We all know conflict. We’ve all had some sort of dispute at some time in our lives. Conflict is a part of life. What’s interesting, however, is that most of the fights we have are with people we love the most and about things we care most about.
It’s been said that change is the seedbed of conflict. Since change is constant, conflict is normal and natural. We could argue whether conflict, in and of itself, is sin, but how we handle conflict can most certainly become sinful. Conflict is easy, but reconciliation is hard. So, how can we manage conflict in a way that when differences collide we can exercise and experience the Christian gift of redemption?
To help us understand how to go from conflict to reconciliation, we can pay attention to the movement of Jacob’s journey in his conflict with his brother Esau (Genesis 25-33). The conflict, which begins before they are born (25:23), reaches its crescendo when Jacob, disguised as his older brother, steals the ancestral blessing. When Esau discovers that he has been robbed of what is rightfully his, he vows to kill Jacob (27:41).
Now Jacob’s journey begins. To spare her son’s life, Rebekah sends Jacob to Haran to live with his uncle Laban. In his first major movement toward reconciliation, Jacob flees. It’s a movement away.
While in Haran, Jacob works for Laban, falls in love with Rachel and is tricked into marrying the older sister Leah. Finally, after conning Laban, Jacob falls out of favor, and it is time to go. But the Lord says to Jacob, “Return to the land of your fathers and to your kindred, and I will be with you” (31:3). Notice a “turning” occurs. So, on his way home, Jacob crosses the Euphrates and “sets his face” toward home (31:21).
Now Jacob begins a courageous trip toward his enemy, Esau. On the journey, Jacob sends out messengers who warn him that Esau is meeting him with 400 men. Jacob is “greatly afraid and distressed” (32:7). He fears Esau (32:11). Jacob, however, forges ahead.
The night before their encounter, Jacob comes to a ford in the river Jabbok. After sending everything across, Jacob stays behind—alone. During the night a mysterious man wrestles with Jacob (32:24-30). Who exactly does Jacob encounter? Jacob concludes that he wrestled with God himself. He names the place Peniel—the face of God—because he sees the face of God, and yet his life is spared (32:30).
The next morning Jacob rises to meet Esau. The meeting is emotional (33:1-10).
“What do you mean by sending me all these things?” Esau asks.
“I wanted to find favor with you,” Jacob replies.
“I have enough,” Esau declares.
“No, please, if I have found favor in your sight, then accept my present from my hand, for I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of God, and you have accepted me” (33:10).
The road to reconciliation
In his book Reconcile, John Paul Lederach insightfully parallels Jacob’s journey toward reconciliation with ours. In most conflicts, there is a “fleeing” or a movement away, there is a “turning” and a daring trip back toward the enemy. It’s a helpful metaphor that can guide us through the complex process of conflict and reconciliation.
Generally, once injustice occurs our default response is in the direction of distance, be it emotional, relational, spiritual or physical. We tend to separate. But in time there is a turning. We trust the Holy Spirit to initiate and guide it. Finally, there is a courageous trip back to face oneself and one’s enemy. This journey has the potential to help us experience authentic reconciliation.
“But when we seek the face of the enemy, we look into the face of God.”
Reconciliation isn’t just a journey; it’s also an encounter with ourselves and with others. There is “turning” and “seeking.” Jacob turns toward Esau, and he seeks the face of his brother. When we turn, we walk in the direction of the person we fear. And as we turn, we face a new destiny.
Facing one’s fears and the enemy is not for the weak. Turning and seeking presents huge challenges—one of which is that we become vulnerable and expose our “face.” But when we seek the face of the enemy, we look into the face of God.
There are no quick fixes. Jacob must wrestle to get to the place of reconciliation. The process of reconciliation looks different for each of us. As we see in Jacob’s story, the Lord doesn’t promise to do the work. God does, however, promise to accompany Jacob. God doesn’t necessarily promise that he’ll do the hard work of reconciliation. But he does promise to be present.
Reconciliation is central to God’s work in human history. So, when we practice reconciliation with others, we give our world a glimpse of God. We make real God’s grace, mercy, forgiveness and love. We are participating with God and his work in the world. Ultimately, reconciliation is a journey toward and through conflict. God desires that we arrive at reconciliation, but we have to get there first.
Some practical help
Along with the journey metaphor, here are three helpful tools to make progress toward reconciliation.
Launder language. In conflict, we tend to accuse, place blame or use inflammatory language. If we truly desire reconciliation, that needs to be cleaned up.
Say something like, “When you leave your clothes lying around the house, I feel disappointed because I don’t feel you consider my time. I feel taken for granted. Could you pick up more often when you change clothes?” This statement describes the bothersome behavior without guessing at motives, expresses feelings by using an “I” statement and clearly asks for specific behavior. It’s a proposal to which someone could say “yes.”
Actively listen. We yell during conflict because we don’t feel like we’re being heard. Something as simple as, “I hear you” can dial down the volume almost instantly. Listen for facts and feelings and restate content and emotions.
If your child says, “Leave me alone, it’s my life!” you could say, “It sounds like you’re fed up. You feel like we’re interfering, and you’d like us to give you more space to be uniquely you. Did I get that right?” Listening and being heard creates the conditions for meaningful conversations.
Reframe it. When we’re stuck in conflict and positions seem incompatible, “reframe” it by talking about what you’re for rather than what you’re against or who’s at fault. This allows you to get behind positions and find common interests.
In the classic church “worship wars,” we could focus on traditional versus contemporary or organ versus guitar. But when we get down to interests and focus on what we’re for, we might realize that both sides want the same thing—authentic, meaningful worship. Now there’s some common ground to get the reconciliation ball rolling!
Conflict happens, it’s a part of life. And while conflict is easy, reconciliation is hard. The invitation is to see it as a journey. A road we take with God, through conflict. A daring, courageous path toward a place where we can look into the eyes of our adversary and see the face of God. We can acknowledge our differences and make progress toward experiencing the Christian gift of redemption.
Wendell Loewen is professor of youth, church and culture at Tabor College. He is also special assistant to the president for constituent engagement. Loewen is a graduate of Fresno Pacific University and has a masters of divinity from MB Biblical Seminary in church and family ministries. He received a doctorate of divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary in youth and family ministry. He attends Parkview MB Church in Hillsboro, Kansas.