Can good come from conflict? Listening for the Spirit’s voice…

Posted by on Dec 11, 2015 in Blog | 0 comments

Most of my sermons only get preached once. They serve a particular purpose, and while I file them away, hopeful that they will prove useful on another day, most of them never resurface. Not so with this message. In some ways it is a little sad… a sermon about conflict needing to be preached over and over again. But no point in being silly about it. Conflict often does arise amongst Christians. So here is what I have said about it. If you are in a tricky situation, perhaps it will be helpful in your setting. Actually, sometimes it is better to think about conflict in a peaceful season, so that when the tide changes, you are prepared.

I remember the meeting clearly. I was in my first pastorate. It was going well, and we’d specially grown in the number of students attending the church. Several had been baptised, and a few of us were convinced that if we made some minor changes to the way we were doing some things, a lot more would be reached. I went to the church meeting that was due to discuss the changes full of confidence. So far as I was concerned, this was a no brainer. People might have some suggestions to make what we proposed even better, but it never entered my head that anyone would seriously oppose what was suggested. Even when our grouchiest church member sprang to her feet, I didn’t have a sense of foreboding. That changed pretty quickly. In no uncertain terms she made her opposition to the changes plain. Her summary argument went, ‘If we implement these changes, we will get even more students coming to this church… and we all know that we’ve got more than enough already!’

I classify that night as the one when I lost my innocence in ministry. I had never before contemplated that anyone might feel that they didn’t want the church to grow, or that they would be opposed to certain kinds of people being converted and coming to the church.

True, I had often heard about conflict between Christians. I knew that the church where I had been sent as a youngster had had a split over the charismatic movement. And as a young Baptist pastor I had read of churches that had left the Baptist Union over disagreements about one thing or another. And in the divided political context of the South Africa where I lived at that stage, I was very aware of the disagreement amongst Christians as to what constituted the just and fair path in the political chaos of that troubled period. But this was the first time in my personal experience where God was so clearly doing something in the midst of a congregation and another Christian was standing up and saying NO!

Conflict amongst believers. We’d like to believe that it doesn’t happen… but it’s just not true. So what’s the Spirit’s role when believers disagree… Let’s look at two accounts of conflict in Acts. First Acts 6:1-7, then Acts 15:36-41.

Some opening comments before we see what they teach us.

The feeding scheme for widows outlined in Acts 6 was a great scheme. It showed real compassion and care, and reflected an awareness that church is family. You’ve got to give the early church a great tick of approval and a hearty well done for trying to help those of their number who were struggling. But even good things can become divisive, and it soon became apparent that the Greek speaking widows were being left out of the food distribution. And oh th trouble it threatened to cause…

And then there is the account of the fight between Paul and Barnabas… They’d been going great guns in their mission work. But then they couldn’t agree on how to respond to John Mark’s early defection, and later desire to rejoin their mission. It is easy to understand the conflict outlined at the end of Acts 15. It’s the classic person vrs organization dilemma. Barnabas roots for the person, and wants to give John Mark a 2nd chance. Paul is your traditional organization man. He is insistent – you’ve got to keep your standards high. It’s a great honor to be chosen as a missionary. John Mark treated it lightly – and for the long term good of the church, you can’t just gloss over that.

While noting the conflict, perhaps the first thing to say is, good on them both for caring.

So what do we learn from these two conflicts…

IF CONFLICT MAKES YOU FREEZE…

Let’s face it, most people don’t enjoy conflict. The very thought of it and they freeze. If you are one of them, having a whole message on how the Spirit can work in conflict might seem to you to be less than inspiring. Actually I’d like to challenge that assumption. God is able to bring good out of the worst of circumstances. This is the Joseph principle of Gen 50:20 “What you intended for evil, God has worked for good…”

These two situations do work for good.

Acts 6:7 gives the wonderful summary outcome of the churches response to the conflict between the Hebrew and Greek widows: “So the Word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.”

In the Paul versus Barnabas dispute over John Mark, instead of having one missionary trip as originally planned, the result is that there are now two – double the amount of work gets done. And in the longer term, Paul has a fantastic ministry, so does Barnabas, and rather interestingly, so does John Mark – who goes on to write Mark’s gospel, and later becomes a close associate of Paul’s. What’s more, the split between Paul and Barnabas provides an opening for Silas to become Pauls’ fellow missionary… and Silas goes on to have a memorable ministry. There are pluses everywhere.

