Conflict as “Holy Ground”

Jacob wrestles with the angelIn recent months, several people have asked me to unpack my oft-spoken statement that “conflict can be holy ground.” They wanted to hear more because the statement runs so counter to the ways we have been taught to think about conflict: that conflict is a bad thing, that it is bad for relationships, that it is a sign of dysfunction in communities, especially in faith communities, where it may even be seen as a sign of sin…or at least bad manners. And because we think that there must be only one right answer to anything of any real importance, we believe that the object in conflict is to win: to prove ourselves (and those who agree with us) right and the other (and those that agree with them) wrong.

But the more my congregation has thought about this the more our thoughts have moved in a different direction: that conflict, in-and-of itself, is neutral, that it is how we DO conflict (our motives and our actions) that makes it good or bad, and that done in the right spirit it can be quite healthy…even holy!

Think about it for a moment… If God hates conflict, why did God give Jacob – and his descendants – the new name Ysra-El (Israel), which means “wrestles-with-God?” Over and over throughout the Scriptures God doesn’t just tolerate those who talk back, negotiate, and ask difficult questions, God commends them…as long as they do it honestly and with a desire to make sense of what God wants from them. Jewish tradition has always held that “wherever there are two Jews, there are (at least) three opinions,” that the people of God stand a lot better chance of learning God’s perspective on any topic if we let those three different points of view come into active (but good-natured) conflict with each other, and that in the process of holy conflict we may (God willing) discover a way of thinking about the issue in question in which all three perspectives are true.

“All well and good,” you say, “but how do we do it?”

Here are a few tips for transforming conflict into holy ground:

  1. Accept that conflicts are a natural part of life. Conflict is the natural result of differences in the world.
  2. Accept that conflicts are neither positive nor negative in themselves. It is qualities of our motives and actions that count. Resolve to speak the truth in love.
  3. Treat conflict as an opportunity. Rather than thinking of conflict as opportunity to win or lose, choose to think of it as an opportunity to understand another person, and to expand your own perspective to something greater than your own position. And as my parish administrator recently said, “a conflict truthfully and lovingly addressed is an opportunity to make a friend.”
  4. Excavate your position. Unearth what is at the heart of the matter for you. With positions you can only win or lose. Knowing what’s really important to you opens up possibilities for creative solutions.
  5. Be aware of your initial reaction and take a deep breath. Human nature is such that our initial reaction to conflict is almost always “fight or flight.” That’s what comes of living in a fallen world. But it’s important to pause long enough to realize you can chose to come from a different place.
  6. When you are ready to address the problem, go to the person who shares it with you. Remember what Jesus said, “If a brother or sister offends you, leave your offering at the altar, go and reconcile with your brother or sister, then come back and make your offering.” What’s true in geometry is also true in relationships: the shortest distance between two points of view is a straight line, not a triangle.
  7. Listen and learn: Ask questions and listen. We all want to be heard and understood. For the first several minutes of addressing any conflict, try to start all your sentences with, “What I hear you saying is…”
  8. When sharing feelings, own them. It’s tempting to blame our feelings on the person whose behavior our feelings are in reaction to. But it’s important to realize that while a particular behavior may have provided the occasion for your feelings, there is no way to know whether the person behind the behavior intended to have that impact. So when you share your feelings, try to start your sentences with “When you say (or do) _________, I feel ___________.”
  9. Discover what’s important: Look for common interests. Share what’s at the heart of the matter for you, and ask what’s at the heart of the matter for them. Remember: disagreements over positions can cloud our common interests, but they are always there. And we generally have more interests in common than not.
  10. Be creative. There are always many different ways to solve a problem and meet a need.

I hope you find these suggestions helpful.

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