This week's Bible Study - August 16, 2015
Work Through Conflict
Quotes of the Week:
"An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind."
- Mahatma Gandhi
Finally! We come across a lesson that none of us can relate to. We can sit back and casually read what this lesson says about conflict, because that is only a problem that others have, right? We may wish this to be true, but this lesson is undoubtedly one of the more applicable lessons that we will have. Conflict is all around us.
There is conflict at the high political level, among political parties and candidates. This conflict filters down to allegiances that some people hold towards one party or the other, without even giving a hint of a thought that the 'other side' may have a point. It is as if people think one party or candidate can do no wrong and that the other(s) are incapable of doing anything right! Even when wrong is acknowledged by 'your' candidate, you find it easy to offer excuses and let them off the hook, but no such mercy is shown to the other side.
There is conflict in our communities. The St Louis area has made world headlines on many occasions in the past year. I wish I could say it was all about the St Louis Cardinals or other teams winning world championships. But, sadly, it is about conflict drawn largely around racial lines, with folks that are unwilling to listen to the other side.
There is conflict in our churches. There is conflict in our workplaces. There is conflict in many families and undoubtedly, if you were honest, you would have to say that there remains unresolved conflict in each of our lives. Truthfully, the problem is not that there is conflict, but the problem is often in the way that we handle it, or for some, avoid it. As believers, we are called to be a new creation and as we mature, we should learn to deal with difficult situations in the way that God has defined.
In Numbers 32, the leaders of the Reubenites, Gadites and the half tribe of Manasseh (often referred to as the Eastern Tribes) approached Moses, prior to the Israelites crossing Jordan and asked for that land, as it was suitable. This land was across the Jordan River, east of Jericho. (Note that the tribe of Manasseh, son of Joseph, was the largest tribe and part of them went along with Reuben and Gad, while the other part continued to live with the rest of the Israelites). Moses believed that they were not going to support the Israelites in fighting for the Promised Land, so he was hesitant to give them the land. The leaders promised that all of their men would go and fight with the Israelites. In Numbers 32:18, they said "We will not return to our homes until each of the Israelites has received their inheritance. We will not receive any inheritance with them on the other side of the Jordan, because our inheritance has come to us on the east side of the Jordan." You can imagine that the other Israelites may have questioned their loyalty at first, engaging in battle for land that was not even going to be theirs, but they held true to their word.
Joshua commended these Eastern tribes by saying that they had done all that they had been commanded by both Moses and himself. In effect, since they had been given their land on the other side of the Jordan, instead of seeking to lay claim to that land, they carried out the mission that the Lord had given the Israelites and battled alongside all of the other tribes for seven years. Their obedience and work were appreciated by Joshua.
At this point in time, the Israelites had fully conquered their enemies, so these tribes were now able to return to the land that Moses had given them on the eastern side of the Jordan. However, Joshua told them that they were to be careful to keep the commandment of the law; to love the Lord their God, to walk in obedience to Him, to keep His commands, to hold fast to Him and to serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul. It is important to realize that there is an order that is implied. First, they were to hear the word of the Lord, in His commandments. Then, they were to love and then they were to obey. When this order gets out of sorts, problems occur. For example, loving without hearing the word of the Lord can result in heresy, while obeying without loving can result in legalistic behavior. Both of these are prevalent in many churches and among Christians today.
Joshua blessed these tribes and sent them away, saying "Return to your homes with your great wealth-with large herds of livestock, with silver, gold, bronze and iron, and a great quantity of clothing-and divide the plunder from your enemies with your fellow Israelites." So these Eastern Tribes left the Israelites return to their own land, which they had acquired in accordance with the command of the LORD through Moses. The Lord had blessed the Israelites and though these tribes were going to be geographically separated by the Jordan River, they still were participants in those blessings. In many ways, it had to be an emotional time to leave those whom they had fought alongside for the past seven years and certainly many of them grew closer to each other.
