Embracing Conflict With Hope
by Matthew Cramer
“All men have an instinct for conflict: at least, all healthy men.”
— Hilaire Belloc
In the late 1970’s, Ruth Ann and I bought a home in Sacramento, California to use as a center for Christian Healing. The home, built in the early 1900’s of graceful Spanish architecture, was very large — 10,000 sq ft on three floors. We could handle 20 live-ins at one time; and sleep 45-50 on a weekend retreat with liberal use of sleeping bags and the carpeted floors.
Those who came to live with us were mostly poor; we charged nothing for food, lodging or ministry. Income from my management position in Aerospace, and gifts of foodstuffs and clothing from supporters was sufficient for the ministry.
We considered “The Open Door” as a name for the home, but decided on Casa del Christo Rey (House of Christ the King), to lift up Jesus Christ as the center of our mission.
However, news of our Open Door policy soon spread, as did our reputation, and quickly became our nickname. City, county and state agencies; parole officers, police, health and human services; school districts, and more brought people to us. The weekly prayer meeting in our home included more than 90 people who prayed for healing of each other and those who lived with us. Many remarkable results occurred with emotional, spiritual and physical healings, and freedom from spiritual bondage.
A year after we opened, we received frequent, threatening phone calls from a witches’ coven in the San Francisco bay area. They demanded we cease our ministry, told us they were conducting satanic rituals to oppose us, and regularly threatened that our son, who was away at college, was alternately dead or going to be killed.
Ruth Ann and I were startled by the aggressiveness of this surprise attack. We had no idea how a witches’ coven, more than 100 miles away, could even know about us, let alone be moved to attack a small-potatoes-ministry like ours. Others in our home were very afraid of such opposition and suggested we disband the ministry.
I’ll never forget sensing that, as serious as it was, we must be doing something right to elicit such aggressive opposition. After we discussed the situation with others more experienced in these matters, and prayed about it for an extended period, we decided to continue. We conducted spiritual warfare concerning our callers and, after a short period of time, the telephone calls abated. Our ministry at Christo Rey continued successfully, before we moved to another part of the country.
Conflict — It Goes With the Territory
The biblical approach to conflict is surprisingly broad, far beyond the “can’t we all just get along?” secular mentality.
As Christians, we are called to embrace our salvation, work at a relationship with God, and help build the Kingdom of God on earth. As the saying goes: “Jesus has won the war, but we have to occupy the territory.” Now, if the Kingdom of God is advancing and taking territory, who is being forced to retreat and give ground? It must be the world, the flesh and the devil. But none of these gives ground without a fight. Thus, for a Christian, occupying territory means conflict.
The many military metaphors used throughout the Bible indicate that being entangled in conflict is part of our normal Christian calling.
“For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” (Eph 6:12 RSV)
Our Lord did not promise a life of ease, wealth and honor; He called us to be soldiers in a battle. The battleground could take place in our personality and character, in the arena of worldly cultures and values, and in freeing those still bound by evil. That’s what Christian life is all about. Any time the Kingdom of God is being advanced, conflict follows. Jesus said: “… If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Lk 9:23 RSV). Friction is the inevitable consequence of forward motion in both the physical and spiritual realms.
The Bible is full of examples where conflict is spawned by God’s call. Moses was called to free the Israelites in Egypt and lead them to the Promised Land. But first, he had to contest with Pharaoh and then, after crossing the Red Sea, deal with his rebellious followers. Along the way there were tribes to be conquered and complainers to be endured. These were the processes by which the Chosen People were organized, the Ten Commandments inaugurated, the Jewish faith established, and the people delivered to the shores of the Promised Land.
David, called to unite the Israelite kingdom and originate the lineage from which the Messiah would eventually appear, had to struggle against his own lust and ambition, fight with Saul, quell hostile tribes, and deal with rebellions and internecine strife. Nevertheless, the kingdom was established, the territory conquered, the Ark brought to Jerusalem, and a king’s lineage established.
