Conflict and perspective

How many times have I counseled a friend to remember that there are always two sides to a dispute? And how many times have I been sure that my side was the only right side?

J. David Newman is the exectutive editor of Ministry.

Perspective is vital to solving any conflict. Too much conflict in the church results from seeing only one side of an issue. Often people find it hard to understand that there is another side. A little-known story in Scripture illustrates this.

When the Israelites conquered Canaan, several of the tribes took possession of land east of the Jordan. The tribes of Reuben and Gad and half the tribe of Manasseh decided to build an altar on their side of the Jordan. When news of this was brought to the rest of the tribes they prepared to go to war against them. The only altar allowed for sacrifice was the one associated with the tabernacle. Open conflict was a step away.

Before that final, drastic step was taken, some wiser heads suggested sending a delegation. Representatives from each of the ten tribes on the west bank of the Jordan were selected and sent. They accused their brethren of rebellion against the Lord. The reply of the two and a half tribes is most instructive.

"The Mighty One, God, the Lord! The Mighty One, God, the Lord! He knows! And let Israel know! If this has been in rebellion or disobedience to the Lord, do not spare us this day. If we have built our own altar to turn away from the Lord and to offer burnt offerings and grain offerings, or to sacrifice fellowship offerings on it, may the Lord himself call us to account.

"No! We did it for fear that someday your descendants might say to ours, 'What do you have to do with the Lord, the God of Israel? The Lord has made the Jordan a boundary between us and you—you Reuberiites and Gadites! You have no share in the Lord.' So your descendants might cause ours to stop fearing the Lord.

"That is why we said, 'Let us get ready and build an altar—but not for burnt offerings or sacrifices.' On the contrary, it is to be a witness between us and you and the generations that follow, that we will worship the Lord at his sanctuary" (Joshua 22:21-27, N.I.V.).

The representatives of the other tribes were satisfied with this answer, and war was averted. How often has war begun in the church because the other perspective was not sought? Many times we cannot conceive that there can be another perspective.

Sometime ago I drove from Mount Vernon, Ohio, to Indianapolis, Indiana, to attend an orientation meeting that was part of my Doctor of Ministry program. The meeting was to begin at 1:00 P.M., so I arrived some fifteen minutes early and found the room. At 1:00 P.M. not a soul had arrived. I got up and went in search of a secretary to confirm that I was at the right address and in the right room. She confirmed this, but could not explain why no one else was present. Five minutes passed, then ten, twenty, thirty minutes, and still I was alone in the room. I began to wonder what the problem might be. This was the right day, and it was the right place. Perhaps the meeting had been canceled and I had not been notified. Perhaps the instructor had come early and taken everyone who was early out to lunch. Perhaps there was a very poor attendance and the instructor was not going to bother with one person. Perhaps there had been an accident, and so on and so on.

At 1:40 P.M. I was just preparing to drive back to Mount Vernon when in walked two people, the instructor and an assistant. I immediately wanted to know why the meeting was beginning so late. He protested that he was twenty minutes early. I replied that it was one-forty, to which he responded that it was twelve-forty; At that moment light dawned; I remembered that Indianapolis was a different time zone than Mount Vernon. Suddenly all my anger, irritation, and impatience vanished. Indeed, I felt rather foolish.

Later that day, while I was driving home, I debriefed that experience. That I had never once questioned my own behavior frightened me. All I could think of was why it had to be the other person's fault. As it happened, I was the whole problem. Of course, situations are seldom as clear-cut as this one, but it still makes a point; there is always another perspective. Before we let ourselves become angry and irritated we need to actively seek the other perspective. If we will do this we might avoid a needless war, angry feelings, and frustrating conflict. Next time there is a conflict, examine the other perspective. You might preserve the peace.—J.D.N.

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J. David Newman is the exectutive editor of Ministry.

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