If it feels like our world is full of conflict, instability, and war, you’re correct. In fact, of 163 countries in the world surveyed by the Institute for Economics and Peace, only 11 are not currently engaged in conflict. We live in a world that is basically defined by conflict and violence. But world conflict doesn’t start with someone waking up one day and choosing to head to war. Before there are bombs, there are bullets, and before there are bullets, there are knives. Before there are knives, there are fists, and before there are fists, there are words. Before there are words, there is the condition of our heart. Violence has a flow to it that keeps getting bigger and bigger, and it all starts in our hearts.
As we look at the world and see all this violence and conflict, it can feel overwhelming. If you’re like me, you may sit wondering, What can I do about this? Anything? Should I just sit on the sidelines and pray? But there is something that we can do because the road to peace starts with me and you. The road to a world restored begins with each of us in our own way waging peace. Before we can wage peace out in the world, we need to wage peace in our hearts and in our personal relationships.
Blessed Are the Peacemakers
Early on in Jesus' ministry, he was traveling from town to town, teaching and healing. Word began to spread about him—some true stories and some false ones. In response, Jesus set the record straight. He pulled a whole crowd of people together and laid it all out there, giving what we know as the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7). He wanted to tell everyone what he’s about and about this new reality, this new kingdom, he’s making available. He began by flipping the idea of blessing on its head. In Jesus' day, they had a very specific idea of what it meant to be blessed. If you were successful, if you had your health, if you had some wealth, if you knew where your next meal was coming from, if you had some sense of prestige in the community, you were considered blessed—you had obviously received God’s favor. They had a very concrete understanding of who was in, who was out, who qualifies as acceptable, and they stuck to it. In fact, it looked a lot like what our society today holds up as success.
Their world—like ours—was jam-packed with conflict: between nations, between religious groups, between, friends, between neighbors, within clans and tribes. If you won, if you overcame, if you overpowered, if you were left standing at the end of the day, you were considered blessed because God had shown you favor. In other words, blessed are the winners.
But Jesus shows up with a completely different message that flips everything on its head. He says it’s not blessed are the winners, it's blessed are the poor in spirit, the meek, those who mourn, those who hunger and thirst for God to make things right. Taking it even further, in verse 9, Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers.”
I can imagine that sounded completely pathetic to the people in Jesus’ day, and it probably sounds pretty pathetic to us, too. Think about it: Who is celebrated in our culture? Who do we talk about? Who are the magazine articles about? The winners: people who overcome, prevail, and win the fights.
Do we really believe blessed are the peacemakers? And what does it actually mean to be a peacemaker? Key to this word peace is the word shalom. Shalom was core to Jewish identity of that day, and basically it’s the idea of completeness, of fullness. It means all relationships working in right and proper order, everything as God had made it and intended it to be, the fullest expression of everything being right with the world. So peace, or shalom, as Jesus meant it, is not the absence of conflict. It's actually human flourishing at its fullest. The world is broken, and Jesus has called us to put it back together, to put the pieces back together for his glory, to make peace in our world.
Our usual understanding of peace is a bit different. We think we’re making peace when we avoid conflict whenever possible, but that’s not actual peace—that’s false peace. Take James, for example. He’s a guy who is continually upset with his wife, who gets off work late, goes out with coworkers, and comes home late. He and his wife don't even see each other. She does this over and over again, but James decides—in the name of keeping peace—not to say anything. But James is not actually a peacemaker; he's maintaining a false peace.
Lydia is a woman who eats lunch with her coworkers, and the conversation almost always turns to trash-talking their boss and coworkers, talking about how terrible their jobs are, and how horrible the culture is at their workplace. Instead of saying anything, Lydia goes along with it because she doesn't want to offend or upset anybody. Lydia’s not a peacemaker. She's actually working hard at maintaining a false peace.
We also see this problem in the church. In church we're supposed to be nice, so if I have a problem with you I'm not going to say anything to you, I'm just going to fume inside. But we’re not actually supposed to be nice—we’re supposed to be kind. Being kind means I have your best interest at heart, and that means I'll come to you with issues. This is the difference between peace loving and peacemaking. I can love the idea of peace, but until I take action and actually do something to change the situation, I’m not a peacemaker. We have to make the decision to be peacemakers—which actually comes at a cost. It doesn’t feel as nice at first, but it’s the only way to experience real peace.
