Some of you are facing real conflict in your ministries, and the rest of you will face that day, someday soon. The Holy Spirit has recorded a story for you in Joshua 22 that could well save the day, if you will listen to it and learn from it. So here are some principles for smothering the fires of conflict before they get out of control.
First, the story:
The river Jordan wound through the eastern side of the promised land. For this reason, a small part of the land that God promised to the people of Israel was separated from the rest by the Jordan River. God’s plan was that 9½ of the tribes would share the larger “mainland” on the west side of the river and that the other 2½ tribes would share the smaller section on the east side of the river. Let’s call the 9½ tribes on the mainland “the mainland tribes” and call the small group on the other side of the river “the river tribes.”
Since the Israelites were approaching the promised land from the east, they came to the smaller property that was for the river tribes first… even before they got to the Jordan River itself. The entire nation of Israel conquered the land that was to be given to the river tribes, and you would think that the river tribes would say, “Thank you VERY much. We will begin to settle in our land now, and may God help you to conquer your own lands quickly.”
But if they did that, it would mean that the rest of Israel would have had to conquer the land with a diminished army! God was far too wise to have not seen that problem coming.
In Joshua chapter one, God told the men of the river tribes that they could leave their wives and children in their new land on the east side of the Jordan, but that they had to cross the river at the head of the army and help their brothers to obtain the rest of the land. Only then could they go home and settle in.
And that is exactly what happened. The river tribes stayed with the mainland tribes until they were finished conquering the land. And then, after warning them to remain faithful to the Lord, Joshua sent them back home to their side of the river with God’s blessing.
But this is where the story suddenly slips sideways.
One day after the river tribes returned to their homes across the river, some of the mainland tribes were wandering near the river and saw something that made them stop and stare in horror.
There on the far banks of the river was an altar! They probably rubbed their eyes in disbelief; but when they looked again, it was unmistakable. The river tribes had built a huge copy of the great altar where the people of Israel were commanded to sacrifice their offerings to God!
What were they thinking? All of Israel knew that they were not permitted to worship God anywhere but at the altar He had commanded, in front of the Ark of the Covenant.
Why would the river tribes need their own altar? They must have already adopted the worship of the foreign gods that they had driven out of the land!
When this shocking news was reported to the mainland tribes, they gathered their armies to go to war against the river tribes.
But someone in Israel displayed enough wisdom to put the pin back in the grenade. Here’s what they did: They sent a delegation to the river tribes led by a trusted leader named Phinehas and ten chiefs of the ten mainland tribes. These eleven men confronted the people of the river tribes and asked them, “Why have you insulted God in this way? Don’t you know that all of Israel will be devastated when God reacts to this idolatry?”
And they added, “Look. If living over here causes you to wander from your faith in God, then come over and live on our side of the river. We will make room for you in our own lands. But don’t turn to idolatry against God!”
And then they fell silent to hear the response of the river tribes.
The fate of Israel hung in the balance. The threat was real. The armies were gathered. Emotions were at flood stage. And there was seemingly no way that this could end well given the undeniable fact of the giant altar which stood, newly built, on the banks of the Jordan River for all to see.
This was the response of the river tribes: They cried out the name of the Lord, over and over, as a way of demonstrating their faithfulness to Him. And then they explained their actions, “We got to thinking that there would come a day in the future when your children or grandchildren on the mainland side would stop thinking of us as part of Israel, and would begin to think to themselves, ‘Those guys on the other side of the river are not part of us!’ ”
“We were so afraid of that, that we decided to construct a giant replica of the altar that you use to worship God so that every time you looked across the river and saw the altar that looks just like the altar of Israel, you would remember that we are servants of the same God. Look, nothing is being sacrificed on it! We KNOW that would be wrong to do, and we haven’t done that! It is just a monument… a symbol of our solidarity with the rest of Israel! It really means that we always want to be part of you, and never want to be parted from you.”
