Conflict and submerged threats – what’s this about?
Have you ever reflected on your instant responses to conflict? Are they over the top? Out of control? Or do you immediately want to recoil? Shut the door on relationships? Why do you respond as you do? Do you respect or regret your responses?
For many years I regularly played piano and organ for the services in our church. After one service, I reacted strongly to something the music leader required of me. Instead of the cool-headed, measured and reasonable person I prided myself in being, I actually lost control! I was angry, annoyed and frustrated. I had acted in a ‘peace breaking’ manner. As I left church that morning, I was confused and concerned. Why did I respond like that? I did not respect my response. I certainly regretted it. As the Bible says, my ill-considered anger did “not produce the righteousness God desires” (Jas 1:19, 20).
The truth is our instant responses to conflict are driven by powerful hidden influences layered with meaning and feelings. I call these “submerged threats”. As was my experience after church that Sunday, a lack of awareness regarding these powerful influences can quickly derail a God-honouring response.
Let’s dredge up some of these submerged threats. Doing so may help us understand how they impact our instant responses.
Early childhood experiences
Family of origin experiences can significantly shape our reactions to conflict. Compromised childhood learning often results in compromised instinctive responses to conflict as an adult. Conversely, productive early role models can lead to instinctively healthier responses in later years. As a friend recently admitted to me, I’ve had to think long and hard about the impact my father’s conflict style has had on me.
We all have different personalities, and we all have preferred ways or styles of responding to conflict. The slippery slope broadly defines these different responses as:
- peacefaking or an escape style response
- peacebreaking or an attack style response, and
- peacemaking or a gospel centred style response.
Whilst in any given conflict we may bounce between all of them, typically, we will have a preference towards one. Writing about our preferred styles of responding to conflict, author Jim Van Yperen soberly observes, “your conflict style is the arena where you will tend to sin most often – against God, others and yourself.” Ouch!
When conflict erupts, it triggers a physical reaction in our brain, indeed throughout our whole body. Knowing this can prompt us to pause and notice the changes. This momentary hesitation may create space to choose a mature response. There is sound reasoning behind the adage, Take a deep breath and count to 10. No wonder James emphasises the importance of being, “slow to speak and slow to become angry” (Jas 1:19).
Another submerged threat arises from the conflict resolution models portrayed in the media, on social media, in our communities and in our workplaces. It is worth noting how powerfully these might subtly impact our responses and make choices accordingly.
Our core beliefs and values help us to make sense of the world. For the Christian, scripture informs these cornerstones of life. Sometimes we can construe the very experience of conflict as a threat to our beliefs, values and identity. What a relief the great Biblical hope is that conflict can be an opportunity to glorify God, serve others and grow to become more like Christ (1 Cor. 10:31ff).
If not dealt with satisfactorily, trauma from conflict in the past can slide into and intensify the trauma of a subsequent conflict. Thus, we can react in ways beyond what the situation warrants. Becoming aware of our over-reactions can alert us to seek help.
When caught up in the storm of conflict, our otherwise worthy and Godly desires can readily morph into sinful idols of our heart. If we leave these desires unchecked, they can magnify in our minds and hearts, resulting in destructive relationships. I am grateful for the unvarnished honesty of scripture which challenges us to become alert to the potential for good desires to warp into controlling demands. (See James 4:1-3).
These are some of the submerged threats – the powerful influences – that can shape our instant responses to conflict. Undoubtedly, one (or more) of them was present when I overreacted to our church’s music ministry leader. I am grateful that God urged me to apologise subsequently. With God’s help, we can identify submerged threats in our lives. With his help, we can consciously choose alternative peacemaking responses which honour him.
Reflection and action
The wise person will join the psalmist in praying, “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me” (Ps 139:23-4). So, look back over the influences identified above. Which has been the most significant in shaping your intuitive, instant responses to conflict? Journal your thoughts. Pause and pray. Resolve to address any concerns. Remember with gratitude scripture’s reassurance – God is “our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1).
If you would like to find out more about how you can live as a peacemaker in your relationships, why not consider coming along to one of our upcoming training events or picking up a book on forgiveness in our store.
You can find our more about upcoming training dates here.
This article was written by Alan Kelshaw and is based on chapter 4 of his recently released book, Navigating Community Conflict: what Christian leaders need to stay steady at the helm (Ark House Press, 2022). You can find all relevant acknowledgements and footnotes there. The book is available here through the PeaceWise store.
Alan is a former lawyer who has acted as a mediator, consultant and trainer in conflict resolution in churches, Christian schools, mission organisations and para-church ministries for the past 20 years. He lives in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, with his wife, Carolyn. They have three children and eight grandchildren.