Anxiety in Disagreements
Anxiety sparks when a perspective we value bumps into another perspective that challenges it in some way. If we find this new perspective to be unacceptable, that’s when our “Someone is wrong on the internet; I must correct them!” impulse leaps into action. When anxiety sparks—poof! —it’s like a little anxious dragon is born in our minds, ready to light things on fire. It’s the first sign of a disagreement potentially on its way.
Be Slow to Sue
Former Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia argues how Christians ought to resolve conflict based on 1 Corinthians 6:
I think this passage [1 Cor. 6:1–8] has something to say about the proper Christian attitude toward civil litigation. Paul is making two points: first, he says that the mediation of a mutual friend, such as the parish priest, should be sought before parties run off to the law courts. . . . I think we are too ready today to seek vindication or vengeance through adversary proceedings rather than peace through mediation. . . . Good Christians, just as they are slow to anger, should be slow to sue.
Justice Antonin Scalia, “Teaching About the Law,” Quarterly 7, no. 4 (Christian Legal Society, Fall 1987)
Changing Someone’s Mind (Isn’t Easy)
A mind is more like a pile of millions of little rocks than a single big boulder. To change a mind, we need to carry thousands of little rocks from one pile to another, one at a time. This is because our brains don’t know how to rewire a full belief in one big haul. New neuron paths aren’t created that quickly. You might be able to get a tiny percent of someone’s mind to rewire to a new belief in a given conversation, but minds change slowly and in unpredictable ways. You might be changing it in the wrong direction.
Choosing a Hymn (Is Not as Easy as You Might Think)
From the Hayes Parish Church on 18 March 1749:
The Clerk gave out the 100th Psalm, and the Singers immediately opposed him, and sang the 15th and bred a disturbance.
Hayes Parish Register.
This Constant Bickering
The monks at a remote monastery deep in the woods followed a rigid vow of silence. Their vow could only be broken once a year—on Christmas—by one monk. That monk could speak only one sentence. One Christmas, Brother Thomas had his turn to speak and said, “I love the delightful mashed potatoes we have every year with the Christmas roast!” Then he sat down. Silence ensued for 365 days.
The next Christmas, Brother Michael got his turn and said, “I think the mashed potatoes are lumpy, and I truly despise them!” Once again, silence ensued for 365 days.
The following Christmas, Brother Paul rose and said, “I am fed up with this constant bickering!”
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Dealing with Conflict Directly
If someone has done something wrong even at a personal level, the right thing to do is not to gossip about it, not to tell everybody else, not to allow resentment to build up and fester, and certainly not to begin plotting revenge. The right thing to do is to go and tell them directly.
Unfortunately, the people who are best at doing this, in my experience, are the people who actually rather enjoy telling other people that they’re out of line. Perhaps the only real qualification for doing it is if you know, deep down, that you would much rather not have to do it, and you have to pray for grace and courage to go and knock on the door in the first place.
Don’t Give the Enemy a Seat
During an especially difficult season planting a church, pastor Louie Giglio was filled with the raw emotions that often accompany the messy side of pastoral ministry. Without going into much detail, it seems clear Giglio had experienced betrayal by someone in his inner-circle of leadership. His anger built into a crescendo when that person’s actions became clear. Giglio furiously began writing a text message to a trusted friend, expecting empathy and perhaps even some vindication of his “righteous anger.” Giglio recounts what happened next:
I pressed send and waited. Literally. I just stared at the screen, looking for support to arrive. I wanted a reply that resounded with a hearty, Hey, Louie, I’ve got your back! I knew you were right all along! I wanted a shoulder to cry on. A celebratory high five or fist bump (not the emoji kind). I needed actual words in return, and lots of them. A moment passed. Another. I waited.
…And then it arrived. A one-sentence reply. Nine words to be exact. In dismay I blurted, “You’ve got to be kidding!” But when I leaned in and focused on the message, those nine words changed my life. The message read: Don’t give the Enemy a seat at your table. I pushed aside my annoyance and let the message sink in. Quickly I saw that my friend had nailed it. I had allowed my adversary—the Devil—to influence the conversation inside my mind.
