Midweek Question: Resolving Conflict

Last week, the thoughtful Christian blogger Mark D. Roberts began a series of articles titled “What to Do if Someone Sins Against You?” He contends that:

  • Sooner or later, fellow Christians are going to hurt one another. Often it is unintentional, but sometimes it is intentional.
  • Jesus gives us very clear instructions on what to do when a brother or sister in Christ — someone who is truly close to us — sins against us.
  • Christians routinely disobey Jesus’ instructions. In fact, these commands that Jesus gave are among the most frequently ignored commands in all of Scripture.

The primary text to which he refers is Matthew 18:15-17:

“If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”

Dr. Roberts, a genuine New Testament scholar, carefully unpacks the meaning of this passage in its broader context. He explains the importance of discerning when someone has actually sinned against you. Then he discusses the necessity of (a) recognizing that you have been legitimately hurt and (b) carefully following Jesus’ instructions to confront this hurt and repair the personal relationship. He concludes today’s installment with the following observation:

If you’re a person who tends to overreact and accuse others of wrongdoing, you may want to be sure you’re not misusing Matthew 18 by confronting those who haven’t done anything wrong to you. On the contrary, if you’re someone who tends to avoid conflict at all costs – someone like, me, for instance – watch out for your own denial and rationalization. The health of the church, not to mention your own ultimate well being, may very well require that you do the risky thing and talk directly to the one who has hurt you.

Thinking about myself and the Christian brothers and sisters in my life, I do believe that some of us are prone to overreact and accuse others needlessly. But many more of us seem to fall into that second trap of denying or avoiding conflict, thinking that by doing so we are being “mature,” “spiritual” or “godly.”

Here are some more of my own thoughts on the matter.

1. The hardest part of obeying Jesus’ command is taking that first step of privately approaching that person who hurt us. All too often, we try to replace that painful step with something else. Common substitutes are:

  • Suppressing our hurt feelings. In our desire to make the conflict go away, we intellectualize/spiritualize the problem, and in doing so we try to make ourselves believe that we are doing right. We tell ourselves that we are ‘repenting” of our hurt feelings, “forgiving” the other person, or ‘turning the other cheek.” But in reality, we are stuffing our emotions into a box, hoping that they will eventually go away.
  • Talking to other people about the person. Approaching a spouse or trusted confidante for advice may be necessary to gain clarity on whether or not we have truly been sinned against. But all too often, when we talk to other people, we are not actually seeking their advice. Rather, we are venting our own anger and frustration about the person who hurt us, gossiping about them, criticizing them, and seeking to undermine their reputation. Talking to others may be a useful prelude to speaking to the person who hurt us, but it should never be a substitute.
  • Blaming the church/organization. When someone hurts us, it is easy to say, “UBF should do something about this.” Yes, there is a time and place for us to honestly examine our churchwide practices and culture. But systematic problems in a church (and every church has them) do not absolve Christians of their duty to first address their conflicts with other Christians at the individual level.

2. Ignoring the conflict may be the worst strategy of all. Setting aside our interpersonal problems may, in the short term, appear to preserve unity and peace. But that peace is a false peace. Over the long term, unresolved conflicts will undermine and destroy a Christian fellowship and make individuals very unhealthy.

3. Following Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 18:15-17 is especially difficult when the person who hurt us is a church leader or pastor. Depending on the leader’s level of emotional maturity, he may become defensive, using his position of authority to avoid and suppress the problem. In his desire to save face, he may rationalize what he is doing by saying that the problem should be sidestepped for the sake of the organization and its mission. When that happens, Jesus commands us to get other witnesses and church leaders involved. That process, I suppose, could proceed in various ways, depending on the organizational culture, but it should involve a genuine, impartial inquiry that takes the matter seriously and does not simply try to put a band-aid on it. If that process fails, then to literally follow Jesus’ instructions and “treat him as you would a pagan or tax collector” will be extremely difficult, to say the least. However, I do not see anything in Matthew chapter 18 that would exempt a church leader or pastor or give him any special treatment to help him save face when conflicts arise. The work of a pastor, by its very nature, virtually guarantees that sooner or later he will hurt people unintentionally or intentionally. It seems to me that, if you accept God’s calling to be a pastor, you must be emotionally prepared to be on the receiving end of Jesus’ commands in Matthew 18:15-17, so that when it happens you can handle it without an angry or defensive reflex and be prepared to lose face when you have done wrong.

