Relational Landmines: Conflict Avoidance by Ted Beasley

At Gateway Church in Austin, we are looking at Relational Landmines. Week one at our North Campus, Ted Beasley dealt with “Conflict Avoidance.”

Next Steps

Discussion questions for your family, running partners, or life group.

Watch the message Ted shared here:

Read through insights from the message here:

In the early dawn of July 11, 1804, former Vice President of the United States, Aaron Burr, and former Secretary of the Treasury and founding father, Alexander Hamilton, rowed in separate boats from their Manhattan homes across the Hudson River to the designated spot of their duel, known as Heights of Weehawken in New Jersey. Hate powered the boats that morning. Twenty years of rivalry, enmity, personal insults, public name-calling had finally boiled over. Hamilton sabotaged Burr’s political career by publishing scathing attacks in the press. Burr, an aristocrat by birth, had long despised Hamilton’s rags-to-riches scrappiness and fame. They would settle this like “gentlemen.” Ironically, duels had been outlawed in the United States years before. Too many good men killed. Too many lives destroyed. Hamilton, himself, had lost his firstborn son, Philip, in a duel just three years prior. This was Alexander Hamilton’s 11th duel. The previous ten had ended with a simple musket ball fired into the air or into the ground so that both men could demonstrate their honor and move on with their lives. The night before the confrontation, Hamilton journaled that he was opposed to dueling on spiritual grounds, and that “I have resolved, if our interview is conducted in the usual manner, and it pleases God to give me the opportunity, to reserve and throw away my first fire.” It did not please God. Hamilton fired his first ball into the air. Burr fired his first between Hamilton’s second and third rib.

Alexander Hamilton – aide to General Washington, Revolutionary War Hero, creator of our nation’s financial system, framer of the Constitution, author of the Federalist Papers, founder of the Coast Guard, father of eight, follower of Christ – dead at 47. So sure he was right. So sure God was on his side.

Is God on your side?

I know you’re not planning on meeting someone with dueling pistols tomorrow morning, but is there a relationship in your life that’s sideways, and you’re so sure you are justified?

Is there a relationship in your circle of friends that just isn’t the same since those thoughtless words were spoken?

Would you be willing today to reconcile if God opened up an opportunity?

Every friendship or marriage or association that stands the test of time comes down to a series of critical moments when the relationship hangs in the balance and a decision must be made.

Today Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:21-24 are going to directly challenge us to take more initiative when there is anger or frustration in a relationship.

You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell. Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.

Long Term Relationships Require Effort

If you are in a friendship with someone long enough, there will be events that occur that threaten the very strength of your bond. There will be friction or anger or betrayal or misunderstanding or hurt. And in the midst of those types of conflicts, you will be faced with a decision.

  • Stay or go.
  • Tell the truth or keep the peace.
  • Forgive or hold a grudge.
  • Take initiative or leave the ball in their court.
  • You must decide if the relationship is worth it to run the risk of confrontation.

Often the path you take in a split second will determine the future of your connection with that person. All lasting, real relationships come down to a few intense moments of decision. When those moments came for you, how did you do?

Is there someone you’ve wronged, but you’ve never really spoken to them about it?

Is there someone who has hurt you, but you just buried it and pretended that everything is okay?

Is there some relationship in your life with a friend or spouse or a parent or a child or a sibling in which words have been left unsaid – words that could potentially heal or bring closure or revive what you once had, but it feels too painful, too embarrassing, too hopeless?

Every meaningful relationship in life comes down to a few critical moments in which you must decide. I wonder if this morning will be one of those moments for you.

Better Than Conventional Wisdom

Jesus begins this section of Scripture with the phrase, “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you . . ..” – Matthew 5:21

It’s important to understand how it is that Jesus teaches. Often he responds to what is called “Conventional Wisdom.” Jesus’ style is to point out where commonly held beliefs of the culture are just inaccurate and even comical. One of the things I love about Jesus as a teacher is his sarcasm. Jesus liked to poke fun at wrong thinking. And nowhere was wrong-thinking more prevalent in those days than with the Pharisees who prided themselves in their purity and moral righteousness.

When it came to relationships, the Pharisees had concocted a list of hundreds of rules to follow to insure happy and joyous relationships. The first and greatest rule of friendship, according to the Pharisees, was to not murder people. Brilliant, right? Mr. Pharisee, how do you do it? How do you have such wonderfully deep friendships, “Well, I don’t kill people.” But the Pharisees had all kinds of codes of conduct that went on from there – how to respect property rights, how to officially greet someone when you meet them on the street, where you are supposed to sit when you go to parties. The Pharisees figured that if they followed the rules, then they’d be happy relationally.

Jesus, I think, is having a little fun here in this passage: “Congratulations, you don’t murder people. You are careful to keep all of the rules of relationships, but let me add a couple more rules to your list.”

