Seeking the Peace from Above: Peacemaking and Conflict-Resolution in the Church


Icon by Linda Haddad, www.byzantineicons-lindahaddad.comIcon by Linda Haddad, www.byzantineicons-lindahaddad.comBy Fr. John Mefrige

Reprinted from The Word, June 2010

The very words of Christ Himself proclaim, “Blessed are the Peacemakers, for they shall be called the Children of God,” but all too often we see the very children of the Church embroiled in destructive conflict and controversy. Who has not been to a Parish Council meeting or an Annual Parish Assembly where there has been conflict or controversy? Who has not experienced strong differences of opinions within families or with siblings? Who cannot say that they know people who have gone through messy divorces in their Church communities? As a matter of fact, a cottage industry has emerged on the Internet now populated with numerous websites and blogs specifically dedicated to exploring the question of just how we are dealing with conflict in the Church. Perhaps one might conclude generally that conflict is “normal” to the human condition, and, by extension, to the Church, and we just have to do our best to survive it. But the reality is that, all too often, conflict leaves in its wake a myriad of severed relationships and broken ties that ultimately do harm to the very members of the Church that produce it.

The truth is that, as a result of most conflict, the members of that body are left reeling, wounded and scarred on the floor of the arena of differing opinions. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if people could simply decide to respond to conflict in a gracious and constructive way? Wouldn’t it be magnificent if, every time there was a difference of opinion in the Church or in any of our relationships, it could be worked out in a way that builds the relationship, rather than tearing it down? What I would like to suggest in this article is that conflict is not something to be avoided or suppressed, but that it is an opportunity for ministry. Yes! Let me say that again – conflict can be an opportunity to minister to each other and, through that ministry, glorify God in the process. We have the opportunity to harness the transformative power of conflict for growth and healthy change. This is no easy task, however, as evidenced by the many missed opportunities within our church families. To break free from a pattern of destructive behavior, we need to understand the way we react to conflict and the dynamics it produces, and get to the bottom of the issue that fuels the fire of destructive conflict.

In his book The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict, Ken Sande summarizes what God teaches about resolving conflict in four principles, which he refers to as “The Four G’s:"

• Glorify God – How can I honor God in this situation, and how can I witness to what He has done?

• Get the log out of your eye – How have I contributed to this conflict and what do I need to do to resolve it?

• Gently restore – How can I help others to understand how they have contributed to this conflict?

• Go and be reconciled – How can I demonstrate forgiveness and encourage a reasonable solution to this conflict?

Furthermore, Christ provides us with clear guidance on this issue. During His earthly ministry, a young man approached Him and asked Him to settle a conflict with his brother, a legitimate concern of inheritance governed by the tradition of sibling position at that time. Instead of entering into negotiations and rendering a decision as would a judge, however, our Lord points to what seems to be the underlying issue: he warns the young man, “Take heed and beware of all covetousness; for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” Christ then goes on to illustrate this truth in the parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:13–21).

Often, when faced with conflict, we focus on what the other person has done wrong or should do to make things right. In contrast, Scripture and the tradition of the Church call us to focus primarily on what is going on in our hearts when we are at odds with another. Just as we say in the Lenten prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian, we ask that we may first “see our own sins and not to judge my brother.” Why? Because according to Scripture our heart is the wellspring of conflicts. “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander” (Matthew 15:19). The heart’s central role in conflict is vividly described in the epistle of James.

If we can understand this, we will have found a key to preventing and resolving conflict in most of our relationships. "What causes wars, and what causes fights among you? Is it not your passions that are at war in your members? (or your bodily parts). You desire and do not have; so you kill. And you covet and cannot obtain; so you fight and wage war (James 4:1).

This passage hints at the underlying cause of destructive conflict: conflicts arise from unmet desires within what the patristic or Neptic Fathers of the Church call the heart. When Holy Scripture and the Fathers speak of the heart, they mean both the spiritual and the physical heart (Vlachos, Hierotheos, Orthodox Psychotherapy, tr. Williams, Birth of the Theotokos Monastery, Greece, 1994). This is the place reserved for the contemplation of God, the center of our being where we have communion and union with God. When something earthly replaces that desire for God we have what we know to be simply idolatry.

