Conflict Isn’t (Always) Bad
22 Jacob got up during the night, took his two wives, his two women servants, and his eleven sons, and crossed the Jabbok River’s shallow water. 23 He took them and everything that belonged to him, and he helped them cross the river. 24 But Jacob stayed apart by himself, and a man wrestled with him until dawn broke. 25 When the man saw that he couldn’t defeat Jacob, he grabbed Jacob’s thigh and tore a muscle in Jacob’s thigh as he wrestled with him. 26 The man said, “Let me go because the dawn is breaking.”
But Jacob said, “I won’t let you go until you bless me.”
27 He said to Jacob, “What’s your name?” and he said, “Jacob.” 28 Then he said, “Your name won’t be Jacob any longer, but Israel, because you struggled with God and with men and won.”
29 Jacob also asked and said, “Tell me your name.”
But he said, “Why do you ask for my name?” and he blessed Jacob there. 30 Jacob named the place Peniel, “because I’ve seen God face-to-face, and my life has been saved.” 31 The sun rose as Jacob passed Penuel, limping because of his thigh. 32 Therefore, Israelites don’t eat the tendon attached to the thigh muscle to this day, because he grabbed Jacob’s thigh muscle at the tendon.
For some people, one great struggle defines who they are for life. The Rev. Dr. James Lawson gave many talks and sermons during my time at Vanderbilt. His life was defined by the struggle of the Civil Rights Era where he was a close aide to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The conflicts he went through defined him, even though, at the time, I’m sure he thought they would end him.
Our country’s first President, George Washington, is also defined by conflict. His leadership of the Colonial Army earned him the clout to be voted as president. He suffered mightily through his own battle scars and through the pain of knowing he sent many men to their deaths. In the end, his conflict defined him.
In the month of March we celebrate women’s history and mark on society. Figures like Helen Keller, whose conflict with the stigmas and limitations around human disability, defined her and the entire population of those who are differently abled. I think of Malala Yousafzai who continues to be a major figure in women’s rights, Muslim advocacy, peace building, and proving that age does not limit one’s ability to be a leader all while getting regular death threats from terrorists.
I could go on about figures like Susan B. Anthony, who conflicted with men and women who did not think women should vote; Marie Curie who won two Nobel prizes in two fields in spite of conflicts with male scientists; Simone de Beauvoir who defined sexism in the modern world, and on and on. All of these persons were defined by the work they did in the midst of conflict and overcoming it to some degree. Conflicts have a way of proving our mettle as people who are dedicated to a cause.
Today’s Scripture also speaks of a literal defining conflict. It points to the origin of the nation of Israel, and their namesake Israel, who was formerly Jacob. We all know many stories about Jacob, yet his wrestling with a mysterious figure is where we center our minds today.
Jacob’s history in the story of the early Israelites illustrates God’s long arc of being an active participant in the lives of the chosen people. In Jacob’s story, as he heads out to make peace with his brother Esau, he is caught in the night by the mysterious figure. Some say this person is God while others say an angel. Whomever it is, Jacob wrestles with him through the night, and when he overcomes, he demands a blessing.
During the fight, Jacob is injured in a way that probably affected him throughout his life. He could easily pity himself for the injury and become angry and spiteful, and he would have the right, but he instead gained a great honor from it. He was now Israel, “one who wrestled with God.”
The conflicts that affect our lives can be very meaningful in both good and/or bad ways. For some of us, conflicts we have with others cause breaks in relationships that take a long time to heal or don’t heal at all. Conflicts can cause major physical, emotional, or mental pain. There is a time and place to talk about where one is justified in anger but we must attempt to live by God’s command to forgive.
Now, assuming we can at least entertain that some conflicts are worth forgiving and learning from, there is a truth that not all conflict is bad. Or, as I titled this sermon, “Conflict Isn’t (Always) Bad.”
I say that because good conflict resolution can accomplish some things for us. I want to highlight three of those: they unearth issues, address issues, and teach us what to do and what not to do.
- Conflict Unearths issues: I made the mistake of moving in with three friends from school during college before I knew what their living styles were like. All three were, to some degree, messy. I’m not generally a messy person. Some of them were what you could call disgusting. I’m definitely not disgusting. We often fought amongst each other about whose job it was to do what and how often. Resentment was a constant theme around the trash, specifically. One night, after a huge blowup between all four of us, we came together through a mutual love of video games and began to talk it out. I learned that one of them who often got most angry didn’t want to clean because he lived in a household where his parents were too aggressive about small issues like cleaning his room. From then on, at least for him, when I and the other roommates wanted something cleaned, we said please. Being respectful helped.
- Conflict Addresses Issues: I had a professor who once said almost all the conflicts in the world can be boiled down to poor communication. Over and over in my life, in my personal and professional relationships, including my marriage, I have learned that not understanding a problem or not discussing it means that it will never resolve itself. Oftentimes, the subject of a fight is rarely ever what the fight ends up being about. We say we are mad that the laundry isn’t getting done or done wrong, but what we are really angry about is being appreciated for the work we do around the house that isn’t the laundry. We have to think about what matters to us the most, especially when what angers us is a different issue, so we can name those problems and address them. Next week, I will spend my whole sermon talking about naming what matters.
- Conflict Teaches Us What To Do and What Not To Do: This is hardest, especially when we have “won” a fight. We have to be careful about how we engage conficts. Even if you win, you will find yourself in that mentality over and over and cause more and more damage over time. If you want to live a life where conflicts are few and far between and only when necessary, you have to address your own shortcomings. If you tend to cuss during fights and your partner is hurt by that, learn that lesson. If you find every little nitpicky thing you can throw at your partner and take them down during arguments, that’s going to be a problem long after the conflict is over.
When I talk about conflicts and partners, I don’t just mean romantic partners. We get in conflicts with family, loved ones, coworkers, other church members, random people in the supermarket. In those moments, when the face off happens, it is your job to slow it down and think about what the issue is about and whether or not it is worth it. If it is, find the problem and address it, then move on.
I have noticed in the South that a lot of times people don’t actually deal with their conflicts, or they bottle it up. I’ll be honest, I’m all about good manners, but if you are angry in your heart and not out loud you are still angry. We can be Southern Christians all we want to, but that is limited to accent, style, and food choices. When it comes to being good people, God’s call to be honest, open, and upright are more important. When we do that, we may actually teach others what is important to us. It may teach us how much God is calling on us to be or do or say something that is dear to God’s heart. Redemption and growth is what separates bad conflicts from good conflicts.
The good news is, God wants to be part of that redemption and growth. God wants to transform your heart so that you won’t fall prey to being a winner and instead choose to be a Christian. You’ll find it is a lot easier to get over yourself if your goal is what Jesus wants and not what I want. Jesus wants a healthy church full of people who are selfless and mission-driven to bring hope to those who need it.
That being said, your conflicts often point to real needs and desires that you have. It is up to you to find out what in there is worth working on and learning from. We all have different things that are important to us, and running up against what is important to others helps us all to better learn each other. The hard part is not letting our mistakes define us, rather than our successes.
Go and be people who, like Israel, wrestle for God’s blessings. Amen.