The following is the conclusion in a book manuscript that I will submit for publication in a few months. The book is based upon the sermon series we just completed.
In this conclusion I offer a story that is a composite of couples I have known and with whom I have worked through the years. This story is designed to help us take James’ antidote to division and apply it by seeing what the application looks like. Several times I refer to the book by Ken Sande, The Peacemaker (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009, repr.). Whenever I do this you will see “(Sande, Peacemaker)”.
“Susan, I am sorry I gave you the silent treatment last night. I was concerned about our budget and I was upset by the amount you spent yesterday when you and Katie went shopping.” Susan’s first reaction was to get mad. This was not the first time her husband, Greg, had been upset and shut her out after she had gone shopping with her sister. She knew it may not be the last time.
Frankly, she was tired of it. But, she also knew that they were finally making progress in their marriage after twenty years. Things were not perfect and they probably never would be. But, they were moving in the right direction. A year ago she wouldn’t have heard these words of apology from her husband. A year ago she would have exploded at Greg after a couple days of being ignored. This would bring at least a week of silent treatment followed by outbursts. That would have just been followed by the same cycle again and again.
Things escalated about eight months ago and the couple finally went in to talk to the senior pastor at their local church, which was hard, but we will get to that shortly. After a couple months of weekly counseling, the couple began to see changes in their relationship. It was ever so slight, but each thought it was amazing, especially since they feared there was no hope, that divorce was probably the only end for them. Now half a year later they continued to grow and yes they continued to struggle. They did not see “light at the end of the tunnel,” for they had learned not to expect that they would fully “arrive” in this life. But they both saw more clearly the one who gives light while they are driving through those underground shafts.
Twenty years earlier Greg and Susan married after living together previously for a year. Susan hadn’t wanted to live together, not really, but she felt she needed to, if she wanted to keep Greg. He had pushed her into it and for that she mildly resented him. But, as a young woman who had been sexually abused by an uncle and a brother years earlier, she mistrusted men, but also desperately wanted a man to complete her (so she thought) and felt the only way to keep one was to give herself to him. The bitterness toward Greg began to arise because Susan had received and rested upon Jesus Christ as Savior in high school and wanted to be pure until marriage. In her heart she blamed Greg that this didn’t happen.
Greg did not come into the relationship without his baggage. Growing up in a home where his parents were “model citizens” in their town and placed very high expectations upon their children, Greg could never measure up to the bar. Whatever he did, it always could have been better. His dad’s intense anger at him, coupled with an addiction to pornography—a practice to which he introduced both of his sons, led Greg to learn to deal with life’s stress by retreating inside himself and going to a place where he could have control, where he could find relief, and where he could discover some kind of pleasure: the place of his imaginary sexual partners. So, this young man came into his marriage with high expectations and “needs” from his wife, but with little in the way of skills to navigate differences that inevitably arose in marriage and little in the way of ability to love.
Once the couple graduated from college and married they moved back to the town where Greg grew up so he could become part of the family insurance business. Greg grew the business the way his dad had, by working long hours and by never saying, “No,” to the customers or to the demands of the community. After all, happiness came through not only the business success, but also the accolades that come from those around you.
The first fifteen years of marriage were hard to say the least. In addition to two children, their busy work schedules, and community responsibilities, they settled (maybe “crashed” is a better word) into an ongoing cycle. After a few days of the silent treatment, Susan would blow up at Greg. He would finally blow up and get mad at her: “You spend too much money! Here I go out and work hard every day to provide for us and you can’t even respect me by trying to help out. You don’t even want to be a wife to me. I swear, if we never had sex, you’d be fine with it!”
Susan’s response was usually something like this: “Oh, yeah, Greg, blame it all on me. You never spend time with the kids and me! You go to their school functions, but whenever you are with us, you are not really with us. You complain about Katie and me going shopping and about me never wanting sex, but you never show me any love. You never just want to hold me. Why shouldn’t I look for support from my sister? Why should I want to be intimate with you? You men are all just alike!”
