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“Understanding Conflict”

James 3:13-18
Bob DeGray
June 5, 2005

Key Sentence

Conflict come when people pursue selfish desires.


I. Conflict is always selfish and destructive. (James 3:13-16)
II. Peacemaking is always selfless and constructive. (James 4:17-18)


        Biblical Conflict Resolution. That’s kind of a mouthful, but it’s a topic we’re gong to spend twelve weeks studying. Biblical means we’re going to base this teaching on solid Scriptural principles. Why? Because the answers to life’s problems are found in Scripture - it offers everything we need for life and godliness. And we’re going focus our study on conflict, which Ken Sande, in The Peacemaker defines as ‘a difference of opinion or purpose that frustrates someone’s goals or desires’. That’s a broad definition, but conflict is a broad topic. It includes everything from conflict within yourself to strife in the family, discord in the church and friction in the work place. And the evidence of conflict is very broad, ranging from anger, hatred and bitterness to coldness, indifference and avoidance. Conflict includes simple things like the conversation at our dinner table this week in which one person was feeling like a martyr because she’d put time in cleaning the bathroom, while another person was accusing her of not getting it clean. Conflict also includes very complicated things like longstanding marital warfare that can destroy both husband and wife.

        Because conflict is so broad, there is tremendous benefit for each of us if we learn to deal with conflict biblically. So we’re going to study Biblical Conflict ‘Resolution’, the character qualities, attitudes, behaviors and even techniques we need in order to resolve issues and be at peace with other people. Biblical conflict resolution is worth our study. But where do we begin? We have to start with understanding conflict. This week and next we’ll focus on that goal, looking at back-to-back passages in James. We’ll also be talking about the Peacemaker materials, and this week that will include ‘The Slippery Slope’. Our text is James 3:13-18 and it presents a stark contrast between foolishness and wisdom, selfishness and selflessness, conflict and peace. Looking at this passage we understand clearly that conflict is selfish and destructive, while peace-making is selfless and constructive.

I. Conflict is always selfish and destructive. (James 3:13-16)

        The first few verses show conflict as selfish and destructive. James 3:13-16 Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. 14But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. 15Such "wisdom" does not come from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil. 16For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.

        Verse 13 is an summary sentence. James emphasizes that real wisdom is not shown in intellectual success: it is shown in right living. Wisdom is skill for right living. Just as somebody can be extremely skillful at skiing or tennis or operating machinery, but not be highly educated, so too someone can be extremely skillful at right living, without being highly intellectual. James says “Here’s the right test of wisdom: a good life, and deeds done in the humility that wisdom brings.” True wisdom produces good works and is characterized by humility. It has much more to do with the way we live than what we know. Wisdom teaches us to do what we do in a spirit of meekness and gentleness.

        So this verse lays the groundwork: true wisdom shows itself in godly behavior and in humility, and these qualities lead to peace, while selfishness and bitterness lead to conflict. Haven’t you noticed this? The people you know to be wise, the people who are living at peace in their families, who are centers of peace in the church are also humble about themselves. So our goal here, this week and in this series, is to learn that wisdom, as applied to relationships and to conflict in those relationships.

        James says that conflict grows out of bitterness and selfishness. Verses 14: “But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth.” ‘Bitter envy’ could also be translated ‘bitterness’ or ‘jealousy’ or ‘harsh zeal’ - a strong desire to not do good for someone. The root of bitterness is almost always hurt or pain. When someone has failed you or hurt you, you stop desiring their good and begin to be negative toward them. Eventually you begin to actively oppose - that’s conflict. And bitterness often spills over into conflict with others.

        The second characteristic that leads to conflict is selfish ambition or selfishness. This is also a strong emotion - the consuming desire to ‘get my needs met’. It’s doing what I want rather than what someone else wants or what would be helpful to them. When you are driven by selfishness you find yourself saying ‘I have a right’. ‘I have a right to spend a little money on myself’. ‘I have a right to be left alone once in a while’. ‘I have a right to a little help around here.’ ‘I have a right to be happy.’ My needs, my plans, my programs are paramount, and I’d rather fight with you than care for you if you get in my way.

