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Constructive Conflict...

Richard Pfeil
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Making Conflict Constructive

Text: James 4:1-10

Richard Pfeil

Feedback is vital in the church. You need to tell people, your leadership and your pastors what you are thinking. It is healthy and can be very constructive when done properly. However, human beings have the habit of telling everyone else about an offense except the person by whom we were offended, and it creates a huge firestorm. Feelings are hurt, the person is barraged out of the blue, and they don't really know how to handle what is happening.

There is a more constructive way of handling disagreements or offenses. I would like to mention three good examples of this. Proctor and Gamble had a huge problem with rumors concerning their symbols. They lost millions of dollars and many people lost their jobs as a result of the lies that were told.

Many family conflicts have been caused by people who thought they heard something from a family member, told all the siblings, and then all the siblings got angry about the statement. All of a sudden, the person is called by their brother or their sister saying, "I heard that you said this about me," and that's not really what was said at all. Yet the whole family is on fire over statements that were misunderstood.

In my home church where I was converted which was also my wife's home church, they always had a strong pastoral team. At one point they hired a very talented associate pastor. The senior pastor had been there a long time and had gotten a little stale. People liked the new associate pastor so much, that there was talk that went something like this: "Pastor (X) is so much better than Pastor (Y)." This talk got around and the pastor's feelings got hurt (pastors have pride, too). After awhile the rumors started churning that Pastor X was shoving Pastor Y out and was secretly trying to get his job. This was absolutely false, but it spread throughout the church. Secret meetings were held and the church became split in two.

Finally the Senior pastor gave the church an ultimatum: You pay me this much money, or I'm gone. It was a ridiculous amount of money. This was a mistake that the senior pastor made, all because of pride. This strong, vibrant growing church was brought to a complete halt, and 32 families left that church in one week. It has taken the church four years to recover numerically and eleven years to recover financially. It has yet to regain its original momentum. All of this was so unnecessary because all they had to do was follow the instructions of Jesus in Matthew 18: 15-17.

This brings us to James 4 where it talks about how to deal with conflict. Conflict is like the tongue-it can be a tool for tremendous good or tremendous destruction. Some people find conflict in the church very unsettling. They believe it shouldn't happen, and partly I agree with that. I think we have an expectation that conflict in the church should not happen, and that's partly right. We do hold ourselves to a higher standard. Yet, the reality is that we are all sinners saved by grace. So, why are we so surprised when we begin to act like sinners at times?

The church is not a community of saints. We are called saints and we are on the way to becoming saints, but it really is like a hospital-We are all in recovery and we all have relapses. We need to be gentle with each other.

All of us have dealt with conflict in an unhealthy way. It is our part to be gracious with each other. Conflict is part of life. You get two people whose opinions differ, and you always have some form of conflict. It does not have to be destructive, though. It can be very constructive, and James gives us instructions on how to do that. I like the Contemporary English Version better. Please follow along:


I think James would have us know that conflict does not have to be destructive. In fact, it can be quite constructive. If you read the gospels, you will find that Jesus was constantly in conflict with the religious leaders. They were constantly trying to debate him. However, you will also notice that Jesus handled this very well. He never got into an argument where tempers were lost. He was even verbally attacked, being accused that he did things through the power of Satan and was of the devil. That's a horrible attack, and yet Jesus did not respond in kind.

In Acts 15, the early church had a huge conflict over how to let Gentiles into the church. The debate is listed in Acts 15, people had their say, a decision was made, and there were winners and losers in that debate. Yet, you will discover that it was done very reasonably, very cooly, feelings weren't hurt, and it was done very redemptively.


In Galatians 2, Paul says, "I oppose Peter to his face." This was over a moral principle concerning the hypocrisy Peter was displaying towards the Gentiles. He was simply wrong, and Paul stool up to Peter himself, and Peter was corrected.

In all these cases, there was a positive result. In Jesus' case, the word was taught. In Acts 15 the mission of the church was furthered. In Galatians 2, an injustice was corrected.

In Acts 6, you will read that there was a conflict with the Greeks in the Jerusalem church over the widows. They said that their widows were not being taken care of, and the church responded by acknowledging their error and creating a board of Deacons. The bureaucracy grew in order to meet a need. Had they never expressed the need, the apostles would never have known so it was a very positive thing.

At the same time, there was not a contentious spirit that you find James referring to. He uses two words: "fighting" and "quarreling." The actual text indicates it was much more fiery than that. The terms used for both of those words is actually the term we use for physical fighting. I'm sure they weren't duking it out in church, but it is a metaphorical way of saying that they were taking verbal jabs at each other and tempers were flaring. Motives were questioned and feelings were hurt, and the issue was not resolved.

