When Peacemaking Causes Conflict

peacemaking

TARA BARTHEL|CONTRIBUTOR

The PCA Book of Church Order Appendix on Biblical Conflict Resolution states that “Biblical peacemaking is one of God’s highest priorities (Matt. 5:23-24; Rom. 12:18; Gal.6:1); therefore, it must be one of our highest priorities.” But what about those times when we sincerely go to “make peace” and it ends up creating greater division and misery? Consider:

  • You are really starting to struggle with resentment toward your roommate. You love her and think she is a vibrant, wonderful, sister in Christ! But her (lack of) housekeeping skills leaves you to do the lion’s share of the cleaning. This week, she left a wet towel on the ground for so long that it has damaged the hardwood floor! You try to be a “good Christian” and just ignore it, but finally you are so annoyed that you ask her (again) to please pick up her own towels! OK. Sure. You give her a mini-sermon, too, about “letting your yes be yes” (because this is not the first time the two of you have talked about her messes and each time she “promises” to do better). But mostly, you just ask her for this tiny, reasonable thing: Please hang up your towel! She flushes a deep red as she half-heartedly starts to pick up the towel and other things she has left strewn around the room, but you hear her mumbling something under her breath about how one day you are going to be a great “nagging wife (from somewhere in Proverbs).” You remind her from the specific Proverb (12:15) that a fool fails to listen to wise counsel. She yells back something about how you are not her mother—but you can’t really hear her anymore because you are stomping out the apartment door. You know. To pray.
  • Everything seemed so fun when your long-time friend and you started your candle-making businesses together. You shared recipes and scents and bought in bulk to save expenses. But then … your candles started selling better than hers. You assumed it was because of your own, super-special custom design of a double-wick and swirly pattern in the wax. So you were shocked (and mad) when your friend started selling swirly, two-wicked candles. How dare she? At first, you tried to just let it go (because you are a Christian, after all), but when your sales plummeted, you knew you had to confront her about stealing your ideas. Wow! Was she mad. She responded with all sorts of legal mumbo-jumbo about how you didn’t trademark the idea and how the two of you never had a contract. Then she told you how selfish you were for even bringing it up! Tears poured down your cheeks as decades of friendship flashed before your eyes and you wondered if you could ever trust each other again.
  • You are excited to finally meet your fiancé’s extended family. On the surface, they seem like such a great group of united Christians, so you relax a little and allow the conversation to go toward politics. Just a little. You mention something obvious that all Christians must agree on, right? Wrong. Your ostensibly innocuous comment lights a James 3 forest fire that burns down the entire meal. One uncle actually stands up and leaves the table in fury! Your head spins and your heart pounds for hours. How could you make such a stupid mistake during your first visit to his family?! Later, when everyone is sitting around watching the big game, you try to apologize, but that just ignites another firestorm as people start to take sides and either attack or defend you. Your fiancé (the kindest and best man you have ever known) just sits there wordlessly. You know he loves you, but he loves his family, too. And this all seems irreparable.
  • A well-intentioned speaker at a women’s retreat introduces the above-referenced PCA Book of Church Order Appendix and some women return to their churches excited to learn which of their elders have been trained in biblical conflict resolution because, to quote the BCO, “Each presbytery should endeavor to have several elders trained in the methods of ‘Christian conciliation’ (including mediation and arbitration), and available to serve as Christian conciliators in cases that could and should be resolved privately before judicial process is initiated.” When they find out that no elder in their church or presbytery has any idea what they are talking about, the women’s disappointment morphs into frustration and even anger—causing conflict over peacemaking! (On a related note, said speaker now mentions a caution against this at all of her retreats.)