        James tells those caught in these sins not to be proud of them. That’s fairly common: people justify their bitterness and selfishness. ‘I have a right to feel this way’, or ‘I have to take care of myself first.’ But James tells us that such thinking ‘does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil.’ Self-justification is not a heavenly skill, but earthly - weak, transitory and imperfect. It is not a spiritual skill, but the skill of the fallen nature; it is not from God, but from Satan. In short it is the wisdom of the world, the flesh and the devil.

        So conflict is born out of bitter jealousy and selfish ambition, and is opposed to God’s way of doing things. That’s why, verse 16, it results in “disorder and every evil practice.” The word translated disorder means a restless, confused, chaotic state. As Douglas Moo comments “confusion, disorder, and tumult break out whenever Christians are pursuing their own ambitions.” And this disorder leads in turn to evil of every kind - all kinds of conflict. When people fall into the trap of pursuing their selfish desires, they inevitably run into others who are pursuing their selfish desires and from that clash comes anger, hatred, even violence. Conflict grows out of bitterness and selfishness, and is destructive.

        Bitterness and selfishness are implied the Peacemaker’s Slippery Slope. Sande says the three classic responses to conflict are peace faking, peace making and peace breaking. Peace faking is on the left of the diagram - escape responses. One is denial - pretending no problem exists or refusing to do what should be done to resolve a conflict properly. Denial leads to bitterness - we let the problem go unresolved and grow bitter over the accumulated hurts. A second escape response is flight - running away. This can take the form of ending a friendship, quitting a job, filing for divorce, or leaving a church. Flight may be legitimate in some cases, but it leaves conflict festering. The most extreme escape response is suicide. One way this happens is when extreme bitterness leads to the loss of all hope.

        On the other side of the slippery slope are the attack responses. Peacemakers lists three - assault, litigation and murder. Just as the escape responses reinforce and grow out of bitterness, so the attack responses grow out of selfishness. I think they are grounded in anger. I know, biblically, that anger is not always wrong. But my experience, confirmed by others, says most anger is sinful anger and that it grows out of selfishness: something I want has been denied me - my plan, my use of time, my desires. So I get mad. And that anger quickly grows into what Peacemakers calls assault, what we might call verbal and emotional abuse. These would include things like gossip and slander, saying hurtful things about people to others, and also rage and malice - lashing out with our words. The Bible calls all these things sin.

        Peacemakers talks about a middle category called litigation. Ken Sande is a lawyer, and often saw Christians try to hurt each other through the civil courts, despite the fact that we’re commanded to make every effort to settle differences within the church. And the last attack response is called murder, though I’d broaden this to include any kind of physical violence. Chuck Colson in his book The Body describes a church conflict that led to a Sunday morning fist-fight. Anytime there is physical violence, it’s sin, and we need to remember what Jesus taught, that wishing someone harm in our hearts, even if we do nothing, is the same in God’s eyes as murder.

II. Peacemaking is always selfless and constructive. (James 4:17-18)

        So the escape responses often grow out of and reinforce bitterness, the attack responses often grow out of and reinforce selfishness and all of these lead to conflict, to chaos and every evil practice. In contrast, verses 17-18 show that peacemaking is selfless and constructive. 3:17 But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. 18Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.

        James has described what the wisdom from above is not: now he tells us what it is, what effect God’s wisdom produces: selflessness or humility. This character quality is the key antidote to conflict. When we are not selfish we avoid much of the conflict we might create, and when we do have conflict we’re much more likely to solve it peacefully. James describes this selflessness with seven adjectives, beginning with purity. The word implies a cleansed heart that is no longer a slave to sin. Those who are pure have been rescued from sin by faith in Jesus, and have grown in Christ so the sins that plagued them are being overcome through God’s power. Devotion to God and his goals and heart desires is now the center of their lives. The first step in dealing with conflict is a life changing relationship with God.

