It's inevitable that many of us will experience some form of relational hurt this Christmas season as we gather with family and friends. The Father of Lies feeds his soul on dishonesty, so it makes perfect sense that the fruit of love, joy and peace would be demonstrated the least when we're singing about it the most. That's because sin is never genuine in its expression of affection and kindness. It's only claim on authenticity is found in its selfish pride. It enters our relationships with as much bravado as granted, bringing contention on its heels.
But maybe God's been working powerfully in your heart, humbly driving you to the Cross where grace is setting you free from the smallness of yourself. Maybe the love of Christ has seized your heart enough for you to see the duplicity of sin that gushes warm sentimentalities to one person and turns a cold shoulder to another. And maybe the brightness of His mercy has opened your eyes to the pettiness of sin that grips grace in one hand and holds a grudge in the other. And maybe, just maybe, your identification with Christ is becoming so firmly fixed in your mind that the oppression of sin is no longer tethering you to your insecurity.
If this is true, how then are you to respond when you find yourself confronted with the contention that can exist when the brokenness of another doesn't have them loving you or those you know with kind affection? How are you to respond to the one who finds the disturbance of peace to be safer than the declaration of peace? If grace has you being rooted in love, how do you respond when you desire making a toast to joy, but the cup of Christmas cheer has run dry?
I spend enough time counseling to know that dysfunction, to one degree or another, characterizes every family unit, every marriage, every relationship. Apart from Christ, we are by nature drawn to relational drama. That's because pride loves the stage. It loves the costumes that afford a facade of strength in the midst of weakness, and it loves the props that afford a facade of confidence in the midst of insecurity. It loves the thrones and soap boxes that lend power, and the walls and caves that lend protection. Relational dysfunction is directly related to our affinity for drama, and the glitter of Christmas provides the perfect backdrop for those who are drawn to the stage.
Lovers of Christ who humbly desire to live out the gospel of grace don't welcome relational drama. The drama of the Cross satisfies their yearning for power and thirst for protection enough that they move toward each other in love and grace in the presence of hurt. Accepting conflict as an inevitable part of meaningful relationship between sinners, they are willing to come to the table of communication as a learner. Refusing to pretend and protect, they are open and honest. They apologize as freely as they forgive, and willingly work toward resolution that serves the spiritual health of all involved, which may or may not involve distance.
But what do you do when you're confronted with someone who is drawn to the stage too much to avoid the relational dysfunction that comes with prideful unrepentance? What do you do with the heated words that burn and the frozen silence that chills? How do you keep from being sucked into the ensuing drama?
I want to share three thoughts that God has used to help clarify my thinking and guide my responses. Between counseling and fumbling awkwardly through some of my own challenging relationships, I've learned the futility of centering attention on behavior. It's a focus that only serves to pull us on stage, even if we're going kicking and screaming. If we want to avoid the drama of dysfunction, we have to focus on the heart.
1. Possess the heart of the humble.
Though you may have read the following passage a thousand times before, I encourage you to consider it thoughtfully:
What else is there to say after reading this? All the thoughts I find myself desiring to express pale in comparison to the power of the Word. I can't tell you how many times I have read these verses and wept over the pride of my heart. I keep reading them, and reading them, and reading them again. And as I read them, I ask God to keep humbling my arrogant heart and to keep emptying me of the smallness of myself.
The deep-seeded nature of our pride isn't revealed through those who are deliberately cruel and unkind. Their sin is raw enough in its own right to only disturb the surface of our pride. The depth of our pride, however, is revealed in the defensive posturing and the distancing that we offer to those who genuinely love us, who care for us enough to risk touching tender spots of our heart with words of truth and expressions of concern.
When the mind of Christ is ours, in ourselves we become nothing. And as a result, nothing calls for our defense and nothing calls for our silent distancing. When the mind of Christ is ours, we receive those who are rightly caring enough to see us, because we know there is nothing in ourselves to hide and everything in Christ to reveal. We don't require that others walk on eggshells to avoid making us feel like we are nothing, because we're at rest knowing that in Christ we have everything.
In the face of conflict, tend to your own heart first. Make yourself nothing, and make Christ everything.
2. Pinpoint the heart of the conflict.
When we pinpoint the heart of the conflict, we quickly learn how incapable we are at fixing relational problems. Because at the heart of all conflict resides pride, and there is nothing within us that has power to humble a heart and make it teachable.
The identification of pride is something I take seriously in my counseling. Anybody who spends time with me knows that. I don't pull any punches when I see it, because I know the ability to work through relational dysfunction is directly related to the willingness and capacity to look pride squarely in the face without defense.
Gaining sight of pride is a work of grace, a work of grace that we don't have the power to produce. If we fail to remember that, we'll find ourselves being pulled into the drama of dysfunction in our diehard determination to make the blind see. That's never a pretty scene, because the defense of the proud is to turn the tables and claim that the one offering them sight is the producer of the drama. In that scenario, humility takes a beating that often sends both parties into a vicious cycle of conflict that is difficult to resolve.
When we identify the heart of the conflict, whether it's revealing itself as prideful power or prideful protection, we need to let it be a reminder to us that we can't fix the problem. We can't drag somebody off the stage and force them to the table of honest communication. Apart from a work of grace, all the pleading and preaching in the world won't humble and convict their heart. We can do nothing more than invite them to the table. When we forget that's all we can do, we end up beating them over the head with the invitation they refuse. And like a perfectly executed stage cue, we step right into the drama.
Identifying the heart of conflict is especially important when dealing with family, because it's easy to pick up the offense of our loved ones. Though I haven't always appreciated it at the moment (like REALLY not appreciated it), I'm so thankful for a husband who has never been willing to do that with me. Even when I've become outrageously incensed that he is refusing to get on stage and stand by his woman against the person who is so obviously doing me wrong, he has remained at the table of humility, calmly inviting me to join him and patiently waiting for me to agree. The stage isn't just for drama queens. It's also for those who abandon the heart of the humble in order to bear the offense of the proud.
3. Pray for the heart of the proud.
Something that has helped me immensely in maintaining a heart of prayer for others is meditating on the fact that it's vital to having the mind of Christ. The Word tells us that He LIVES to make intercession for us. It's His passion and His delight.
I want to love others enough to be willing to intercede on their behalf. I want to go to the throne of grace, trusting God to do His work of grace in His time and in His way. I know He has power to change hearts, because I know how much He keeps changing mine. I want to pray for the heart of the proud, and I know that includes prayer for me.
Let's be too busy this Christmas living for God's glory and the reconciliation of souls to Him to waste energy on any petty preserving of power or protection. In the face of inevitable conflict, let's reside at the table of communication as a learner and a lover with nothing to defend and nothing to hide. Let's reside there in joyful confidence, praising God for the grace that has given us everthing in His Beloved Son.
Christmas cheer may be drained from the cup, but it never runs dry in the heart of those who are found in Christ. A toast. To love, joy, and peace!