As the tribes neared the Jordan in the land of Canaan (the western side), they built an imposing altar by the River (across from their own land). This altar was impressive in size, and could easily be seen as problematic by the other Israelites, as an altar was where offerings and sacrifices were given to the Lord. When the other Israelites heard about the altar, they were not all pleased. In verse 12, we read that the whole assembly of Israel gathered at Shiloh to go to war against them. It is also noteworthy to indicate that this was somewhat of a rash response. Although they had the best of intentions to confront the tribes on behalf of the holiness of God's word, we don't see the Israelites consulting with Joshua in their reaction, nor do we see them seeking the Lord. They were upset, and they were going to let the others know!
Some commentaries that I studied seemed to indicate that their response was warranted and from one point, I suppose that could be true. If they thought the others were disgracing their God, perhaps it would be best to handle the problem as quick as possible. However, the fact that there is an implication that they were ready to go to war seems to show more of a desire to 'attack'. I've often heard that if there is someone that needs to be corrected and you are looking forward to doing it (or you want to inflict damage or you are unwilling to listen to their side), you likely aren't the best person to handle it. If you've already made your own conclusion about the situation before even addressing another party, you aren't likely to resolve any conflict.
The Israelites, in their precursor to war, sent Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the priest to meet with these Eastern Tribes. Along with Phinehas there were ten of the chief men, each the head of a family division among the Israelite clans. They were not on a fact finding mission - they were to approach the tribes and accuse them of what they had done, and not accept any answer of rebuttal. They took the words of the whole assembly of the Load, saying, 'How could you break faith with the God of Israel like this? How could you turn away from the LORD and build yourselves an altar in rebellion against him now? " The accusation of rebellion was made without even a hint of chance for the Eastern tribes to offer a rebuttal and to state their case.
The contingent continued by saying, "Was not the sin of Peor enough for us? Up to this very day we have not cleansed ourselves from that sin, even though a plague fell on the community of the LORD! And are you now turning away from the LORD?" In Numbers 25, many of the Israelites began to bow to the foreign gods, joining themselves to Baal of Peor. The Lord was angry with Israel and a plague came upon the Israelites, resulting in 24,000 deaths. Phinehas was the leader who had executed both a man of Israel, along with the Midianite woman he had brought into the assembly, effectively ending the plague. Perhaps that is why Phinehas was the leader of this group to 'correct' this grievous mistake that had been made.
This contingent implied that others were rebelling against the Lord which would result with the Lord being angry with all of Israel. Rather than continuing as they were, as a concession, Reuben, Gad and the half tribe of Manasseh could share the land on the west side of the Jordan, along with the other tribes, and be part of the true altar of the Lord. They also spoke of the sin of Achan, as one whose unfaithfulness in regard to holy things brought wrath on the whole community. The contingent did not want to end up seen as rebelling against God and dying for this grievous sin that was being committed. Certainly, there were cases where the nation had suffered for the actions of one or more of their own citizens.
The Eastern Tribes replied to the heads of the Israelite clans saying, "The Mighty One, God, the LORD! The Mighty One, God, the LORD! He knows! And let Israel know! If this has been in rebellion or disobedience to the LORD, do not spare us this day. If we have built our own altar to turn away from the LORD and to offer burnt offerings and grain offerings, or to sacrifice fellowship offerings on it, may the LORD himself call us to account."
Their response indicated that this altar was not in any way a sign of rebellion or disobedience. They knew better than to build their own altar or to bring offerings in any manner other than what God had commanded. They had the same experiences with both the Peor and Achan incidents. Rather, this altar was to be a sign to future generations that may otherwise say that the Jordan River was a boundary between those in the Lord and those apart from the Lord. It was as if they foresaw a day where one group might try and claim that God's presence is only with them and not with anyone else. We would never see this today, would we? Many groups tend to think that they have a lock on the gospel and that you must be one of 'them' in order to be saved. Others who are across the River, or in any other church other than their own were out. These Eastern Tribes did not want this type of behavior to cause their own descendants to feel as if God was not with them.