My struggle wasn’t about fighting with people. People were involved, but the battle I was facing was against principalities and powers of darkness (Ephesians 6:12). My heavenly Father wasn’t making me afraid or paranoid. My Shepherd wasn’t putting thoughts of despair in my mind. The harmful thoughts were coming from someone else. The Enemy had taken a seat at my table, and I was allowing myself to listen to a killer.
…Soon after, I was led to study Psalm 23—a text that has comforted and steadied God’s people through the ages as they have navigated troubled waters. Now I was seeing it through fresh eyes. Especially the line that reads, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies” (v. 5). I could see myself sitting at a table, with the Good Shepherd across from me. He had led me through dark valleys to reach the table, and I didn’t need to be afraid, even though the fiery trials weren’t all resolved.
My place at the table didn’t mean that my enemies would be removed from the equation. In fact, the table was set right in the middle of my enemies. That captivated my imagination and held my attention. I didn’t need to vindicate myself. I didn’t need to clear my name. I didn’t need to control this equation or work overtime to improve it. My task was to concentrate on the Good Shepherd, the One who owned the table.
“Divorce? Never, But Murder, Often”
The British actress Sybil Thorndike was married to Sir Lewis Casson another prolific actor. Their marriage was rather tumultuous at times, and after his death, she was once asked, “Did you ever think of divorce?” “Divorce? Never. But murder often!”
Stuart Strachan Jr.
A Failure to Appreciate the Other’s Point of View
Most quarrels are due to a misunderstanding, and the misunderstanding is due to our failure to appreciate the other person’s point of view. It is more natural to us to talk than to listen, to argue than to submit. This is true in industrial disputes as much as in domestic quarrels.
Many conflicts in the world of employment could be resolved if both sides first examined themselves critically and then examined the other side charitably, rather than our normal practice of being charitable to ourselves and critical of others. The same could be said of complex international unrest. The tensions of today are due largely to fear and foolishness. Our outlook is one-sided. We exaggerate the virtues in ourselves and the vices in others.
“What happens here may be expressed by the quite simple and yet unfathomable word, ‘forgive.’ What occurs when I forgive another person? It does not mean . . . that I can ‘forget’ what he did to me. It just can’t do that. No, when I forgive another, I myself step into the breach and say to myself, ‘The same thing that made the other person mean, hateful, and guilty toward me is in my heart as well. Ultimately we are two of a kind.’
If I tell my neighbor, ‘I forgive you,’ and I say it from the bottom of my heart, then, in a manner of speaking, I take over the burden of his guilt and place it on my own heart just as though it were mine. . . . I say, ‘Yes, what you did to me was very wrong; it was even shocking. But I know from looking at myself how fickle and wicked the human heart is. Therefore I could do exactly what you did. It’s coiled up in me too. So I’ll suffer through it with you. I’ll put myself in your place. I’ll share your burden.’ When I forgive another person, I share the burden of his guilt. I become his brother and his sister, a burden-bearer at his side.”
Four Thousand Deaths Over a Bucket
From the late Middle Ages until the Renaissance, northern Italy divided into factions who supported rival political powers, which further intensified their border disputes. According to legend, in 1325, a huge conflict erupted when soldiers form the town of Modena stole an oak bucket from the nearby rival town of Bologna. The thieves mockingly displayed the bucket for all to see.
Outraged, the Bolognese army marched to Modena to recover their bucket and pride. When the Modenese refused their demand, the Bolognese declared war. This event became known as the War for the Oaken Bucket. Bologna summoned a mighty army from the Guelph cities. Thirty thousand men-at-arms, two thousand knights, and Pope John XXII himself joined the chase of reclaiming the bucket.
The Modenese by contrast, only gathered five thousand men-at-arms and two thousand knights. The two armies clashed on the afternoon of November 15 at Zappolino. Despite being outnumbered nearly five to one, the Modenese managed to rout the Bolognese in just two hours of battle. The Modenese pursued the Bolognese all the way to the walls of Bologna, where they flaunted their victory before their humiliated enemy. A total of four thousand men died that day. All because of a bucket.
The Fruit of a Productive Disagreement
A productive disagreement yields fruit: the fruit of security, by removing a threat, reducing a risk, resulting in a deal, or concluding with a decision; the fruit of growth, by revealing new information about the world or each other that makes us see and understand reality more deeply; the fruit of connection, by bringing us together and giving us opportunities to forge trust with one another; and the fruit of enjoyment, by teaching us to operate with a collaborative mind-set that emphasizes playfulness, adventure, fun, and sometimes even awe.