Of course you have to ask, ‘so how come such positive outcomes? Surely that is not always the case.’

In conflict situations, both Satan and the Spirit are at work. Satan will work to shut things down, or to ensure the most destructive outcome, while the Spirit will work for redemptive purposes. Just behind the scenes a real battle takes place. Let’s explore this.

One trick of Satan’s is to get things to shut down. The evil one’s motives are always negative. For example, when you sin… Let’s say you lose your temper really badly, the Spirit will convict you of sin… ‘that’s wrong… now walk away from it by doing this.’ Satan will simply rubbish you and try and get you out of the game altogether. ‘Right – so you’re a Christian. Fancy acting like that. You’re useless. God could never use someone like you. Look what you’ve done!’

In these conflicts Satan’s desire would have been to sidetrack the church from its mission – to get it to so focus on the conflict that everyone started fighting and the mission was forgotten. But the Spirit breaks through wonderfully and won’t allow that.

Acts 6:2 is the Big Picture breakthrough: “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the Word of God in order to wait on tables…” You can almost hear the Evil One let out an “Oh bother…” or whatever it is that he says when exasperated! Paul and Barnabas likewise keep the Big Picture in mind. No talk of closing down the mission – even if they are no longer going to be on it together.

How can good come from evil? It’s the wonderful creativity of the Spirit that makes this possible, but we must also go in with the attitude, of ‘Come what may, God must still be honoured…’

There is a lovely story from the Middle East which illustrates the possibility of unexpected and creative solutions being found.

A farmer who died left his 17 camels to his 3 sons. In that culture, birth position is very important, so he had left ½ his estate to his oldest, 1/3 to the middle son and 1/9 to the youngest. The fighting was immediate. ‘½ of 17 camels is 8 and ½ – what use is a half, I’ll have 9’ said the oldest son. But the middle son immediately started screaming, ‘you’ve already got more than the rest of us. No way – I’m owed a third which is 5 and 2/3 camels– mine should go up to 6.’ Immediately the youngest started screaming… ‘Never in a thousand years. I’ve only been left a 1/9th… that’s 1 and 8/9ths … I’ll have 2.’

And they deadlocked. There seemed to be no way ahead.

In the end an old family friend came to their rescue. ‘I loved your father greatly,’ he said, ‘so I’d like to help you. Let me give you one of my camels. Now you have 18 camels. Oldest son, you now get half of 18 camels, so that’s 9. Middle son, you were left a 1/3, so a third of 18, that’s 6, and youngest son, as you know, you were left a 1/9… so a ninth of 18 – that’s 2. It all works our nicely now… 9 + 6 + 2 = 17 camels taken by the 3 of you, so thanks, I’ll have mine back again.’

Well, enjoy working out the mathematical trick in that one, but the point is simple. There are more solutions than we imagine… but it involves not freezing (conflict is terrible) but rather quietly trusting, and praying, ‘Holy Spirit, help us to find a way forward.’ And we might need to be open to the unexpected… solutions we would not usually contemplate.

As you pray for a way forward, remember that the underlying attitude in both Acts 6 and Acts 15 is, ‘come what may Lord, it is crucial that we don’t get side tracked from spreading your word… Be honoured even in the midst of this present conflict.’

DEAL WITH THE REAL ISSUES…

There are some very practical pointers that flow from Acts 6 and 15

1) Listen: When the early church leaders heard that the Greek widows had not been included in the food distribution, rather than become defensive, they listened. That’s a key part of resolving conflict. Listen to the concern. It would have been so easy for the church leaders to listen to the Greek widows complain and to cut them short with a ‘You should consider yourself lucky to ever get anything. We don’t have to give you anything you know. Seems to us that if you have enough time to grumble, you have enough time to work to get your own food…’ But they don’t. They are not defensive. They listen and respond. That’s been the hardest lesson for me… To hear a complaint and to keep an open mind, recognising, ‘I’ve messed up before, I’ll mess up again… let me listen with humility.’ That’s what’s so hard about conflict… It’s the humble reminder that I’m often wrong.

Note the need to listen carefully to the other person and their point of view as the non-negotiable opening minimum.

