Monday, September 8, 2014

Are Conflict Resolution Tools Spiritual or Fleshly?

Lori and I have not only a fabulous marriage in so many ways, but we also get to share in the blessings of her blog. Almost every day, we will walk in the late afternoon hand in hand down to the park and around it. What used to be a series of endless arguments is now often a great discussion about something to do with an aspect of marriage, or the Bible, or both, that usually has come up that day with Lori’s blog or on another Christian blog. Yesterday’s discussion turned to the question:  “Are Conflict Resolution Tools Spiritual or Fleshly?”

The answer is far more complicated than one might think on the surface. Many of the tools the church may teach in Conflict Resolution 101 to couples are written in God's Word, but are too often used for self-serving or fleshly purposes. They are precepts that we as believers are to follow and use in our own lives, but they are too often used to try to get from others what we feel we need from them.

It is not unusual when I am trying to counsel a distraught husband who has contacted me for help with his difficult wife that one of the first things I coach him is that he can never expect for God to bless his marriage until he himself first starts being a "Christian” to his wife. That usually gets a good retort, followed by the question, “What do you mean?” What I am saying is that we cannot expect God to enter into our marriage and to heal it with His power and His Spirit if we do not first follow His clear teachings by do our part in being an image bearer of Christ. 

We are all for training couples in conflict resolution tools, as necessary. But such tools, even those found in the Bible are not in themselves spiritual. Our strong preference is to teach believers everywhere their new identity in Christ from which springs the fruit of the Spirit when we bear the sufferings and servanthood of Christ in our bodies daily, "so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body" {2 Corinthians 4:10}. Unless conflict resolution skills are used to shine Jesus to a spouse, but instead are self-seeking, they become fleshly tools.

Are you saying conflict resolution are fleshly tools and not spiritual !?!

Yes, No, and Depends! This is where we will find some interesting discussion. We believe that far too many psychologists, Christian counselors, and Christian marriage bloggers stop too short when it comes to dealing with marriage issues. They teach the same tools to resolve conflict which are nothing more than wisdom that the world too is using to improve their relationships. Do you ever wonder why so many non-Christian marriages appear to be healthier than Christian ones? Why is it that a great complementarian marriage looks and feels so healthy to even Christian couples when God’s design for the heart of marriage goes far beyond complementing each other to what God calls “one flesh?”

The answer is that many non-Christian and Christian couples have discovered the wisdom of how to communicate well, how to argue fairly, how to compromise, and even be generous with the other spouse who is in a bad mood from time to time. These are all terrific tools that, of course, God did not leave out of the Good Book as He gives us all we need for life, godliness and relationships. Lori and I love God’s wisdom and we know that when we do things the God's ways we reap his blessings.

Here is where we part ways with many others, in that we don’t see conflict resolution tools, even those with a Biblical foundation as much more than a call from God to be applied to our own selves as we “treat others the way we would like to be treated.” That is right. God says He will put His Spirit in us so that we will walk in his statutes {Ezekiel 36.27}, but He did not give His precepts to have us to use them to try to change our spouse, or to fill up our perceived broken cup of needs. The vast majority of conflict resolution only becomes spiritual if and when the Spirit of God is moving in and through the one using the tools to change their own lives and not when they are forced upon others so that our perceived "needs" may be met. Let me try to illustrate.

If you and your spouse are in a heated argument or disagreement … Ooops!
Chances are good you have already walked away from God’s Spirit, and one or both of you are walking in the flesh {James 4:1-3}. Think about it with us. As soon as you know the temperature on the argument has passed into the red zone, what do you usually do? If you are great at relationships, Christian or non-Christian, you say to yourself, “Think, think, think, Ken and don’t let your emotions get in the way of your relationship with your wife right now.” Then you start practicing conflict resolution tools you have learned.

You might ask for a pause in the conversation to let things settle down. You may walk over to your spouse and give them a hug and apologize, knowing that saying “I am sorry” does not necessarily mean you are wrong, but it is a great way to deescalate an argument so you can get the discussion back on track. You may remind your spouse of certain boundaries the two of you set up, or hold them accountable for their unkind words, or for not practicing good conflict resolution skills like they promised they would in counseling.

