T. S. Eliot wrote, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” How true. When conflict threatens to destroy us, we do our best to find a solution. But we do not always deal with our conflicts in the same way or employ the same strategies for untangling our hate-filled messes. In his book The Peacemaker, author Ken Sande depicts a range of 12 conflict-resolution strategies as a “slippery slope.” (See Illustration 1.)27 This panoramic view shows that at least half of our conflict-resolution strategies are actually negative and destructive.
On the downside of the left slope lie three strategies: suicide, flight, and denial. Sande describes these as escape strategies, calling them peace fakers because they are imposters. They merely pretend to offer resolution.
Suicide is both self-directed and self-destructive. The conflicts within a person who is about to take his or her own life is generally more intense than any external conflicts. Suicide rightly deserves to be classified as a peace faker. With its only purpose being to avoid pain, suicide is obviously a nonstarter.
At the bottom of the slope on the right lie three attack strategies: murder, assault, and litigation.28 Sande calls these peace breakers because they either intensify an existing conflict or produce a new one. These three strategies on the far end of the right slope are all others-directed actions. The purpose for each of them is to do maximum damage to an enemy.29
Under some circumstances, flight and litigation can effectively lead to positive outcomes. In the main, however, even those two strategies are generally weak for resolving serious conflict. The other four just mentioned are unacceptable.
Halfway up the slope on the left side of the summit lie two exciting strategies that have huge potential for leading us to peace—overlooking and calling someone to account for moral wrong. Overlooking appears passive, though the choice is certainly intentional.
Overlooking is more of a conflict-management strategy. In contrast to denial, which is almost always an emotion-based strategy, overlooking an offense can often have a sound rationale behind the choice. The aim usually is to defuse conflict before it can develop. But there is a caveat that comes with overlooking. In conflict, overlooking can require an enormous amount of patience. Besides, looking the other way can clearly be an inappropriate response under certain circumstances. When, for example, an abused individual lacks the resources to mount a defense (a child being bullied or a mentally handicapped person being harassed), caregivers need to pursue a less passive course than overlooking the offense.
Calling someone to account for immoral behavior is an active, aggressive strategy that takes the form of an indictment, which demands reasonable evidence to support its claim.
Calling someone to account for sinful behavior can be motivated by sincere Christian love and concern. Its purpose, then, is to lead a sinner to repentance, reconciliation, healing, and restoration to Christ’s body of believers. In the church militant, this strategy is often referred to as church discipline. Under the heading of the Office of the Keys, Luther couples calling someone to account for sin with reconciliation. We will be discussing both of these strategies in greater detail in Part Two of this book. The three formal strategies (arbitration, negotiation, and mediation) that lie near the hill’s summit on the right side of the illustration will also be discussed in later chapters as intervention strategies.
Sande’s illustration helps us see how failing to seek the high ground will eventually degenerate into a deadly slide down one of the slopes. James explored this inevitability when he wrote, “Each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death” (1:14,15).
Daring to Deny
Jesus had gone to the temple early to teach. He was sketching in the sand to illustrate a point when a handful of Jewish leaders rudely interrupted. With a woman in tow, they angrily wavedrocks picked up from the street. The woman had been caught in the act of adultery. According to the Torah, her crime was a felony, punishable by stoning. However, the venue for her trial was highly unusual. This type of business was normally conducted behind closed doors, not in the street. The temple leaders seemed more interested in putting Jesus on public trial. They wanted to expose him as a radical. The young rabbi had been challenging their theological integrity. Perhaps they could bait him into saying something treasonous or make him appear to condone promiscuity. “How would you judge this whore?” one of them asked.
Jesus ignored them. He had no jurisdiction in the matter.
Not used to being ignored, the religious leaders persisted, “What do you say, rabbi?”
Finally, Jesus stopped teaching and stood to face them. “If any one of you is without sin,” he said quietly, “let him be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7). Then he went back to the lesson.
“Without sin”? Jesus knew about their indiscretions.30 One by one they dropped their stones . . . and the indictment. They were afraid he would expose them. None was willing to risk that.