They had decided to build an altar, but not an altar for burnt offerings or sacrifices. Instead, this altar was to be a witness for future generations that follow, showing that the tribes across the Jordan certainly would worship the Lord at His sanctuary with burnt offerings, sacrifices and fellowship offerings. This altar would prohibit descendants of the other Israelites tribes from saying to others 'You have no share in the LORD.'
They continued to say that if their descendants were ever told that they had no share in the Lord, they could point to the replica of the Lord's altar that would serve as a witness between the different tribes of Israel. In no way were they rebelling against the Lord and turning from Him by building an altar for burnt offerings, grain offerings and sacrifices, other than the altar of the LORD our God that stands before his tabernacle."
When Phinehas and the leaders of the community heard what Reuben, Gad and Manasseh had said, they were pleased. By taking the time to listen to their concerns, they had an entirely different perspective of what was going on. He said "Today we know that the LORD is with us, because you have not been unfaithful to the LORD in this matter. Now you have rescued the Israelites from the LORD's hand." I still would imagine that Phinehas and the others had wished that this altar had not been built, but when they understood 'the rest of the story', they were satisfied.
Phinehas and the others returned to Canaan from their meeting and reported what they had heard to the Israelites. The people listened, heard and understood. They were glad to hear the report and praised God. There was no more talk about going to war and devastating the land on the other side of the Jordan. The altar was given the name "A Witness Between US - that the Lord is God".
Closing - Part One
In our day, this story may make less sense, as the significance of the altar is much different than what it was tot the Israelites. However, there are several key points that we can glean from this story.
It can be beneficial to look at the track record of a person and to realize that their primary intent may never have been to inflict hurt. In the lesson, Reuben and the others had battled alongside the other Israelites for the previous seven years and had been obedient to the commands that they had been given. Often, when seeds of conflict begin, some will want to paint one party as all bad, as if evil intentions were their norm. If we are truthful, we know that we all can (and will) make mistakes, but there are very few people whose intention is to do evil all the time. If you see someone painting themselves as consistently above reproach, never willing to accept their own problems, and painting someone else as bad at all times, you can be sure that you should get another painter.
One of the worst things that you can do in the area of conflict is to bring a contingent of people to accuse others of wrongdoing. In this passage, we saw Phinehas and the other tribe leaders that came, believing that they knew what was happening and resolving to not allow it. Often, conflict escalates when accusations get thrown at people (by a group of others), as if they are the truth. In Matthew, chapter 8, we are given the model for dealing with wrongs, and that is to begin by approaching the person individually. When you begin the process with multiples of people ganged up on one, the process is harmed and rather having resolution, the conflict is likely to escalate.
This could have ended much worse, if Phinehas and the others had made their accusations and walked away or had not given any alternative for rebuttal. Sadly, this happens way too often today. Some are eager to voice their accusation, but unwilling to give any opportunity for explanation. Thankfully, Reuben and the others were able to share their side of the story, which was totally different from what they had been accused of. A wise step in resolving conflict is the ability for both parties to be able to talk and for both to be able to explain themselves.
Phinehas and the others listened and were able to understand that they had misunderstood what was going on, so they were able to resolve the conflict. If they had not given Reuben and Gad the opportunity to speak or if they had refused to listen, they would never have heard. How many arguments have you been in where you state your own position and then begin thinking about what you will say next while the other person is talking? Are you really resolving conflict or are you simply trying to win an argument?
In this story, we see many things that are crucial to conflict resolution, but this specific conflict in the passages is largely a misunderstanding between two parties. What happens if the conflict you are involved in does not clean up so nicely? What happens if somebody has done wrong or if there is simply a difference of opinion where you must learn to agree to disagree? It boils down to how important a relationship may be to you. Even in the best of relationships, there are problems. Even Berkley and I have had differences of opinions at times. If we were not able to deal with working through conflict, it would eventually harm our relationship.
When we take a step back and when we are honest with ourselves, we will see that there are times where we are indeed the one in the wrong. While we may not have intended to treat someone else with contempt, our words or actions may have accomplished that. We need to realize that the only person over whom we have direct control is our own selves. When you are in the wrong, are you willing to admit that you have made a mistake, own up to the hurt that you may have caused and truly seek forgiveness? Often, this is the key thing that will do the best to resolve most conflicts. Unfortunately, many of us are re proud people and we'd like to think we never do anything wrong. In truth, we all know this not to be the case, as we all have wronged others at some point.