The list is endless as to what you might do in using conflict resolution tools to get the conversation back on track and to resolve your differences. You might even hear your spouse say something like what a young husband told me the other day as his wife said, “I know what you are doing right now when you say you are sorry, or you walk out of the room, and I don’t appreciate being treated like a child. You are just trying to manage me with your conflict resolution skills.”

If you are still with me, ask yourself this question: “Out of the last ten times when I was in a significant disagreement with my spouse, did I use my knowledge of conflict resolution skills in a fleshy way or a spiritual way? Did I use my skills to show Christ's love, kindness and consideration, or were they simply used in a self-seeking manner? "

Listen, I don’t want to embarrass anyone here, especially not myself, but my track record is not great when it comes to using conflict resolution tools in a spiritual way. It used to be as soon as conflict came up I jumped into my highly trained mode to resolve the conflict and without one thought of taking Jesus with me. Without one inkling that I needed to be walking in the Spirit, I jumped right into the flesh and began to solve the problem myself so that "my perceived needs" might be met.  Oh, don’t get me wrong. I usually tried to be kind, generous, understanding and to communicate in a non-threatening way, but if we want to keep it real here, I did it mostly by me, for me, and in the flesh, not for God as His image bearer “walking in the Spirit.” 

It is purpose, motive, and the Spirit, that sets the spiritual apart from the fleshy when it comes to conflict resolution tools. 

Purpose: To be an image bearer of Christ.
Motive: To enter into the body of the suffering Christ so that Jesus may be revealed.
Spirit: Allowing Christ to live in and through my life, actions and words. 

There is higher plane where believers are actually called to live and that is to “walk in the Spirit.” The apostle Paul shows us clearly that there is only one answer that will get us out of the mindset of the flesh, out of self-seeking, and into a “walk in the Spirit,” and that is to stop trying to do things in our own power, stop trying to manage our own lives and the lives of our spouse, but instead jump in completely with Him, and allow Him to do the mighty work we long for, first in our own lives, and then in the life of our spouse.

Here is the heart of Lori’s biblical message as I understand it, that it is precisely when a wife gives up on her own fleshly needs and desires, deciding instead to be filled with the Spirit, that she shows her husband what the life of Jesus looks like, with submission,love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,  gentleness, self-control” {Galatians 5:22}. The need to manage her husband to get her cup of needs filled disappears. Instead, the Spirit of God begins a mighty work in her life filling her up with the fullness of Christ and then in turn Christ overflows into her husband's life too.

“For those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” {Galatians 5:24}. Tell me again, when you use your conflict resolution skills this next time, will they be spiritual or fleshly? Are you willing the next time you can sense your discussion is turning ugly to take all the godly precepts that the church, your parents and the psychologist have taught you and use them them in a higher plane of spiritual life, called a walk in the Spirit? To instead of coming up with one more way to convince your spouse, or to manage them, to instead send up a prayer that might say ~

“Lord, this Christian life and my marriage seems so impossible at times, at least under my own power.  The only hope I have of achieving the oneness, closeness and intimacy with you and with my spouse is to surrender my will, my fleshly desires, and place them on the cross where they belong. Help me Lord to speak your words, not mine. Help me to shine the life of Jesus in this difficult moment, leaving selfishness behind and stepping out into all that you have for me to walk in the Spirit.”

The world says ~ “Set boundaries, make sure you are protected, hold your spouse accountable with rebuke when necessary, and manage your spouse well with conflict resolution tools.”  Then the church "Amens" all of this and even uses great biblical precepts to defend what is regularly done in the flesh and not the Spirit.  I cannot make it any clearer than to say I teach conflict resolution tools regularly to believers and non-believers alike, and they work, as far as they can take a fleshly relationship. But imagine a relationship that comes instead of practicing rote precepts, that we learn to fully depend on our Lord Jesus and His Spirit who lives inside of us, each and every moment of the day. Instead of being self-seeking in trying to change our spouse, we instead focus on our true identity as image bearers of the Most High God in this conflict, and all of our marriage. 