Because of the world’s sinful condition, the only way spiritual progress can happen is through conflict. The prophet Jeremiah recognized this fact all too painfully:
“You duped me, O LORD, and I let myself be duped; … All the day I am an object of laughter; everyone mocks me. Whenever I speak, I must cry out, … The word of the LORD has brought me derision and reproach all the day. I say to myself, I will not mention him, I will speak in his name no more. But then it becomes like fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones; I grow weary holding it in, I cannot endure it.” (Jer 20: 7-9 NAB)
No Free Lunch For The Saints
Abundant conflict is conspicuously present in the lives of all the great saints working in the Kingdom. Mother Teresa, for example, overcame opposition from her religious order, the hierarchy of the church, and local Hindu religious leaders, to start caring for the sick and dying on the streets of Calcutta, India. Overcoming obstacles to establish a new worldwide order of nuns dedicated to serving the hopeless and helpless, she became one of the most famous Christians in the world, won the Noble Peace prize and showed the world a living and real Christian faith.
Through her personal writings, however, we learn now the enormous conflict Mother Teresa endured. Stories of the struggles and opposition she encountered are legend in India. Yet her conflicts were internal as well. She records the great spiritual darkness and doubt she went through. Yet, because she faced the difficulties and fought on, Mother Teresa advanced the cause of Christianity more than anyone else had in India’s history.
In the lives of God’s people, whether physical violence is present or not, the conflict encountered is always real. We believe we’re successful if there’s no conflict. Often, we’ve only avoided it. Many Christians assume they’re living the victorious life when they’ve not yet begun to fight.
Christ and Conflict
Besides advancing the Kingdom of God in the world, righteous conflict is a significant mechanism in our personal development as well. Let me make this point a bit sharper. We’re not called to embrace conflict just because it makes our characters grow. Nor are we called to embrace conflict because that’s how evil is defeated in the world. There’s a deeper dimension to it. We’re called to embrace conflict because it’s a primary way for us to embrace Christ himself.
Once we see conflict in this way, it becomes clear that part of our Christian calling is to embrace and move into conflict confidently, rather than avoid and denying it. “What!” you cry, “Embrace conflict? Are you mad?”
Many years ago, I was engaged to give a talk on “dying to self” at a conference for Christian professional people. The talk was built on the death/resurrection themes in Scripture. These themes describe a process wherein, bit-by-bit, we deny excessive demands of ego, appetites, desires and emotions that want to rule us as a counterfeit lord of our lives. In obedience to God’s will and through His grace, we deny those inordinate demands through the exercise of our will.
Aspects of the broken, sinful life we inherit from Adam, die as we crucify selfish desires through intentional denial of their dominating influence. Immediately, features from the New Life we receive at Baptism are released to operate in us and form our character. In this way, the risen Lord Jesus becomes more firmly entrenched as Lord of every aspect of our life.
The process does not consist of two separate and independent parts — death, and resurrection. Instead, it is one, single step in which resurrection is inextricably linked to, and follows, death just as certainly as Jesus’ resurrection followed His death. A few of the scriptures that develop this theme are:
“Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, …” (Ro 12:2 RSV)
“If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Mt 16:24, 25 RSV)
“… If we have died with him, we shall also live with him; if we endure, we shall also reign with him; …” (2Ti 2:11-12 RSV)
“I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, …” (Ro 12:1 RSV)
“Put to death therefore what is earthly in you … put off the old nature with its practices and … put on the new nature, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.” (Col 3:5, 9-10 RSV)
“All of us, gazing with unveiled faces on the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, as from the Lord who is the Spirit.” (2 Co 3:18 NAB)
With enthusiasm, I had devoted many hours preparing my talk on dying to self; working late the night before it was to be given. But during the final preparation, I became quite concerned. Finishing, as it did, with a rousing exhortation to embrace the crosses in our lives, all the emphasis on dying to self could hit the listeners negatively and very hard.
In the early hours of the morning, and in a panic, I sought the Lord in prayer. How could I convert this seemingly negative but very important message about spiritual growth into something the listeners would be willing to receive? The more I prayed, the more I realized I had a classic marketing problem on my hands. I had a valuable and powerful product I wanted them to use, but I needed a way to overcome initial consumer resistance.
I changed the ending of the talk. Admitting that both the talk and its subject was heavy and uncomfortable to ponder for any length of time, I explained the classic marketing problem on my hands, and that I’d decided to sell my concepts in the form of a radio commercial that hawks an after-shave lotion or perfume. It went like this:
(In a corny announcer’s voice:)
“Brothers and sisters, is your spiritual honeymoon over?