Closing - Part Two
Given that conflict is so prevalent, I thought it might be good to share some other notes on conflict resolution heard in a recent sermon. The points in both closings are applicable, but perhaps one will speak to you more than the other. When we are in conflict and feel that we have been treated badly, we need to realize that for a believer, sin done to us is never justification for us to behave in a sinful manner. We tend to think that if someone has treated us badly, we have the right to turn around and treat them badly as well. If you find yourself doing this, you are only escalating conflict, which will harm both parties.
Here are five key things to do, in the hope of resolving conflict.
Tell the Truth. Ephesians 4:25 tells us to put away lying and speak truth with each other. Ephesians 4:15 tells us to speak the truth in love. Truth and love are interrelated and when we show love without truth, or truth without love, we are behaving in a brutal manner. Lying hurts the liar and the one(s) lied to. Lies divide people. Lies destroy relationships. Some people skirt telling lies through the usage of insinuations and deception. In the end, it's still a lie. If you want to resolve a conflict, tell the truth and be willing to listen to the truth.
Control Temper. When we hear what we don't want to hear, some people are quick to respond in an uproar. James 1:19 tells us to be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger. I've heard it said that when you respond in anger, you will recite the best speech that you will ever regret. In our world of instant communication with email and texts, too many people type their instant emotion up and press send, or just go ahead and post their raw feelings on social media. In those cases, it may not the best speech you will ever regret, but now you have documented the best words you are likely to regret and when you have shared them, you have polluted many others unwittingly.
Keep Current. We often find it easy to put things off. Honestly, I would love to be able to avoid conflict for the rest of my life. My nature is conflict avoidance as I get anxious even thinking about conflict. However, if I refuse to solve today's problems today, the longer it goes, the worse it gets. As time goes by, conflict will intensify and anger will multiply. I've heard it said that aged anger tends to accumulate interest and what potentially started out as a mere misunderstanding can become a Hatfield and McCoy scenario. Deal with today's issues today.
Guard your Tongue and your Tone. Similar to controlling temper, be careful that you keep in mind what is most important during conflict. The point should be to resolve conflict and not to escalate to a higher position by saying things you will later regret. We should always be looking to find a way to build others up as opposed to tearing them down. Even if you are in the right, your tone can be enough to erode an otherwise good relationship.
Give Forgiveness. My mom's favorite verse is Ephesians 4:32 which says "And be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you. We each have been forgiven." If you have a hard time forgiving others, think back to how God has forgiven you through Christ. Being unwilling to forgive will certainly destroy and increase conflict.
Is there conflict that you need to resolve today? If you need to pick up the phone, or write a letter, would a note saying that you are (truly) sorry help? If you are in the wrong, perhaps that should be your immediate course of action. In some cases, the way that people have let conflict reign has only ramped it up, they may find it necessary to apologize to those who have been harmed by collateral damage. Although they were never the intended target of a missile of misinformation or lies that were launched towards an 'adversary', through words and actions, others have likely been damaged. If you know who they are, let them know you were wrong and apologize. Often this extends to other friends and family members who have been hurt by actions.
Perhaps you may be associated with someone who has treated others badly, but refuses to own up to what they've done. Often, if you will acknowledge that you are sorry for what someone close to you has done and you truly understand the hurt that they have caused, it can be helpful in mending problem areas. While this is not quite the same as the person who did the damage apologizing, it will at least let others who have been hurt know that you understand their hurt and are sorry for what had occurred.
There are other times where you may not be in the wrong and you have tried everything you can think of, but the conflict still exists. While you may pine for those words saying "I am sorry" and a deep contrition of heart, it may or may not happen. In the case where it doesn't happen, we have to ask for God's peace to get past the hurt and even if the conflict is never resolved, the peace to let it go.