Conflict is scary. Sometimes a disagreement seems to threaten our most treasured relationships. There are so many conflicts in our church that some fear our church could be torn apart. So many are digging in their heels and making their stand.
I am impacted in a very real and personal way by one of these church debates, but that debate is not what this post is about. This post is about a much bigger problem, my own heart towards those who disagree with me. I became resentful of prominent people on the opposite side of the question and started mocking them to my friends. Underneath the clever insults, I was angry, hurt, and probably afraid as well. One day a good friend called me out, saying it made him afraid that he would one day find himself on the wrong end of my criticism. I had felt so justified in everything I said, yet I instantly knew he was right.
Since then I have come to believe that the biggest problems we have with controversy are not about the outcomes of the controversies, but the state of our own hearts towards each other. We have stopped seeing each other as fellow children of God, and started seeing each other as objects to be used and obstacles to overcome.
One of the most astonishing qualities that Jesus exhibited in his time on earth was his capacity to continue caring for individuals no matter how much pain and damage they caused. He wept over Jerusalem because he knew what would result from their rejection of him, he treated Judas with kindness and love though he knew he would be betrayed, and he prayed for the very ones who tortured and killed him at the very moment they were torturing and killing him.
By contrast, when insulted most of us have the impulse to go on a self-righteous tirade, to mock, and to show how foolish our enemies really are. Even if we don’t act on it, the impulse is there. We respond this way because of self-centeredness. Our nature is to be more concerned with the impact that someone has on us, on those we care for, or the institutions we want to protect than we are with the humanity person in front of us. Once someone is a threat, we want to control and contain them.
This is why loving our enemies is such a radical and difficult concept. Our concerns related to those with whom we have conflict are primarily external. They relate to what they have done, what we want them to do, and how they have impacted our own reputations. We are not thinking of them as people whose lives and experience matter as much as ours, but as objects with which we interact and from which we must get what we want, deserve, and need.
Jesus never treated people this way. And he taught us not to treat each other that way.He taught us to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us. He set an example of laying down his life for bad people, people who cause problems, people who sin, in other words, for us. And in the light of that forgiveness we have ourselves received, we must return forgiveness to other who we believe are bad people, sinners, and people who cause problems. Forgiveness means caring about them, and not trying to make them pay for the bad things they have done. We owe that to everyone, because we have received it from God.
These are the plain teachings of Jesus, that we love everyone. Yet for some reason, when we believe we are right on a theological point, we abandon these teachings and are consumed with anger towards others.
In fact, we even feel good about it. Conservative Christians are increasingly interested in winning the culture war to make this a Christian nation “again” and not in laying down their lives in service to others. The same happens in the Adventist church when people become more concerned with protecting their idea of Adventist identity from other Adventists who they believe threaten it. So they go to war. Beliefs are entrenched, the spirit is quenched, and our Adventist identity is made a mockery.
I am not concerned with passionate and vigorous debate. Anyone who knows me knows that. I am concerned by anger, hostility, name-calling, and the war imagery that is shockingly prevalent. I am concerned when our hearts towards each other go from the realm of grace to that of judgment. Never are we called on to judge others for their sins, always to extend grace and love even when we believe their actions or views need to be opposed. Opposition should be in the spirit of grace, love, and the last thing we every thing about in a conflict — humility.
This in no way undermines the importance of the issues themselves, rather it is a challenge to approach them differently. I want to challenge all of us to do some things that are opposed to our human nature:
- to pray for those we disagree with, no matter how damaging or wrong we believe them to be
- to ditch the fear of what could happen in exchange for trusting God with His church
- to understand that we cannot and should not try to control others or to control the direction of God’s church
- to show grace in the face of the mocking words or media we might receive from others
- to remind ourselves of the grace we have received from God
- to let go of the need to appear right and justified
The most important question is not about who is right, but about whether we have loved in the midst of the conflict.
As Christians, we are never free from the responsibility to see others as precious, valued, and loveable children of God. Scripture repeatedly says that if our love for God does not spill over into love for all his children, it is not true love at all. If we lose the desire to see those on the other side of the debate prosper and grow, just as we desire this for ourselves, we have lost more than an argument; we have lost the essence of our faith and a positive outcome to these debates is no longer possible.
It is lack of love, and not lack of agreement, that is tearing us apart.
Note: This article was written by Alicia Johnston and originally posted at roundtabletheology.com. It has been reposted with permission.
Alicia Johnston is an obsessive reader, a poor guitar player, and a lover of sunshine. She is currently serving the Carolina Conference of Seventh-day Adventists as a church planting pastor. In a previous career she was a counselor and holds an MA in Clinical Psychology in addition to an MDiv. She got very tired of school before she was done.