        But James adds six more character qualities. He tells us that we are not only to be pure, but also peace loving, people who don’t relish conflict and don’t seek to stir it up. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram once reported that firefighters in Genoa, Texas, had set many destructive fires. When caught, they said:“We had nothing to do. We wanted to get the red lights flashing and the bells clanging.” Some part of you may want conflict, and love the feeling - but Jesus said ‘blessed are the peacemakers’. Before peacemaking is going to be a reality it has to be something we prefer.

        Third, we’re to be considerate or gentle. The word means willing to yield to others needs. The believer will follow in the steps of Jesus, who was characterized by humility and gentleness. He didn’t worry about himself or his own needs or his position, but gave himself up to serve others. If you’re the kind of person who leans toward the attack responses, anger, rage and violence, then this word is for you. James teaches that peace comes when we commit to gentleness, and consider the needs of others.

        The fourth adjective used by James is submissive or reasonable. This word asks whether we are open to reason, willing to submit to persuasion. Or do we have a self-centered attitude that we are always right, meaning whoever disagrees with us must always be wrong? It’s a dangerous attitude, and I’ve seen it especially harmful in marriages, where one or even both partners always have to be right.

        Fifth, wise peacemakers are full of mercy and good fruit. This is a great word. Very few conflicts can stand up under the assault of loving kindness, grace, mercy. Just as God resolved his conflict with us by mercifully sending his son Jesus to die for our sins, so our conflicts with other can often be resolved by an attitude of grace, compassion, mercy and forgiveness. Jesus talked about this when he emphasized the Golden Rule - do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Peacemakers uses the phrase ‘Golden Result’ - as you treat others with compassion, mercy and grace, they will treat you the same way. By the way, don’t miss the fact that the good news about Jesus is the key to all of this. What he did is our foundation, the source of our peace, our model.

        Ken Sande says “A true peacemaker is guided, motivated, and empowered by the gospel, the good news that God has forgiven all our sins and made peace with us through the death and resurrection of his Son. Through Christ he has also enabled us to break the habit of escaping from conflict or attacking others, and he has empowered us to become peacemakers.” We’re going to celebrate communion this morning and in that celebration we remember that Jesus shed his blood and allowed his body to be broken so we might have peace with God. He the ultimate peacemaker. Colossians 1:19 says that God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” That’s the act of mercy that has given us peace, and that’s the model we’re supposed to follow.

        Next, a wise life is impartial, steady, unwavering. It operates on consistent principle. In conflict that means looking at yourself with the same critical eye you use for others. Jesus called this ‘getting the plank out of your own eye’ - take responsibility for your own stuff before you try to correct the sins of others. We’re going to look at this in detail in a few weeks. This impartial self assessment is a critical part of resolving conflict. Conflict starts to end when you are willing to say ‘I messed up.’

        Finally, Christian peacemaking is sincere, without hypocrisy. James wants transparent sincerity to fill the life of the believer. If you try to fake sincerity, fake impartiality, fake the desire for peace, or fake purity, people will know. You might fool some people, but not those closest to you. If conflict is to be resolved you have to really want it to be resolved. Maybe you need to pray for this sincere desire for peace.

        The six responses found on the top portion of the slippery slope show us some practical ways to implement the attitudes we just looked at. The first three of these, personal peacemaking responses, are things done by the people in conflict, as they try to resolve their differences one-on-one before asking others to intervene. The first, on the left, is to overlook. Many disputes are so insignificant they should be resolved by quietly and deliberately overlooking an offense. Proverbs 19 says"A man's wisdom gives him patience; it is to his glory to overlook an offense" This is actually a form of forgiveness, and involves a deliberate decision not to talk about or dwell on it or let it grow into bitterness or anger. The danger is that those who lean toward escape responses will flee conflict by saying they’re overlooking the offense.

