TRANSFORMING CONFLICT: (4) CAN I MAKE A REQUEST?
Sooner or later, we all experience conflict. It happens in families; it happens in the workplace; it happens among neighbours; it happens in churches.
How we handle conflict is one of the biggest challenges we face in our Christian lives. We live in a world where competition is the norm. We may teach our children to share and get along, but it’s not long before they’re getting the message that they should fight to win. That’s the way of the world. The competitive approach to life has a serious drawback, however. If you fight, you may well win – but you’ll do serious harm to the relationship in the process. This is not at all what Jesus has taught us to do. Jesus has taught us to emphasize compassion over competition. He’s taught us to love our neighbours as ourselves, and he’s shown us that getting our way at the expense of others is not how things are supposed to work in the kingdom of God.
Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers”. And he also said some other things that are relevant to the way we handle conflict. He said, “Turn the other cheek” and “Walk the extra mile.” These sayings have led some people to believe that Christians are supposed to handle conflict by always giving in. They think Jesus wants us to say, “I’ll give you whatever you want, just stop arguing with me.” That is a pretty quick way to end a fight. But it’s not really what Jesus is telling us to do.
When Jesus says, “Turn the other cheek”, he’s telling us we should not return violence for violence. He wants us to respond to evil with good. He doesn’t want us to attack when we are attacked. He wants us instead to take the way of peace.
But that doesn’t mean we completely abandon our own needs. Jesus said, “Love your neighbour as yourself” – meaning that we shouldn’t love ourselves any less than we love our neighbours. Just like our neighbours, we are created in the image of God and have needs that are no less important than the needs of others. If we disregard those needs, resentment and bitterness will build up, and this will be just as damaging to our relationships as outright conflict. Anything that harms relationships is contrary to God’s will.
We all have fundamental needs that are essential to our humanity. These needs are what we require to live human lives. We’re not talking here about things we think we need – things such a power or luxury or entertainment. Even though we may spend much of our lives chasing these things, they’re not nearly as important as we may think they are. Our deep needs - for the necessities of life, for connection to others, for meaning and purpose, for acceptance and love - are needs that define us as human beings. They point us to those things that contribute to our fundamental human dignity.
Conflicts arise when basic human needs are not being met. If we are to transform our conflicts, we will have to be honest about our unmet needs. Out of that honesty, we will then need to learn how to make requests of others. And, of course, we’ll have to be prepared to respond to others when they in turn make requests of us.
It shouldn’t surprise us that there are times when we have to make requests. None of us is completely self-sufficient. We depend on God. And we depend on one another. In 1 Corinthians, the Apostle Paul describes God’s people as joined together like a human body. Each part of the body is different, but they all need each other. As Paul says, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’” All the parts are interdependent. As one commentator puts it, they’re not like ball bearings in a bucket. There’s an organic relationship between them. This is what Paul is getting at when he says, “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it.”
It’s this interdependence that forms the basis of the requests we make of one another. A request is not a demand. A demand is a power play. It’s an attempt to force you to do what I want. A request is offered in a completely different spirit. It recognizes that it may receive “no” for an answer – and it respects that, understanding that the person who says “no” may well have their own needs that they hope to have fulfilled. Everyone’s needs are equally important, and sometimes those needs are pulling in opposite directions. Finding a way to fulfil everyone’s needs can be a challenging exercise.
In First Kings we see Solomon making a request. This is a request that he makes of God. God has invited him to do this, saying, “Ask for whatever you want me to give you.” Solomon thinks carefully, and then makes his request. What he asks for is not long life or wealth or the death of his enemies. What he asks for is wisdom, and God is pleased to grant his request.
We would do well to make Solomon’s request our own. We certainly need wisdom when it comes to sorting out the conflicting needs that often exist between us and other people. That wisdom will be easier to come by if we work together with the other person to try to find creative ways to meet everyone’s needs. And there’s another positive outcome that can emerge from this. Instead of fighting each other, if we’re on the same side trying to develop creative solutions to the conflict, we have a greater likelihood of preserving the relationship. In fact, the relationship may well be strengthened - even if at the end of the day we still disagree with each other.
Relationships, as we know, are complicated, so these things are never simple. One of the things that can go wrong is that the request you make might be taken as a criticism. You might say, for example, “I need to get a good night’s sleep, so could I request that you please not play your bagpipes at 1 o’clock in the morning?” Your bagpipe-playing neighbour, however, may take that as a criticism, and may not react kindly to it. There may not be a whole lot you can do about that, because his reaction has more to do with what’s going on with him than what’s going on with you.
