Are you too sure?

The connection between assurance and conflict

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"Prodigal Son" engraved illustration from "The Sunday at Home " February 13th 1864 Photo: Getty Images

Assurance is not the first word we think of when it comes to conflict. We are more likely to think of the hymn, Blessed Assurance, than conflict. But I am convinced that our assurance plays a far bigger role in conflict than we want to admit.

I know Chick-fil-A is better than your choice of Chipotle. You question my decision at work, and I don’t think you understand just how correct I am. How can any Christian not choose my political party? I’m right, and you’re wrong. We hear the self-assurance in these conflicts—the part of us that is convinced we are on the side of what is right and just. Maybe sometimes we are. And maybe that’s not what is most important.

The prodigal son

The story of the prodigal son can help us see why. In this parable, found in Luke 15:11-31, Jesus tells of a young man who demands his share of the inheritance while his father is still alive. In essence this son is saying, “I wish you were dead. Hand me the money please.” The young man storms off, squanders the wealth and returns to his family, destitute and hoping to work in his father’s household so he can eat.

Undoubtedly, the prodigal son is in the wrong. There is no question, no murky gray area here. The father does not care about this. His first act is not to scold or to say, “See, I told you that you were making a bad choice.” Instead, the father lovingly embraces his youngest son and prepares a celebration.

The oldest son, however, is less keen on this welcome home party. He has made the right and appropriate choice, but his self-assurance rears its head in the conversation with his father. The oldest son says, “And in all that time you never gave me even one young goat for a feast with my friends. Yet when this son of yours comes back…you celebrate by killing the fattened calf!” (v.v. 29b-30).

You can almost hear the hurt pride in his words: “I made the right choices, but you still love that son that made the wrong ones. Why didn’t you celebrate me this way? I’m worth it, but is he really? Why aren’t you choosing my (correct) side?

My side is the right side

When we are in conflict, we often feel that our side is the right side. Of course we do, otherwise we wouldn’t be on that side. This is where our self-assurance comes in. We prioritize being right, being correct and, perhaps for some of us, being seen as correct over all other considerations. We choose not to learn from someone else, even though our viewpoint could stand to be a bit more nuanced with some helpful information.

We prioritize being right, being correct and, perhaps for some of us, being seen as correct over all other considerations.

We choose not to listen to the person we are in conflict with because we’ve already heard their side of the story. Now, if they would just listen to us, we could end this all right now, because obviously we’re in the right. Our certainty, our arrogance, our stubbornness can make us impervious to change, to listening and to loving.

Elsewhere in the gospel of Luke Jesus says, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross daily, and follow me” (Luke 9:23b). This is a wonderful message for us in all times, but it can take on new meaning as we consider what it means to be in conflict. Giving up our own way is letting go of our self-assurance, our certainty that we are always correct, and humbling ourselves so we can listen to the person on the other side.

Before I attended seminary, I was an insurance adjuster who specialized in car accidents involving an injury. I assessed people’s injuries in order to compensate them fairly. As you might imagine, not everyone felt they were treated fairly, though I tried my best.

I noticed a pattern in my interactions with people. The conversation went better if I began by asking about what happened and how they were feeling now. It didn’t always end agreeably, because conflicts in the real world don’t always end that way, but it went better.

If I started out business-like and prepared for debate, assured of my own position, it didn’t always work well. If I listened, told them I was glad they are feeling better and that I hoped what I had to offer would help, at least most of those conversations didn’t escalate into shouting matches.

A two-edged sword

In conflict, our self-assurance and confidence is a two-edged sword. We may be confident of our position, but our position is not what matters the most. It is certainly not what matters most to the father in the story of the prodigal son. He could have stood aloof, waiting for his wayward son to return and apologize. He could have given the “I-told-you-so” speech that many of us reach for far too often.

We don’t have the rest of the story, and I suspect that if Jesus had continued, there would be some moment when the father lovingly advises his son to not abandon those that love him and waste his life away again. But ultimately, what matters was not the father’s ideas or position. It was not what he has to gain or to lose in the conflict. It was that he wants what is best for his son and is overjoyed to see him.

I wonder how our world would see Christ-followers if we had that same attitude. That when we are in conflict, we humble ourselves and put aside our self-assurance, our need to be right. That even if we are proven right, that we don’t lord it over others to make ourselves feel better. That we would be known for loving the people we are in conflict with because we’re both passionate about whatever issue has the potential to come between us.

Perhaps it all comes down to this. Does Jesus call us to always be right or to love people? I have found it is hard to do both at the same time. My prayer is that we will choose wisely so our world can see Christ in us, can see that father that runs to his son.

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