When we feel we cannot be satisfied unless we have something we want or think we need, the desire then turns into a demand, and an idol always demands sacrifice. If someone fails to meet that desire, we judge him or her in our hearts and a fight ensues to get our way. In short, conflict arises when desires grow into demands and we judge and punish those who oppose our view. Let us look at this process one step at a time.

 

The Four Stages of Idolatry

Stage 1: “I Desire”

Conflict always begins with some kind of desire. Some desires are categorically evil, according to Scripture, such as sinful desires like vengeance, lust, or greed. Many desires, of course, are not wrong in and of themselves. For example, there is nothing essentially wrong about desiring things like peace and quiet, or a clean home, an intimate relationship with your spouse, or children who are respectful and well-behaved. If a good and holy desire, such as wanting an intimate relationship with your spouse, is not being met, it is perfectly legitimate to talk about it with your spouse. As you talk, you may discover mutually beneficial ways that each of you can serve the other. If not, it may be appropriate to seek professional help from a licensed marital therapist, who can help you understand your differences and strengthen your marriage. What if your spouse persistently fails to meet a particular desire and is unwilling to discuss it further with you or anyone else? This is where the rubber meets the road. It is here that conflict, if understood correctly and not avoided, can be an opening for growth and change. You can trust that there is something deeper that you need to address within yourself, and you can continue to love your spouse and pray for God to work in his or her life. Alternatively, you can dwell on your disappointment and allow it to control your life. At the very least, this will mean self-pity and bitterness toward your spouse. At the worst, it can destroy your marriage. Let us look at how this downward spiral evolves.

Stage 2: “I Demand”

Unmet desires have the potential to work deeper and deeper into our hearts. This is especially true when we come to see the object of our desire as something we need, or even deserve, and therefore must have, in order to be happy or fulfilled. There are many ways we justify and legitimize a desire. For example:

• “I work hard all week. Don’t I deserve a little peace and quiet when I come home?”

• “I worked two jobs to put you through school; I deserve your respect and attention.”

• “I spend hours managing the family budget; I deserve a new car.”

• “My family has been in this Church for generations and we deserve to be recognized.”

• “I have given a lot of money to this church, so you better listen to what I have to say.”

• “Scripture says a husband and wife should be one flesh. I need to have more intimacy with you.”

• “I only want what God commands: children who respect and honor their parents.”

There is an element of truth in each of these statements. The trouble is that, if our desires are not met, these attitudes can quickly lead to a destructive sense of entitlement. The more we want something, the more we think of it as something we need and deserve. And the more we think we are entitled to it, the more convinced we are that we cannot be happy or secure without it; this is the normal progression of idolatry. When we see our object of desire as essential to our fulfillment and well-being, it grows from a desire into a demand. “I wish I could have this” becomes “I must have this!” This is where conflicts arise. Even if the initial desire was not inherently wrong, it grows so strong that it begins to control our thoughts and affect our behavior. In scriptural terms, it has become an “idol.”

Most of us think of an idol as a statue of wood, stone, or metal, worshiped by pagans of old, but the concept is much greater and far more personal. An idol is anything apart from God that we depend on to be happy, fulfilled, or secure. According to Scripture, it is something other than God that we set our hearts on (Luke 12:29), that motivates us (1 Corinthians 4:5), that rules us (Psalm 119:133; Ephesians 5:5), or that we trust, fear, or serve (Isaiah 42:17; Matthew 6:24; Luke 12:4–5). In short, it is something we love and pursue in place of God (Philippians 3:19).

The reality is that every sincere Christian must struggle with idolatry. We may believe in God and profess the Nicaeno-Constantinopolitan Creed, but at times we allow other influences to rule us and direct our lives. In this sense we are no different from the ancient Israelites: “So these nations feared the LORD, and also served their idols; their children likewise, and their children’s children – as their fathers did, so they do to this day” (2 Kings 17:41). Idols can arise from good desires as well as evil desires. It is often not what we want that is the problem, but that we want it too much. For example, it is not unreasonable for a man to want a passionate relationship with his wife, or for a wife to want open and honest communication with her husband, or for either of them to want financial stability. These are good desires, but if they turn into demands that must be met in order for either spouse to be satisfied and fulfilled, they produce bitterness, resentment and self-pity that can destroy a marriage.