2) Remember the (not so) little things: The early disciples kept to the bigpicture of what they needed to do and didn’t lose focus, but that doesn’t mean that they didn’t act. They selected 7 people who were full of the Spirit and wisdom (Acts 6:3) to rorganise the food distribution, ensuring all the widows were included. What does it take to distribute food to people? “Being full of the Spirit and wisdom.” Never think that a job is too small to have spiritual pre-requisites.

I have learnt this the hard way over the years. At a church I previously pastored I struggled to know how to get a particular woman involved in ministry. I really believed in an ‘every member ministry’, and that every willing person had a role to play and should be invovled, but she was so obnoxious and angular. In the end we decided that the safest task to entrust her with was ensuring that the church kitchen was kept supplied with tea, coffee and sugar. BIG MISTAKE! How much trouble can you cause by being in charge of the tea and coffee. More than you can possibly imagine! I remember when our student group decided to take the tea and coffee supplies to a student home where a church meeting was being held – which was fair enough. Like most students they were broke, and needed a bit of help if they were to host the meeting. But then they forgot to return the remaining tea and coffee to the church afterwards. I managed to persuade her that it wouldn’t be appropriate to call the police – but only just. (I can still hear her voice, ‘theft is theft! We have to be good stewards of the coffee God has given us.’) And she would insist on buying the nastiest and dreariest of coffee and tea. She viewed it as a personal triumph that most people stopped drinking it (‘think how much money I’ve saved the church!’)

Before we put people into positions of influence – even tiny bits of influence – we need to use the ‘full of the Spirit and wisdom’ test. No, we don’t need to look for people who are perfect in every way – but we do need to be sure that there is an openess to God. Little things matter, and no ministry is trivial.

3) Allow differences: In the midst of these stories of conflict, I find a liberating truth. Being a Christian doesn’t mean blandly seeing things in exactly the same way as every other Christian does. Paul felt Mark shouldn’t be given a second chance. Barnabas felt differently. And while we always tend to think, ‘Nice old Barnabas and crotchety old Paul’ don’t forget that Mark was Barnabas’ cousin… and there is no insult like a family insult (‘are you saying my cousin is a wimp!’) The conflict is all very human and it’s all about seeing things in slightly different ways.

Just because someone sees something in a different way, it doesn’t mean that they are Attila the Hun. We don’t all have to see things in exactly the same way. Indeed, that’s why we have different gifts. It’s why the apostles know that they mustn’t stop what they are doing to get involved with food distribution. It is not that food distribution is not important – but that it didn’t have their name on it. And in Acts 15, the young John Mark needed a different kind of mentor to Paul… he found it in cousin Barnabas. In the end it is about stepping back and saying, ‘ So what is God doing in this…’

Let’s be practical as we end. Perhaps you are in a conflict situation.

4) Remember the Big Picture: So much is lost when relationships break down… I find Todd Barnhart’s poem about this haunting. I’ve unsuccessfully tried to track down its reference…

Armistice

once there was a war

no tanks,

no missiles,

no jets,

no bayonets,

no submarines,

no infantry,

no cavalry charges.

but –

everyone died

when war broke out

between you and me

and love lost.

Don’t forget the much bigger picture of what really matters. I’ve often had to work with couples who have had to face up to their relationship having gone badly wrong. Sometimes they are able to remember that one thing they never disagreed about was that they want the best for their kids… and they sometimes agree to part in such a way that they don’t lose sight of that…. Other times they lose the plot. Children become pawns in the adult conflict.

Or maybe it’s conflict at work. Or with neighbours… Or with the extended family. Is scoring the next point in the argument really worth risking all that?

5) Remember that both the Spirit and the Evil One are going to be at work. Pray, pray and pray again… Spirit, work this for God’s glory. That’s very different from saying, ‘God, give me my way…’

6) Stay close to the Cross. We didn’t crucify Jesus because we loved Him. He was a threat to our status quo. He challenged us to become who God made us to be. It was because of our insecurity and smallness, our sinful pride and petty fears, that we killed him. Miraculously, His death proved to be redemptive… It was our conflict with God… But he becomes our peace. His death… our release.

How can the Spirit use conflict? Stand at the foot of the Cross, and pray, Oh crucified God, you suffered and died so that we might find peace. We are caught up in endless trivial conflicts… Forgive us… and show us a way forward…

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