The Work of Peacemaking
When Jesus said, "Blessed are the peacemakers," He was inviting us to an incredibly difficult and challenging process that starts in our hearts. William Barkley said, "Jesus demands not the passive acceptance of things because we are afraid of the trouble of doing anything about them, but the active facing of things in the making of peace even though it's through struggle." Peacemaking is a struggle, but we have to embrace it if we want to have healthy relationships, healthy small groups, and healthy churches. But there are healthy and unhealthy ways to engage conflict. Here are some tips to for peacemaking:
Check Your Motivation
Some of us have no problem engaging conflict. The problem is that we can sometimes jump in too quickly. Rather than process our feelings and reactions, we jump in while we’re still reacting. And that's not right or good—that's destructive. Most of the time, when we jump in too quickly, our motivation is to punish the other person, to prove we’re right. We’re often reacting out of fear, anger, and pride. Consider: What is my goal? Sometimes we just want to unload on the person, to prove we’re right, and to show them how badly they messed up. But that’s not very healthy. Instead, your goal should be to make things right. You may have to make clear to the other person what needs to be done to make things right, but you also need to know your part in the solution. So if you’re someone who tends to love conflict, slow down a bit and check your motivations before you proceed. We’re also called to mutual growth, though, so there is a time to speak hard truth to each other. If your motivation is truly helping the other person grow, if you have his or her best interest at heart, then approach the person with vulnerability, openness, and empathy.
Process Your Hurt
In order to handle the situation well, we have to understand what's going on in us. Is your reaction about this issue, or is it really about something that happened 10 years ago with some other person? If it’s triggering something from the past, that doesn’t make your feelings invalid, but it does help you sort through what’s happening in you and why—and that helps you approach this current situation without reacting so strongly.
I’ve found it helpful to have what I call “safe people” in my life who I can talk through these issues with and gain helpful perspective, people who will help me process my reaction to the situation. If I have a problem with Spencer and I’m still fuming, it’s not a good idea to talk to him right now. Instead, I need to talk to a safe person to help me process my own anger. It’s best to talk with someone completely unrelated to the situation and to the person you have the conflict with. Safe people need to be able to see it objectively and be able to keep the situation to themselves. They also can’t be someone who’s just going to stoke your anger. Someone who reacts saying, “Man, can you believe that? I cannot believe she did that to you!” isn’t a safe person. Go to somebody who is actually going to challenge you a little bit, seeking your heart and what’s going on inside of you rather than stoke your anger. Safe people validate our feelings, help us understand what’s happening in us, and then they turn us back to the person to deal with the situation.
Refuse to Make Assumptions
When we’re in the middle of these tough situations, we have a tendency to make assumptions. Based on my past experiences, I will make up a story in my head about what the other person is doing and why he or she is doing it. My wife, Dori, and I have these conversations all the time where she says, “You know, when you came in, you didn't talk to me, and you were in your own zone, so the story I’m making up is that you're angry with me.” This is really helpful language: “The story I’m making up is . . .” Rather than assume or place blame, we let the other person into our thoughts, and we start a conversation. As you deal with conflict, reflect on your own thoughts. If you’re assuming something, you need to realize it’s a story you’re making up, and it may not be true. So go talk to the person and share about the story you’re making up, and ask him or her about the truth. I’ve found so many times that the other person has no idea that I’m reading their words and actions that way.
One assumption you should make is that the other person has good intentions. We must walk into conflict trusting that others are doing the best they can with what they have. Thinking they’re stupid, clueless, or malicious isn’t helpful.
Go Directly to the Person
Often we choose to go to a third party and talk about the issue first. It’s what I call third-party politics. We have been offended, and we want affirmation, help, and even a pat on the back, so we go to someone we think will have our back. But when we do this, amassing a group of people who are on our side, we’ve just created division in the church, and that’s not what we want. Rather than make peace, we’ve just expanded the conflict. I encourage you to make this promise to yourself: I am not going to have a conversation about somebody that I'm not going to have with that person. If I have an issue with somebody, I'm going to go to that person and talk.
When you talk with the person, use “I” statements like “I noticed” and “I felt.” Be sure to let the other person know why this is important to you, how you feel, and what you’d like to happen as you move forward. The clearer you can be, the better.
When Someone Confronts You
When someone approaches you with an issue, it’s important to listen with empathy and not get defensive. We often get defensive right away and fail to hear anything else that’s said. But the truth is that something you did unknowingly offended somebody, so stop and say you’re sorry for offending the person. Embrace the fact that you will offend people unknowingly from time to time, and that’s okay if we’re willing to work through it and learn from it. After you apologize for hurting or offending the person, say, “Help me understand.” Then do what’s necessary to remedy the situation.
Healthy conflict leads to mutual growth and stronger relationships. Jesus invites us into peacemaking, which is challenging—so challenging that many don’t want to engage it. But we can choose differently. Jesus is with us as we step into conflict, and he will never leave us or forsake us. He is creating a new way of relating to one another, and it requires a lot of grace. But we each can choose to go in this new direction. Peacemaking is not for the faint of heart. It's for those who have the courage to step into the opportunities that Jesus makes available.
—Rich Gorman and his wife, Dori, co-pastor NewStory Church in the Edgewater neighborhood of Chicago. This article was adapted from one of Rich’s sermons.
- Which is your tendency: jump into confrontation too quickly, or go to a third-party person?
- Who in your life could serve as a safe person? Why?
- How do you react when someone confronts you? What might you do differently in the future?