STATE OF THE UNION
“CONFLICT & COMMUNICATION”
APRIL 13, 1997
Lisa and I were invited along with fifty other pastors and their wives to southern California for an intensive time of brainstorming and discussion. This past Sunday afternoon we boarded a flight at DFW airport. The airlines could not put Lisa and I together. I found myself sitting alone in a middle seat with an empty window seat to my left and an empty aisle seat to my right and Lisa over on the next row. I was kind of tired because of the four weekend services. I was looking forward to California, just relaxing. And I said to myself, you might have done this before, I hope no one sits in either one of these empty seats because, if they don’t, when the plane takes off, Lisa will move next to me. We will have all of this room. It will be a great flight. So I kind of staked out my territory. I put my briefcase on one seat, some papers on the other. I watched person after person file by and said silently, “Thank you, God.”
Suddenly out of the corner of my eye, my worst nightmare became reality. Walking down that claustrophobic 757 aisle was an aging, angry baby boomer couple with frowns on their faces and two teenagers in tow. They were in an argument. I am talking about, you could cut the tension with a knife. I desperately hoped that they would not sit down by me. Sure enough, I watched their eyes as they looked at the seat numbers and they stopped, the husband and wife team, in front of my row. I tried to give them a good Christian and pastoral example. I stood to my feet, collected my belongings and said, “If you would like, I will move to the aisle so you two can sit together.” That was not a popular statement. The husband looked at me and said, “I always sit in the aisle seat.” Then his wife kind of elbowed me out of her way and said, “I always sit next to the window.” I glance around and the people on the plane are kind of looking over and by the expressions on their faces I can tell they are asking themselves, “Man, what is their problem.” So I sit there between these two marital gladiators like a piece of cheese in the middle of a sandwich. Knowing that this was going to be a terrible flight.
Suddenly, though I heard something like the voice of an angel. My beautiful, discerning wife saw the situation, walked over and offered to trade seats. I immediately said, “Yes, yes.” After relocating, I look over and they are taking verbal shots at each other throughout the flight. I can’t repeat what they were saying! And Lisa was right there in the middle with her head phones on not worrying about a thing. The body language was hysterical. The woman was turned to completely face the window and the man had his nose buried in Newsweek magazine. After about an hour, I determined that everything was OK. No more problems, until the teenage son walks up to the father and ripped into him. “Dad, you make me sick. I can’t believe it. Would you go back there and straighten your daughter out.” He was just ripping on the guy. The father was just shell shocked. He just sat there. I said to myself, “Whoa, isn’t that scary?” The teenage son sounds exactly like his Mom. Finally, the plane landed and Lisa and I saw them walk down the concourse. I turned to Lisa and said, “I wonder what is going to happen when they get home.”
You see, years ago I am sure this husband and wife were two starry eyed lovers who probably announced to all of their friends that they would never have a horrible disagreement, never a conflict in front of other people, but instead would have a great marriage. But I am here to tell you that their marriage is in trouble. It is in major league trouble. I doubt seriously that these two persons from southern California had ever taken a course on creative conflict resolution. And if the truth were known, most husbands and wives in this auditorium have never taken a course on creative conflict resolution either. You see when there is a vacuum, when there has been no training, no learning, when you haven’t heard about conflict resolution and especially when you haven’t heard what the Bible says about it, you end up treating conflict and handling conflict like your family of origin handled conflict. Even though you said to others that you would never act like your Mom, never act like your Father, you end up doing it when the heat is turned up and the differences are displayed. It gets messy.
Some of us grew up in homes where conflict was handled pit viper style. When things got tense, everyone would coil up, get ready in the strike position and then out of nowhere strike. Year after year this goes on and one day the venom takes effect and another grave is dug in the marital cemetery. Others of us grew up where conflict was handled politician style. Yes, there was conflict. Yes, there were problems but we never talked about them. We just said, like the politicians of our day, no comment, no comment, no comment, no comment. That is a great question but no comment. We thought that saying no comment and smiling that everything would be A-OK and the problem would solve itself. But it didn’t. We were quiet about it. We kind of swept it under the rug. Others of us grew up in homes where conflict was handled parachute style. You would see your parents disagree and you would see your Dad jump out of the relationship for awhile. He would pull the rip cord and the parachute of pity would open above him and he would fall into things like drinking too much. Maybe your Mom would go on a spending spree. Or one or the other would just leave for a couple of days. Then they would return and you kind of forgot about the problem because you were so glad to see them again. Sometimes people just bail out. They bail out into substance abuse, into depression. We oftentimes find ourselves, don’t we, acting like our parents or other family members when it comes to conflict resolution and communication.