One of the most difficult things you or I will ever face in life is admitting our own sins. That is especially true if our transgressions have been defined in specific terms. Admitting that we have hated another person is a particularly hard thing to do. The words I’m sorry are the two most difficult words to say in any language.
What if people really knew what you and I are capable of—our plans for revenge; our hatred and jealousies; our greed, intolerance, arrogance; our profane longings and lustful desires; . . . our self-idolatry? We shudder at the thought. Most of us spend a lifetime devising ways to keep such things out of sight. Social stigma is a powerful influence. But exposure in the court of God’s holy justice is more profound.31 The eternal future of those temple leaders might have been different had they only heeded Jesus’ words and repented.
When we are paralyzed with fear, it’s not hard to pretend that everything is just fine, even when it isn’t. Sometimes we work so hard at secreting the darkness hidden in our hearts that we are able to convince ourselves of the lie. This is called denial.
Denial is conflict driven into the nethermost places of the heart. When there, an individual mistakenly believes he or she will not have to acknowledge it.
Like the decision to live with a heart that is at war, denial is a choice. One writer says it “involves active avoidance . . . a deliberate effort to refrain from even noticing [that something is wrong]. . . . It usually involves refusing to acknowledge the presence of things that beg for attention.”32
Often the motivation for denial is fear. But the fear may not always be a response to our own pain. Sometimes we avoid seeing the sins of a loved one. This can become an ongoing pretense, like someone pretending not to notice the disfiguring scars on the face of the burn victim to whom he has just been introduced. Out of compassion we do our best to avoid looking directly at the disturbing sight.
But pretending not to notice can also make a relationship awkward and uncomfortable. While deception is not the intent, we go out of our way not to see something that is painfully obvious. Unless the pretense itself is acknowledged, any hope for a meaningful relationship will continue to be compromised.
When sin is part of the equation, denial is a silent faith killer. Here Satan is especially crafty, providing a tempting smorgasbord of three possible truths to deny. All three are spiritually lethal. The first option Satan places before us is to deny the truth of sin (ours or that of someone else who is dear to us).33 Alternately, he dangles the choice of denying Jesus’ power and authority to forgive sin.34 If these ploys don’t work, he tries to get us to deny the new self—that new man rooted in Christ’s love. The devil knows that the new man wants to do the right thing. He also knows that the choice to deny the new-man inclination is a choice to go to war with God . . . again.35
The Pharisees’ fundamental problem was that they were living in a perpetual state of denial. Denying their own sinfulness is what launched their conflict with Jesus in the first place. When he lovingly tried to intervene, their denial led them to reject him out of hand. They did their best not to acknowledge the elephant in the room that had crowded God out of their lives. Repentance was within reach, and with it forgiveness. Jesus gave them a perfect opportunity to do some serious soul-searching. Yet because they were in full denial, the father of lies had them right where he wanted them.
Thanks for reading! Check out Part Two here.
For Thought and Discussion
• How is Sande’s illustration helpful for our understanding of conflict resolution?
• Have you had personal experience with some of these responses to conflict?
27 Ken Sande, The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict, Third Ed. (n.p.: Baker Books, 2004).
28 It may be a minor point, but this author would prefer to reverse the relative positions for assault and litigation on Sande’s illustration.
29 Here a distinction will need to be made between murder and the kind of killing that goes on when countries are at war. It is possible to be a warrior, fully engaged in destroying an enemy, but still have a heart that is at peace. Murder, on the other hand, is the implicit behavior of a heart that is at war. Jesus said that it was a sin just to think hateful and murderous thoughts about an enemy. The case of Samson in Judges chapter 16 always raises some interesting questions with regard to both murder and suicide. But in Samson’s case, we need to remember that this event was occurring during an ongoing war with a heathen nation, which God himself had said must be expelled from the Promised Land. Samson died, honoring God’s will.
30 Matthew 23:1-39.
31 Galatians 6:7.
32 Eviatar Zerubavel, The Elephant in the Room: Silence and Denial in Everyday Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).
33 1 John 1:8a.
34 1 John 1:8-10.
35 Colossians 3:1,5-10.