September 14, 2008
Take a look at this fish. It’s kind of cute, huh? You might even say it’s beautiful. But this is one of the world’s most feared fish. This is a red-bellied piranha, native to the rivers of
One piranha doesn’t look all that scary. But every piranha has extremely sharp teeth. Not so cute! But … still not so scary … if you’re only talking about one piranha.
The problem is that piranhas often live and eat in schools, large groups. 100 little bites add up to big trouble. I wanted to show you some video of piranhas eating, but I was afraid I’d scare the women and children. It’s pretty gross! Just to give you an idea, though, look at this skeleton of a cow that was eaten up by a school of cute little piranhas.
They are small fish. They take little bites. But they cause great damage.
OK, just hold onto that thought for a moment, and let me shift gears. Gary Chapman wrote a book called The Five Love Languages, where he says that every person has a “love tank.” Every person has an emotional tank inside of us that needs to be filled with love. If that tank is full, life is good. We get along with others; we contribute to society; and we share love easily. But if our love tank is empty, then we tend to have problems. We get irritable; we say harsh words; we act selfishly; we try to get love in unhealthy ways.
Every person has a love tank, and every church has a love tank. Rick Warren, author of The Purpose-Driven Life, says that the single biggest drain on a church’s passion is gossip. I think we can broaden that out. The one thing that will drain a church’s passion and love faster than anything else is: poorly handled conflict.
One little piece of gossip, “Did you hear what she said?” One little buried injury, “I can’t believe he didn’t even say thank you!” One little angry email.
One is not big. One is not going to destroy the church or destroy a person, but bad conflict is like having piranhas in our love tank. Each little bit of conflict takes a bite here and a bite there, and before you know it, all the love is gone. All the passion is gone. All the energy is gone. Before you know it, we are asking ourselves why we are here. Before you know it, many people just aren’t here.
Conflict. It’s a big deal. Conflict is part of life, part of our church, part of our families, part of our jobs. If you grow and change, you are going to have conflict. If you put people from different cultures together on one team, you are going to have conflict. Well, we are growing and changing and multicultural, so it’s natural that we’re going to have conflict as a church.
I have to be honest with you. This is one of the most important sermons I’ve ever preached. If we get this right, we’ll be OK. We’ll figure the rest out together. If we get this wrong, we’re screwed! Those conflicts will become piranhas that eat us up inside.
Every member here makes 10 commitments. Commitment #9 is: “To increase the passion to increase the passion of our church, I will deal with conflict biblically.”
So Matthew 5 says, if you do something wrong to your brother, you need to go to him and restore the relationship. Matthew 18 says if someone does something wrong to you, you need to go to that person and try to restore the relationship. It doesn’t matter if you are innocent or guilty. Either way, it’s your job to take initiative to resolve the conflict.
And Matthew 5 says something really shocking: “leave your sacrifice there on the altar. Go and be reconciled to that person. Then come and offer your sacrifice to God.” Resolving conflict well is more important than going to church. Resolving conflict well is more important than giving your offering.
Healthy community is one of God’s highest values! Almost nothing is more important to God than healthy, loving community. If we’ve got a piranha in our tank, we need to deal with it!
Our church’s mission is to be a loving community that changes our world. That means we need a whole lot of love right here, flowing among us. If we’ve got a piranha in our tank, that’s priority one for God.
Before we go on, let me clear up one myth. I’m not saying conflict is bad. Conflict can be healing. Bad conflict – or poorly managed conflict – can be deadly. Listen to Proverbs 27. (Read Proverbs 27:4-6, 14-17.)
I love Proverbs. “A loud and cheerful greeting early in the morning will be taken as a curse!” I had a roommate like that. “Good morning!” “HUMPH!”
“A quarrelsome wife is as annoying as constant dripping on a rainy day.” I’m just not going to say anything about that one – because of course I don’t know anything about that.
“Wounds from a friend are better than kisses from an enemy.” Have you ever had a wound like that? A friend comes and talks to you about something. It hurts, but it makes you better.
“Iron sharpens iron, so a friend sharpens friend.” That sounds nice, but how does iron sharpen iron? Iron sharpens iron through conflict – friction and striking. Conflict can tear us apart. But conflict can also sharpen us, make us stronger, and bring us together as a community – if we do conflict right.
OK, so how do we do conflict right? The easiest way to start is by talking about how we so often do conflict wrong. I want to talk about 6 ways we often go wrong with conflict, but first I have to make a confession. I have done every single one of these wrong ways. As I’ve worked on this sermon this week, I’ve been realizing that I need to get better at dealing with conflict, too.
The big problem, though, is that all of us go wrong with conflict. More than 200 years ago, John Wesley preached a sermon called “The Cure of Evil Speaking.” He said, “And how extremely common is this sin, among all orders and degrees of men! How do high and low, rich and poor, wise and foolish, learned and unlearned, run into it continually! … And the very commonness of this sin makes it difficult to be avoided.” Not much has changed in 200 years.
OK, so how can we avoid sinning when we have conflict? How can we avoid doing conflict wrong?