Those are my thoughts. Now I would like to hear yours.

What do you think about Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 18:15-17? Is this the strategy that you would use to handle interpersonal conflict?

39 comments

  1. Thanks, Joe. Quite a few people have asked me when some painful conflict arises, “Can we say that? Can we bring this up?” My spontaneous response was “Of course we can, as long as we do so prayerfully and respectfully.” But I think it’s practically a lot, lot harder than this.

    For starters, as you pointed out, it is always extremely difficult to really confront anyone, especially someone who is the recognized leader, and/or someone older than you, and especially so when you’re already hurt, wounded and emotionally highly vulnerable.

    Also, without casting blame, our UBF church culture really does not welcome anyone confronting the leader for things he said or decisions he made, because we are then “breaking spiritual order.” (We often cite the example of Noah’s disrespectful son Ham being cursed, and Miriam being inflicted with leprosy after challenging Moses’ leadership with its obvious implication to the one who has a grievance.) So, I think we have yet to create a safe atmosphere or safe environment, where painful issues or conflicts can really be brought up. Furthermore, if one does bring it up, he may feel the following: being patronized, being labelled (difficult, childish, proud, immature, divisive), his grievance not being really heard or validated, the offender (usually older, senior) being defended, basically told to “just obey,” being made to feel that it’s basically his/her fault or spiritual problem, etc. Then the result is that one is more wounded and feels worse than before bringing up the conflict. Then the offended party has 3 choices: “suck it up,” “go out and pioneer another chapter,” or “run away,” none of which leads to any closure, nor gets to the heart of the matter.

    Is my description or assessment too bleak?

  2. Joe Schafer

    Hi Ben,

    I see where you are coming from, and your description/assessment is quite accurate in many instances. Following Jesus’ instructions is hard for the reasons that you have mentioned. However, I would contend that many of us — especially myself — have never actually tried to follow Jesus’ instructions. It’s easy for me to bemoan the fact that our church culture makes it difficult to do this, and then use that as an excuse for not doing it. Following Jesus’ instructions will be devilishly difficult no matter what kind of church you are in, and Jesus knew that, yet he commanded us to do it anyway.

    The next installment by Mark Roberts was posted today,

    http://blog.beliefnet.com/markdroberts/2010/09/what-to-do-if-someone-sins-against-you-step-one.html

    and he makes some incredibly astute observations. For example, he says this:

    “Jesus is saying, ‘Tell the person who wronged you exactly what he or she did. Be direct.’… Notice, and this is crucial, that you are to focus on the particular sin. You are NOT to throw in lots of other sins to augment your case. In my pastoral experience, I’ve watched people confront others directly. But then, to buttress their case, they add lots of other things that the person has done wrong, or cite other people who have had a problem with the individual being confronted. The net result of this is always defensiveness and confusion. So, if you’re going to follow Jesus advice, be direct and clear. Notice also that you are to focus on the sinful action. This is not a time to comment on someone’s general character. Again, it’s tempting to do this, but rarely helpful. If somebody has lied to you, for example, don’t try to make the case that he or she is, in general, a liar. Keep to the specific infraction.”

    And here’s another gem:

    “In my experience as a pastor, I have found that when most people are hurt by others, their first impulse is not to return hurt directly, but rather to do it indirectly, especially through gossip. They tell their friends and supporters. They “share” their concern in a prayer request. They do just about anything other than what Jesus says we ought to do. The result, naturally, is a situation made worse: more sin, more hurt, more mess.”

    In our church, I have seen this happen — returning hurt indirectly — over and over. It is not just leaders who do it; it’s everyone. Of course, one could say that leaders should know better, that they should set the example, that they should be held to a higher standard, etc. But there are all sorts of reasons why people do it, and it’s not my place to judge whose infractions are more or less severe. It is not an overstatement to say that these instructions of Jesus are among the most frequently disobeyed commands in all of Scripture.

    When I review my own life and think about the times that I have been hurt by fellow Christians, I cannot think of a single instance where I have actually followed Jesus’ instructions. Well, actually, that’s not quite true. Lately I have been able to do this in my relationship with my wife, and the consequences have been amazingly positive. But I have not yet intentionally done this with anyone besides her, and it’s largely because of ignorance. I did not understand what Jesus taught in Matthew chapter 18, and until now no one has ever explained it to me, nor has anyone I know truly modeled that behavior. Some people have come close by teaching me some of these things, but no one has ever nailed it as Jesus did. So in my immaturity and ignorance I never did what Jesus commanded. But my ignorance is not an excuse. Unintentional sin is still sin (Lev 4). Without judging the seriousness of others’ shortcomings, I need to personally repent and commit myself to doing what Jesus commanded in this regard.

