In September of 2023, The Owen Center hosted a community event to help people understand the biblical framework for dealing with personal conflict. Below is a transcript of the lecture given by Dr. Gary Spooner.
It started with a snake. There once was a woman, minding her own business—maybe—surprised at a snake that could speak—and speak so well! —of the forbidden fruit before her: its beauty, its smell, and its promise of wisdom and equal status with God. And as the snake’s messaging drew her deeper down its worm hole, she believed it, and ate — and conflict was born. Immediate division between the woman and God spread—to division between the woman and her husband and further, into every relationship God created. Our history became a history of spreading polarization.
A recent Pew Research Center analysis found that, on average, Democrats and Republicans are farther apart ideologically today than at any time in the past 50 years. Differences can grow into distance in our families, in our churches and in our community. We’ve especially felt the tension during the past few years. The internet designs algorithms to lead us down information wormholes where opinions get hardened into irrefutable truth, and those with opposing views are mocked and scorned.
One study showed that “29 percent of Americans are estranged from an immediate family member, with higher rates of estrangement among men, [and] people between the ages of 30 and 44…” Estrangement is highest among families where sexual orientation and identity are at issue. This survey and others quantify the pain of distance between those who were once so close, and still so dear.
What if we could see one another, hear one another, speak with one another so that, even in our disagreements, even in our serious disagreements, we are making room for peace. And what would that peace look like? We make space for peace with the way we see one another. We naturally assess or profile others through an assimilating lens of appearance, opinions, intellect, behavior. Yet relationships have a deeper grounding than appearance or politics. At the core of human relationships is a shared human dignity – not of our own making, but a gift.
The ancient text of the Bible describes humanity created uniquely in the image of God. Inspired by such a thought, the Hebrew king and poet, David, asked, in light of the expanse of the universe, “Who is man that you take thought of him or the son of man that you care for him?” Compared with the vast universe, the human race appears insignificant and disposable. But David’s song says that God has made all people “just a little lower than God” and that God “crowns [us] with glory and honor.” Status, respect, and value are built into human existence by God, our Creator.
Now, someone might object to putting forward an exterior standard of personal value. To some, personal value grounded outside of self cannot be truly authentic. But you can’t have it both ways. Either value is purely personal and therefore meaningless outside of self-perception, or value is given from outside of us and is true of everyone.
As C.S. Lewis so beautifully writes: “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal…But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit… Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.”
Respect is not something we give or something we can take away. It is something resident in every person. An attitude of respect, rooted in God-given dignity, makes a place for peace when tensions rise. However, when tensions rise, as we all know, A kind of hearing loss occurs.
My hearing is not what it used to be. There are some sounds I cannot hear. And, at times, my hearing is selective (so says my wife). I get the sound but not the message. And sometimes, other voices and noises drown out the one voice that I need to hear. When we cannot bear the distance the words are making, we stop listening. We go deaf and the relationship goes silent. In some cases, for years. In some cases, for life. How do we listen to those with whom we disagree?
David Powlison, a pioneer in the biblical counseling movement, listened so well that a conversation with him gave the impression that, for the moment, you were the only other person in the world. Listening is an act of respect. Besides hearing loss, Conflict can bring on selective hearing, in which case we will only listen to what we agree with. Once an opposing sentence is spoken, we hear little else. And we may reduce the offending party to a political or social scarecrow. Names like “Woke” or “fascist” come to mind.
Our emotions sometimes make so much noise that they drown out the voice of those with whom we disagree? Fear, hurt and anger tempt us to simply change the conversation to avoid the topic or to take the verbal field by volume and a volley of words. Listening says that disagreement will not define the distance between us.
A rule of carpentry is: “Measure twice, cut once.” The rule of communication is: “Listen twice, talk once.” As Jesus’ brother, James, once wrote: “Everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger…”There are three ways to show respect by listening:
- with our eyes,
- with our body,
- and with our voice.
With our eyes, we look into the eyes of the speaker. With our bodies, we lean toward the one speaking. With our voices, we relate back to the speaker the message we have heard.
When we listen, we make a place for peace.
Eventually, though, we must begin to talk in conflict Sometimes, we’d rather not fight, so we get quiet. Other times we can’t let a disagreement lie and we can’t keep quiet. But what kind of talk really helps? Talking is well-governed by one question: “What speech will do the most good in this moment of conflict?” Despite a burning desire to get our point across, what we say in a moment of conflict is better guided by four strategies.
- First, ask questions. Not snarky questions like,” What kind of imbecile thinks like that?” But ask questions that reflect respect and reveal that you’ve been listening. In so many cases, we disagree because we simply don’t understand the person we’re talking to.
- Second, be able to explain your opponent’s position. What an honor you give to someone to repeat their position accurately. And, having listened well enough to speak well, you may find yourself given the courtesy of being heard and understood, too.
- Third, speak to the person and the ideas and ignore the drama surrounding the issue. Seek to understand why a person believes as they do and be ready to explain why you believe as you do. No “sound bites” allowed!
- Fourth, patiently anticipate and pray for follow-up conversations. The goal is to recover and grow a relationship. Conflict does not end well when the goal is for one party to be “put in their place”. Pray for the patience to talk as long as it takes to understand and wrestle with one another’s positions.
Seeing, hearing and talking well can make a place for peace. But by themselves, they cannot make peace. Techniques cannot mend our relationships. The wormhole is too deep. Interpersonal peace comes from outside of us. It comes from a Person. Hear these ancient and powerful words given to Paul the apostle: “But now, in Christ Jesus, you who formerly were far off, have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace.”
How can any third party mend relationships with a 2,000-year-old sacrifice? —Keep listening: “He made both one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall.”
So, whatever separates us, Christ removes. How? “By abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the law of commandments contained in ordinances…” By making secular and religious views ultimate, we sentence one another to separation. But Christ took into Himself all those separating values and, on the cross, nullified them. With His death He puts the distance between us to death. And so, Christ makes “the two [the separate] into one new humanity, establishing peace. God chose conflict to save us from conflict. The enmity that started with the snake, the accumulated hostility of all the estranged relationships of history, battered Christ on His cross. And when He bled, only peace came out. We may be far away now but draw near.
The blood of His cross can make us one.
 —C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory (reprint, HarperOne, 2001), pp. 45-46.