Has your epiphany-high blown away?
Is Sandpaper Sally salting your wounds?
Does Hassle Harry hammer your ego?
Are there black heel marks on the way to your spiritual growth room?
Does your living self-sacrifice keep crawling off the altar?
What you need is Crrross! Embracer!
A liberal application each morning lets you say “yes!” to those daily crosses.
It comes in a one-ounce size for the newcomer, a one-gallon size for the spiritually mature,
and a total immersion, 10,000-gallon size for those who really have their act together.
So hurry. Send for your Cross Embracer today
and we will include, absolutely free, this handy booklet,
“How To Behave Before The Throne”
plus this beautiful, hand-embroidered towel for wiping away tears from your eye.
Now don’t delay. Send for your Cross Embracer today.
And don’t leave home without it.”
The meaning here, of course, is that most of the crosses we encounter in life come in the form of conflict. Rather than being a poison in spiritual life, conflict is the meat and potatoes. We make progress because conflict presents a powerful opportunity to enter the death/resurrection process, releases more new life in us and moves us forward with the Lord.
Conflict offers chances to practice forgiveness and humility, control our anger, and learn greater respect for our fellow man. It provides opportunities to exercise patience and forbearance, be open-minded so as to learn from others, make choices that will crucify the old man — and trade in our old life for New Life. Thus, opportunities to be conformed more closely to the person of Jesus are given, around and about us every day: “… until we all attain to the unity of faith and knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the extent of the full stature of Christ, …” (Eph 4:13 NAB).
The death/resurrection process is difficult and often painful; it requires persistence and discipline. We often fail. Yet failure is not the correct yardstick. What matters is not how often we fall, but how often we get up, seek forgiveness from the Lord and get back in the ring. We must not give up, but persevere in the battle. Through perseverance, the greatest strides forward are accomplished by the power of God working in us.
Is That Really You?
It’s easy to think that conflict means God is on our side. But we must be careful not to make martyrs of ourselves. Careful spiritual discernment must be exercised to make sure one’s call is truly a call from God and that we are still on the correct path. A preacher friend of mine loves to tell the story about another preacher, named Bill, who thought he heard God call him to move to Canada and start a new ministry. So Bill sold their home, gathered up his family and belongings, and moved to Canada.
Two years later, preacher Bill was destitute, his ministry floundering. In prayer, he beseeched God about his predicament, saying: “Father God, I know you called me to move to Canada and I responded promptly to your word. Why are things now so disastrous?” In contemplation, the preacher heard the Lord’s response: “Yes, I called you to move to Canada, but I didn’t say now!”
It’s hazardous for us to dream a great vision, pursue it, run into significant difficulty, and then assume conflict has occurred because we are following God’s call. Just because conflict is present, doesn’t automatically mean we are correctly following a call from God. Spiritual life is not that simple. When we come face to face with conflict, it could mean our egos and desires are leading us on a wild goose chase. Or, we could be doing something wrong and need to change our behavior.
It’s disconcerting to realize, the converse of this point is not automatically true either. If conflict is not present, it could mean you are moving away from God, but not necessarily. It could be a time of blessing or a period of calm to gain confidence before the storm of another conflict. Remember that Jesus took Peter, James and John up the Mount of Transfiguration before going down into the Valley of Death. (Mt 17:1-9 RSV)
All good discernment rests on the foundation of an ever-deepening relationship with God. (See The Gift of Discernment for more detail). Never sure how He will approach us next, we must cultivate all frequencies and channels in our spiritual receivers, and keep them open so we can recognize Him when He speaks. It takes practice and experience to recognize His soft voice over the shouting of our appetites, desires, emotions and ego.
Regular prayer that includes praise and listening is important. Being well versed in the Scriptures and church teachings helps us discriminate between temptations and His input. We can seek outside confirmation from experienced and spiritually mature friends, leaders and spiritual directors. They help us make sure the harbor lights are all properly aligned before we venture into the open sea.