    Making observations about UBF culture is fair. But I cannot use it as an excuse for failing to do what Jesus requires of me.

  3. Hi Joe and Ben!
    Thanks for the wonderful post and commetns! Personally I always felt great discomfort because felt myself as a great suppressor of God’s truth in this very point. And I am agree with Joe, and believe that to recognize your own responsibility for fulfilling this truth instead just pointing on others or system is very good step forward. Though to understand the system specific is also needed. I would like to point at two problems.
    First, I think one of the most problems is to define – is it sin and what is exactly sin. I think in many times we have no assurance to go b/c we are just feeling something wrong and hurtful, but do not really understand what exactly? It requires some spiritual growth and fighting – to know what is truth, to dig the issue and find the roots. That is why “show what is wrong” is really helpful. First you have to clear understand what is wrong.
    Second, is issue in relations with leaders as was mentioned. In UBF we practice the high expressed mentoring, shepherding system. These are very specific relations, where such things as “rebuking”, “correcting”, “training” and so on are practiced, which could be hurtful. And good piece of hurts is produced by these practices. And sometimes “shepherd” could be wrong and surely even sin in his relations or tries to “train” sheep. But we used to believe that the love and especially training could be hurtful but still be love and useful. And personally I was taught to obey even if shepherd is wrong because God is right. It is really not easy to define how to deal in this specific relations. By the way I think that this “shepherds” system should be an object of special article, b/c it is very specific and very ambiguous.

    • Hi David,
      Yes, we need to come to a consensus of what is wrong and sinful. In many cases, we can do is very easily by meditating on God’s word. But if we look at all the churches available, we see that many of them seem to have done this already and yet they contradict themselves in some matters (e.g. homosexual relations). This means that there are 3 possible scenarios. #1 Either Church A is wrong ia particular matter but not church B, #2 Either church B is right in this particular matter but not church A, or neither is right on this particular matter. This passage deals with the topic of helping a mis guided brother but it also brings up the topic of teaching authority.

  4. Steve Stasinos

    Hi Joe and Dr. Ben. Nice article. I haven’t read anything else here yet, but already wanted to comment.

    Reading your comments reminded me of something. Amy and I attended a Weekend to Remember conference (I highly recommend this for every married couple) in Milwaukee a couple years ago, and one subject was “conflict resolution.”
    We discussed the very things you brought up here:
    Making generalizations: “You ALWAYS do this…”
    Bringing up past events: “This is just like last week when you did…”
    and the inclusion of others comments/opinions: “So-and-so told me that…”

    Instead, the presenter suggested a very concise way of approaching a conflict by using this form (I can’t forget it):
    “When you do/say or don’t/don’t say , it makes me feel .”

    I find that trying to create this statement in my head helps me to be more focused and specific in approaching conflicts with my wife. Usually, I don’t end up saying the exact sentence to her, but something similar. It also helps me to be more objective, to examine my emotions (why do I feel this way when she does this?) etc…

    When I don’t take the time to create this sentence, I typically default to the previous three approaches. Emotions also make this difficult. Perhaps this could be applied to other relationships as well?

