Summary: Anger and conflict in church life are inevitable, and the Lord provided us with 7 keys to deal with it in a way that promotes oneness – our ultimate goal.
In the last post, we learned that true community only develops as our true selves are exposed to each other over time. If this process isn’t accompanied by humility and acceptance in the groups’ members, it will destroy itself from the inside out.
A huge part of this is developing the skill of handling anger and conflict. This skill is essential if we hope to allow our abnormalities to connect us instead of divide us and fulfill the ultimate goal of the Christian life – oneness with God with each other.
Anger and conflict are OK, natural and unavoidable in church life. But we must be willing to express it and work it out without violating oneness. This is why Paul quotes the Psalm that says “In your anger, do not sin” in Ephesians when instructing the church about unity and maturity. We’ve all been there, lying awake at night losing sleep because we were angry with someone. We’ve all allowed that anger to drive us to sin. After all, sin in its simplest form is any action that causes division in any relationship. This is what “gives the devil a foothold” and wounds relationships.
But you can be angry and not violate the oneness the Lord created us for. As John Ortberg points out in Everybody’s Normal ‘Til You Get To Know Them, the Lord uses one short verse to give us 7 keys to resolving conflict without sin…
If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. (Matthew 18:15)
One of the most common fallacies in relationships is that brushing things off is a sign of maturity. We think that if we just don’t care and we let things go, that we’re promoting community. It’s actually the opposite. Whether it manifests itself in avoidance, or it comes out in gossip and slander, that which is left unaddressed and unresolved breaks down community over time.
Instead, we should acknowledge conflict with each other as quickly as possible. (When Paul says not to let the sun go down on your anger, of course it’s not literal). He just means that you should address it as quickly as possible. It likely won’t help the situation if you show up at someone’s door after bedtime :).
Notice how Jesus doesn’t say we should wait for the person who wronged us to come and apologize. Naturally, we think “I didn’t do anything wrong, why should I have to make things right?” You were wronged, and you likely have every right to be angry. But now a choice is placed in your lap. What do you do with your anger?
You could tell yourself it’s no big deal, try to forget about it and move on. You could retaliate with hurtful words and behavior. You could share the wrong and the anger with someone else you know like a spouse or close friend.
Or you could take responsibility for reconciliation.
What someone else has done is not a justification for your mismanaged anger.
But this isn’t just the case when you’ve been wronged. Of course, you should also own responsibility if you’ve done something wrong. As Ortberg rightly points out…
People who value community are people who own responsibility to deal with relational breakdowns.
Approach, don’t avoid
Avoidance kills community, even more than if your approach isn’t perfect. If you approach, at least you now give the situation a chance to be worked out. Anger is like smoke that signals there’s a fire. Avoiding it just leads to more destruction.
Now, this doesn’t mean you approach right away. After all, anger produces what therapists call “cognitive incapacitation.” The angrier you get, the stupider you become! Therefore, you need to take a little time to cool down, gain perspective on the situation, assess why you’re angry, adjust your thought processes and figure out how your approach can produce an outcome of oneness.
No third parties
Our first instinct is to go to someone else to “let out our frustrations,” which is of course code for “don’t you agree that this person is crazy!?!” Talking things out doesn’t reduce emotions, it rehearses them. Not only have you fed them, you’ve now made the situation worse because you’ve given the listener a reason to have something against the “crazy person.” Then once your listener brings it up with the “crazy person” (there’s a good chance this happens), they now hear bad things about you in response.
It’s OK to talk about your anger with a third party if the legitimate goal of the conversation is self-evaluation and coming up with a reconciliation plan. Unless this is the case, don’t involve anyone else.
Calling people out in front of others is just likely to embarrass them; while venting on them just creates more anger. How many times have you seen a person who gets vented on come back with a loving response? Exactly.
Use direct communication
If you don’t explain exactly what triggered your anger and how what they did affected you, you’re hoping the other person will accurately fill in the blanks. Many times we do this because we fear the confrontation and we want to soften the blow of the situation. While you might think you’re being sensitive, you may end up just making the situation worse down the road. It’s important to be sensitive, but don’t let it keep you from being direct.
Aim at reconciliation
All of the other steps are only fruitful if this is your main goal. If you aren’t aiming at reconciliation, you won’t be sensitive and your direct communication will be offensive.
In every situation that comes along with your brothers and sisters in Christ, we are to ask ourselves how it can be used to bring us into oneness.
As the apostle Peter pointed out, we are God’s “living stones.” (I Peter 2:5) But our purpose is not to be scattered or to lay in a pile, but to be built together into a spiritual house. This only happens if we learn to deal with our anger with this goal in mind.
A word about timing when it comes to implementing these keys…
When you are first getting to know people or your church is a new group, approaching people right away may not be the best. This is because relationships need time to bond a little and move into personal space before you do personal space-type things. As long as your relationship with a person is in social space, you should exercise other spiritual disciplines like peace and long-suffering, while still acknowledging and owning responsibility for your feelings. (For more on relational spaces, see this post.)
Truth be told, you really shouldn’t have much anger and conflict with people if they’re not in your personal space. If you are, that may be a deeper issue within yourself that needs dealt with first.
The rest of the posts in the Nobody’s Normal series are here.