As you are sitting there listening, I know that you have no idea what I'm talking about, right? I know we have all experienced this. I can remember to this day my first fight with my wife, and it was over a stupid matter. It went from a discussion to an argument. Tempers flared, statements were made, and it got ugly. I was so hopping mad, I decided to sleep on the couch because I knew that it would irritate her even more. When we got married, we made a pledge to each other that we would never sleep apart. Then she got spiritual on me and reminded me that scripture said not to let the sun go down on your wrath. That's true, but the sun had already set before we started to argue.

The result of something like this is that arguing about the original issue causes a layer of hurt and this is layered with more hurt and more hurt. If you do it over a period of years, things that were small become huge in our lives. We begin to feel distant from those we used to love. After awhile, we begin to question whether we love them at all. All of a sudden, we stop feeling love in our heart completely. This happens not only in marriages but in families, friendships and churches, all unnecessarily.

There is a better way of dealing with conflict and that is not to allow our conversations, discussions or debates become quarrels and arguments to begin with. If we are going to have a discussion, and having a discussion is healthy, we need to decide not to quarrel or fight. Two things can help us talk conversationally. Have one person be quiet and allow the other person to talk and share their views while the first person listens. After the second person is finished with the first person not responding at all, then the first person repeats back to the second what he or she heard. Then the second person confirms that the first person heard right or wrong. Then the second person speaks while the first person listens, and this keeps going back and forth until resolution is reached. If you do this, it will keep your arguments from getting carried away. Do it without name-calling or a lot of emotion. Let your self cool down and do this without anger. Talk without making generalities like "you always..." or "you never...". Start with "I" such as "I feel...." not "You...." That's attacking.

The second technique is phrasing your words carefully. When you are in a discussion approach it this way: "When you say or do......, it makes me feel ........because........." For instance, Valentine's Day is coming up. Your spouse might say, "When you fail to celebrate Valentine's Day, I feel let down and hurt because I feel that you are taking me for granted and are not expressing your love for me. I need for you to express your love for me." You might say that people don't talk that way. You're right. When I first heard this I thought, "What a lot of mumbo jumbo! Where are the dynamics of a good fight?" Well, the truth is that that is just immature. I can remember that I did not have control of my emotions and I just spoke what I felt and caused a lot of hurt. We can get hold of our emotions. We don't have to be quick to judge, quick to get angry or quick to decide what we think of what the other person is saying.

There are several styles of conflict:

*There's conflict exclusion. This happens between couples when one person is very dominant and one person is very submissive. Therefore, conflict is excluded because there is no negotiation.

*There's the conflict aggressor. This occurs between two people who are equally powerful, and they just go at it head to head their whole lives. Nothing ever gets resolved that way.

*There's conflict avoiders. These people hate conflict and will do anything to get around it. They never really talk or resolve anything.

*There's conflict resolvers. These people talk things out, make compro-mises and ultimately resolve their issues.

All of us think we are conflict resolvers, but most of us are not because we have lost control of our emotions. We need to cool down and develop rules for fighting fairly

Why do discussions become very heated arguments? James gives us a very simple, short answer. It is because of selfishness. Whether it comes out in a desire to win an argument, whether it comes out in feelings of being hurt because you feel discounted, or whether it comes out through getting your way all the time, the root cause is indeed selfishness.

Let's go back to my earlier illustration about conflict with my wife. The issue we were fighting about was prayer. She was talking about her feelings of guilt of not having a regular prayer time like she had before we were married. After we got married, we wanted to spend time together and that routine in her life was broken up and she was frustrated by it. I was doing the great husband thing by telling her that there was another way to approach this problem and that was by practicing the presence of God. Well, we kept going back and forth: "Presence of God" "Regular prayer time""Presence of God""Regular prayer time." It just got louder and louder, and what was really happening was that we weren't really talking about prayer-we were fighting at an entirely different level. We were both trying to win the argument because the other person wasn't listening.

Most of our arguments are not over an issue, they are about power. "I want to win. You are wrong. You are stubborn and pig-headed." James uses two words for selfishness. One is "hedoni" from which we get our word "hedonism." This is the desire to have our personal needs met-whether they are material, emotional or psychological. The other word is "want" which means covet. This comes from the word "zealous" which is a fierce desire to promote one's opinion to the exclusion of others. They are different forms of selfishness, but they are still based on the basic desire of "Me." James notes that this desire is unspiritual and is not from God. He says it is even demonic because it is entirely destructive.