  5. Joshua WH Yoon

    Joe, you put a difficult but important and very relavant topic. I appreciate all of the comments made on this topic. I admit that I defaulted to all of the approaches, usually the second (worst one according to your grading). It is largely due to my character or due to the influence of culture I grew up with. When I grew up I heard the proverb, “Silence is gold.” I buried many things in secret place of my heart. Sometimes it worked. I found confronting much harder. I learned it requires much wisdom and humility and right timing. Often we face the defence from the offender. I myself do the same thing. At work I struggled a lot with one woman who is senior to me in age and seniority. For a while I found it extremely difficult to talk to her about the offense I felt. According to Jesus’ instruction, I wanted to confront her. But I was not ready. When I was not ready mentally and emotionally, confronting her did not bring any resolution. Rather confronting untimely in legalistic obedience to Jesus’ command created more conflict and tension. The conflicts lasted several years. I even thought of quitting my job because of this. At least one person quit his job due to the conflict he had with this person. Through failures and errors, God taught mem one thing. I should acknowledge the plank of my own iniquities and shortcomings before I see the spect of sawdust in others’ eyes. Once I was so upset with this staff (by the way my work place hires only Christians)for her harsh remarks that I felt like hurting her physically for justice. But God gave me control over my emotional anger. It took three days to calm down and understand why she made such a comment. I put myself in her shoe and tried to see things from her perspective. Then I understood her comment and at the same time I realized that I was far from perfection. My hurt feeling was somewhat the product of my own pride and own righteousness. God helped me to think of all the good things she has done for me and to discover my own shortcomings. I took courage to call for a meeting with her. I started with acknowledging my own shortcomings and lack of wisdom after much prayer. Then surprisingly this time she admitted her fault and asked for my forgiveness. I was so happy to win a spiritual victory. Even after this, there have been small conflicts and tension one and off. But God helped me to manage my emoton better. I know better where she is from and her real intention. Nowdays I am not much offended by her remarks. It took almost ten years to come to this level. I realize the conflicts are not easily and quickly resolved. But it can be better managed. At Willow Creek Global Leadeship Summit I attended this past August, one speaker constantly used management of conflict rather than resolution of conflict. Even at the most hurting moment, if we can remember that we are also sinners who could hurt others and acknowledge our own need for Jesus’ grace of forgiveness, confronting others for their offense and managing or resolving conflict would be much more smooth.

  6. Maria Peace

    Joshua thank you for your example and comment. Joe your right about us not keeping Jesus’ instruction and how difficult it is to do so. But sometimes I think we need time to heal. We need time to be with God. We can discuss how we should do things and how Jesus told us how to do it but I think we really need the help of the Holy Spirit. What should we do when someone sins against us? Forgive them as Jesus forgave us. Easier said than done. This is where the Holy Spirit can help us. We need supernatural power to live as Jesus wants us to live and the way God the Father wants us to live. To do this we need the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. By our own human strength, intellect, will and decision we will only fall short. We can’t confront, we gossip and get upset. But when God is in us, dwelling in us by the Holy Spirit, we can forgive. I’ve been thinking a lot about this because I was hurt and in turn I hurt others. But UBF can’t take that hurt away. Thank God for forgiveness. Thank God we have the Holy Spirit.

  7. Hi Ben and Joe,
    I guess UBF’s korean culture really comes out here. I have been fortunate to have a pastor that welcomes criticism which I think makes it allot easier when he rebukes people.

    I find it interesting that so far this discussion hasnt brought up the question of authority. Jesus seemed to think that once someone rejects the church (whatever that means) he rejects an authoritative body. I bring this up because people will naturally have disagreements about different matters of faith. But during these disagreements, who is right? Why bother confronting someone if one hasnt even looked at their own objections against an authoritative source of what one SHOULD be doing.

    If one tries to appeal to the bible, then it becomes problematic because the other party might also appeal to the bible. This then becomes a battle of churches and their interpretations. Church A says that you can do this and that, but Church B says that you cant. Both will offer biblical arguments. So which church are we suppose to take our objections to?

    I would assume it would have to be a church that claims teaching authority and infallibility in matters of faith and morals.. or else.. why bother taking a problem to the church.

    I suppose it could be argued that there is wisdom in numbers and experience. Hence, taking a intra church problem to a group of elders would help clarify the problem. It might. But it doesnt always. Jesus seemed to assume that whether the parties involve agree or not, the church has final authority. That is why the passage says, if he doesnt even listen to the church, then excommunicate him.

  8. Maria Peace

    G.Ramirez, I just want to make a clarification on your comment. The passage did not say to excommunicate a brother who does not listen to the church. It said we must treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector. How do we treat such people? We must love them and pray for them just as Jesus did. Not long ago my husband, John made a comment during our daily bread on this passage. He said we can not change anyone but we can forgive everyone. A brother who sins against us and does not want to face up to it even when the church speaks to him, still deserves our love and prayers because Jesus died even for him. He does loses his status as a brother to us. A brother and sister in Christ is one we confide in and share our most deepest care and struggle. A pagan or a tax collector is one whom we pray for and give one sided love.

    • Maria,
      Your right that Jesus loved and forgave tax collectors during his earthly ministry (and still does ofcourse). Excommunicate does not mean stop loving them or never forgive them. I never said that is what should be done. I said they are thrown out of the community. This is what the passage seem’s to be saying.

