I am mechanically dysfunctional—especially when it comes to cars. My theory is that all car engines are hypochondriacal. If you don’t baby them every time they make a strange noise, they’ll quit whining and get back to work.
Of all the teachings Jesus ever gave us, this may be the one that we most often violate. Because at every point in this teaching we are faced with a decision.
Because I approach the life of my car this way, sometimes there is a complete breakdown. When that happens, I do what all men do. I get out of the car, raise the hood, and look inside. I have no idea why I do this. It’s not as if there is just a big on-off switch under the hood, which I might be able to handle. I guess it makes me feel a bit better while waiting for the AAA guy. Invariably, he will end our time together with his encouraging words, “You know, this could have been prevented. Didn’t you read your owner’s manual?”
A lot of people approach a far more serious kind of breakdown—a relational breakdown—with not much more thoughtfulness than I tend to give to automotive breakdowns. So what do you do when you get stuck relationally? Jesus has given a set of instructions. It’s in the “manual,” recorded in Matthew 18:15. It can be summarized this way: If another person wrongs you—when there is conflict—you go to the other person in private and discuss the problem for the purpose of reconciliation.
Of all the teachings Jesus ever gave us, this may be the one that we most often violate. Because at every point in this teaching we are faced with a decision. And we have powerful reasons to ignore his instructions. Let’s walk through Jesus’ words so that we have absolute clarity as to what we are to do.
Acknowledge the Conflict
The first step is something you do in your mind—acknowledge the conflict. People fight. Sometimes constructively, sometimes destructively. Sometimes fights end in hugs and kisses, sometimes they end in coldness and withdrawal.
But entering into life in community will require a tenacious inner commitment that you will not live with unaddressed conflict.
To be alive means to be in conflict. For lots of reasons, it is easier to pretend that conflict does not exist. But entering into life in community will require a tenacious inner commitment that you will not live with unaddressed conflict. Let’s start with a deep commitment to face relational breakdowns squarely in the eye.
Jesus is clear about the next step. If there is conflict, you go. You are to take initiative. But, chances are, you don’t want to! “Let the other person come to me. Why do I always have to take the first step? Why can’t she take the first step? Why does he always have to be so stubborn and mule-headed?”
Have you ever had those thoughts? Well, Jesus puts the burden on you—and he does it whether you are the one hurt or the one who did the hurting (Matt. 5:23–24). He says that you are to take action. Don’t wait for the other person to step up to fix the problem.
You are to go. Once again, this is not something I want to do. I want to stay and stew. I’d rather just be mad. It’s more fun to pout about conflict and rehearse the ways in which the other person unfairly hurt me. Besides, if I go, it may get ugly. If I go, it may be scary. Most of us fear confrontation.
The go step is a huge one. It’s important to understand that you may not even do it terribly well. You may stumble all over your words. It doesn’t matter. Of course, it’s important that you use as much skill and wisdom as you can, and it can be very helpful to plan ahead what you’re going to say, but the main thing is not that you do it flawlessly. The main thing is that you go, because avoiding conflict kills community. Resentment builds up inside you like buried toxic waste. And sooner or later it will leak. Jesus says you must approach, not avoid.
No Third Parties
So who do you go to? Jesus is clear. You go to the person with whom you have the conflict. This seems obvious. But usually this is the last person I want to go to. I want to go to somebody else—to a person who is not involved and say, “Don’t you share my concerns about my brother in Christ who is obviously a deeply disturbed psychopath?” It’s more fun to go to somebody else, because I can commiserate with them and get reinforcement for my anger. But the Bible says that is not the way to go.
So who do you go to? Jesus is clear. You go to the person with whom you have the conflict.
In community, we all must be prepared in this regard. Sooner or later someone will come to you to complain about another person. It is often fun to hear their complaints. In a way, it can bond the two of you. But it’s not helping the situation. So you need to think in advance of a gracious, tactful way of encouraging the person not to ventilate to you but to go to the one involved.
If you have thoughtfully and carefully confronted without good resolve, then and only then Jesus says to involve a few other mature believers in the process (Matt. 18:16).
Jesus says to go when the two of you are alone. This means you will have to avoid the temptation to embarrass the person in front of friends. Have you ever done that? Have you ever served up a well-placed jab in front of friends? Maybe it was done with humor, but it was still a jab. And it was in front of people. Jesus said to put aside any desire to embarrass the person. Go in private.
Then Jesus says you are to discuss the problem. Talk about it. Engage in direct communication. Sometimes, in an effort to soften the blow, we end up addressing the problem indirectly. We talk around it. We avoid naming it. Sometimes we get manipulative and put it in the form of a question instead of a direct statement.
For instance, a wife says to her husband, “Wouldn’t you like to get the garage cleaned up today?” He reflects on the state of his heart and discovers that, at the intimate core of who he is, he really would not like to get the garage cleaned up. He tells her this, proud of his self-awareness and honesty. She’s now twice as mad. She didn’t mean it to be a question!
A verbally disciplined person is able to say clearly what it was that hurt them and why.
You will need to work hard to find constructive ways to talk directly about the conflict. This will require verbal discipline. A verbally disciplined person is able to say clearly what it was that hurt them and why—but without the sarcasm, sweeping statements, exaggerations, and emotionally charged word choices that pour gasoline on the fire. Verbally disciplined people are mindful of their own relational shortcomings. And so when they speak truth, it is with grace.
John Ortberg, Laurie Pederson, and Judson Poling, Groups: The Life-Giving Power of Community (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009).
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