This is particularly destructive to marriages. Let me explain about the "wounded bird syndrome." Many times a nurturer will marry a wounded bird who is extremely dependent. They need their spouse to fulfill their every need. As a result, it puts a lot of pressure on the relationship. The person who is the nurturer feels as if the weight of the relationship is upon them and they feel smothered. The wounded bird is frustrated with the nurturer because they never can take care of every need that they have. What the wounded bird is trying to do is to have their needs met by someone who is not able to meet them. One human being cannot fill the gaps in your life. Only God can do that. Yet we try to make our spouses fulfill us, and this is utter, basic selfishness.

I can't tell you how destructive materialism has been to the home. Every pastor mentions it, and we are more and more concerned about it. I am not picking on anyone who has just built a new home, but I am concerned about just how big things are getting and how many gadgets we are purchasing. As a result, our children are sometimes being left out.

They did a recent study of 5-year-olds in which they monitored how much time they spent with their fathers in a meaningful relationship. The answer was 25 minutes per week. Then they monitored how much time these same children spent in front of the television set. The answer was 25 hours per week. So where are our children getting their morals and values? You can have nice things and a nice home as long as your children are not being left out. I know that we all say, "But it's for the children." That's a lie-it's not for our children. Our children never told us that they want a bigger house with more gadgets and a nicer car. They would be satisfied just with you. Don't buy into the lie that you did it for them. You did it for you, and acknowledge it. Don't leave the children out.

This happens in churches, too. Selfishness causes problems. Who wants to belong to a church that is always in conflict? Who wants to belong to a church where there is partisan fighting over every little thing? Who wants to be in a church where a few people are heard and most are discounted? Who wants to be in a church that is involved in turf battles and where people are not respected or included? In the first church I served, they had a wonderful ladies' parlor. The youth group got permission to have a sleepover in the parlor. You know how kids are-they were goofing around a little bit and a chair was broken. Man, it was bad news. Maybe I wasn't as sensitive as I should have been to the ladies' parlor, but I thought there was a greater need. Which was more important-children or a chair? We can fix a chair and move on. So often in churches, there are turf battles at the root of which is utter selfishness, and the ministry of Christ is thwarted or held back.

A question to ask is, "Am I selfish." In talking, am I describing you, am I describing myself? Consider all your relationships, your church relationship included. Think of all the conflicts you are in. What role are you playing and in what way is selfishness affecting the relationship? James says this is going to cripple your relationship, your church or your company. James doesn't mince words. He says that when we do this, we are not faithful to God. The word he uses is "adulterer." When we are selfish, we are placing ourselves on the throne of our lives saying, "I want people to please me." As a Christian, we have changed that. We say , "God is on the throne of our lives, and he tells us to serve one another." When we are selfish, we are replacing God who belongs on the throne with ourselves, our desires and our needs. When we desire material things above God, we are placing these things above him. We are reminded that we are not of this world but are aliens and pilgrims. Our model for living is Jesus Christ who came to serve, not to be served; to sacrifice, not to ask others to sacrifice for his needs.

If we took this to heart, we would submit. I know wives get upset about this word because husbands use it to make their wives doormats, and this is a sin. We miss the verse right above this passage in Ephesians 5: 21 where it says "All of us are called to submit." This means setting aside getting our way in order to please another. Think how conflicts would change if we really lived that out. Instead of fighting over getting our way, we would be living our lives in order to help others. Instead of a heated debate, this would stir the passion of love and encouragement for each other.

How do we overcome personal selfishness? James tells us:

1. Submit to God. Surrender to him and tell him that you are tired of doing things your way. Tell him you are tired of being on the throne of your life and that you want to enthrone him. You might say, "I can't help this. It's just the way I am. I was born this way." Well, as Christians we are new-born and we don't have to be that way.

2. Ask God's forgiveness.

3. Ask the forgiveness of those whom you have hurt through your selfish-ness.

4. Humble yourself. We don't mind grieving when it is too late-when the divorce has taken place, when our kids have left home, when someone comes to repossess our vehicle-then we grieve over our selfishness. The healthy thing to do is to grieve now before these ripple effects take place in our lives.

5. Resist the temptation. When you are in the mall, resist the temptation to buy something that perhaps you don't need. Ask yourself if this is going to get in the way of your relationship with God or draw you further from your family. When you get into a fight, ask yourself if it is worth really fighting over and worth winning? Even if I am right, is it worth being right?

6. Draw near to God. You might think that you don't have the strength to live an unselfish life. That's why James says draw near to God. We can't live out the Christian life in our own power. We need to draw near to God and feed ourselves spiritually. Feed yourself on a daily basis. If you haven't been a regular church attender, become more regular. Go on a retreat or participate in a study series.

Conflict is like a fungus in our lives. How do you drive away fungus? You find light. Draw close to the light, and the fungus disappears.

Let's pray.



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