      It is a bit confusing because people were treating tax collectors in prescription with the old testament. And yet, here comes Jesus associating with them and inviting them back home in prescription with the new testament. But Jesus seems to be saying that if they refuse to repent of their actions, treat them as you would a tax collector old testament style (that is, throw them out of the community).

      This does not mean that we cannot pray for them or Love them despite all of this. If someone has a rebellious son who won’t stop his dirty drug habit, most people would throw him out of the house. Does that mean that the parents don’t love him? It would seem that way to some. But ofcourse, most parents would continue to Love him and pray for his return. They might even go visit him in the ditches and minister to him. Which is what Jesus seemed to do.

      But if the person will not change, Jesus message seemed to be clear in prescribing that they be thrown out of the community. Saint Paul said something similar in Romans 11 in speaking about the gentiles:

      “For if God did not spare the natural branches (the jews), he will not spare you either (the grafted gentiles). Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off.”

      Again, Paul here is not saying we stop loving them or praying for them. But he is saying they are cut off (excommunicated from the tree). I know this message sounds offensive but it seems to be what is being communicated don’t you think?

      As offensive as this message is, we need to remember that the message of forgiveness is also offensive. For example, once I was having a discussion with a non Christian friend. I commented how the Catholic church considers someone who has an abortion immediately excommunicated. He thought that was ridicules and harsh and took offense at that. But I explained to him that if the person repents of their sin, despite the grave offense, the Church allows them to be back in communication. In fact, this type of reckless love also annoys many non christians. They feel it somehow unfair that a person can live a debauch life and yet gain eternal salvation if they repent minutes before their death. This is what seemed to be the message of the book, The Prodigal God was it not?

      So my point is that we cannot simply focus on how cruel it seems to throw someone out of the community and call it non-christian. Because as reckless as that is, we also show reckless Love in easily welcoming them back inside the community by doing something as simple as repenting.

      Throwing someone out is not the same as ceasing to love them. I am sorry to didnt speak more clearly before.
      God Bless

  9. Maria Peace

    Good point. Thank you.

  10. Joe Schafer

    Here’s a very interesting article about how a wooden/literal/uncritical obedience to Matthew 18 can cause harm, especially when you apply it to church leaders and elders.

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/peterenns/2014/08/aha-moments-a-pastor-tells-his-story-15-anonymous/

    Treating the Bible as a step-by-step instruction manual isn’t a good idea. Godly discernment and wisdom are more useful than rules.

    • Joe, I agree that bling Biblicism is bad.

      This is a good example, however the wooden/literal/uncritical obedience in that case was towards 1 Timothy 5:19, not towards Mt 18:15. The latter did not even apply in that case. It says: “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, …” It applies in a case where the sin is obvious, not in cases when there is just suspicion of sin. It is obviously not meant to help finding out the truth when there is suspicion, but in dealing with sin when it really happened and you know it.

      The fact that blind Biblicism is bad should also not be an excuse to totally dismiss fundamental principles of church discipline such as Mt 18. Also, when dealing with a Biblicist group such as UBF (a group with the word “Bible” in it’s name claiming to devote all their time to study and follow the Bible), it’s very appropriate to confront them with Biblical principles. They claim the Bible is their sole authority, so they should really try to obey the Biblical principles, or clearly admit that they are following other, higher principles.

    • Joe Schafer

      Chris, when you wrote “bling Biblicism” I suppose you meant “blind Biblicism”, but the typo is funny. I don’t like “bling Biblicism” either.

    • Some principles about principles (in the Bible and in general):

      * Principles are meant to be used as guides, not as a replacement for sanity and reason. Some principles can be broken, but there must always be good and sufficient reasons to break principles.

      * Most principles have exceptions. When principles are formulated, sometimes the exceptions are explicitly mentioned, sometimes not. The absence of explicit mentioning of exceptions (usually for more brevity, clarity and emphasis of the principle) does not mean that no exceptions exist and the principle should be considered an absolute.

      * Usually more than one principle applies and sometimes principles can contradict each other. You need wisdom and discernment to find out which principles apply and whether maybe there is an exceptional case or another principles is higher and more important in the specific case.

    • Oops. Maybe the “bishop of bling” uses that kind of Biblicism?

    • Thanks for tagging this post and that article, Joe. This highlights what I was attempting to say in the other discussion about obedience. I think a Christ-follower pays attention to Scripture but does not obey in the wooden/literal/uncritical sense.