The question then arises, how can you discern when a good desire might be turning into a sinful demand? You can begin by looking inward in self reflection and asking yourself these questions that reveal the true condition of your heart:

• What am I preoccupied with? What is the first thing on my mind in the morning and the last thing on my mind at night?

• How would I complete this statement: “If I only had ________, then I would be happy.”

• What do I want to preserve or avoid?

• Where do I put my trust and what do I fear?

• When a certain desire is not met, do I feel frustration, anxiety, resentment, bitterness, anger, or depression?

• Is there something I desire so much that I am willing to disappoint or hurt others in order to have it?

As we search our heart for idols, we often encounter multiple layers of concealment, confusion, and justification. As mentioned earlier, one of the most subtle mistakes is to argue that we want things that are in themselves good and holy. For example, a mother may desire that her children be respectful and obedient to her and kind to one another. But when they do not fulfill these goals, even after her repeated encouragement or correction, she may feel frustrated, angry, or resentful. She needs to ask herself, “Why am I feeling this way? Is it a righteous anger that or is it a selfish anger?” In most cases, it will be a mixture of both. Part of her truly wants to see her children grow in the image of God, but another part of her is motivated by a desire for her own comfort and convenience. The question then becomes, which desire is really controlling her heart?

If the God-centered desire is dominating the mother’s heart, her response to disobedient children would be similar to God’s discipline of us. “The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love” (Psalm 103:8). As she imitates God’s love for us, her response will line up with Galatians 6:1: “If someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted.” In other words, although her discipline may be direct and firm, it will be wrapped in gentleness and love, and leave no residue of resentment.

On the other hand, if her desire for comfort and convenience has become an idol, her reaction to her children will be much different. It will be characterized by harsh anger as well as unnecessarily hurtful words or discipline. She may feel bitterness or resentment that her desires have been frustrated. And even after disciplining her children, she may maintain a lingering coolness or a distance toward them that extends their punishment and warns them not to cross her again. If this latter group of attitudes and actions frequently characterizes her response, it is a sign that her desire for godly children has probably evolved into an idolatrous demand.

Stage 3: “I Judge”

Another sign of idolatry is the inclination to judge. When people fail to satisfy our desires and live up to our expectations, we tend to criticize and condemn them in our hearts, if not with our words. The truth is that, when we judge others –criticize, nit-pick, nag, attack, condemn – we are literally acting like God, we are sitting in the judgment seat reserved only for Him. Scripture tells us clearly that “there is one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you that you judge your neighbor?” (James 4:12). In this sense we commit the sin of Lucifer; we covet the throne of God. In judging we act like the Adversary who seeks to usurp God’s command and who acts as the accuser. When people fight, their minds become filled with accusations: the wrongs committed and the rights neglected. When we fight we play the self-righteous judge in the mini-kingdoms we establish, whether in our families, our workplace or in our churches. When we judge others and condemn them in our hearts for not meeting our desires, we are imitating the Devil rather than imitating Christ. In actuality we have doubled our idolatry problem: not only have we let an idolatrous desire rule our hearts, but we have also set ourselves up as demi-gods; this is the formula for destructive conflict.

This is not to say that it is inherently wrong to evaluate or even judge others within certain limits. Scripture teaches that we should observe and evaluate others’ behavior so that we can respond and minister to them in appropriate ways, which may even involve gentle confrontation (see Matthew 7:1-5; 18:15; Galatians 6:1). But we cross the line, when we begin to judge others, which is generally characterized by a feeling of superiority, indignation, condemnation, bitterness, or resentment. Sinful judging often involves speculating on others’ motives. Most of all, it reveals a self-centered love for ourselves and the absence of a genuine love and concern toward others.