Each spouse was convinced, “I’m right in this and so I am justified to respond the way I do. After all, I have been hurt!”
For the first decade and a half of marriage Susan went regularly to church with the children. Greg came some, but he had never professed faith in Christ. “If he would become a Christian,” Susan thought to herself, “things would get better, he would change, and we would be happy.”
Well, Susan’s prayers were answered. Greg had gotten to know Chuck, an elder at Susan’s church, through their involvement together on a community project. Greg liked Chuck and so when he invited Greg to meet with him and another friend, Dave, to study the Bible together, Greg decided he would. “Maybe a little religion will help. After all, it is important to Susan. Maybe it will bring some life back into our relationship.” Four months into the study Greg came under great conviction, turned from trying to be his own god, from his idols, and from his sins with great grief and hatred of the fact he had ignored and rebelled against the Creator all his life, and he received and rested upon Jesus Christ alone for salvation. For a short time the marriage improved. But old patterns began to rear their ugly head again.
Almost twenty years into the marriage Greg and Susan felt they were at a dead end. Each was worn down and fatigued—tired of living like this. “If only my spouse would change!” each thought. This is when they decided to talk to their pastor.
Going into their pastor’s office was a big deal for them. You see about eighteen months earlier they had gotten very angry at the senior pastor, the associate pastor who oversaw youth ministry, and the elders because their teen son, Tyler, no longer wanted to attend the youth group. Greg was mildly concerned, but Susan was the one who pushed the issue the most. After all, she loved her children. She knew marriage and life were hard, but there were always her children. She wanted them to turn out right and if somehow their lives “went south,” she didn’t think she could take it. After Tyler’s grades began to slip, the couple went in to talk to the associate pastor. After all, “If he would make youth group time more appealing, more exciting, Tyler and his friends would want to come.” When the couple did not see the response from the elders they expected, they left the church in anger. In the process they had “vented” to four other families, two of whom left also to support their friends. Two of the families stayed, but tended to grumble and mistrust leadership.
Needless to say, Pastor Paul Taylor was surprised when Greg and Susan showed up at his office.
After initially hearing the couple’s story, the cycles they had gone through for twenty years, the bitter piercing words they had spoken to each other, the silence that sometimes was as loud as the arguing, and knowing also of how they had responded to the differences with the pastoral staff, Pastor Taylor decided to take the couple through a study of James 3-4 and what he called, “An antidote to division.” He knew that more was needed than merely to say to them, “Stop doing what you are doing,” “learn to comprise,” or “you have to meet half-way.” He must help them see that their hurtful actions toward each other are inconsistent with who they are as new people in Christ, yet, such sins also are found in each of us who are broken and who live in a broken world. They arise from remaining sin in us that leads us to believe we know how to deal with conflict better than does God’s Word, from the idols in our hearts, and from our unwillingness to submit to our Lord in these matters so that we will love the other person sacrificially. Bottom-line, the couple had to learn God is in control in and behind all their circumstances, so they can trust him to help them and be there for them, if the other person lets them down.
Some weeks the three met together and some Pastor Taylor met with the spouses separately. But what was constant was their work through these two New Testament chapters, with the goal they would hear what God’s Spirit was saying to them through his Word. As the couple worked their way through the eight principles found there, they made the following discoveries that God was using to transform them, their marriage, their family, and even their interaction with their local church.
· Though these eight principles are not applied in some linear fashion as if one is mastered and then the next, there is a logical flow to them that should not be ignored. The three made their way word-by-word through the thirty-five verses and so moved from: (1) How they were hurting each other through bitter words and silence; (2) to the desires behind their hearts; (3) to their view of God’s providence that ought to strengthen their willingness to love one another. Yet, while doing this, they also came to see that in some ways the application takes place in reverse order. They learned, “If I trust in the providence of God and see how great my Savior is, I will be more willing to hear what he says about loving others sacrificially, and so I will submit to him, work on the idols of my heart, desire to follow his wisdom for dealing with conflict, and, as a result, to begin to deal with how I treat others and speak to them—asking forgiveness when I sin.”
