures. It uses these phrases often: I need your help, I was wrong, forgive me.
Harry Emerson Fosdick, speaking of major conflicts he experienced in his ministry, said, "There are many opinions . . . I am not (always) sure whether they are right or wrong, but there is one thing I am sure of: courtesy and kindness and tolerance and humility and fairness are right. Opinions may be mistaken. Love never is."
III. Give a blessing (v. 9)
In any relationship there will be times of disagreement and conflict. At those times we face a choice: reciprocate with retaliation and revenge, or respond with a blessing. Conflict is like there a small fire, next to which each person stands holding two buckets. One bucket is filled with gasoline, the other with water. Which bucket do we throw on the fire? In real life our buckets are filled with words - words of hostility, anger, and abuse, or words of acceptance, value, and kindness.
The world says, "Get even. Throw the bucket of gasoline on the fire and watch it spread." The Bible says, "Give a blessing. Throw the bucket of water on the fire and put it out."
To give a blessing is to give the other person some slack, to overlook some minor faults, to understand that everyone has a bad day, to give more kindness than justice demands, to strive for reconciliation of the relationship rather than resolution of the issue, to forgive.
IV. Control your tongue (v. 10)
The signs of aging are not the same as the signs of maturing. Some people never grow up as they grow older. How do we know if we are mature? The mark of spiritual and emotional maturity is the ability to master our mouth, to watch our words, to tame our tongue. Peter is saying that the way to defuse conflict is to to control our verbal reactions.
In failing to control our tongue, we not only fail to give a blessing, but we cause a bleeding that ruptures relationships. Words can wound. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin of the Synagogue of the Performing Arts in Los Angeles and author of Words That Hurt, Words That Heal: How to Choose Words Wisely and Well, has lectured throughout this country on the powerful, and often negative, impact of words. He has asked audiences if they can go twenty-four hours without saying any unkind words about, or to, anybody. Invariably, a minority of listeners raise their hands signifying "yes," some laugh, and quite a large number call out, "no!"
He responds, "Those who can't answer 'yes' must recognize that you have a serious problem. If you cannot go for twenty-four hours without drinking liquor, you are addicted to alcohol. If you cannot go twenty-four hours without smoking, you are addicted to nicotine. Similarly, if you cannot go for twenty-four hours without saying unkind words about others, then you have lost control over your tongue."
Is your tongue under control? Do you say things about people that you can't or wouldn't say to them? Do you pour the bucket of gossip, rumor, and innuendo onto every conversation you engage in? Do you revel in a juicy bit of news? Can you not keep a secret? Do you burn up the phone lines about someone rather than speak to that person directly? Do you make a mountain out of a molehill by adding some dirt?
Remember, as Isaiah prophesied, when they led Jesus to be crucified He did not open His mouth. He went silently, like a lamb led to be slaughtered. He, who above all people had the right to retaliate with words, chose to demonstrate perfect self-control in order to accomplish His redemptive work.
V. Pursue peace (v. 11)
The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported that firefighters in Genoa, Texas, were accused of deliberately setting more than 40 destructive fires. When caught, they stated, "We had nothing to do. We just wanted to get the red lights flashing and the bells clanging." The job of firefighters is to put out fires, not start them. The job of peacemakers is to resolve and defuse conflict, not start fights.
To do that, we must pursue peace with a passion in our relationships. Peacemakers don't wring their hands when conflict arises and say, "I don't care." That is apathy. Peacemakers don't stick their heads in the sand. That is avoidance. Peacemakers don't let people have their own way while avoiding confrontation. That is appeasement. Peacemakers intentionally seek reconciliation. They agree to disagree agreeably.
In the end, why should we defuse conflict? It shows that we belong to God. Did not God choose to walk in our shoes by coming to this earth? Did not God demonstrate his love for us by going to a cross to die for us? Did not God give us a blessing by granting us abundant and eternal life? Did not God take the initiative to bring lost sinners to the Father, reconciling them, as a peacemaker?