When these attitudes are present, our judging has crossed the line and we are playing God. To make things worse, the closer we are to others, the more we expect of them and the more likely we are to judge them when they fail to meet our expectations. For example, we may look at our spouse and think, “If you really love me, you above all people will help meet this need.” Or we look to our children and say, “After all I’ve done for you, you owe this to me.” We can place similar expectations on relatives, close friends, or members of our church. Expectations are not inherently bad. It is good to hope for the best in others and reasonable to anticipate receiving understanding and support from those who are closest to us. But if we are not careful, these expectations can become conditions and standards that we use to judge others. Instead of giving people room for independence, disagreement, or failure, we rigidly impose our expectations on them. In effect, we expect them to give allegiance to our idols. When they refuse to do so, we condemn them in our hearts and with our words, and our conflicts with them take on a heightened intensity.

Stage 4: “I Punish”

Idols always demand sacrifices. When others fail to satisfy our demands and expectations, our idols demand that they should pay for their disobedience on their altar. Whether deliberately or unconsciously, we find ways to hurt or punish people who refuse to gratify our desires. This punishment can take many forms. Sometimes we react in aggressive, overt anger, lashing out with hurtful words to inflict pain on those who fail to meet our expectations. When we do so, we essentially place others on the altar and sacrifice them, not with a pagan knife, but with our very words. Only if they give in to our desire and give us what we demand will we stop inflicting pain upon them. People punish those who don’t bow to their idols in numerous other ways as well. Our children may use pouting, stomping, or dirty looks to hurt us for not meeting their desires. Adults and children alike may impose guilt or shame on others by walking around with pained looks on their faces. We often withhold our stewardship from the Church to punish and impose our desire on the community. Some people even resort to physical violence or sexual abuse to punish and control others.

As we grow in the awareness of our sin, most of us recognize and reject overt and obviously sinful means of punishing others. But our idols do not give up their influence easily, and they often lead us to develop more subtle means of punishing those who do not serve them. Withdrawal from a relationship is a common way to hurt others. This may include a giving someone the cold shoulder or withholding affection or physical contact, refusing to look someone in the eyes, ignoring phone calls, or even abandoning the relationship altogether. Sending subtle, unpleasant cues over a long period of time is an age-old method of inflicting punishment. Often our Churches and our family relationships are filled with such behavior; the attitude is “Either get in line with what I want, or you will suffer.” In reality, such behavior is an act of unbelief: instead of relying on God, people depend on themselves. Inflicting pain on others is one of the surest signs that an idol is ruling our hearts (see James 4:1-3). When we catch ourselves punishing others in any way, whether deliberately and overtly or unconsciously and subtly, it is a warning that something other than God rules our hearts, for as we hear in the Psalms, “thou hast no delight in sacrifice; were I to give a burnt offering, thou wouldst not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise” (Psalm 50:16).

 

The Cure for an Idolatrous Heart

As we have seen, an idol is any desire that has grown into a demand; it is something we think we must have to be happy, fulfilled, or secure. To put it another way, it is something we love, fear, or have faith in. Love, fear, faith – aren’t these the words of worship? In the Divine Liturgy we recall the words, “with fear of God, faith, and love, draw near,” at the very moment we are to receive the very Body and Blood of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. In Holy Scripture we are commanded to love God, fear God, and have faith in God (Matthew 22:37; Luke 12:4–5; John 14:1). So, any time we long for something other than God, fear something more than God, or trust in something other than God to make us happy, fulfilled, or secure, we are actually engaging in the worship of false gods. As a result of our idolatry, like most of humanity we actually merit the judgment and wrath of the true God.

There is a way, however, out of this bondage and judgment: it is to look to God Himself, who loves and delivers His people from their idols. God has provided the cure for our idolatry by sending His Son to free mankind from the bondage of sin and death. Through Christ we find freedom from sin and from idolatry as St Paul tells us, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:1-2). Not only have we been freed from sin and death, as we recently proclaimed Christ, trampling down Death by [His] Death, but we have also been freed from the specific, day-to-day idols that consume us, control us, and cause conflict with those around us.

