Last November (2018), VCF ran the most recent of its CPD events. This was offered in two venues, the first being at the Training Rooms in Swindon, followed two days later by the second at Central Hall in Edinburgh. It was entitled “Conflict, Counselling and Christ”. It looked at the conflicts that we face every day, whether in practice with colleagues or clients, at home with family and friends or within our churches. It considered how, from a biblical view, those conflicts arise, and how we are called and equipped to deal with them.
The day was open to all, and delegates came from all walks of the veterinary profession and beyond. They included vets in general practice, vet nurses, those who have gone into government ministry, welfare, others who have left veterinary practice and are in different areas of work, and a retired doctor! This wide variety brought a really interesting mixture of backgrounds, ideas, worldviews and different examples of conflicts.
While the theme of each day was that of conflict, the CPD sessions were characterised by warm fellowship and open, amicable conversation. At the beginning of the day each attendee described their motivation for attending a CPD event with a biblical perspective on conflict, and shared one or more examples of recent, current or impending conflicts in their lives. It was no surprise that the stories encompassed almost every imaginable relational and situational dimension of conflict; from the classroom to workplace; from friends to family; from clients to colleagues; from neighbours to nations; from Europe to the USA; from redundancy to duty rotas; from sickness to health; and even robotic lawnmowers. The directional aspects of conflict, internal (with self), horizontal (with others), and vertical (with God) were discussed and, without exception, all expressed a desire to be peacemakers rather than war makers in their homes, consulting rooms and workplaces.
Welcome and Introduction
The content and format of the day were based around foundational principles used in biblical counselling, particularly the notion that God’s Word is completely sufficient for the needs of life and godliness (2 Peter 2). From the beginning of time, when God speaks, He brings order out of chaos, (Genesis 1). While the value of secular and corporate psychology in providing useful observation on human behaviour and relational difficulties was recognised, the tendency of these ‘psychologies’ to omit God was discussed as a serious limitation, particularly in their capacity to offer more than short-term, superficial or naturalistic explanations and solutions.
The biblical basis of conflict was regarded as personal and internal (James 4:1-4) and was summarised axiomatically as ‘we do what we do, because we want what we want’. This explanation is a stark contrast to the popular worldview, in which outside circumstances and difficult people are usually implicated as the causative agents or provocateurs of interpersonal /relational strife and disagreement. Of course, this notion supports the idea that all of us have ‘internal passions’ and that, when left to ourselves, our hearts are sinfully wicked. The same passage also denounces each of us as adulterers because we pursue our passions separate from God. In Matthew 6:19-23 Jesus expands our understanding of inner desires by showing that we are all wired as treasure hunters; it is part of God’s design that we treasure and value certain things, and that the things that are our greatest heart treasures will ultimately pervade our lives and become our master. As the group discussed personal ‘heart masters’ it was striking to hear both the variety of tyranny, but also the similarities between each of our lives. The things described as exerting unhealthy mastery varied by season and circumstance of life but showed a remarkable parallelism. They ranged from the constant lure of our mobile communications, the lust for control at work or in the home, to ruling desire for peace and quiet, to the tyranny of exam success and grades, and the unyielding quest for personal comfort, in both the physical, financial, emotional and spiritual realms. We also discussed the outward manifestations of misdirected treasure quests, such as that seen in those who hunger and count on the expectation that comfort and security will arise from the pleasures of everyday earthly life. Thus, they are reluctant to discuss the loss of those things in death, plagued with the fear that the present may not deliver the treasure that it promises. So, what are we supposed to treasure? We saw that Paul taught that, above all things, our goal should be to please the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:9-10) and do all things to His glory (1 Cor 10:31) for ultimately we will be judged in regard to those things for which He has given us stewardship.