      Some great quotes from that article that I just love:

      “I have long thought that the #1 factor in bringing about theological change is that “life happens”–new experiences that cannot be held in old containers.”

      “I discovered there really were other honest ways to read the Bible. I walked away from that meeting knowing that one of the hell-bound liberal Bible scholars I had been warned about for years, was in every right and best way, my brother in Christ.”

      Obedience means “compliance with an order, request, or law or submission to another’s authority.”

      The obedience that comes from faith, then is submission to Jesus’ authority and Lordship. The problems seem to arise when other people put their litmus tests on my submission.

      For example, I do not attend church on Sunday. I don’t have a morning prayer time. I don’t have a scheduled bible study time. But I claim to be in submission to Jesus and obeying His promptings of when to say and what to say and how to say it.

      The new wine from Jesus cannot be contained in the old wineskin of rules-based obedience.

      It seems however, that just as children need rules-based obedience for a time, Christ-followers seem to start out with rules-based obedience. I’m ok with that. But we simply must grow beyond such types of obedience if we ever want to mature.

    • Joe Schafer

      Sorry to post another link, but here is an article about discernment that I really enjoyed. In contrast to the Pharisees, the teaching style of Jesus is noteworthy for its *lack* of hard and fast rules.

      http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2013/09/06/discernment/

  11. People seem to have the most difficulty with me when I claim to be obedient to Jesus and yet do not attend church. They “fear for me”. But this is simply a period of time (2 years? 4 years?) that may last for a few years or maybe the rest of my life, where I need to detox from the regimented structures of Christendom. I feel far more mature, more alive, more growing, more happy, more peaceful than ever, even if I am labeled a hell-bound liberal. I know I am not.

  12. EXCELLENT article Joe! This is precisely why I don’t give people advice about whether to leave or to stay at ubf… it is their decision. When people contact me, I tell my story, listen to their story and try to insert the gospel.

    “For all our teaching about the accessibility of the Bible to the common person and the compassionate, illuminating ministry of the Spirit to light Scripture up for ordinary folk, leaders seem intent on spelling the Bible out, making it clear, answering the burning questions, thus fostering a codependency in biblical, theological and spiritual issues. To be proficient at giving biblical directions is no gift to people. Directions require no thinking, just compliance.”

    • Charles Wilson
      Charles Wilson

      Yes, the article on discernment was excellent and thought-provoking. I can read a lot of my current complaints regarding freedom, shepherding and dependency from it, such as the church becoming like a restaurant with hungry and demanding customers. But it was also refreshing to think about Jesus in this way. I like getting direction because often-times I don’t know what I should do. I like getting direction from Jesus in the way he gives it. It makes me joyful and hopeful and inspired and repentant. I feel the respect and freedom from him, the humble, gentle, compassionate, and still holy and righteous Son of God.

  13. I don’t think that most people who read this blog think of Brian as “a hell-bound liberal,” nor do they “fear for him,” simply because he doesn’t go to church on Sun. fwiw, I think that’s cool and unique.

    Thanks, Joe for the great post on discernment: “I think leaders and people prefer direction-giving because it eliminates fear and offers the illusion of control. Everybody wants a playbook. Discernment, according to Scot McKnight, requires both courage and careful thought. Why courage? Discernment allows us to explore unknown territories of the soul and life. We can venture into those sometimes frightening areas not mapped out by the professional direction-givers. There are no playbooks for a very large percentage of life.”

    That’s why one of my favorite quotes is by GK Chesterton (which probably upsets some people, to put it mildly :-): “I owe my success to having listened respectfully to the very best advice, and then going away and doing the exact opposite.” Perhaps I might call this discernment!

  14. A frequent thought of mine is that the “greatest sin” of Christians is to be boring and predictable (in addition to coming across as being scripted and formulaic), because Jesus was NEVER EVER boring and predictable.

    “Developing discernment is a companion of humility because we feel awkwardly suspended in mid-air and our only hope is the Spirit, other discernment-oriented friends, and the Scriptures. Discernment is a community quest while I can follow directions all day long all by myself. Discernment is genuinely creative and, when matured, is called wisdom. Direction-giving tends toward boredom.”

    • Direction-giving tends toward boredom… yep! And I would add that direction-giving tends toward blindness and severe lack of discernment.

