When we see behavior in another person’s life that doesn’t make sense to us and appears to be “wrong,” what do we typically do? The average person would jump to a conclusion about the other person, get reactive or defensive about it, and launch an accusation against that person. The bold person would launch a frontal assault and confront the person about their sinfulness. The less bold would harbor ill feelings and possibly gossip about the “strange behavior” that the person was exhibiting.
You probably have never fallen into the trap of judging someone’s behaviors, jumping to conclusions, and getting into messy conflict. Of course not. But I’m sure you know someone who has and would probably benefit greatly from today’s lesson!
Conflict is one of the greatest forces that will pull a church apart. We are all people that are on different legs of our journey with God. We are all battling with different enemies that pester us along the path. We all have different personality traits and different “hot buttons” that, when pushed, can set us off. Conflict in an intimate community is inevitable. We will step on each other’s toes in the dance of life. It’s not a question of “if” it will happen, but “when” it will happen.
One of the best tools and skills we can use to become better travelers together is that of resolving conflict. If we track with today’s story we will see some excellent principles for how to avoid unnecessary conflict. Notice how I said “unnecessary” conflict. Sometimes conflict is necessary. Remember, God told them to go to war against the Canaanites. But, in this situation, we see brothers who are on the verge of conflict. The western tribes observe the large altar that the Eastern tribes have just built. At first glance it looks to the Westies that the Easties have already broken over the guard rail established by Moses and are falling into the pit of false worship. Had this been true, then, according to the Law, they were supposed to rush in and eradicate this cancerous tumor in the nation. Fortunately, they took a slightly different approach and made a bad thing into a good one.
1. When you have a question about a person’s behavior, ask, don’t accuse. In his book, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven Covey teaches the principle “Seek first to understand, then be understood.” The majority of conflict that we encounter is the result of misunderstanding. The Westies interpreted the building of the altar as an act of pagan worship, an offense that required harsh punishment. Had they come in with spears raised and stones in hand, the Easties would have naturally risen to arms to defend themselves. That is only natural. Then a war would have happened, people would have died…for nothing.
We typically make this mistake. We approach this kind of situation with a pointing finger saying, “you have sinned, what were you thinking?” When a person feels attacked, even if they are innocent, they will almost always kick into a self-defense mode that, to the attacker, will prove their guilt. Stop. Ask for clarity. Seek to understand.
2. Actually listen to the answer given to your question. Many times people learn lesson #1 and begin a conflict by asking a question, but while their mouth may be verbalizing the question, their heart is still clenching a stone and is ready to hurl it. When you ask the question, ask it with your whole self. Actually seek to understand the point of view of the accused. Try to crawl into the mind of the other person, see the world through their eyes, and try to understand what their thinking was when they made the decision to do what they did, even if it is different from yours. When the Easties were given an opportunity to explain themselves, there was a total reversal, a “paradigm shift” for the Westies. This action that they thought was sin, was actually a noble action of faithfulness.
3. Be willing to admit you were wrong. Many times, when we jump to conclusions and accuse someone, even when we find out that they were not doing what we thought they were doing, with the motives we had placed in their heart, we don’t want to admit it. Suddenly we find that we are in the wrong and our own tainted motives are exposed to the world. That is a vulnerable place and a scary feeling. The accuser is suddenly the accused. In that moment, stop. Take a deep breath. Admit that you were wrong in your interpretation. Seek forgiveness. And then, rejoice in the fact that you left that meeting with no needless casualties. The Westies went home rejoicing that the nation of Israel was united and worshipping God.