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Good morning, church. Please go with me to the book of Proverbs, and we’re going to be jumping around a bit, but mostly in chapters 20 and 21 as we look at the major themes running through all of the wise sayings in this book.
Probably the most repeated theme is just that wisdom, itself, is incredibly valuable. Wisdom is able to tell you whether or not what you’re doing in life is worthwhile, if what you’re valuing is actually worthwhile. Are you going the right way in life, or are you lost? Wisdom is incredibly valuable, and at the same time, freely given. The author personifies wisdom, basically, if wisdom were a person, she would be standing on the main street, or in the market, calling to anyone who would come, sit at her feet, and listen. All though the book of Proverbs, the author is urging you to stop and listen to the wisdom of the ages.
We’ve talked about those things which are meant to be at the center of your life, and if they get off-center, you can lose balance and fall. Things like family, love, the Spirit of God, community. Speaking of balance, we talked about work and balancing it with other important things in life. Our words and the way we speak to each other, money, the way we treat the people closest to us, raising children, fortune and how to respond to the ups and downs of life.
This has been a really beneficial study thus far for me, life-giving, and I hope it has been for you, too. Today we’re going to talk about something really heavy, but something we all could probably use some wisdom on: conflict in daily life. Pray with me, briefly.
Conflict in my life usually starts small, with something completely unworthy of any kind of fight. I remember the first real fight Anne-Elise and I had. I was twenty, in college, studying literature, which has been a lifelong love of mine. You could usually find me smoking American Spirits and reading on the lawn in front of the library, or actually in the library, still reading, just with coffee instead of cigarettes. I weighed 175lbs at 6’1’, wore baggy checkered shirts and skinny jeans. Particularly at that time I was doing a deep dive into postmodernism. I was going to plays about every weekend, theater of the absurd, taking a postmodern film class, and one night I invited Anne-Elise to come watch one of the assigned movies with me.
Anne-Elise at the time was in a sorority, doing dances and formals, always with stories of this or that friend saying something hilarious or causing some sort of scandal on the sorority hallway. She wore chacos, was complaining her way through a half-marathon her friend forced her into, and took regular trips to Zimbabwe to work at an orphanage there. She made it clear on our second date that she was planning to adopt any children she might have. She studied social work and social science, turned in assignments late, texted me through boring classes, didn’t read a single book, and somehow was still at the top of the class.
I forget the title of the movie I invited her to watch, but it was obscure—an Indian film, I remember it ended with the two main characters in the movie having this blow-up fight, and then the camera slowly pans out as he’s watching her leave, then the movie ended. No resolution. Anne-Elise started laughing. That’s how our first real fight started.
She thought it was the dumbest thing she had ever seen and asked what the point of it was supposed to be. I went into what I’m sure was a very emotional explanation about the postmodern idea of media res and how stories don’t really have endings or beginnings, and she kept laughing. And of course I got mad first. My family doesn’t do passive aggression, we practice active aggression; like the Hulk, my method of remaining calm is maintaining a low-grade level of anxiety and anger at all times.
She got defensive and shut down, which only made me more angry because I was taught at one point that you don’t let the sun go down on your anger, and somehow that’s supposed to mean you can’t step away from a conflict and come back with clear heads to talk about it. And then of course we weren’t fighting about the film at all, because what I was actually upset about was having my fears confirmed that I was wasting my life pursuing passions when really I should be buckling down to get a degree that means something and could point me toward a real profession. She was terrified, wondering if this stupid movie and one honest moment was going to be the end of a relationship we had both poured a year into already.
Conflict. Most of us live in fear of it, and most of us for good reason. Most of us have someone close to us with a temper, or a drinking problem, or a cold, passive aggression which never seems to thaw, and we’ve learned that conflict means suffering without a clear end. Relationships like broken bones which never fully heal and cause enormous pain no one can see and which hurt whenever someone touches the wrong place.
And there’s a lot to be said for avoiding conflict—not avoiding it but rather tending toward peace and lovingkindness. Proverbs 15:18 says this: “A hot-tempered man stirs up strife, but he who is slow to anger quiets contention.” Or 15:1: “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” Or, my personal favorite, Proverbs 21:9: “It is better to live in a corner of the housetop than in a house shared with a quarrelsome wife.” A man wrote that one, but the message is clear: it’s wise to not make everything a big deal, where instead of just talking about it you’re screaming about it.