When the delegation heard this, they began to smile in relief, and the tension left the room. They returned to their side of the river and reported back to the mainland tribes that the giant altar was a symbol of unity, not a threat to their unity. The hearts of everyone were glad when they heard this. The army stood down, and the people all returned gladly to their homes.
The threat was over, and peace prevailed.
Every church leader should know this story and meditate on the lessons it teaches us about conflict. Here are a few principles to get you started.
CONFLICT IS RARELY INEVITABLE, EVEN IF IT SEEMS TO BE.
Even after battle lines have been drawn, key conversations between the wisest people on each side can often rescue the situation.
WHEN THE STORM CLOUDS OF WAR ARE GATHERING, LAUNCH AN INVESTIGATION INSTEAD OF AN ATTACK.
There is a wise verse in the book of Ecclesiastes that refers to what you should do when those over you lose their tempers. The verse advises, “…don’t leave your post!” And it adds this wisdom, “Calmness can lay great offenses to rest.” When conflict rises and war-clouds are gathering, the temptation is to flee the situation or prepare for war yourself. But God’s Word says that the best course of action is to stay steady and remain calm.
WHEN IT IS POSSIBLE TO SEE A SITUATION IN MORE THAN ONE WAY, ALWAYS CHOOSE THE VIEWPOINT THAT GIVES THE OTHER SIDE THE BENEFIT OF THE DOUBT.
Love believes the best about people, not the worst. The river tribes were trying to communicate their loyalty, not their rebellion. You always need to consider people’s motives when evaluating their behavior.
WHEN YOU CANNOT SEE THE SITUATION FROM MORE THAN ONE WAY, IT IS ALWAYS BETTER TO ASK FOR AN EXPLANATION THAN TO MAKE ASSUMPTIONS.
Sometimes NOT preparing for war takes more courage than preparing for war. But sitting down with someone who seems to have turned against you may reveal a way out.
IT IS ALWAYS WISER TO ASK “WHY DID YOU?” THAN “HOW COULD YOU?”
It is not enough to communicate, because if we are not careful, communication can make things worse! Instead, pray first about what you are going to communicate, and then maintain communication discipline so that you don’t get off track in that all-important conversation. Sometimes I will say, “I would like to read what I would like to say to you because this is such an important conversation that I don’t want to get it wrong.”
LEADERS TAKE THE LEAD IN SACRIFICING TO SOLVE THE PROBLEM.
The delegation said to the river tribes, “Look, if living over here is causing you to stray from the Lord, you can have some of our lands and live with us on our side of the river!” By saying this, the leaders proved that they were looking for a solution, even if it meant personal sacrifice on their part. What an excellent way to quell suspicion about your motives and to begin a dialogue that turns the situation around!
REMEMBER THAT ANY POTENTIAL CONFLICT HAS FOUR SIDES.
There is your side, of course, and there is the side of the other people with whom conflict is brewing. But we cannot forget that there is a third side — the enemy of our souls would love to twist our understanding and then use any misunderstanding to cause division, hatred, and bitterness. But thankfully, any potential conflict has a fourth side — the Lord is always on-scene and able to help us when we cry out to Him to rescue us from the day of danger. He sees every situation from every angle and can genuinely help us when we ask for His intervention.
THERE IS NO VERSE THAT SAYS, “BLESSED ARE THE WARMAKERS.”
For this reason, we should only send a delegation of leaders who have zero interest in turning the conflict into all-out war. Every situation will include voices that call for war. Those people must not be a part of the peace delegation!
GOD HAS PROMISED BLESSING TO THE PEACEMAKERS.
You can be confident that the Lord is ready to pour out blessing on those who actively work to put the pin back in the grenade. God will reward you for your peacemaking! And He will get the glory!
“How good and how pleasant it is when brothers dwell together in unity!” (Psalm 133:1)
I would be interested to hear other principles which you observe from this passage in Joshua 22. Feel free to email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) your insights!