What do we do about it? I’ll tell you what we are going to do. I have asked the ushers to do something really wild. I have asked the ushers to bolt the doors, block the exit and batten down the hatch because we are all going to have a course in creative conflict resolution. Right here in this auditorium we are going to learn what the Bible says about how to handle conflict, how to communicate and how to deal with our differences.
First, when it comes to handling conflict, we have to take that conflict to God. I am just giving you some preliminary statements now, I am not on the outline yet. But there is a problem. We can’t take our conflict to God until we have dealt with our conflict against God. I can’t talk about my differences with my spouse until I have dealt with my differences between myself and a holy God. The Bible says that all of us have made mistakes morally, spiritually and emotionally. God’s standards are perfect, yet we have violated God’s standards and God cannot change His holiness so we are in trouble. There is a canyon-like chasm between ourselves and God caused by our sin. We are in conflict against a holy God. In other words we are in an unwinable and unresolvable conflict. You see, I can’t change the sin in my past and I can’t alter God’s standard of goodness so I am in trouble. Yet the Bible says that God is rich in mercy and He sent Jesus Christ to die on the cross for our sins and to rise again. Romans 5:10 puts it this way. “When we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to Him through the death of iH His Son.” Now some of us here remember what it was like prior to being a Christian. We remember the uneasiness. We remember the feeling of kind of being at odds with God. Some of you are there right now. Some of you, during your semiannual moments of introspection, are a little bit nervous thinking about standing before God because you realize that you are a sinner and you realize that God is holy and you realize that you are facing an eternity away from heaven in a place called hell. And you have got to deal with this conflict. God wants you to deal with it. God has done His part. He has taken the initiative. He wants us now to apply what He did for us through Jesus Christ and accept Christ into our lives. And the moment we accept Jesus into our lives, we are reconciled to God and the Bible says that Jesus places the person of the Holy Spirit inside of our lives who now gives us the desire to reconcile with others. That would include resolving the conflict with our spouse, our family, our friends, our coworkers and our neighbors. That is exciting. That is good news. So make sure before you take your conflict to God that you have dealt with your conflict against God. Until you have dealt with that, good luck.
I want to challenge you to make this decision for two reasons. Number one, your eternal destiny hangs in the balance. Number two, it will change your relational world, especially your communication in conflict with your spouse. Take it to God. Once you have been reconciled to God through Christ, then take your conflict to God. Talk to God about the conflict. When Lisa and I are in disagreement and, yes, we have disagreements too, the first thing that we should do is take the disagreement to God. We need to say, “God, before I go to my spouse, I have a problem in my marriage.” How many of you do that? Have you ever done that before? I have done it some and when I have gotten out my journal and written out my prayer to God, and I am embarrassed to say this, most of the time I find that I am the one who has violated the situation not Lisa. And I ask God to give me perspective on it, to show me what to do, to show me who is wrong and then I begin the reconciliation process. But because I have been reconciled to God through Christ, because I take it to God, He begins to work through me and in me. You see God wants my marriage and your marriage to mirror His Son’s relationship to the church. Jesus took the initiative, we as husbands should always take the initiative when reconciliation is hanging in the balance.
Number two, after I have taken it to God, I have to take it to my spouse. I need to talk to her about the situation. You see, conflict resolution cannot be handled on the run, it can’t be handled on cell phones, it can’t be handled at the dinner table in front of kids throwing food. It can’t. You have got to go somewhere, negotiate at a neutral setting. Sit down and, this is key, have solution-driven conversation. The difficulty is, when we start handling and dealing with conflict, we don’t have solution-driven conversation, we have accusation-driven conversation. If the issue is sex, as we talked about last week. By the way if you missed that be sure to pick the tape up. I see the guys saying, “Where, where?” It’s out there in the back. You can’t miss it. If the issue is scheduling, if the issue is budgeting that we will talk about next week, just look at your spouse and say, honey, I want us to have a solution-driven conversation about this issue. And then stay at the table until it is dealt with.
