Traditionally, in math class, the word problems are tougher to solve. I’d say that holds true everywhere, not just in math class. On Sunday mornings this summer I’m co-teaching a class called Difficult Conversations. We are using James 3 as our anchor passage. Last Sunday someone in class asked, “If I hear from person A, that person B has a problem with something I have said or done, what do I need to do? I mean, this could realistically happen a lot. Do I have to track down every person and have a conversation?” And how fast are the trains going when they pass each other? Oh, sorry, I got a little confused. Things get complicated when we aren’t talking directly to each other.
Hmmmm, good question. So many things to consider:
1. Maybe the comment just doesn’t register on your big deal-o-meter. If that’s the case, then go read something else. You are done here. But if the comment stings, read on.
2. Matthew 18:15-20 comes to mind.
If another believer sins against you, go privately and point out the offense. If the other person listens and confesses it, you have won that person back. But if you are unsuccessful, take one or two others with you and go back again, so that everything you say may be confirmed by two or three witnesses. If the person still refuses to listen, take your case to the church. Then if he or she won’t accept the church’s decision, treat that person as a pagan or a corrupt tax collector. I tell you the truth, whatever you forbid on earth will be forbidden in heaven, and whatever you permit on earth will be permitted in heaven. I also tell you this: If two of you agree here on earth concerning anything you ask, my Father in heaven will do it for you. For where two or three gather together as my followers, I am there among them.
Clearly, person B conveniently forgot to follow this little directive from Jesus. So are you off the hook because person B isn’t behaving appropriately? Maybe not, but this potentially seems like quite a big production for one comment. Hold that thought.
3. Jesus didn’t go around tracking down everyone who disagreed with him. True, but you aren’t Jesus. I’d bet the farm that this isn’t a new triangle, and I’ll go to my grave saying that everyone has a part to play in every conflict, big or small. For one thing, person A should have instructed person B to talk to you. Thanks person A, you just made things worse. The Amanda Box Law states that if you aren’t willing to go talk to someone about the conflict, you aren’t allowed to be mad. Go talk to the person, or get over it. Pick one. Either option is 100 percent acceptable. Wait, did I just take credit for Jesus’ instructions in Matthew? What time did the train leave?
4. I’m pretty curious to find out more about your contribution (person C) to the situation. Yes, person B should have come to you. But they didn’t. You don’t need me to tell you that most people aren’t going to; it is simply easier to talk to someone else, like person A. Asking yourself a few questions can provide some useful feedback so you can connect more effectively in the future and figure out your contribution to the issue. Is there any behavior that makes you difficult to approach? Do you have a history with this person? Do you have opposite communication styles? Are you good at different things? All these variables and many more set you up to view your world differently and hence set you up for conflict. What color are the trains?
Eventually though, you have to decide what to do, if anything. This question of obligation reminds me of the exchange between the lawyer and Jesus in Luke 10. After the lawyer recites the greatest commandments, he asks Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” You know what comes next—the good Samaritan.
I trust you to take all the variables and make a decision. But don’t be naive. If you can’t/won’t settle a small issue, you probably don’t have enough trust in your foundation to settle a larger one. Chances are, a larger one is coming. I’m a big believer in praying for windows of opportunity in situations like this. I absolutely pray for God to provide the right opportunity for a conversation, and if my primary concern is taking care of my neighbor by listening and understanding, progress will be made and trust will improve. I love it when God provides windows because the issue is handled on a much lower level and the big fat hairy conflict might be derailed altogether. So far, God has not directed me to settle conflict on Facebook. What, the train derailed? Where? Did you see that on Facebook?
When my primary concern is taking care of my neighbor by listening and understanding, that means I’m asking person B questions resulting in a substantive conversation way before they get to person A. We are talking to each other and not about each other. Will a conversation solve every problem? Absolutely not. But conversations will preserve relationships, and that allows us to figure out the rest.
So what should we do? The same thing Jesus always tells us to do. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27). Maybe if we apply the greatest commandments to our words, there will be fewer word problems.
Editor's Note: Amanda Box will be presenting on the topic "Difficult Conversations: Talk Less; Accomplish More" at ElderLink Dallas, November 11-12.