· Each of them came to the realization God had placed them in this marriage, he had placed them in the congregation, he had good purposes in both, they could trust him to carry out those purposes, and they could trust him to provide for and protect them as they took hard steps of obedience that they might truly love one another and their church.
· They came to see that one of the purposes of God in all their differences was to display the glory of his grace in their lives (Romans 15:5-7; Eph. 1:6, 12, 14; Sande, Peacemaker, 17-73). This began to change their view toward people who had hurt them in their life (an uncle, a brother, parents, fellow Christians in their congregation, each other). Yes, much of what was done to them was sin, it was evil, it ought not to have been done, and certainly God is not pleased with it. Yet, God often allows what he hates to accomplish what he loves—the Christ-like growth of his children and his glory. It began to change their view toward differences and pain, to see them not merely as harmful intruders, but opportunities to put God’s power on display in and to a broken world.
· With this new-found realization of God’s power and the fact he is the King of kings and Lord of lords, they sensed more of a desire within them to hear what God says about the importance of loving one another and how to do this. More specifically, they found out that:
o Because we live in this New Covenant Church age, there is even a greater call to love one another than God’s people had previously (John 13:34). We also have greater resources to do this, such as the fact that Jesus Christ purchased for us the indwelling Spirit, the Spirit applies to us the presence and work of Jesus Christ, and the Spirit brings to us all God’s good gifts, not the least of which is changing us from the inside out that we can love others when it is hard (Jer. 31:31-34; Ez. 36:25-27; Mt. 7:7-11; Lk. 11:13; 22:20; Romans 6:1-23; 8:1-39). This set of truths encouraged Greg and Susan that they could take the hard steps they need to put each other ahead of self and also to love those in the congregation with whom they had been divided.
o The call to love one another, even when it is very difficult, is one of the most important missions God has given us, one that has great potential to display the glory of God’s grace to the world (Mt. 5:3-16; John 13:35; 17:20-23; Phil. 2:12-15). Greg and Susan were stunned to uncover that love and forgiveness are not optional, but that they were absolutely necessary and crucial for those who had been truly saved by Jesus Christ (e.g. Mt. 6:14-15). This moved them to realize they must begin to takes steps toward making peace, rather than simply remaining stuck in their feelings of hurt and victimization.
o When we experience differences and/or hurt from someone else, the Bible calls us to examine ourselves first, to look and see what part we have played in the conflict before we look at the other person (Mt. 7:5; Gal. 6:1; Phil. 2:1-4), and, if necessary, to ask for forgiveness before we confront the other person about their part in the conflict (Mt. 5:23-24). In other words, we first “Get the log out of [our] eye” (Mt. 7:5; Sande, Peacemaker, 75-137). One lesson Greg and Susan gleaned from James 3-4, along with a look at other Scriptures, is that they must stop obsessing about what the other person is doing and how they are falling short. Instead, they must pay attention to their own heart and behavior, allow God’s Spirit to do his full convicting and transforming work there, and when needed, they must apologize to others. It was very hard at first when they would apologize to each other. It was getting easier as they gained practice, but some level of difficulty was always present. They sensed Christ helping them always. You can imagine the surprise of the Associate Pastor and the elder board when the couple apologized to them for their sin against them. You can also imagine the couple’s surpise when the leaders also apologized to them for the ways they had fallen short in the conflict. Healing began ever so slowly in the family and in the congregation!