Now at this moment, you are going to have to peel some pride away because it takes more raw courage when you are sitting down at the negotiating table to swallow the pride and ego and say that you were wrong and ask for forgiveness than anything else in life. It is difficult to do but it is worth it. It really, really is. I could close the Bible right now and say “Let’s go home and relax and enjoy this brisk day.” But I can’t. When we are at the negotiating table we have got to do something, we have got to, at this point, apply a formula. See the formula there on your outline? R=T4 formula. This is a Biblical formula for handling conflict in marriage. R equals reconciliation. So we say that reconciliation equals T to the 4th power. The four Ts are found in the book of Ephesians 4. We get the power from the Lord Himself who reconciled us to God.
Let’s jump right in. First, I have got to communicate truthfully. When I am sitting down at the table with my spouse, when I am dealing with this conflict, I have got to communicate truthfully. The Bible says in Ephesians 4:25 these words. “Therefore….”, and every time you see the word therefore always ask yourself what is it there for. “Therefore, each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully…” That means to take off lying, to take off exaggeration. That means to quit rationalizing. Do you know what the word rationalize means? It means telling rational lies. The Bible says to communicate truthfully. Each of us must put off falsehood and speak truthfully. Here is the great thing. When I speak truthfully to my spouse, or you could also apply this to a friend, God begins to work. He begins to move, He begins to act in a situation. Conversely, when I lie, Satan begins to work. He begins to act, He begins to move. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” Satan is referred to as the father of lies. I want to ask you a direct question, spouses, are you speaking truthfully to each other?
The second T, after we communicate truthfully, we must communicate tenderly. Ephesians 4:15. “Instead, speaking the truth in love….” Circle the word love right here. Truth without love is brutality. Love without truth is hypocrisy. Speak the truth in love. In the literal Greek it means truthing in love. So when I communicate with my wife, Lisa, I should speak the truth in love. And this truthing is not only in the words that I speak, but it is also the life that I live. It is my words but also my example. Is my walk matching my talk. Am I speaking and communicating tenderly to my bride.
The Bible says in Proverbs 15:1, “A gentle answer turns away wrath but harsh words cause quarrels.” When we get into an argument we sometimes begin to talk louder and louder and louder and then use harsh words. And it causes quarrels. But if I am upset and raising my voice and Lisa responds with a soft answer, it just kind of changes the situation. Communicate truthfully and communicate tenderly. I even wrote a little rhyme today right before I walked in. This is free of charge! “Remain calm, so you won’t detonate a bomb.” Anyway, I had a Grande Starbucks before I walked up here so that explains it.
I do want to talk to you about the seven commandments of creative conflict. These are so important. I want you to post these commandments somewhere in a prominent place. These commandments need to be settled and dealt with prior to becoming marital gladiators, prior to walking down the narrow, claustrophobia aisle of a 757.
- Thou shalt not use absolutes. Here is what I am talking about. When you are talking to your spouse, don’t say “you always”, “you never”, “every single time” because absolutes are not true.
- Thou shalt not bring up the past. And this is really for women because, guys, let me tell you something, women are smarter than guys. Just face it, they are. And I can recommend a book to read about women being smarter than we are. So there is no use really arguing with them too much because they start bringing the past up and they don’t forget anything and they will just nail you to the wall, brother. Now, men, we have a problem with this. We forget things. Women, this is for you. Take it easy on your husband. You have an unfair advantage.
- Thou shalt not name call. Oh, oh. You know, that little name that drives your spouse wild. You call her, maybe, by her mother’s name. I will move to number four, some of you are laughing too hard at that one.
- Thou shalt not compare. Oh, oh. “I wish you were like her.” “Do you think that he would say that to his wife?” Don’t compare.
- Thou shalt not threaten. Don’t threaten with sex. Don’t threaten with money. And don’t threaten divorce. The D word should be a cuss word. Don’t say it. Lisa and I said before we got married that we were never going to mention that word.
