Confronting Conflict with the Gospel #3: Right to be Angry at the Unfinished State of Other Believers?
Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. Philippians 1:6
A woman shook her Bible at me as she explained why she was right. Others murmured agreement. Still others looked aghast as they listened to her claims of spiritual superiority. I could feel the emotion under the surface in the meeting and see the strain on the faces of those who were upset. The reason I was there was to lead this church toward unity. The leaders who invited me were fearful that the church, currently without a pastor, would fragment into a fistful of factions.
What do you say in a situation like that?
The common response is to take people to task. Call them out. Point out their contribution to the problem. Or show them that they are the problem. Express your wonderment or wrath at them. Many have taken this approach, but this path almost always leads to deeper fissions and fuels the conviction of those in the grip of conflict that they are on the side of the angels.
I like what Paul does here. Through a sentence that is widely quoted and put to music today, he boldly introduces a theological claim that is foundational to everything he unfolds in the rest of the letter.
Let me back up here. As with all conflicts, when anger appears, God disappears. We are inclined to think of our opponents as the enemy—people who are revealing their own immaturity. Perhaps even better off dead, as in “We need some holy funerals in this church!” Yes, I have heard that one.
Somehow, in our thinking, God and His reign have disappeared, having been shadow banned by our anger. We can call this anger by other names—frustration, annoyance, irritation, exasperation—but it is rarely the righteous indignation we want to believe we are experiencing. It has blinded us to God and it has distorted the people we oppose.
Paul knows the Philippi church’s situation. Two co-workers he loves are at daggers with each other. The call for intervention of other believers to help them (Philippians 4:3) suggests that they have reached at least a Level 3 conflict—“You are the problem.”
(For you who may not be familiar with the Five Levels of Conflict, they are as follows:
- Level 1: We have a problem that needs to be addressed between us.
- Level 2: You caused this problem.
- Level 3: You are the problem.
- Level 4: God is on my side and fights against you.
- Level 5: I and those who are with me will destroy you no matter what!
Instead of plunging into the conflict head first as he did with the Galatian churches, he reminds his readers that God possesses a higher claim in the lives of all of them. In case they had forgotten, the good news is not only did God start the process of salvation in them, He will completely finish His work of transforming them. Transforming believers is His work. Completing it is His promise. ‘Open your ears to this truth so you will begin to remember His work in all of you over and above being right in your conflict.’ is the underlying reason why Paul starts his conflict resolution process this way.
I am sure Paul is drawing this from hard won lessons he learned from his own personal conflicts. Anger can harden our hearts towards those that have opposed us. We can stop seeing them as co-workers, even brothers or sisters in Christ. Our affection is diminished and we even may try to harm them through our words and actions. No matter how we dress up our responses, we probably are not thinking like our Father is thinking about those on the other side of our conflict.
I admit that this is been on my mind lately because I have been sucked into an unnecessary conflict. The person is a leader who has been both dismissive and needlessly aggressive. It is already Level 3, almost a Level 4 conflict.
I have had to come to grips with what I think and feel toward this man. Do I believe God is transforming him into the likeness of His Son? Does it matter to my thinking about this conflict that my opponent is a brother in Christ, not some jerk that I hope never to talk to again? That my own transformational journey depends on the work of God the same as his does? And will I surrender to God my right to be angry and pray for this man or will I justify myself and hope that he will suffer God’s wrath for the way he handles himself?
Our theology must be alive. Knowing and applying the truth is the beginning of the end of conflict. It not only addresses your mind, it has a way of soothing your emotions. How is that? Because the Father is real, not some idealization of my deep desires that I have translated into a god. His reality means I run to Him, am comforted by Him and His truths, and made whole in ways winning a conflict never will.