May 22, 2016
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
IDEAL FAMILY: TOUGH STUFF
The third in a series of five.
The marriage vows say “for better or worse”. And it’s not in the form of a question. It’s not, “Which do you choose, better or worse?”
Who would not choose to live happily ever after? But the reason those “for better or worse” words got into the marriage vows is that the choice is often not ours to make. Married life, family life, all life includes better and worse. There is a lot that is very good and there is a lot that is very hard. Even in the best of families, there is always plenty of “tough stuff”. And that’s our topic for this morning in this “how do I deal with my crazy family” series.
We’re going to be looking at crisis and conflict. Both are tough. Both are common. Both have a way of coming out of nowhere and making our lives miserable. But there is a shade of difference between them. So we’re going to look at them separately today. First crisis, then conflict.
The first thing to say about crisis is that no family is crisis-free. If yours is, just wait. There are many different crises lurking out there. Death. Disaster. Job loss. Serious illness. Serious accident. Devastating news that shakes you to the core.
You may have heard of the book that was made into a movie called The Vow. It’s the true story of a couple of newlyweds who are very much in love. It’s a storybook romance. They are going to be the exception and really live happily ever after. And then, out of nowhere comes a terrible car accident. It’s a miracle that she lives through it, but as she regains consciousness she has no memory of her husband. He is a stranger to her. That chapter of her life has been erased. The book is the story about how they survived this crisis. She met her husband again, as if he were a stranger and they fell in love all over again.
We hear dramatic stories like this and we think crises happen to other people, Well, they do happen to other people, but they also happen to us. All of us, eventually. Some of us, it would seem, continually.
Strong families are at their best when the circumstances they face are the worst. The strength of strong families serves as a pool of resource that they draw on when difficult times come. It’s a little like saving money for a rainy day. Strong families have an emotional bank account they can draw upon when the sky darkens and the rain begins to fall.
In contrast, unhealthy families are worn out and depleted daily by the stress that goes on in their lives and in their relationships. And so even a minor crisis seems major because they just don’t have anything left to deal with it. They go to the well and the well is dry.
There’s a warning here. Some of you use up all your emotional energy every day. You end the day exhausted by whatever that day’s crisis was. You go from crisis to crisis, running on empty, not taking the time to replenish your reserves. And then something big comes along. A real crisis. Will you be able to keep it from blowing you and your family apart?
Here are four characteristics that are present in strong families when they deal with crisis. (1) They stick together. They unite to face the challenge. I want to share with you a passage from Romans about tough times and how God’s family is to respond. “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble? Or hardship?” It’s been kind of rough lately . . . “Or persecution? Or famine?” You’re not sure where the grocery money is coming from this week. “Or nakedness?” No money for clothes either. “Or danger? Or even the sword?”
The reality is that some people who live emotionally exhausted come to tough times and they get separated from Christ. They drop out of church. They get bitter with God. They stop going to their life group. They stop returning calls from their friends. It doesn’t make sense to pull back from God when we’re in trouble and need God the most. But it happens. Romans says, “No! In all these things we are more than conquerors through Christ who loved us” (8:35,37). We don’t just make it through. We don’t just conquer hard times. We are more than conquerors. We are stronger than we were before as we pull together as a family to face this crisis with God’s help.
(2) Strong families dealing with crisis become a support system. They are there for each other. They stop asking questions like, Why did this happen? Who is to blame? They start asking, What are we going to do about this? What’s my part to play in doing something to make things better? What can I do to support the others in my family who are having a tough time with this?
(3) They seek the positive. Like the boy who was learning to play baseball. He’d toss the ball in the air and swing at it. He’d miss every time. He kept at it long enough that most kids would have long since become discouraged and felt like a failure. Not this little guy. After he whiffed for about the 40th time, he said, “Wow! What a great pitcher!”