Discernment is not that hard, but it must be deliberate and thorough. Spiritual intuitions or “super spiritual” feelings can easily mislead. Our God is a very practical Father. He might call us to do something adventuresome, but He will never call us to do something foolhardy or dangerous. Often a dose of good common sense is what we need to see the way forward.
Time Will Tell! Just Not Now
If the enemy and battle lines are clearly seen, we can enter the fray with gusto, knowing that God is on our side. But war is never neat and tidy. When the battleground is foggy, it’s more difficult. Sometimes the enemy is within. At other times the enemy is disguised as a friend. Still worse, the battle sometimes seems hopeless or even absurd.
The reasons for seeming absurdity in Christian conflict are varied. Maybe our own motives and desires are mixed and are therefore clouding our vision. Maybe the conflict seems hopeless or absurd, simply because we can’t see the whole picture. Maybe we’ve been called to obey God in a way we cannot understand — a way that is very painful — a way full of suffering that seems absurd and bizarre. The most difficult battle is the one we cannot understand.
Think of Abraham. God asked him to sacrifice his only son — the son promised him for many years. The request seemed incredulous, yet he obeyed until stopped by an angel. God promised him a great nation, but Abraham never saw it. Still, he continued to face trials and difficulties as he followed God’s will. In his day, God’s directives to Abraham seemed absurd, at least in human terms. Worse, he saw only a little of what was promised. That is why Paul counts him as a man of faith. Faith, in this sense, is not just believing a set of doctrines, but living in obedience to God even when it seems ridiculous to do so.
Today, 4,000 biblical years after the call of Abraham, we see a better picture. The call to sacrifice his son pointed to the greater sacrifice of God’s own son. With the cross in mind, Abraham’s obedience makes sense. Likewise, 2,000 years after the birth of Jesus, we are still discovering and re-discovering the effects of His seemingly shameful and meaningless death/resurrection.
Struggling in the battle might only pay off many years later. We can’t see the future. Our usual, knee jerk response is to try and bring God’s wisdom down to our level, interpret His requests through human lenses. We are trained to set an objective, make a plan, execute the plan and measure the results. We have little experience in how one small act of obedience to Our Lord will bear fruit many years later.
“But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise as some count slowness, but is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” (Eph 4:13 NAB)
And The Beat Goes On
The author of the letter to the Hebrews includes a moving passage about the many heroes who have preceded us. They acted in faith and never saw the results of their sacrifices, because in God’s timing, long lapses can occur between the final curtain of a conflict and experiencing its fruition. The writer of Hebrews concludes this poignant passage like this:
“And all these, though well attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had foreseen something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect. Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Heb 11:39, 12:1,2 RSV)
When we feel lost in a great cloud of confusion and fear, its easy to forget we’re surrounded by that “great cloud of witnesses” who are, and have been, advancing the Kingdom of God since the call of Abraham. The word “martyr” means “witness”. Because they witnessed with the sacrifice of their lives, the martyrs faced the ultimate conflict and so, found their ultimate union with Christ.
With waves of difficulty already breaking over our heads, the last thing we want is the wake of another conflict speedboat. Yet, Our Lord keeps calling us on, stretching and increasing our capacities far beyond our comfort zone. It’s okay to struggle. It’s even OK to complain. It’s OK to pray for relief; but it’s not OK to give up or run away. Conflict is creative, and as long as we don’t turn back, the Lord will use it for our transformation.
The cloud of witnesses reminds us that the confusion, fear and pain of conflict make up part of the territory. Their brave and noble lives remind us that, just as there is no gain without pain, there’s also no crown without a cross. This referring back to the cross reminds us time and time again of the core event in our faith. Saint Paul said, “… we preach Christ crucified …” (1Co 1:23 RSV). It’s true we need to focus on the victory of Christ, but there would have been no victory if there hadn’t first been a battle.
In conflict, we meet our destiny in this life, and that destiny is no less than Jesus Christ himself. He calls us to share his cross, to enter into the cosmic battle with him. He might seem like a flinty taskmaster or a tough drill sergeant at times, but He has promised to be with us always and to send His Spirit to guide us in all our difficulties. (Mt 28:20, Jn 14:26 RSV). No other One can give us a life with such rewarding fulfillment, joy and satisfaction.