The roadblocks that stand between us and our longing to live together in the peace and joy of Jesus are subtle. Some conflicts are overt, but many fester deep in resentful hearts. Unless we are able to find ways to unblock such obstacles as self-pity, anger, and blame, they may prevent us from finding the solidarity we seek. Rather than allowing conflict to crush the possibility of human and spiritual growth, might it prove in some way to be a source of strength?
Conflict is part of life. Friends invite us to vacation with them at their summer home the same day we receive a month-long sabbatical grant. We have to choose between two equally attractive invitations. No wonder we feel conflicted.
This experience of being pulled in two directions at once frequently repeats itself. It reminds us of how often we face ambiguity and ambivalence in our dealings with others and in a variety of everyday events.
Repressing conflict can create a slush fund of smoldering resentment that can explode like a volcano when we least expect it. It is best not to bury our feelings but to bring them into the open for sensitive appraisal and prayers for a prudent solution.
Recall a tightly scheduled day when we did not have a minute to spare. The phone rings, and we have to decide whether to answer it or not. On the line is a friend we have not seen for a while, inviting us to lunch. Should we accept or refuse? We resolve the conflict we feel by choosing friendship over business affairs. Soon we enjoy a meal we would otherwise have skipped.
As much as we would like to be in two places at one time, that is impossible. Conflict brings us face to face with our limitations. To say yes to one possibility means saying no to another.
Every community is at some point in time a collection of conflicted individuals. In their knapsacks are physical ailments, financial problems, marital disagreements. The list lengthens, but what is remarkable is their desire to be together, for example, in Church, in a worship service, or around a common table.
Clashes are likely to occur, but everyone makes an effort to overcome them. Dialogue softens divisions. Compassion prevails over competition. Being kindred spirits is more important to us than engaging in power struggles.
Conflict becomes counterproductive in community life when we insist that our way of doing this or that is the best and only way to go. That is when tempers flare, misunderstandings arise, and discouragement results. From hearts this conflicted “…come envy, dissension, slander, base suspicions, and wrangling among those who are depraved in mind and bereft of the truth…” (1 Tim 6:3-5).
Conflict becomes an opportunity for spiritual growth when we opt to find ways to reconcile our differences and remember that our life in community depends on our loving one another and seeking creative ways to live and work together.
Scripture reveals the best way to resolve conflicts that could tear us apart: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:27-28).
While each of us has been endowed by God with unique gifts to share, we must be willing to let go of our differences for the sake of serving the common good. Conflict is not a signal to leave a scene of dissension but an invitation to become a reconciling presence. We can remain true to ourselves while finding ways to foster peace with others.
For example, Teacher Number One is a staunch proponent of individualized instruction. Teacher Number Two opposes this approach, fully convinced that only in the structured situation of a classroom can learning occur. Both methods of education have pros and cons. Will these two teachers, experienced and highly regarded as they are, blow up in anger or will they allow their conflict to be an occasion for mature reconciliation and spiritual growth?
The answer may reside in a reasonable compromise that keeps the peace in their scholastic community; it emerges not from their positions on the matter at hand, but from their mutual desire to serve the students. Some of them may need one-on-one instruction; others may love classroom experiences. What is best for them is what guides their resolution of the conflict, not which teacher wins the debate.
Consider a slingshot. Too much tension weakens the elastic, too little makes is flabby and inefficient. The challenge is to maintain a delicate balance. In a similar vein, when conflict strikes, we ought not to increase it to the breaking point but release the tension and find a solution of the benefit for all.