Positive thinking really does help. Every situation we face can be viewed either negatively or a positively. How we look at it won’t change the situation but it will change us. It will change the way our family deals with this. It will make the difference between whether we get down on ourselves and each other or whether we radiate that upbeat spirit of confidence that comes from faith that our family can handle this.
(4) Strong families seek God in a crisis. It’s not just a matter of believing in ourselves. The theological basis for positive thinking is our faith in God. We can count on each other because we know we can count on God. Strong families trust each other in a crisis but they also trust God. They know God can handle this. God cares about what they are facing. God will provide a way for them to get through it.
What was your last crisis? Maybe you’re in the midst of one right now. Were these four things, are these four things, helping you to get through? Sticking together, supporting each other, seeking the positive, seeking God? Let’s decide today that we are going to build a reserve in and through the Lord that will enable us to deal with crisis in a different and a better way.
Now, conflict. Here’s the difference between crisis and conflict. Crisis happens to us. Conflict happens with our consent. Conflict requires our participation. Here’s a definition that I’ve found helpful: Conflict is what happens when relationships clash with goals and needs. The key word here is “relationships”. To have a conflict there must first be a relationship.
How many of you have had a terrible conflict with the spouse of your boss? How many of you have had a terrible conflict with your spouse? I’m guessing more of you answered “yes” to the second question. I’m guessing you have more conflict with your children than with your friends’ children. You see, conflicts are about relationships. Conflicts happen when our relationships with people who are important to us clash with our goals and our desires.
This is expressed in today’s text from James. “What causes fights and quarrels among you?” And then James answers his own question. “Don’t you know that they come from desires that battle within you? You want something and you don’t get it” (James 4:1-2).
When babies want something and don’t get it, they let us know. But when I want something and don’t get it, it’s fine. It’s no big deal. Do you believe that? If you do, you don’t know me very well. Many of us have a tendency to behave like babies when we don’t get what we want.
That’s the origin of conflict. So we should just grow up and learn to get along with each other. That would help. But that wouldn’t eliminate conflict. Because conflict is a normal and necessary part of life. A conflict-free relationship is a sure sign that at least one of you is half-dead. Whenever two or more people come together who are fully alive and have dreams and desires and needs and goals, there will be conflict.
I emphasize this because some of us grew up in homes where conflict was seen as something evil and bad and abnormal. We were scared of conflict. When it would happen we would react like we would react if our house caught fire. Either put it out as quickly as possible or run from it as fast as possible. But if conflict is a normal and necessary part of life, we might need to rethink this. Maybe the conflict itself isn’t the threat. Conflict isn’t bad or good. It’s what we do with it that makes it bad or good. And if dealt with properly conflict can bring good into our families. It can make strong families even stronger.
Remember our definition. Conflict is what happens when relationships clash with goals and needs. Can we deal with conflict in a way that preserves both? The relationship and what we want?
There are five classic ways to deal with conflict. (1) We can yield. We can give in. You want this. I want that. So I say, Let’s do it your way. When we yield to the other we place a high value on the relationship and a low value on our needs and goals. Jesus did this in the Garden of Gethsemane. It was the greatest conflict of his life. He prayed, “Here’s what I want. I want to live. I don’t want to die. Nevertheless, not my will but thine be done” (Matthew 26:39). And then the soldiers came to arrest him and he yielded to them. He didn’t run away. He didn’t resist. Remember, Peter was the one who resisted, and Jesus wasn’t very happy with him for resisting. Philippians has a verse about yielding. “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others” (2:4)
When is it best to yield? When something is more important to the other person than to you. When something is not worth fighting about. When is it best not to yield? When moral principles are involved. It’s never a good idea to compromise your morality. Some things aren’t negotiable. Parents have the job of teaching our children what these things are. Our church has that job, too. Some things are right. Some things are wrong. Everything is not just up for grabs.