The Golden Result
The Golden Result is a corollary to the Golden Rule, which calls us to do to others as we would have them do to us. The Golden Result says that people will usually treat us as we treat them. If we blame others for a problem, they will usually blame in return. But if we say, “I was wrong,” it is amazing how often the response will be, “It was my fault too.” I have seen this result in hundreds of cases over the past twenty-one years. Whether the dispute involves a personal quarrel, divorce, lawsuit, or church division, people generally treat one another as they are being treated.
When one person attacks and accuses, so does the other. And when God moves one person to start getting the log out of his or her own eye, it is rare that the other side fails to do the same. The Golden Result occurs most often with people who understand and cherish the gospel. When we admit that our own sins are so serious that Jesus had to die for us, and remember that he has forgiven us for all our wrongs, we can let go of our illusion of self-righteousness and freely admit our failures. When we do this, we experience the wonderful gift of God’s forgiveness. And in many cases, he will be pleased to use our confessions to help others see the logs in their eyes.
Human Nature: Fighting Our Neighbors
In the sixteenth century, there were close to seventy wars involving the nations and states of Europe. The Danes fought the Swedes. The Poles fought the Teutonic Knights. The Ottomans fought the Venetians. The Spanish fought the French—and on and on. If there was a pattern to the endless conflict, it was that battles overwhelmingly involved neighbors.
You fought the person directly across the border, who had always been directly across your border. Or you fought someone inside your own borders: the Ottoman War of 1509 was between two brothers. Throughout the majority of human history, encounters—hostile or otherwise—were rarely between strangers. The people you met and fought often believed in the same God as you, built their buildings and organized their cities in the same way you did, fought their wars with the same weapons according to the same rules.
The Key Word in a Disagreement
The key word in our definition of a disagreement (an unacceptable difference between two perspectives), isn’t “difference.” It’s “unacceptable.” Once the clash between perspectives becomes unacceptable, our motivation shifts from understanding minds to changing them, and from that shift springs a world of trouble. We can change our own beliefs and our own behaviors, but when it comes to changing other people, our options are more limited and the results can vary wildly.
…Sometimes our attempts to change minds can actually have the opposite effect, making people dig in their heels even deeper in their current belief. It’s called the backfire effect. Trying to persuade people too much can backfire. For example: You have two good friends who start dating. When they break up, one of the friends asks you to stop being friends with the other. The backfire effect might lead you to actually reach out to the other friend or even to sympathize with them more.
Revenge Doesn’t Say
In Exclusion and Embrace, Yale professor Miroslav Volf reflects on the themes of revenge, mercy, forgiveness and grace. Volf, who grew up in war-ravaged Croatia, speaks from a place of deep concern for the sectarian divisions that often lead to conflict and violence. His insight here is significant for anyone who desires peace but fights against the fleshly desire for revenge.
Revenge doesn’t say, `An eye for an eye.” It says, “You take my eye, and I’ll blow out your brains.” It doesn’t say, “An insult for an insult.” It says, “You cross me once, you cross me twice, and I’ll destroy your character and your career.” It doesn’t say, “You organize an act of terror, and we’ll punish you.”
It says, “You organize an act of terror, and we’ll use the overwhelming military force of a superpower to recast the political landscape of the entire region from which you came.” Revenge abandons the principle of “measure for measure” and, acting out of injured pride and untamed fear, gives itself to punitive excess. That’s why revenge is morally wrong. In its zeal to punish, it overindulgently takes from the offender more than due.
The Two Hermits Attempt to Quarrel
Two hermits lived together for many years without a quarrel. One said to the other, “Let’s have a quarrel with each other, as other men do.” The other answered, “I don’t know how a quarrel happens.” The first said, “Look here, I put a brick between us, and I say, ‘That’s mine.’ Then you say, ‘No, it’s mine.’ That is how you begin a quarrel.” So they put a brick between them and one of them said, “That’s mine.” The other said, “No, it’s mine.” He answered, “Yes, it’s yours. Take it away.” They were unable to argue with each other.”
Still Looking for inspiration?
Consider checking out our quotes page on Conflict. Don’t forget, sometimes a great quote is an illustration in itself!