        Second, reconciliation. If an offense has damaged relationships or is too serious to overlook, we need to resolve it through confession, correction, and forgiveness. In Matthew 5 Jesus says ‘If your brother has something against you ... go and be reconciled’ Paul says “If someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently”. Finally, some personal and material issues need to be solved by negotiation, a give and take that addresses the needs of each side. Paul teaches you to “look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others”.
        If the parties cannot resolve a dispute through personal peacemaking, they should pursue one of the assisted responses, in which they seek help from other people in their church or community. It starts with widening the circle just a little bit, through mediation. When two people cannot reach an agreement in private, they should ask one or more objective outside people to meet with them to help them communicate more effectively and explore possible solutions. Matthew 18:16 advises us "If he will not listen [to you], take one or two others along" Then if you can’t come to a voluntary agreement, especially on material or legal issues, you may need to allow an arbitrator to listen to your arguments and render a binding decision to settle the issue. Paul says "If you have disputes about such matters, appoint as judges even men of little account in the church". On the other hand, if a person refuses to be reconciled and do right, Jesus commands church leaders to formally intervene to hold him or her accountable and to promote repentance and forgiveness. This is the Biblical process of church discipline, and the goal is always reconciliation.

        Having given us the qualities of peacemakers, James now reaches for a fitting summary, using what most believe to be a popular proverb: “peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.” A harvest of righteousness is contrasted to the disorder and evil produced by conflict. Conduct pleasing to God grows in a climate of peace, and those who create such a climate are assured by Jesus of their reward: ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.’

        I want to close with a true example of peacemaking that shows much of what we’ve said, that conflict grows out of bitterness and selfishness and spirals down to destruction, but peacemaking is grows in a climate of humility, and can rebuild lives. Ken Sande tells this story in Chapter 4 of The Peacemaker, though I’ve had to abbreviate.

        “Clutching his prepared statement in his hand, Mark sat down in the front pew, ready to get even with the elders. Six months ago they had refused to support his promotion to senior pastor. He felt they’d slandered him and talked about him behind his back. After months of tension, the elders called in a team of conciliators from Peacemaker Ministries. They taught peacemaking to the congregation and asked Mark and the elders to set an example by acknowledging their own contributions to the problem. Now the elders were going to make a public confession to the congregation, but their prepared statement didn’t go as far as Mark and his wife thought it should, so he and Donna planned to publicly elaborate on the elders' sins.

        “Reading from the statement, the head elder acknowledged several ways they’d wronged Pastor Mark. Then he looked straight at Mark and Donna and said, "We have sinned against you both and caused you great pain. We are so very sorry." It was evident he was speaking from his heart. Then another elder stepped up, confessed his own sins, and asked for forgiveness. Others did the same until seven of the nine elders had come forward to add their personal confessions to the prepared statement

        These words put a crack in the wall Mark had built around his heart. His wife sensed he needed a few moments to think, so she stepped to the microphone: "I came tonight planning to tell you how much you’ve hurt Mark and me. But God has shown me how wrong I’ve been. By holding on to hatred, I’ve been murdering each of you in my heart for months. I am so much guiltier than you are. I ask you to forgive me." As she sat back down, Donna's face showed the freedom she felt.

        “As he walked to the microphone Mark felt the war in his heart building to a climax. He could hold on to his anger and try to get even, or he could forgive and confess his own wrongs. ‘Help me, God’ he silently prayed. Turning to face the elders, he spoke words he had never expected to say. "I’m the guiltiest person here. As pastor I should have set an example of humility and submission. I should have trusted God to work through the elders and the congregation to select the next senior pastor. Instead, I let my desire control me. I exalted myself and became defensive when people raised honest concerns. I became angry that people were talking about me behind my back, but instead of talking with them, I avoided them and wallowed in resentment. Even when some people asked forgiveness, I refused to give it. And worst of all, I dragged Donna into my bitterness. I’m asking God for his forgiveness, and hope he will give you grace to forgive me too."

        You want to understand conflict? It grows in a climate of bitterness and selfishness, and it is resolved when people act selflessly, in humility, in imitation of Jesus.