Have you ever tried to “fix” a relationship and “make peace” only to have it backfire in your face in such a terrible way that you really wish you had just left things alone? I have. There is just something so much easier (on the surface at least) and “nicer” about peace-faking. Sure, when we focus on protecting ourselves by denying that conflict exists or pretending that everything is fine—pasting a smile on our face while slamming shut the door of our heart—we know on a deep level that we are not loving because “love makes us vulnerable” (CS Lewis). But the pain of rejection and betrayal from people we have genuinely trusted is a burning pain, a daily pain, that can lead us to despair and isolation as we run away emotionally to protect ourselves relationally.

Isn’t it better to never try in the first place? To just let things stay “sort of OK”? For the Christian, the answer is clear: No. It is not better to peace-fake. It is not better to prioritize self-protection over selfless love. Yes, our interests matter and we can consider them (see Philippians 2:4). Yes, love and wisdom may look different in different scenarios. But for the Christian, our overriding motivation must always be founded on the interests of Christ (see Philippians 2:21). Each time people let us down and our hearts are broken, we must ask the question: What does love look like in this situation?

Sometimes, love requires rebuke. Sometimes, we are called to overlook (unilaterally forgive, cf. Proverbs 19:11). Silence may be loving, or it may be punitive. None of us has pure motives in these situations, but we are to strive to be loving because God reveals himself as merciful and forgiving, compassionate and gracious, loving, throughout the Old and New Testaments (cf. Exodus 34:6-7 and 1 John 4:8) … and he calls us to “imitate him as dearly loved children” (Ephesians 5:1). Jesus explains that the Second Greatest Commandment is to love our neighbor (Mark 12:31). And we can’t even get off the hook with jerks (or, more politely stated, people who are consistently hurting us), because Jesus commands us to love even our enemies and to do good to those who hate us (Luke 6:27).

This kind of love is active love. Dependent love. Prayerful love.

It is also painful and messy love.

Peace-faking seems so much cleaner and so much nicer on the surface, kind of like a plank in your backyard patio that is smooth on one side but rotting on the other. It looks good on the surface! But it will never bear weight. The same is true of our relationships. If there are unaddressed hurts, loveless sins by acts of omission or commission, grudges, anger, and unforgiveness “deep down,” our relationships will never bear the weight of the normal hurts that happen in life. The problem is, peace-making in relationships can be like digging into all of that disgusting, degrading rot in a patio beam. It isn’t pretty. It isn’t fun. But before you build that marriage on top of a weakened beam; before you try to grow your women’s ministry, your church plant, your witness at work or school (or to your own family) … you must do the hard work of honestly examining (confessing, and addressing) the rot that threatens to collapse everything.

In Matthew 7:5, Jesus described this as removing the “planks” in your own eye before you help your brother with the “specks” in his eye. Yes, some mud clumps, rot, and even worms may fall into your lap as you peel back the surface and actually start to address the problem. No, it won’t be enjoyable at first, but ultimately it will be good, truly good (strong, whole, rightly repaired), for the long-term.

If you would like to learn more about the concepts of peace-faking and peace-making, my coauthor, Judy Dabler, and I explain them in Chapter 4 of Peacemaking Women (and then apply them to romantic relationships, parenting, the church, and “women leaders with strong personalities”) by using a graphic from Ken Sande called The Slippery Slope:

conflict

Do you see how the escape responses are really peace-faking? And the attack responses are peace-breaking? Which responses are you prone to? How have unaddressed hurts, fears, and conflicts weakened your relationships?

As we learn how to do the hard, time-consuming work of facing pain, enduring discomfort, truly listening, humbly speaking, repenting, confessing, and lavishly forgiving—just as in Christ we have been forgiven (Colossians 3:13)—we will see that genuine peacemaking is not only the sole option available to Christians, it is actually best for the long haul because running away or denying problems never strengthens trust or deepens love. Even when it hurts beyond words, we “pursue peace inasmuch as it depends on us” (Romans 12:18). As we do so, we remember God’s compassion. He understands our sorrows! He is “close to the brokenhearted” (Psalm 34:18) and nothing breaks our hearts like conflict.

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