1) Don’t ignore it. It won’t go away if you pretend it’s not there. Ignoring conflict is like ignoring cancer.
2) Don’t just pray. This sounds like very spiritual advice: “Don’t talk about it. Just pray about it. Just suck it in and push it down and deal with it within yourself.” There are two problems with this advice. First, it’s not Biblical. Jesus doesn’t say “Just pray about it.” Jesus says, “Go and be reconciled to that person” (Matthew 5:24). The second problem: IT DOESN’T WORK! Praying doesn’t heal the relationship. It might make you feel better, but it doesn’t heal the relationship.
3) Don’t talk to other people. There is a biblical word for talking to other people about someone else’s problems or conflicts you have with someone else. It’s called gossip. It’s a sin. American’s talk about “venting” or “venting your frustrations.” Be careful. Venting in public or in a group is one sure way to turn piranhas loose in our community.
4) Don’t make a public statement. One person has been coming late to meetings, and at the end of the meeting, someone says, “Um, ughm, I just want to remind everyone how important it is to come to our meetings on time.” Either talk to the other person, or don’t say anything.
5) Don’t pick a fight. Don’t try to resolve the conflict when you’re boiling with anger. If your attitude isn’t right, it’s just going to get messy.
6) Don’t write an email. You know the kind of angry emails I’m talking about. You’ve gotten them. You’ve sent at least one or two. Here are four never’s about emails. Never send an email when you’re angry. Never send an email about conflict to a big group of people. Never send an email to your pastor (or boss) about a conflict with someone else. Never send an email when you can talk in person or by phone. Emails are for chickens.
OK, so we’re all pretty much guilty as charged for handling conflict poorly. How do we do conflict right? Jesus gives us 5 steps for dealing with conflict the right way.
1) The first step is not actually in the passages we read today. It’s way back in Matthew 7: “First, get rid of the log in your own eye; then you will se well enough to deal with the speck in your friend’s eye.” “Just pray about it” is bad advice, but we should start by praying and reflecting. When you pray, you’re trying to get to two basic attitudes: humility and forgiveness. Remember, you’ve done lots of stupid stuff, too. And remember, God has forgiven you for lots and lots of stuff, so you can forgive this guy or girl. You aren’t ready to talk until you are ready to talk with humility and forgiveness.
2) Go to the person directly and privately. Here’s a hint. Don’t try to have a conversation like this right before church. Make an appointment, and talk about it later.
Here’s another hint. If the conflict is really big or really emotional, it might help to write a letter first. Then, you can read the letter to the person or have her read it while you are sitting there. This way, you are more likely to say what you really need to say, and the other person is more likely to actually listen.
Remember, the goal of this conversation is not to make the other person feel bad. The goal is to restore the relationship. “If the other person listens and confesses it, you will have won that person back” (Matthew 18:15).
3) If the one-on-one conversation doesn’t work, take 1-2 others and try again. You should choose these people carefully. They should be people who have integrity, people who will not gossip, people who will speak with gentleness and honesty.
In Korean culture, you might need to start with a mediator. Korean culture is so much more indirect. But you still have to deal with it. You can’t just complain to someone and hope that maybe the other person will hear about it. You need to choose a mediator and deal with the conflict.
4) If you still can’t find resolution, take it to the “church.” It’s probably not a good idea to stand up in the middle of the worship service and talk about your complaint against Frank. The “church” probably means representative leaders, like the pastors or elders. In a school or business, the “church” might be a supervisor, a leadership group, or the working team. The point here is to take it to a group with some authority over both of you.
5) Finally, if everything else fails, treat the other person as a “tax collector.” This sounds really bad at first, but we have to remember that this is Jesus talking. Jesus loved and accepted the tax collectors and “sinners” with all his heart. I think Jesus is saying, “If all else fails, just love them and try to win them with love.”
Now, you might be thinking, “This sounds really hard. This goes against my culture. I don’t want to go have difficult conversations with people, especially not with my boss or with a leader. To be honest, I’d rather gossip or ignore everything.”
Remember what Paul said to Timothy: “For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline” (2 Timothy 1:7). Confronting conflict well is the strong thing. It’s the loving thing. It’s the self-disciplined thing to do.
As I think about us as a church and our lives outside this room, I know that all of us have done conflict wrong many times. Maybe we need some more courage and love in our lives. Here are two challenges.
1. Maybe you’ve done conflict wrong. Maybe when we were talking about what not to do, you thought, “Oops. That’s me. Been there. Done that.” If that was you, maybe you need to apologize to the people involved in the conflict. Maybe you can start right here in this room or out there during snack time. Apologizing is like taking medicine. It sucks, but it helps. It helps make us better.
2. Maybe you have an active conflict. Maybe there is some wrong or some broken relationship that is unhealed in your life. Maybe today you can take a step of courage and ask that person to meet with you to talk about that conflict. It may hurt, but it will help.
Remember, bad conflicts are like bad piranhas. They take little bites here and there and drain our love tanks. They suck away the passion and love that we have together. Let’s work together to get the piranhas out … and to keep them out. Then, we will be a loving community that changes our world.