(2) We can deal with conflict by withdrawing. When we do this we place a low value on the relationship and a low value on our needs and goals. But sometimes it is best to withdraw from conflict. Jesus, for example, was involved in one of his perennial conflicts over the Sabbath. By now he must have really been getting tired of fighting over this. So this time he chose not to fight. He “withdrew from that place” (Matthew 12:14-15).
When is it best to withdraw? When someone is about to kill you. Also, when your emotions are too high and you’re too angry to deal with it right then. But when you withdraw for that reason, make sure you set a time to come back and deal with it. “I just don’t want to talk about it now,” is OK once in a while. But if you’ve been avoiding the same issue this same way for five years now, it’s probably time to talk about it. When you avoid conflict, what you communicate is this: “I don’t have enough confidence in our relationship or enough confidence in myself to work through this with you.”
(3) We can compromise. We see the collision coming so we each move a little to the side so we can pass safely. Have you ever had a car come at you, crowding into your lane, and you want to hold your ground and see who chickens out first? I hope not. But we do that with people. It’s just as dangerous in our homes as it is on the highway. To compromise is to say, I’ll give a little, you give a little, and things will work out fine. Jesus did that when he was asked about taxes. “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s” (Mt 22:21). It’s not a matter of either-or. We can have both-and.
When should we compromise? When there isn’t time to work it out. When the matter isn’t worth more time. When you’ve been unsuccessful at working it out after repeated attempts. Compromise isn’t always best. When you compromise, you give in on the value you place on your relationship and the value you place on your needs and goals.
(4) We can resolve the conflict. Here alone are we placing the highest value both on the relationship and the needs and goals of both parties. Jesus in John 14 had a group of followers who were all upset with him. He was talking about the cross. They wanted to talk about their future together. And so Jesus said, “Let not your hearts be troubled. I know this is difficult for you but you need to know that I’m not going to set aside my goal. My goal is to be obedient to God. But I care about you, and so, I go and prepare a place for you and I will come again and take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. I value this relationship. But I also value what I know I need to do” (John 14:1-3, with a few extra words added in).
When is it best to resolve a conflict? As often as possible. It’s seldom easy. It takes time. It takes effort. But it’s worth it. How do we go about resolving conflict? The first step is to find common ground. Begin not with where you differ but with where you agree.
(5) The last way we can deal with conflict is “win-lose”. This is the competition model, also known as the Democrat vs Republican model. Or Republican vs Trump. Or Democrat vs Sanders. If there’s going to be a winner, there has to be a loser. Jesus overturned the tables in the Temple (Matthew 21:12-15). He won. They lost.
When do you insist on winning a conflict? Rarely, and only with much prayer first. It’s easy to win the battle and lose the war. “Win-lose” places the highest value on getting your way and the lowest value on your relationship. Relationships don’t last long when we insist on winners and losers.
These are the five options we have when we find ourselves in a conflict. Yield, withdraw, compromise, work it out, and compete. There are times for each of these. The question I want to leave with you is this: Which do you use most? Which is your default approach to conflict? Where are you stuck? Are there times when other ways might be healthier for you and for your family?
Some of us tend to be door mats, others of us are conflict avoiders, some are compromisers, others are peacemakers, and still others are fighters. There’s a time for each. There’s also a downside to each. Even resolving conflict isn’t always best. If you spend all your time at the peace table you won’t have any time left to live together in peace!
It takes practice and it takes love to deal with the tough stuff of crisis and conflict in ways that will make our families the balanced environments where people can grow that God wants them to be. And it takes God’s help every step of the way.
Keep working at it. We’ll keep getting better at it. And then maybe we’ll be ready for God’s larger challenge to Christian people who are alive today — to live peaceably in the same house with seven-and-a-half billion brothers and sisters.
Lord God, we pray for families, on every level — our families at home, the human family, this church family. In each one we experience crisis, we experience conflict, and we need your grace if that which unites us is to prove stronger than that which divides us. Melt our selfish, stubborn hearts. Give us the heart of Jesus. We pray in his name, Amen.