Let’s read on, “But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” – Matthew 5:22

Let me explain a few of the terms in this passage. Jesus says, if you get angry with someone, you need to be very careful about where that anger leads you. Then he says, “If anyone says to someone else, ‘Raca,’ then the person who said that word should be taken before the Jewish high court. Raca, in Jesus’ culture was a statement of contempt about another person. It was a way of belittling them in public. This is interesting – the word actually comes from the sound you make when gather spit in your mouth to spit at someone. Raca is a way of separating yourself from another person. It puts you on the inside with all of the cool and acceptable people, and it relegates them to some kind of lower class. Obviously, in our society today, we don’t use the word Raca. An equivalent in today’s world would be to make fun of someone’s intelligence or hair color or even their mama. My sons and I do this to one another for fun. One will say, “Dad, you’re like a Christmas tie. You’re loud and useless.” To which I replied, “You’re like school at Thanksgiving. No class.” He had to think about that for a moment. That’s Raca, and anyone who says Raca should be dragged in front of the Sanhedrin, which is kind of like the Supreme Court in that day. Then Jesus doubles down and gives an even wilder statement that anyone who calls another person a fool is in danger of going to hell. Actually, the word “hell” is a bad translation. Jesus’ original word was gehenna, which was essentially the trash heap, just outside of the walls of Jerusalem, where the city burned its trash. Jesus says if you call someone a fool, you deserve to get tossed in the fiery dump.

Jesus is telling the Pharisees that they may be experts on the proper etiquette for handling any social situation, but their hearts are filled with anger and rage and prejudicial attitudes towards their fellow human beings. Jesus isn’t giving them new rules about not being angry or saying “Raca” or calling someone a fool, instead he is telling these people that they are hypocrites. They may not be murdering people with their hands, but in their hearts or in what comes out of their mouths, there is this bitterness that is choking any hope they have of relating to other people in a deep and meaningful way.

In our day, there are no Pharisees, but many of us buy in to a more modern conventional wisdom about relationships. The prevailing wisdom of our culture regarding human relationships might be summarized in the phrase, “Live and let live.” It’s a mantra in our civilization that basically says, “Don’t infringe on other people’s rights, and don’t let them infringe on yours. Don’t judge someone else, and don’t let them judge you. And if you will respect other people that way and make them respect you, you are ensured healthy, happy relationships.”

Honestly, I think that’s a pretty good philosophy to live by. Many of us in this room are very respectful of other people’s lives and boundaries. We follow most of the rules of politeness and decorum. Now, if Jesus were delivering the Sermon on the Mount today, I think he would poke fun at our conventional wisdom, just as he did in the first century. He would say, “You live and let live, congratulations! You can follow the rules. But what about your heart?”

Studies show that we are becoming more of any angry society. We may be more civil and just and less judgmental than we were a hundred years ago, but it’s fascinating to see the rise in anger. We now have documented studies of a new cultural phenomenon – Rage. Rage is defined as an act of violence, obscenity, or intimidating behavior in response to a stressful situation. We’re all familiar with Road Rage. Studies show that one in four Americans have committed an act of road rage. More than 300 people died and 12,000 were injured in this country last year from violence precipitated by Road Rage. Also getting press these days is Air Rage. Incidents of violent or obscene outbursts are up 400% in the past three years. During the holidays we heard reports of Shopping Rage.

Our society has become more angry, though on the outside we appear to be more civil.

Many of us know that we have some issues with anger. Jesus says, “Great, you’re a relatively nice person. You get along with most people. You live by the motto, ‘Live and let live.’ All is fine on the outside. But where is your heart? How’s your internal anger level?”

  • Is there someone you live in bitterness towards?
  • Is there a relationship that has been strained?
  • Is there a person you used to be close with, but right now you are just faking it?
  • Is there an individual you know has a beef with you, but they haven’t come to talk to you about it?
  • Is there a friendship that is wasting away?
  • Are there words that have gone unspoken?

The great irony about “live and let live” is that when you don’t speak the full truth to someone you are in conflict with, you are not truly living and neither or they. You have to live with the pain and frustration and hurt that you they caused you. You have to associate that person or that relationship with that one thing that went wrong. You have to live with the memory of the way things used to be, and the reality of the brokenness that is there now. Is that really living?

Our Prescription for Giving Into Anger

Jesus continues on in the passage. Now he’s going to make a prescription. He’s going to recommend a step to take that will heal your heart and remedy any break between you and someone you love.

Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift. – Matthew 5:23-24

Again, you need to look at the cultural context in which Jesus is speaking. Jesus is trying to paint a picture here about urgency of resolving conflict with people you love. He describes a scene of someone in the Jewish Temple standing before an altar and engaging in some ceremonial act of worshipping God. Being in the temple and making an offering is one of the most holy moments in any Jew’s life back then. By law, no person in the temple was permitted to stop this act of worship once it had begun. But, Jesus says, imagine you are presenting your offering at the altar, but then you start thinking about the broken relationship you have with another person. Jesus says, that relationship is so important, that God would rather that you abandoned your religious activity and just go and make things right between you and your friend. See, Jesus is creating a portrait of what a person looks like whose heart is in the right place. Jesus says lasting relationships come down to a few critical moments in which you must decide whether or not you will speak the truth or leave the important words unsaid. In that moment, a relationship can hang in the balance. And Jesus makes a radical statement here. When you feel a tug in your heart and you know you need to go talk to someone, Jesus says drop everything and go do it. If you are at work, cut out early. If you are hanging out at home, pick up the phone. Even if you are in church, Jesus says, I’d rather you get up in the middle and walk out than have you sitting in your seat and singing songs and listening to the Bible taught while you know there is a division between you and another individual. Why? Because whenever there is a wedge between you and another person, there is a wedge between you and God. In John 4:20, the Apostle John writes this: If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen.

It’s hard to fully give your heart to God,
when your heart is occupied with anger or hurt or resentment towards someone that God created.

Doing this will take courage. It’s is simple to try to go make things right with someone – it just involves you initiating – but it is not easy.

So what now?

Be Willing to Ask: “Are we okay?”

This is a question, not an accusation.

  • These three words that would have saved the community of two secretly bitter small group members.
  • They are three words that would have kept a business partnership from dissolving.
  • They are three words that would have made things less tense around the Thanksgiving table.
  • They are three words that might have prevented a husband and wife avoiding each other for an entire week.
  • They are three words that would have re-established lines of communication between a parent and a kid.

In Matthew 18:15-16, Jesus lays out the “Are We Okay” plan.

If a fellow believer hurts you, go and tell him–work it out between the two of you. If he listens, you’ve made a friend. If he won’t listen, take one or two others along so that the presence of witnesses will keep things honest, and try again.

Jesus says, if you sense a disturbance between you and another person, it is incumbent on you to go have a conversation – just between you and that person. If that first conversation doesn’t work out, take a one or two other people with you who might be impartial so that that the other individual grasps the seriousness of the situation, plus she or he feels like there is someone to mediate the dispute. I say, start this conversation out with the question, Are we okay? It’s not aggressive. It opens up the lines of communication.

Here is what I would suggest happens from there.

A. Affirm the relationship.

Start out by speaking from the heart about what this other person means to you or has meant to you. Mention how the brokenness of the relationship is effecting you personally.

B. Make observations rather than accusations.

Chances are that there are a lot of assumptions on both sides of the argument. Chances are you don’t have all the facts or that your perceptions are somewhat skewed. So don’t make unfounded accusations like, “You’re a liar. You completely cheated me. You’re a lazy bum on Sunday afternoons as you sit there on the couch listlessly watching football for hours while I am relegated to managing your three young offspring, because you figure you worked hard all morning at church and you’re entitled to a little selfish me-time.” Okay, so that one was a little personal. It’s better to make observations, just to check your assumptions and not escalate the conversation. I usually use the X –Y Principle. When you do X, it makes me think or feel Y. When you watch football all Sunday, it makes me feel like I’m all alone as a parent and that you are just checking out. X-Y works, because, how am I really going to argue with how I make Stephanie feel? It’s her perception, and chances are I never really understood it.

C. Apologize, if appropriate.

I’m sorry – the two hardest words to say in the English language. But, friends, it takes two to tango. Inevitably wrongdoing exists on both sides. There are things you could have done better. So own them, even if the other person won’t own their stuff.

D. Ask again, “Are we okay?”

Once the conversation is winding down and both sides have spoken their peace. Ask again, are we okay? Is there something I can do to make us okay, because I want us to be okay. Listen, and if it is within reason, even if it takes some humility, put together a plan. Now, I’m not naïve. Sometime my little “Are we okay?” plan doesn’t work. That’s why Jesus adds the provision of going back with a couple of other trusted people. And, that’s why Paul says in Romans 12:18: If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. If you’ve sincerely tried with people, that’s all God wants. Remember, that’s been the key to this whole series. Willingness. God can work with willingness. Are you willing in the next week to go have a conversation that begins, “Are we okay?”

I want you to consider that the secret weapon of love, the way people like Gandhi and MLK and Jesus triumphed against tremendous evil and ridiculous odds, is that love lets go of the rope.

Every one of us bears the callouses of the ropes on our own hands. We tug and pull for control against rivals, against peers at work (maybe our bosses), against people from our past, perhaps we even silently grapple with our own spouse or kids or parents. We want to win. We want an apology.

Like Alexander Hamilton, we demand satisfaction.

Look at your hands for a moment.

  • Who is on the other side of your rope?
  • Who do you battle with?
  • Who do you live in discord with because of their pride or your pride?
  • Who makes you angry?
  • Who do you hate, even?

Remember what Jesus said in our passage. If you’re offering your gift, and there remember you’ve been tugging a rope against someone else, decide in that moment to make your stand, to go and to make things right.

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