In the next session we explored the identity, nature and purposes of the heart. In our discussions we saw the heart as synonymous with our ‘inner man’, our minds and souls, the deepest part of us that could simultaneously serve as a treasure centre and moral compass, interacting with our conscience to inform decisions and direct us in life. We also saw it as the place where we make value judgements, the source of our passions and desires, the root of many conflicts, and the seat of our guilt and shame. As we studied specific Scriptures we also understood the heart to be the seat of our affections, beliefs and loyalties, the fountainhead of our emotions, thoughts, actions, and words (Mark 7:14-23; Proverbs 4:23; Jeremiah 17:5-10; Hebrews 4:12), and ultimately the part of us with which the Holy Spirit is most closely associated, particularly with a view to truth, conviction, renewal, comfort, assurance and guidance.
Who are we and what are our responses to conflict?
An important aspect is to know our purpose and identity in life (Gen. 1:26-28) as image bearers, to be visible representations of the invisible God, to be fruitful and multiply, not only through childbirth, but in terms of ‘expanding Eden’ to every corner of the globe, and lastly to have rule and dominion. It is in the context of these roles that we see the first conflict recorded in Scripture (Genesis 3:6-13), and the accompanying patterns of ungodly and sinful responses to conflict that have existed since. These include:
Cover up (shame) (present example – acting as though nothing happened)
Hiding or running away (present example– ‘I’m not going if they are there’)
Making excuses for self (present example – “I was tired’)
and ultimately multi- dimensional blame (between the man and woman and serpent),
which culminates in the terrible trajectory of blame towards God Himself.
As participants we were challenged to consider which of these might be our default response to conflict and recognised that, more often than not, we adopt a stance in conflict that is most expeditious or ‘effective’ for a particular situation, often excusing our own attitudes and approaches internally.
So why does God allow conflict? Is He gathering information regarding the state of our hearts, or helping us see their true state? Throughout history, as God tests His people, we see man’s failure as image bearers, from Cain’s act of murder, to Israel’s grumbling and seeking of false gods. But the coming of the ultimate image bearer, the Lord Jesus Christ, provided the ultimate answer to conflict through His death and resurrection, by the stamp of His image within us, and the gift of the Holy Spirit given to all who believe.
Now it is important to recognise that God is sovereign in our conflicts, that He allows them so that we might see the state of our own hearts. This is not to say that all conflicts are good, but that God can make good out of them (Romans 8:28). From the beginning of time, by His Word, He has been able to bring order out of chaos, working all things for our good, and using difficulties for our sanctification, to conform us to the image of His Son. And yet in conflict we discussed our tendency to play out every dispute as though we were in control, as though it was a court room drama in which we take the role of the victim, the witness, the prosecuting attorney, the jury and ultimately, as the judge. We defend our innocence by pronouncing the other party guilty, passing sentence and administering our own punishment on them. By adopting this approach to conflict, we ignore the wood described by Jesus (Matthew 7:3-5); we forget the plank in our own eye and always see the other party as most at fault. And yet we were reminded that we are responsible for the part we each play in every conflict, however small. And in fact, we can only usefully look to change ourselves. So, even in the event of an injustice, we will still have some measure of fault, and even if it is only a 10% share in the fault, that 10% is 100% of ours to deal with. It was suggested that it is useful to see our fault as bigger than we first think of it (remember the plank and splinter!), and that by doing this we can make the first step in reconciliation.