Criticism, as we know, can be difficult for any of us to handle. If somebody criticizes us, we have several choices about how we might respond. One choice is to hear the person as attacking us or blaming us. If we think someone is attacking or blaming us, we may feel justified in attacking them back. And, of course, that never ends well.
Another way we can hear criticism is to assume that it’s correct – in other words, we end up criticizing and blaming ourselves. If this is the way we always respond to criticism, it’s going to take a toll on us. It’s going to grind us down. And it’s not going to do much for our mental health.
A better option is to try to understand the feelings and needs of the person who is criticizing us. Their criticism may just be a clumsy way of making a request. If that’s the case, then we don’t need to take it personally. And it may in fact open up the way to further dialogue.
One final way we can respond is by acknowledging the feelings the criticism provokes in us. We can be honest that we feel hurt or blamed or judged by it. And we can also remind ourselves that our worth comes from God, not from other people’s opinions of us. That allows us to take a step back from the criticism and view it more objectively. If we do that, we might be able to separate the parts of the criticism that are inaccurate from the parts that may give us new insight that will lead to growth.
How we respond to criticism, and how we respond to conflict in general, is greatly affected by how much of a particular feeling we possess. That feeling, surprisingly, is not anger. It’s anxiety. Anxiety is what triggers the majority of the negative responses we have in situations of conflict.
We all have anxiety to some degree. It’s not always a bad thing. It has a God-given purpose. Anxiety makes us alert, and helps us to avoid harm. It mobilizes us for action in response to danger. There are times when our anxiety response is greatly needed. It’s the fight or flight response – which is entirely appropriate in emergency situations.
Problems arise, however, when our anxiety is triggered too easily. That will cause us to overreact when we find ourselves in stressful situations. These kinds of overreactions will only serve to worsen conflict.
The hard thing about this kind of anxiety is that we’re often unaware of how it’s affecting us. We don’t realize that a lot of our behaviour is unconsciously intended to try to lower the anxiety we feel. We might try to escape our anxiety by trying to control other people. Or we might try to shift our feelings of anxiety onto others by blaming them or making them a scapegoat. Or we might try to run away from our feelings by cutting ourselves off from the person we are in conflict with and shunning them. These kinds of behaviours are very damaging to relationships, and offer little hope for finding a positive way out of conflict.
It’s important that we learn to identify our feelings of anxiety. But, of course, knowing they are there doesn’t make them go away. We can’t simply tell ourselves to stop feeling anxious. We need God’s help for that.
Once, in a stressful social situation, Jesus said to Martha, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, and it will not be taken away from her.”
It’s in focusing on God, rather than on the things that make us anxious, that we can find the way beyond our anxiety. The opposite of anxiety is faith. In faith we feel secure in the arms of God. In faith we encounter the God who meets all our deepest needs. In faith we know that we can safely surrender ourselves to the goodness of God.
Of course, having faith doesn’t mean you never experience anxiety. Sometimes anxiety has physiological causes. It doesn’t go away just because you have faith. But for most us, the best thing we can do for our anxiety is deepen our faith.
The father of a sick child once came to Jesus seeking to do just that. He said, in tears, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.” This is a prayer many of us can echo, as we seek to deepen our faith to overcome our anxiety. It really isn’t in our power to increase our faith all by ourselves. Only God can do this for us. All we can do is pray for God to give us the faith we need. It’s a great comfort to know this a prayer that God is always ready to answer.
The faith that helps to lower our anxiety is the faith that will help to transform our conflicts. When we say it will transform our conflicts, that doesn’t necessarily mean it will resolve all our conflicts. Ideally that’s what would happen, but in reality some conflicts are just too complicated for us to resolve completely. Perfect solutions are very elusive on this side of eternity. Finding a way for everyone’s needs to be met often proves to be beyond our grasp. Even if we manage to work out a compromise, the sense remains that things are less than ideal.
But if, on this side of eternity, our conflicts cannot be completely resolved, they can be transformed. They can be made less bitter, less destructive, less damaging to our relationships. They can move towards honest dialogue and mutual understanding. They can allow for respectful differences of opinion rather than hurtful divisions.
By the grace of God, our conflicts can be transformed. And even more importantly, they can be transforming. They can give us the opportunity to grow – emotionally and spiritually. They can give us the gift of seeing ourselves as others see us. They can put us in touch with the deep human needs that we share with all human beings. And they can help us discover what it means to live compassionately, with empathy, and according to God’s way of peace.
May God be our helper and guide as we seek transformation in all our conflicts.