o Part of love is also lovingly telling others when they have hurt us and also how we have perceived that they have sinned (Mt. 18:15-20; 1 Cor. 5:1-13; Gal. 6:1-2; James 5:19-20).This is to be done with the purpose of benefiting the other person (Eph. 4:29; Heb. 3:12-14) and not merely to make us feel better or to exact revenge (Rom. 12:19-21; Eph. 4:31-32). Greg and Susan learned that part of loving others is that we must “Gently restore” others (Prov. 25:12; 27:5, 6; Eph. 4:15; Sande, Peacemaker, 139-200). They learned that a good place to start is by asking clarifying questions before they make declarations about their own hurt: “When you said that I spend too much money and time shopping with my sister, are there other reasons besides the money you are bothered by this?” “When you say that whenever I am with you and the kids I am not really with you, why do you think that way?” They also learned that a more loving and effective way to state their own hurt is by sharing how actions make them feel, rather than making accusations. For example, they came to realize that it is much more loving, effective, and far less abrasive to say something like this to the elders, “When we met with you eighteen months ago, we felt like the little amount of time you gave us and the lack of change in the youth ministry that took place after our meeting made us feel like you didn’t listen to us. Is that true? Would you please help us understand why you responded the way you did?” This was much different than their initial response to the elders (given in an email): “You never listen to anyone; you don’t care what the congregation thinks!”
o They came to see that they will never perfectly live up to the biblical guidelines for conflict resolution and so when they fall short, they need to apologize, they need to confess this before God, and we must rest in the forgiveness we have in Jesus Christ so we can move on (see James 3:2a; 1 John 1:7-2:2).
o Additionally, they gleaned from their time with Pastor Taylor that if they are going to love others in the midst of conflict, they must “go and be reconciled” (Mt. 5:9; 6:14-15; Eph. 4:31-32; Sande, Peacemaker, 201-257). In other words, they must pursue peace (Heb. 12:14) and release resentment toward others in a manner that follows the example of the way God the Father has forgiven us in Jesus Christ (Col. 3:13). The couple was surprised to learn that even though their families and friends (in fact just about everyone they had known in life) justified holding onto resentment and bitterness when wronged, this is never acceptable in the eyes of God for the Christian. Though they cannot control what the other person does, they can forgive them as God is pleased to have them do, by his grace. Greg and Susan began to see that if they were to forgive each other and those in their congregation whom they believed had hurt them, they must make the following commitments with God’s help: “I will not dwell on this incident;” “I will not bring up this incident again and use it against you;” “I will not talk to others about this incident;” and “I will not let this incident stand between us or hinder our personal relationship” (Sande, Peacemaker, 209).
o Finally, they came to understand that their anger and conflict must be dealt with right away, rather than allowing it to build and “fester,” since ignoring these situations only gave Satan an opportunity to work and make things worse (Eph. 4:26-27). They made a commitment to each other that they would never go to bed mad, that they would deal with conflict right away, and that they would help each other do the same when it came to addressing other people.
· Even though Greg and Susan were now “armed” with a greater view of who God is, the importance of loving and trusting in him, and the importance of loving others, each of them were surprised to find out that dealing with differences was still not easy. One of the practical steps that Pastor Taylor suggested was for them to view God (their King) as their Commander-in-chief. Whenever they had a difference with one another or another person, they now saw it as a mission to glorify God and to “take the hill” for peace, rather than letting it be taken by the sin of division. They began to pray that God would help them see all differences in this light.
· The couple also grasped that unless they gave attention to their hearts, it was virtually impossible to trust in God and to prevent division. After all, they learned from Scripture we were made to worship the true God, but in the brokenness of our sin we focus our heart’s worship on anything, everything, and everyone else other than God—our hearts are idol-making factories (Ezek. 14:3)! So, we must guard against and root out these functional gods (1 John 5:21). This had the following impact upon Greg and Susan:
o Greg had been worshipping and trusting in his work, as well as what the community thought of him. It led him to work too many hours and then to be involved in too many things. He rarely said, “No.” On the one hand it would bring out anger in him while at home because of the unrealistic expectations from employees and community members. On the other hand, when he was not working, it was “me time,” he thought—another god. Whenever Susan or the kids would want some of his “me time,” he would lash out at them. After all, it had become a functional god. Greg now knew he must rid himself of these idols, if he was to love his family, act like a Christian man, and take his rightful place as spiritual leader in the home (1 Cor. 16:13-14; Eph. 5:25-33). He was learning that only worship of the true God who is there will lead to love of others.