Our deliverance, however, is not experienced once and for all time, with all our idols being swept away in one great spiritual experience. Instead, we are called to identify and confess our idols one by one. Essentially this is at the heart of the Sacrament of Confession. To receive forgiveness from God and freedom from sin, we must acknowledge our sins and repent (see Acts 3:19). When we do, we are no longer under God’s judgment. Instead, we are by adoption his children and heirs of the Kingdom (Gala- tians 4:4–7). This is the good news of the Gospel– forgiveness and eternal life through our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ!

In the Sacrament of Confession we are called to the self-examination of our very heart before the Icon of Christ on the iconostasis in a regular ascetical practice of clearing out the idols within our hearts. Once they are clearly identified with the help of the priest, we are called to lay them before the Lord and to cooperate with Him as He removes them from our hearts. It is through the ministry given by Christ to the apostles in the authority to loose sins that we find the real freedom from our many idols. In preparation for the Sacrament of Confession it is advisable to engage in some form of self-examination to prime the discovery of idols that rule your heart. This process involves a few key steps.

• Prayerfully ask yourself the questions listed previously, which will help you discern the desires that have come to rule your heart.

• Keep track of your discoveries in a journal so that you can identify patterns and steadily go after specific idols.

• Describe your idols in detail to your Spiritual Father, to your spouse or to an accountability partner, and ask them to pray for you and confront you when they see signs that the idol is still controlling you.

• Realize that idols are masters of change and disguise. As soon as you gain a victory over a particular sinful desire, your idol is likely to reappear in a related form, with a redirected desire and more subtle means of attracting your attention.

• If you are dealing with an idol that is particularly difficult to identify or conquer, do not hesitate to seek specific treatment from a licensed professional or appropriate Group (AA, SA, NA etc.) for assistance. If someone told you that you had a deadly cancer that would take your life if you did not get treatment, you would probably spare no effort or expense in pursuing the most rigorous treatment available. Well, as human beings living in this fallen world, we do have a cancer, a cancer of the soul. It is called sin and idolatry. But there is a cure. And it has been given to us freely on the Cross of Christ. This cure is administered through the Word, the Spirit, and the Church. The more rigorously you avail yourself of these means of grace, the greater the effect they will have in delivering you from the idols that plague your soul.

 

Replace Idol Worship with Worship of the True God

Ultimately, idolatry is what we do when we are not fully satisfied in God. In other words, if we are not fulfilled and secure in God, we will inevitably seek other sources of happiness and security. Therefore, if we want to eliminate the idols from our hearts and leave no room for them to return, we must make it a top priority to pursue aggressively an all-consuming worship of the living God. Ask Him to teach you how to love, fear, and have faith in Him more than anything else in this fallen world. Replacing idol worship with worship of the true God involves several steps:

• Repent before God. When we repent and confess our sins before God and the Priest we confess our faith in Christ. Repentance and confession of our faith in the true God is true worship (1 John 1:8–10). “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psalm 50:17; see also Isaiah 66:2b).

• Fear God. Stand in awe of the true God when you are tempted to fear others or are afraid of losing something precious. “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of (all wisdom)” (Proverbs 1:7). “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).

• Love God. Desire the One who forgives us instead of looking to other things that cannot save. “Jesus replied: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind’” (Matthew 22:37). “Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33).

• Have Faith in God. “It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in man” (Psalm 118:8). “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5).

As these passages indicate, God has designed a wonderful cycle for those who want to worship Him above all things. As you love, praise, give thanks, and delight in God, you will feel less need to find happiness, fulfillment, and security in the things of this world. By God’s grace, the influence of idolatry and conflict in your family can be steadily diminished, and you and your family can enjoy the intimacy and security that come from worshiping the one true God.

 

Fr. John Mefrige has both theological and psychological training, holding a Master of Divinity degree from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, and a Master of Science degree in Marital and Family Therapy (MS MFT) from Fuller Theological Seminary. Presently he is also pursuing his Doctorate in Ethics and Christian Peacemaking. He is the founding priest and Proistamenos at St. Ephraim the Syrian Antiochian Orthodox Church in San Antonio, Texas (www.saintephraim.com), he serves as chaplain to the San Antonio Police department, and he is the Founder of the Coalition of Orthodox Peacemakers.