We live in a time right now when tension is everywhere. People in our country have rarely been so focused on their own viewpoints on a multitude of issues. As a result, a portion of the populace is looking for allies, and by doing so, they are dividing everyone into two camps: “Are you FOR what I believe, or are you AGAINST what I believe?”
Others are walking on eggshells in every conversation, trying not to inadvertently fall into the AGAINST category. Still others are just itching for an argument, GLAD to come across someone with an opposing viewpoint. And it doesn’t matter what the topic is — politics and the upcoming elections, the media, peaceful marches or violent protests, the coronavirus pandemic, masks, in-person meetings — the list is endless.
Everyone has opinions, and there are so many divisive topics right now in our society that the likelihood that ANYONE will hold all of the same views as a person they meet can be very small. The church is not immune from these tensions. I am hearing about instances of shouting matches in congregations and (more commonly) quiet flare-ups that threaten the very fabric of old friendships.
So … how should we think about these strange and contentious times in which we live? For some, these are times to avoid anything that looks and feels like controversy. Their theme verse is, “Whatever you believe about these things, keep between yourself and God” (Romans 14:22). But others feel free to express their convictions and are willing to part company with someone because the issue in question is so important to them.
I would like to suggest that we run these conversations through a grid that is known as the four levels of conflict. I was certainly not the author of this grid. I learned it many years ago during training for suicide prevention counseling. But across the years, I have found these concepts extremely helpful in sorting through contentious issues.
Ready? Let’s go!
The first level of conflict is this: “My opinion disagrees with your opinion.” This level of conflict happens every day. It is normal to hold differing viewpoints from others, and it is definitely not a sin (although it can lead to sin, as we will soon see).
The second level of conflict builds on the first one. Here it is: “Because my opinion disagrees with your opinion, I don’t like you.” This is when it begins to become personal. If this one isn’t quite yet a sin (because we can’t always help how we feel about someone), it comes dangerously close. If we indulge those feelings instead of taking them to the Lord for cleansing, this one can easily slide into the third level of conflict.
The third level of conflict is this: “I don’t like you SO MUCH that I have decided that I want to win and I want you to lose.” Now to be clear, almost no one would actually say that to someone. But by level three, this is the internal dialogue that is happening within the person. As you can see, by this time we are definitely talking about sin, whether it is admitted or not. Level One is situational, and Level Two is emotional — it is about the feeling that you are experiencing toward a person. But Level Three? This is intentional. It says that my intention is to take action so that I win and you lose. Obviously, this violates the Lord’s command to do for others what you would want them to do for you. Since you don’t want to lose, deciding to make sure that they lose is simply … sin. This is the level that ruins friendships and splits churches. But there is one more level that is even more deadly.
The progression of conflict up to this point could be stated this way: “Since my opinion differs from your opinion and, as a consequence, I don’t like you, I have decided that I want to win and I want you to lose.”
But listen to the voice of Level Four: “I want you to lose SO MUCH that I am willing to lose in order to make sure that you lose.”
This is conflict of a most devastating and lethal degree. We were trained that this is the level at which a husband is willing to kill his family and then put the gun to his own head. It is the level at which a person will fly a plane into a skyscraper full of people. This is the level that Jesus was describing when He said, “And sin, when it has fully conceived, gives birth to death.”
Here’s the thing: people can be at Level Four and yet not commit murder or suicide. They may be content to ruin a church even if it means ruining their own reputation in the community, or bring their family down even if it means that they also will lose in the process. Clearly, Level Four is the epitome of Satan’s desire to wreak devastation on a person, a family, a church, or a nation.
So why do I share these things with you?
Because as followers of our Lord, we must examine our hearts on a regular basis. We want the Lord Jesus to get all of the glory for our lives, and we want the enemy of our souls to get none. And that is why we must take great care to not let a root of bitterness grow up in our hearts over these many areas in which our opinion differs from that of someone sitting in church next to us.
Ask God for the grace to be free from destructive conflict with others, and then be vigilant to keep a Level One conflict from sliding into a Level Two or worse.
And after looking carefully for the log in your own eye, be alert to help those you love (and those with whom you worship) to remain loving and gracious toward others. Our Lord promised that He Himself would bless people who humbly work to be peacemakers. There has never been a time when that beautiful work has been more important!
A gentle word spoken lovingly and privately can often help someone to “come to their senses” before disagreement progresses to division. Done well, no fame or reward will come your way in this life for the delicate work of protecting unity, because you will have handled it so discretely that all of the reward will come when Jesus welcomes you into His holy presence. But believe me, you will be eternally grateful that God used you as a peacemaker for such a time as this!
© September 2020, Rev. Steve Jones, Fort Wayne, Indiana