o Additionally, Greg had learned to worship his self-protection as well as his coping mechanism for stress: Sex and pornography. He must learn to communicate with Susan and others in godly ways when conflict arises (Mt. 5:23-24; 18:15; Eph. 4:15). What is more, he must cease viewing Susan merely as an object that fulfills his sexual desire and instead love her in ways that cherish her, get to know her more intimately, that romance her, and that make her feel secure (Eph. 5:33; 1 Peter 3:7). Finally, he must enter into a relationship with another Christian man who would pray for him, who would help him with accountability, and most importantly who would come along side him to help him apply the gospel that he can say, “No,” to pornography (Prov. 27:17; Rom. 8:13; 1 Thes. 4:1-8; 2 Tim. 2:22; Heb. 3:12-14).
o Susan came to see that she idolized her children, thinking that they could bring her the joy and fulfillment only Christ can bring. As a result, she had made them more important than Greg and she had unfairly been angered at the elders when Tyler’s interest in youth group was not what she had hoped. Because Tyler’s well-being was a “functional god,” she was willing to do anything to protect it. She motivated Greg to anger and he went along with her and opposed the church leadership. He now knows he did this because of his own functional gods.
o Susan also understands now that she had worshipped time shopping with her sister, as well as Greg’s conversion as gods. Neither of these is bad. In fact, Greg’s conversion is a very good thing, but trusting in this rather than in Christ is idolatry. Life and joy are not embodied in Christianity, but in Christ (John 14:6). Both she and Greg are now seeing that at the core of their need is that they must learn to love Christ, to cherish him, and see that the glory of God comes to us through him (John 14:15; 15:1-7; 2 Cor. 4:6).
o Both Greg and Susan came to see they had given into one of the most prevalent of all functional gods: Past pain and victimization. Each of them was justifying their reaction to stress, pain, each other, and even to the church leadership based upon “what has been done to me.” Satan working on our remaining sin loves to lead us as victims to victimize others. These sinful, demonic desires were fueling their fights and quarrels (James 4:1-4, 7).
· One of the big surprises that came to the couple, especially now that both of them were very interested in submitting to their Savior, was just how easy it is to justify sinful, unbiblical ways of dealing with conflict. First, they wrestled with the whole idea of apologizing to the elders. They could think of every reason for not doing it, until they would look in Scripture, allow the Spirit to do his convicting work, and think about what their Commander-in-chief wanted them to do. They came to see this would show their two children the power of the gospel they needed to see in order to commend Christ to them. The Church and world also needed to see this. Oh, how it would glorify God! As hard as this move was, they sensed Christ helped them do it and, in the end it brought them great joy! Also, they continued to be stubbornly committed to pursuing biblical ways of dealing with their own differences.
· With all these changes present in them, Greg and Susan became very sensitive to their grumbling, complaining; their bitter hateful words that expressed the bitterness of their hearts, and that up until this time they both had justified. After all, they had to “vent”. Now, they realize just how inconsistent this is with the reality they are in Christ and are new people.
And, so, armed with these changes the Spirit of God was bringing about in them through the Word of God (they found out it was also in response to the prayers of the church leadership and other friends in the congregation), this couple was beginning to see a very different marriage and family life emerge. It was by no means perfect. At times it was still very messy—especially when they would lose sight of Christ in them and his will. At these times they identified with Paul’s words in Romans 7:19: “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep doing.” But, in these times they were learning to confess before God, each other, and to forgive and ask for forgiveness. They were learning that the need to be watchful and on guard against Christ-substitutes was a lifelong war (1 Peter 5:8; 1 John 5:21).
But all the difficulty and challenge of this new life was worth it. They were seeing that they were living in harmony with one another and with one voice as a couple and with the congregation—and in all this they were glorifying God (Rom. 15:5-7)! They had learned from the Apostle James that the fangs of conflict may bite into them, but the deadly poison of division does not have to reign.