      For example, Friday meetings were SO BORING. So we tended to think about other things (like my virtual dating game…) One time, while making a diagram on the movable chalkboard, our Korean director inadvertently draw a diagram of a large p*n*s and balls… he was trying to describe some great spiritual truth…but the point didn’t reach some of the audience…

    • Joe Schafer

      Would love to have seen a picture of that.

    • Can’t say that that was boring or predictable or lacking in imagination or creativity, right? :D

    • “The “greatest sin” of Christians is to be boring and predictable.”

      I probably hate boring things just as much as you do. My first impulse to run away from UBF was at my first sogam meeting where four or five people in a row shared nearly the same sogam, even repeating literal sentences from the Sunday message. That kind of boring and predictable behavior is awful, I agree.

      However, I don’t understand why you detest predictability in gerneral. I think one of the most important and comforting characterizations of God is that He is faithful. He does not change His principles. In many ways, he is predictable, and that sets Him apart from the Gods of other religions who were always considered to be capricious.

      James 1 puts it this way: “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.”

      Particularly, His love to us is eternal and never changing. In that way, it is predictable. Our God made conventants with us. A covenant implies that you behave in a predictable manner.

      Even in monotheistic religions, you see the difference if you contrast the God of the Bible with the unpredictable, arbitrary God of the Koran where believers can never be sure of their salvation, even if they pray 5 times a day and do all other required things, because their God is so sovereign that he can do whatever he wants. He is not obliged to save anybody. However, our God voluntarily chose to enter a coventant with us sinful humans. That is the greatness of the Christian religion.

      From this fundamental character of God, some principles for Christian living follow immediately: We should also be faithful, we should keep integrity, we should not randomly change our mind. “Let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes ‘ or ‘No, no ‘; anything beyond these is of evil.” You cannot say one day “yes” and the other day “no” just to not be so boring and predictable.

    • Brian, are you telling me you don’t see nine dolphins here?

    • Actually, some of the abuse in UBF had also to do with unpredictable and arbitrary behavior of leaders. If you did something well, Samuel Lee would sometimes flatter or praise the person in front of the audience, but sometimes also shame you and give you training in order to prevent the person becoming “proud.” You could never be sure what would happen, in a way that was not exciting, but rather frightening. Some people also described it as a “roller coaster of emotions” that was used to crash your personality. From my own experience, I can share the example how my marriage was cancelled by my chapter director after being engaged for one year. I can tell you that was really not boring nor predictable. And I can give many similar examples from my own experience and that of others. Being unpredictable is not a character trait of good leaders in my opinion. If you think of political leaders, this is obvious, right? Why should it be different for church leaders?

    • Charles Wilson
      Charles Wilson

      Jesus is the same and yet is making everything new (Revelation 21:5). Predictability is one reason why I don’t like living in LA. It’s boring. It’s always spring/summer.

  15. Chris, speaking of principles, your words above remind me about one of my first blog articles after my resignation:

    Should I live by principles?

    “I have always made a rather bold claim: I do not live by principles. But really, isn’t this just another principle? Lately I’ve become keenly aware of my negative attitude torward principles, education, academics, philosophy, religion, doctrine and even theology. I have tried to live a Christian life free of such things. But I have found that I am now on an island by myself, so to speak.”

    “Why do I need to struggle so hard to re-invent Christianity? Christianity was established long ago. I really just need to discover it. I am starting to realize in a big way that Christian life is not about submitting to a particular church’s rules or inventions. Christian life is (and always has been) a journey. It is a journey of faith, a journey with fellow believers and a journey toward a glorious meeting with Jesus Christ my Lord! This journey has been taken up many a time before me. I am realizing I need to respect those journeys and races of faith run before me.”

    • +1. It seems that your journey might have taken “an unfortunate detour” for 24 years. Or are those 24 years still a part of the journey?

    • Those 24 years are indeed part of the journey. I don’t see any detours anywhere, which perhaps means I tend to agree with your Sovereignty comments Ben.

      I am writing about this in my 3rd book. The epic life does include an epic attempt to obey the Law. The journey gets really fruitful and exciting only when epic obedience gives way to epic surrender.

      There is SO much more to our epic journey following Christ! Far too many people however, stay in the immature obedience entanglement, and only leave part of their life to discover the rest.

    • So while some talk about “first truth” and “second truth” which I agree with, I see 5 truths.

    • When I say “5 truths”… I am speaking of something similar to Thomas Cole’s painting series from 1842, The Voyage of Life. My wife and I had this series of paintings…extremely deep and powerful.