This is our dream for Christian marriages everywhere. Instead of building a marriage in baby steps by managing each other with conflict resolution tools, both spouses would come to a place of true oneness found in a biblical marriage of a loving husband and submissive wife, without having to manage each other. That barring any harmful behavioral deficits, the wife learns to trust her husband as her God appointed leader, and the husband learns to love his wife unconditionally, and completely, wanting to in turn please her with his leadership. No more perceived and oft changing needs to try to chase down, as both spouses reflect, as image bearers, the life and nature of Jesus. 

Until such time you are encouraged to use your biblical and psychological marriage tools to create a semblance of what God wants in a Christian marriage, but don’t for an instant think that there is not a much higher plane for those who are willing to sell out to a true biblical marriage of a loving husband leader and a joyful submissive wife. 

Just as there is so much more to our learning to be "one with Christ," so too in marriage there is so much more that we all can learn to become one flesh, united with Christ in a Spirit filled marriage. Consider for a moment that perhaps most of the perceived psychological "needs" you have been told are so important, may not be needs at all. They too often are simply a desire to feed the selfish desires of the flesh instead of finding our true identity in Christ. That we may not have hearts that are broken leaking cups which need to be filled regularly by our spouse's love, but instead we are image bearers of Christ who shine Christ's love no matter whether it is returned to us or not. 
Is it not true: "For ye are complete in Him" {Colossians 2:10}?

It is only when both spouses give up self-seeking and instead seek the best interest of the other that Christ becomes the center of a one-flesh biblical marriage, just as God designed. No need to ask for your perceived psychological needs to be met by your spouse, for all of the needs of your spiritual inner man are already met in Christ Jesus. We just have to reach out and grab them by faith in His promises.

I would be remiss to not emphasize that using God's precepts in a truly loving way that seeks the best interest of another is not only biblical, but also godly and spiritual. But when I read some popular Christian writers counseling spouses to continue to discuss things until consensus is reached, I know that self-seeking is part of this equation, not godliness. Not only is it a violation of the clear teaching of a wife to be submissive to her husband, but it also means that both parties are unwilling to concede their individual interests for the sake of unity, peace and oneness. And this is to somehow be considered spiritual because they are fighting with biblical precepts? It's still a fight, just one disguised to make it seem spiritual, fair, or acceptable, to the believer. 

If a wife feels strongly that she is right and somehow harm will come if her husband does not listen, then she should make an appeal to his loving leadership, and not try to manage the outcome of the discussion with her skills. She should seek godly counsel, but be careful that she may win the battle, but lose out on what God intends for the full design of a one-flesh marriage. For how can her husband lovingly lead her if she is always managing him with her view of biblical precepts, and human relations skills? How can he bond in oneness with her if she believes the lie that she has a never ending list of needs he must meet for her to feel whole? Being right does not give license to withhold submission or love, and besides, in the universe of issues there is a 50% probability that you are wrong, no matter how convinced you are that you are right! 

"But what if I need...."? Sorry believer, you don't need it. You were not made to have your inner needs met by anyone but God. Instead you were made to shine God's glory as an image bearer for Christ Jesus. The Christian looks outward to meet needs, not to be an endless depository of needs, knowing that it is God who fills us up with His Spirit and makes us true image bearers of His glory. This is our greatest destiny, to shine God's glory by being like Him, and thus fulfill the purpose for which we were made. If you are bearing about the image of Christ, you rarely, maybe never, must carry a discussion to the point of any conflict.

Join us on this journey that goes beyond the flesh and fleshly tools to the realm of the Spirit, where trust, faith, hope and patience, are all words pointing to relying on God fully without having to manage my own life, needs and ways. Let us check our relational tools to insure they are pointing to a higher spiritual example of Christ who tells us stop arguing, be one in spirit, and seek to please each other instead of self.  Christ shows love, sacrifice and submission and was never a consensus builder, nor ever pushed for getting His own way. He let the Father exalt Him while He instead served, sacrificed and thought little of His own self or needs. Can we be like Him? For this is the believer's calling and destiny.

But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, 
if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you. 
Romans 8:9

Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 
John 3:9

***Written by Ken, if you didn't guess!