- Thou shalt not interrupt. You know, sometimes we are just on a roll in a conflict discussion and the other person interrupts and we get off the subject. Let the other person finish.
- Thou shalt not give up. Don’t give up. Stay at the table.
R , reconciliation, equals T to the fourth power. Communicate truthfully. Communicate tenderly. Obey those seven commandments of conflict. Also, communicate timely. Talk about a classic text, here is one. Ephesians 4:26-27. “In your anger do not sin.” Notice that the Bible says that anger is kind of neutral. In fact, God tells us to get angry over certain things. God gets angry. It says, in your anger, do not sin. I have got to give you one more rhyme here. I wrote another one. This is my last, I promise you. We are talking about keeping short accounts. “Keep a short account, so sin won’t mount.” Anyway, in your anger do not sin. “Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.” The word here is an opportunity or a place.
We have two cats, Oreo and Diamond. These cats are outside cats. We bought the cats for our snake problem. That is a whole other story. I am not that big of a cat guy. These cats are brilliant. If you just crack the door, they are in. And then you can’t find them. They will hide and just make themselves a place. Last weekend when I got dressed, I put my pants and coat on and then my shoes. I looked down and my pants were covered with cat hair. One cat had gotten back in the closet and made himself comfortable. That is the picture of the evil one. “Do not give the devil a foothold.” You see, if I let that little sin just kind of hang out there, if I don’t deal with it before the sun goes down, it will grow into a bigger and bigger issue and another grave will be dug in the marital cemetery. Marital graves are dug by little shovelfuls, day after day, month after month, year after year. The Bible says that we need to settle accounts and settle them quickly. Don’t let the sin accrue. Proverbs 15:12. “Conceited people do not like to be corrected; they never ask for advice from those who are wiser.” It is important to realize when you are at the negotiating table that you don’t always have to come to a resolution, but you do have to come to reconciliation. You can reconcile and put off the resolution for a later date. At this point, though, many marriages here need to bring in some people to help us deal with certain situations. Sadly, the majority of married couple wait until it is too late to bring in a counselor or a trusted friend or a pastor. What is so hilarious is, we are not shy about hiring tutors and teachers and consultants to help us with business, with our golf game, with our weight training. Yet, when it comes to marriage, especially guy won’t think of using a counselor. “No one knows me like I know me. They can’t help me. That is for weak people.”
Most of the time when husbands have reactions like that it is because they are scared. They are scared that the truth will be revealed. They are scared that they will have to change. I beg you, go and get some help if you have come to a relational sticking point. “…they never ask for advice from those who are wiser.” There are a lot of people that know more than you know. “Have you thought of this? Have you discovered this? Let me tell you what helped us.” Communicate timely.
The fourth T is communicate tactfully. The Bible says in Ephesians 4:29, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” Circle the word listen. Yes, we have to communicate tactfully and say things that build our spouses up, but we also have to listen. Listening is half of the communicative process. I ran into something this week that I want to share with you. Kodak conducted a study and they found that only 7% of our communication is verbal. Body language and expressions are 55% of communication and voice tone is 38% of communication. So it is not necessarily what you say but how you say it.
Here is a good homework assignment. The next time you are in a little conflict, instead of disobeying one of the creative commandments of conflict, instead of jumping in and interrupting, just say this to yourself. “Shut up.” Just say it to yourself. Don’t ever say it to anybody else. “Shut up. Be quiet. Let my mate finish.” And don’t give advice unless they ask for it. Sometimes they just want to share their feelings with you.
Would every one raise their hands. Now this is kind of tricky. I want you to put your hands facing the same way, one behind the other. A lot of marriages right now are like that. There is a gap there. There is a problem. There is a difficulty. This message in visual form tells you to obey the four Ts. It tells you in no uncertain terms to turn. So turn your left hand so that your left hand will face your right hand like you are getting ready to clap. This is not reconciliation right here. This is stopping short of reconciliation. Today’s message says, you are here, you turn there and when you reconcile you bring two alienated parties together. So when you apply the formula, clasped hands, are the result. So how about it? Reconcile those differences daily because God will be glorified and your marriage will reflect the most important relationship in the universe, Christ’s relationship to the church.