Importance of Forgiveness in Conflict
What is the first step in seeking reconciliation? Simply to remember how we were first reconciled to God – by His grace we were able to see our fault and recognise our need for a Saviour. Our approach to conflict should always be gospel-centred (Christ-centred). This means that, in any conflict, we must first acknowledge our own role before we can expect to see any relational or situational changes, and that we must seek authentic reconciliation with any others involved in the conflict. Now, it was useful to be reminded that reconciliation should be proportional and of an extent that includes any and all of those who were involved or hurt in the conflict. This was given as a general guideline with the recognition that some conflicts cannot be reconciled this way because they occurred so far back, were too expansive, or involved someone who may have died or are unwelcoming to the process of reconciliation. While we are to initiate reconciliation, we were reminded that the point of facing someone in sin is a point of great temptation (Galatians 6:1-3) and so we should not expect anything in return (Luke 6:27-35), but rather commit to leave the other person under the Lord’s wise and kind care and conviction. A believer should always strive to seek peace (live at peace with everyone; Romans 12:18-19) and to not seek revenge, but rather prayerfully commit the person to the Lord’s gracious and just hand (Romans 12:18-19). God is the perfect judge because He is infinite in mercy, grace and wisdom, and ultimately all sin is against Him (‘… for against you and you only have I sinned’ Psalm 51:4). As we discussed this concept, the age-old question came up. How often and how much should we forgive in conflict? Of course, the solution was presented from Scripture, that we should forgive according to the ‘Hebrew infinity’ (seven times seven) and in proportion to the forgiveness we have received (Matthew 18:21-35). We have been forgiven abundantly and so we should forgive abundantly. God does not keep account so we should not keep account (130:3) and, in fact we are told that God removes our sins (Psalm 103:12) and, while He does not forget, chooses to not remember (Jeremiah 31:34). So, we were challenged to use this as a ‘righteous standard’ for our forgiveness – do we ‘remember’ another’s role in conflict after we’ve forgiven? Do we call to mind the issue to the forgiven party, to ourselves or to others (e.g. gossip)?
Proper Communication in Resolving Conflict
(Ephesians 4:15, 25-32)
While the entire day was full of practical tips for approaching conflict, the rubber really hit the road when we discussed the importance of communication and of talking through conflict to reach a solution (Matt.22:15-22 and John 4:19-24). Our study was rooted in Ephesians 4, following Paul’s wonderful reminder of the blessings that we have in Christ (Ephesians 1-3), where we are told to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). As the participants discussed this, we considered how often in conflict we fail to speak, or use a twisted truth, or speak unlovingly. Alternatively, some admitted to a tendency to avoid speaking the truth until a time when communication was rushed and often insensitive, or of using a tactical approach to achieve the best end for themselves. So, are there parameters of when and how to speak? It was useful to see the importance of change in communicating in a godly way, where Paul reminded the believers of their former ways (hard hearted, insensitive, indulgent, darkened understanding) (Ephesians 4:17-19) and the need to ‘put off’ the old self (v 20-24) and ‘put on’ the new (God’s image) by ‘renewing of the mind’ (v23), so not ‘fighting for our rights’ in conflict, but seeking the good of another. This would entail:
Being honest v15,
Keeping current v26-27,
Attacking the problem and not the person, v29-30, and
Acting instead of reacting v 31-32,
so being a Giver rather than a Taker v28.
The last session of the day was also full of practical advice and challenged the participants to be advocates and champions for a culture of peace-making in our families and work places. Our example was Daniel, and his wise approach to potential and actual conflict with a number of different individuals. The main take home lesson was of our tendency to argue for:
a ‘Position’ which often overlays
an ‘Issue’, but that, invariably, the issue reflects
So, since our primary interest should be that of Daniel, the Glory of God, then we should strive to help people find a common interest which will circumvent or accommodate each person’s position and issue, and so avoid conflict.
As Christians we are called to be peacemakers instead of war makers. Authentic horizontal, relational peace (with people) can only be accomplished when we act in a Christ-honouring way, in accordance with the vertical, relational peace (with God) that we have through and in Christ. The Lord uses conflict in our lives as opportunities for us to be freed from sin and to mature in faith and Christ-like character.
If you would like to know more about the CPD events that VCF runs, then mail email@example.com or visit our website at www.vcf.org.uk
The sessions were led by Dr. George Moore, Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine, Brian Aldridge, University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine, and Peter Southerden. Eastcott Hill. George and his wife Bev are ACBC certified biblical counsellors, serving at the Center for Biblical Counselling, Faith Church, Lafayette, Indiana.