David fled from Naioth in Ramah. He came before Jonathan and said, “What have I done? What is my guilt? And what is my sin against your father that he is trying to take my life?” 2He said to him, “Far from it! You shall not die. My father does nothing either great or small without disclosing it to me; and why should my father hide this from me? Never!” 3But David also swore, “Your father knows well that you like me; and he thinks, ‘Do not let Jonathan know this, or he will be grieved.’ But truly, as the Lord lives and as you yourself live, there is but a step between me and death.”
4Then Jonathan said to David, “Whatever you say, I will do for you.” 5David said to Jonathan, “Tomorrow is the new moon, and I should not fail to sit with the king at the meal; but let me go, so that I may hide in the field until the third evening. 6If your father misses me at all, then say, ‘David earnestly asked leave of me to run to Bethlehem his city; for there is a yearly sacrifice there for all the family.’ 7If he says, ‘Good!’ it will be well with your servant; but if he is angry, then know that evil has been determined by him.
24So David hid himself in the field. When the new moon came, the king sat at the feast to eat. 25The king sat upon his seat, as at other times, upon the seat by the wall. Jonathan stood, while Abner sat by Saul’s side; but David’s place was empty. 26Saul did not say anything that day; for he thought, “Something has befallen him; he is not clean, surely he is not clean.” 27But on the second day, the day after the new moon, David’s place was empty. And Saul said to his son Jonathan, “Why has the son of Jesse not come to the feast, either yesterday or today?” 28Jonathan answered Saul, “David earnestly asked leave of me to go to Bethlehem; 29he said, ‘Let me go; for our family is holding a sacrifice in the city, and my brother has commanded me to be there. So now, if I have found favor in your sight, let me get away, and see my brothers.’ For this reason he has not come to the king’s table.”
30Then Saul’s anger was kindled against Jonathan. He said to him, “You son of a perverse, rebellious woman! Do I not know that you have chosen the son of Jesse to your own shame, and to the shame of your mother’s nakedness? 31For as long as the son of Jesse lives upon the earth, neither you nor your kingdom shall be established. Now send and bring him to me, for he shall surely die.” 32Then Jonathan answered his father Saul, “Why should he be put to death? What has he done?” 33But Saul threw his spear at him to strike him; so Jonathan knew that it was the decision of his father to put David to death. 34Jonathan rose from the table in fierce anger and ate no food on the second day of the month, for he was grieved for David, and because his father had disgraced him.
Today I want to talk about conflict. Sometimes we face conflict in our families or our workplaces. Sometimes we face conflict with neighbors or friends. Sometimes we face conflict within ourselves. Conflict is universal and challenging, but it can be hard to talk honestly about.
The passage Gary read from Samuel tells the part of the story of conflict between David and Saul. On the one hand, this story feels kind of irrelevant. After all, none of us is dealing with conflict over who will be the next king. On the other hand many of us face conflict because our goals conflict with someone else’s. Or we worry that someone else’s success might be a threat to our position. Or maybe you have a boss that doesn’t treat you fairly because they are threatened by your abilities. David’s story touches all those feelings.
Most of us are pretty familiar with the story of David and Goliath. After David kills Goliath he becomes one of King Saul’s military commanders. He also becomes Saul’s son Jonathan’s best friend and before long Saul’s daughter, Michal, falls in love with David.
As David gets closer to Saul’s children and gains the respect of the other leaders in the military, Saul starts feeling threatened. He worries that David’s success will undermine his authority and threaten his kingdom. In Saul’s case, his worry is well founded. The Prophet Samuel, who had anointed Saul as king, later confronted him with disobeying God. He told him that God had rejected him and was going to seek a “man after God’s own heart” to rule Israel. So when David appears on the scene so obviously full of God’s power and gains popularity quickly, Saul concludes that David is the one God has found to replace him.
As readers, we know that Saul is right: David will be king and Saul will lose the throne. It’s classic epic tragedy: Saul can recognize what’s going to happen, but he can’t do anything about it. Everything he tries to defend against the threat from David strengthens David’s position and weakens his own. In the end, Saul will die, his family line will become mostly irrelevant and David’s legacy will define the rest of Israel’s story.
Unlike Saul, most of the time when we feel threatened by other people the threat is not that real. We are threatened because we are insecure. We worry that people will like someone else and forget about us. Or we worry that someone else’s success will somehow set us back. Fortunately, we are not living in an epic tragedy.
But as different as our stories are from Saul’s story the basic core of conflict is often the same. The real problem for Saul is not David, it’s that Saul has broken faith with God and God is going to remove him from the throne. David is the means of that, but God is the one opposing Saul. Saul blames David, but the problem is really Saul.
We often see a problem and we blame it on someone else. Then we try to solve the problem by putting up defenses against the other person, when the problem is actually within us. Even when the problem starts with something someone else does, our response contributes to the conflict. When we put up our defenses, usually the other person responds defensively too. We both say words that fuel the conflict and we misunderstand each other because we’re too defensive to really listen and much too defensive to talk openly about what’s going on.
