Every relationship we have in life has the potential for causing conflict and pain or healing and life. Not all relationships are able to provide life-giving influence, but you can be certain at one time or another, every relationship will have an element of discomfort, conflict, or disagreement. But our response to disagreement or conflict has a great impact on our own character development and ultimately how well we will be able to engage a world full of people who think “differently.” If we can’t tolerate or value differences that are within the same sphere we’re in, how can we hope to impact the rest of the world? Here’s a secret: disagreements are either an opportunity for you to grow, or for you to help someone else grow. But silence kills intimacy. If someone is right in front of you and the conflict is just hovering around the edges of your relationship, unspoken and undealt with, that’s when death and unhealth begin to take root, and can even spread to other relationships from there.
A mentor of mine uses the concept of “staying at the table” in regards to disagreement or differences. It doesn’t mean that you allow yourself to continue in toxic or unhealthy environments, but it does mean that you don’t use those descriptors to define relationships where it’s simply a matter of difference or disagreement. We can disagree and stay at the table, maintain intimacy, and accomplish great things. Especially if we refuse to allow disagreements real or perceived, to go unaddressed.
In a culture where we are increasingly separated from each other by time, busyness and a digital barrier of safety, assumptions and rumors have become major weapons of the enemy against potentially healthy relationships. A rumor is information you’ve heard or assume to be true about someone that influences how you view or interact with them. It offers the promise of information about someone, with zero need for intimacy or interaction. Sometimes without really thinking about it, we can use rumors to justify attitudes or preconceptions, to give us power or secret information over people, or to validate our decision to remain disconnected from them. Rumors are what allow us to say, “I knew I didn’t like them, I knew something was off…” with no need for verification or an uncomfortable conversation. And when rumor is spread from one person to another with no verification from the source, that’s the seed of gossip. Dispelling rumor is easy and is Key #1 to staying at the table.
Key #1 Go to the Source
My wife and I traveled with a small group of people around the world and we often faced struggles based on our different ways of thinking or interacting with the world. To counteract this and help us cope with the stress of long-term international travel with each other, we had a rule. One night each week we had a “feedback” session where anyone could air grievances, annoyances, struggles or disagreements. We listened while someone shared and found positive resolutions that allowed us to continue forward together. We didn’t have the convenience of just “walking away.” That doesn’t just apply on the mission field. We recently had a similar fantastic opportunity where some friends gave us the gift of checking in to get clarification instead of choosing to run with what they had heard or perceived. If you do that and you still disagree, at least you’re informed, but it’s very difficult to have that conversation and not walk away with greater appreciation and respect for the person who once was obscured by rumor or disapproval.
Key #2 Be Careful What you Speak
When you have a disagreement or conflict with someone, it might be easy to go looking for a sympathetic ear. There’s nothing wrong with getting outside input, or sharing struggles with people you trust. But there can be a fine line between disclosing struggle in a relationship and subtly turning others against the person you disagree with. My recommendation? Go to your brother or sister first. Give them a chance to explain, to hear your side, to make it right, or whatever other positive conclusion might hopefully result. If the result is that you still disagree, but can still maintain relationship and care for each other, that’s a fantastic conclusion! The last thing you want is for relationship to be restored, only to remember all the little bombs of angry venting you left behind with multiple people while you were still offended.
Key #3 Celebrate our differences
On the world race, hatred and presumption turned to celebration of differences as we truly began to know each other. But that required risk. It’s always a risk to dive in deep with someone who has a totally different perspective, upbringing, or emotional makeup than we have. But I can tell you from experience that the benefits far outweigh the risks. If you are willing to connect with people who might rub you the wrong way, I guarantee you’ll start to discover things that are worth celebrating and that you might potentially grow and learn from as well.
Key #4 Relationship trumps doctrine
Doctrine is a belief or set of beliefs held and taught by a church, political party, or other group. It’s also a very common excuse for churches and denominations to split. Jesus said all the law and prophets were summarized by this: Love God. Love people. I’ve often seen people justify breaking relationship and spreading gossip and rumor just because they can’t understand where the other person is coming from. There are entire websites dedicated to tearing down ministries and leaders who have different beliefs than the authors. You can love people and not love God, but It’s impossible to love God if you don’t love people. “If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” 1 John 4:20 ESV
Is doctrine important? Of course! Teach the truth! But you can do that without tearing someone down. And you can disagree with someone else’s approach, especially if you’re informed and have discussed with them. But that doesn’t mean we have to draw walls between or against each other.
Thank God we are in a church community that celebrates the many places our members are in their journey toward God. My theology has grown and changed over time, and I thank God for men and women of grace who have walked alongside me and celebrated our mutual pursuit instead of turning our differences against me.