  16. Chris, this might perhaps be technical and not very helpful or it might be splitting hairs. But I think of God as immutable in his love, mercy, grace, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, goodness, forgiveness, etc. As you said or suggested, this is my sole source of comfort, peace, rest, joy, security, stability, even if the midst of horrible things and injustice happening all around.

    In sharp contrast to God’s immutability, then I think of people as inclining toward boring predictabality. But I believe that the more a Christian lives by the Spirit, the more they will live without fear, and the more unpredictable they will be, since they are willing to give up their control (over their own life and others and church), and allow God to do His thing, which will rarely ever be something that we human beings can ever predict.

    • “the more a Christian lives by the Spirit, the more they will live without fear, and the more unpredictable they will be”

      I still cannot follow your connecting of being spiritual with being unpredictable, Ben. For instance, when Martin Luther started to live by the Spirit, and started to live without fear, his behavior became predictable. He even said himself: “I am standing here. I cannot do otherwise.” In the Bible, the believer is compared with a strong tree that is standing still, and the unbeliever with grass that is moving with the wind.

      If you had said that spiritual people should be more creative, imaginative, visionary, I would have agreed. But more unpredictable? I still think that’s the wrong word. A spiritual mature Christian acts reasonably and for me that includes a certain amount of predictability, and not unpredictabilty.

      Predictability is not something bad. We rely on the predictability of God’s nature: “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease.” The opposite of predictability is chaos.

      I think God’s nature is a good mix of predictability and chaos. God gives us certain freedom, but also certain rules and principles. Physics also shows this duality of nature. Quantum physics shows that not everything is predictable. But on the other hand, nature is not completely unpredictable either, and nobody would appretiate such a nature. So I don’t think it’s right to say “unpredictability” is better than “predictability”. There must be predictability in certain areas, and unpredictability in other areas. In physics, the macroscopic things (trajectory of the earth) are pretty predictable, the microscopic things unpredictable (trajectory of an electron). So should it be in life. In following your big principles and life events you should be predicable. I should not suddenly change my mind about my wife and divorce, just because it’s sometimes boring and predictable to be together with the same person. However, I can certainly surprise my wife with many little things.

  17. Yes, Chris, what you describe about SL’s unpredictability is true. That’s why it was in some sense “more fun” when he was alive. (Please don’t skewer me for saying this! I am not in any way supportive of spiritually abusive practices. We’re talking here about being unpredictable, which SL very often was.)

    But certainly your chapter director trying to seemingly whimsically and arbitrarily acting as though he has absolute control your marriage is very very unfortunate and totally uncalled for. I’m pretty sure you won’t like me saying this, but this is gradually changing in some chapters, though surely not in all chapters.

    • “But certainly your chapter director trying to seemingly whimsically and arbitrarily acting”

      Again, you’re trying to shift the blame towards my chapter director and away from Samuel Lee, claiming that Lee’s arbitrary training was more “fun”. After all the testimonies I read about Samuel Lee, I understand that Lee was way more evil than my chapter director. Just read the 1976 letter to understand. Telling an adult man to get perms may sound like fun. Telling people to show each others underwear or telling a young man to have eyelid surgery sounds less funnier. Telling a woman to abort her child is not funny at all any more. Telling people to divorce just because the partner left UBF is not fun either. I repeat, Samuel Lee was much worse than my chapter director. Most of all, he was the role model for my chapter director and the other directors. May you recall that time as “fun,” but there were so many who don’t think so.

      “I’m pretty sure you won’t like me saying this, but this is gradually changing in some chapters”

      Why shouldn’t I like this? I appretiate that it is happening and I’m pretty sure it is true – it is clearly what is to be expected if I’m right in my opinion that Samuel Lee was the driving force behind the abuse in UBF. Because of that, certainly, since he died, many things have become better. UBF has also become much more inhomogeneous than in the time when everything was under his control and everybody feared him and tried to copy him as closely as possible. It seems now there are chapters like yours that changed pretty much, a few chapters are still the same and the majority is in some kind of transition. I don’t want to dispute that.

      But if you want to change you must know the direction, you must first reveal and expose very clearly and sharply what was wrong in the past. This has not so much to do with blaming people of the past, but with diagnosing the cause of the problem. You as doctor should know how important the proper diagnosis is if you want to cure an illness. It also will not help if you cure, say, Cholera, blaming the people for being too uncleanly, when the real cause is a contaminated well in their neigborhood.