Misunderstanding reinforces our fears and negative feelings about the other person, and their fears and negative feelings about us. Everything new we learn about each other person gets filtered through the darkening lens of our conflict, so it gets harder and harder to see the situation and our role in it accurately. The conflict spirals downward, and before we know it the walls between us are too high to imagine taking down.
At the same time, the trouble inside us that caused or contributed to the conflict goes unrecognized and unaddressed, so we are likely to repeat the same mistakes over and over again while blaming other people each time.
Conflict puts up walls; misunderstanding makes those walls higher and harder to see through. Then, our natural reaction is to talk to our friends about what the other person has done to us. More often than not, that reinforces our negative feelings and brings someone else into the conflict in an unhelpful way.
In contrast, there is Jesus’ approach to conflict:
15“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. 16But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
You’ve probably heard me talk about this passage before because I think about it any time there is a problem, misunderstanding or conflict. Our first instinct is usually to talk about a conflict with a friend, with someone we count on to agree with us. Jesus says our first move should be to talk with the person we’re having a problem with. That’s hard to do and it requires a frankness and honesty that is not common in our culture.
Our culture values politeness almost to a fault when it comes to face-to-face conversation. Whether it’s work place feedback or fashion advice with friends we struggle to give honest, constructive criticism. It is hard to tell someone straight out when they have hurt us. It’s even hard to tell someone when we disagree.
The thing is, honest engagement cuts through the fog of misunderstanding. It’s hard, it’s scary to think about approaching someone we’re having trouble with and sharing our concern. But Jesus is never one to shy away from things that are difficult, and here, as usual, his advice is right on target.
One of my paramedic preceptors often said prejudiced things that bothered me. At first I was hesitant to say anything. I didn’t want to mess up our relationship and I worried how he might react. It was easier to go home at the end of the shift and vent to Maggie about it. But that reinforced my negative feelings about him while not doing anything constructive.
Finally, I shared my concern with my preceptor. It was scary: my heart was racing and I started to sweat. I don’t remember how I started the conversation, but the conversation was open and frank. None of my worries about his reaction came true. Instead, we both came away with greater respect for each other. We understood each other better. I didn’t feel like I had to hide my true self when I worked with him and I could let go of my negative feelings about his prejudice. Going right to the source of the struggle with honesty and openness as Jesus suggests, brought a right resolution. Instead of hurting a relationship, honest confrontation strengthened it.
The second stage of Jesus’ conflict resolution plan is to bring a trusted member of the church with us to speak with the person we’re struggling with. That person can bear witness and hold both people accountable for their words and actions. Once conflict has gotten to a certain level it’s hard for us to hear each other accurately, so it helps to have another person there that both people can trust. That helps check our temptation to jump to conclusions about what the other person is saying or filter their words through our negative feelings.
There are times when we have to put Jesus’ advice into practice differently. Sometimes conflict has gotten to a point where we are concerned about our safety. In situations of abuse or danger, we should not approach the person alone. Sometimes the right approach is to meet with the person along with another person we can trust. Sometimes we need to keep more distance than that and even involve others, like the police.
Jesus’ words are a model, not a strict pattern to follow exactly. In any conflict, we will do well to spend time in prayer as we think about the best way to approach it. Even if we can’t immediately approach the person we’re struggling with, we can commit the situation to God; sometimes we’ll be surprised with what can happen down the road. And even when we can’t address the situation directly, we can play a healing role by refusing to make the conflict worse by talking about the other person in damaging ways to other people.
As we think about conflict with others we also have to be honest with ourselves about the role we play. If we’re going to follow Jesus’ advice to confront a brother or sister about something they are doing, we have to be ready for others to confront us. It’s rare for all the wrong in a conflict to be on one side, so we have to be ready to listen in a non-defensive way.
That’s the practical piece of the story: when you have a conflict, try to go right to the person you’re having trouble with. If you don’t feel comfortable or they don’t respond satisfactorily, bring another, mature Christian with you. Approach them with honesty and openness and God can do wonderful things.
Spiritually, the key to our thinking about conflict and people and about our life in general is God’s grace. In this sermon series one week is about forgiveness, so we’ll talk more about that then, but the heart of the gospel, the heart of our faith is forgiveness. We worship a God who doesn’t tally up our sins. We worship a God who pours out forgiveness before we’re even honest enough with ourselves to confess.
When we think about life in community, when we think about relationships and conflict, when we think about family and communication and misunderstanding, our first job is to forgive. We forgive because God has forgiven us. God frees us from all the things we have done wrong: all the selfish thoughts, all the hurtful words, all the cold silences and the cooperation with injustice. God forgives us without limit and without cost. Since we’ve been forgiven, we are called to forgive others. We’re called to forgive in our heart and to work for reconciliation in the world. We’re not always going to get it right, but with God’s help we can make the world a little better, a little kinder. We can shine the light of God’s love in the darkness of conflict.
Thanks be to God.