At this point in my life, half the arguments I have, I wake up in the morning just wanting to reach out and apologize for something, anything, to help mend the situation, but you don’t always get that chance.
One of our two-year-olds right now, we’re trying to teach him this lesson. He’s screaming about everything, and it’s annoying. We’re desperately trying to teach him to just use words to express himself. Adults struggle with this too, though. We would rather drink about it than talk about it. Or walk into the other room and play apology chicken. Or eat about it. Or get bitter about it. Or leave. Or quietly resolve not to let your guard down again about it. My son has an excuse—he’s two. When are we going to learn to use our words?
People with hot tempers love to talk about Jesus flipping over the tables of the moneychangers at the temple, as though that gives his followers cart blanche to flip over any table, anywhere. But most of the time, when Jesus approaches a table, it’s not to flip it over, but rather to sit and break bread in fellowship. Even some tables we might want him to flip, like when he goes to eat with Zaccheus, the guy who’s become wealthy by fleecing the poor. Or when he walks up to the pharisee’s table and the only seat left for him is the one of least honor. Man, I want him to flip that table so bad, get soup all over their perfectly washed tunics. What about the table in Pilot’s room, with water and a basin, and he walks over confidently to wash his hands. That’s one that deserves to be flipped. But he doesn’t. Most of the tables in Jesus’ life, he overthrows through peace. He wounds with lovingkindness.
As already covered in this sermon, I don’t often avoid conflict. I’m good at flipping tables. There’s not a table in my life I haven’t flipped, metaphorically or literally speaking at one point or another. There’s one in my house, in the kitchen where we eat breakfast and dinner as a family; there’s the one on which we place communion, here at the church. There’s a table at my friend’s house, probably, but I wouldn’t know because he won’t call me back anymore. And there are all the tables I should have sat down at across town, across divides, but I never reached out. One time as a teacher I lost it and threw a desk table across the room, but that was more of a legit thing, I actually don’t regret that. They were acting a fool.
But Jesus isn’t like me, or rather I long to be more like him. He walks in, sits down, and breaks bread for the most part, talks about the heart of God. He is “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” Not only does his slow anger quiet contention, but his love was enough to “cover all offenses,” to quote Proverbs 10:12. His love was enough to cover our offenses, our sins and our sorrows, the hurt we cause each other.
So it’s good to avoid conflict, but of course, Jesus did flip that one table. Have you noticed yet, through this Proverbs series, how often wisdom is finding that middle road between two sides, and learning to walk down it? Proverbs 20:30 reads, “Blows that wound cleanse away evil; strokes make clean the innermost parts.” Some of us are so far from being quick-tempered that we avoid conflict, even when we ought to cause good trouble. Sometimes you have to sit someone down and tell them they’re going down a dark road, and they need to turn around, and pretty much always, they hate you for it. Sometimes we need to make a cut, to remove a cancer that’s only going to grow. Sometimes a situation is so messy that there isn’t a friendly way forward like an arrow that has to be pushed through before you can take it out.
And then, of course, there’s one kind of conflict which, horrifically, can never be avoided, or lessened, or changed in any way: past conflict. God, in his wisdom, has placed us in time, even though he is free of it. So we need to know, not just that we ought to avoid conflict when possible, but we need to know also how to heal from it and reconcile, and healing, thankfully, is a subject about which the Bible speaks volumes. Healing is not just a theme of Proverbs, but a theme of the entirety of the Scriptures.
I’ve already preached on this one, but Proverbs 12:18: “There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” Then, a few chapters later, we find what exactly is on the tongue of the wise: 23:23 “Buy truth, and do not sell it; buy wisdom, instruction, and understanding.”
Truth. The truth will set you free. The apostle Paul, in a letter to the church in Ephesus, and specifically in a section on unity, summarizes the way that church was able to heal the divides between them by telling them to “speak the truth in love,” he says that’s how you grow as a body to be more like Christ. One of my favorite authors who passed away this month, Frederick Beuchner, once summarized the whole task of ministry as telling the truth.
I told you that story of mine and Annie’s first fight, how it happened, but more importantly, this is how it ended: we sat silently for a while next to each other—a long time, we both cooled off. Eventually we admitted to each other, what we were fighting about mattered less to us than the other person. We both apologized for letting things get out of hand and hurting each other. I still worry sometimes that I haven’t done anything with my life that’s really mattered. She still fears sometimes that she’s unintentionally ruined everything. But the truth is, I’d rather be in her home than on your bookshelf, rather hear about her day than you hear my thoughts. I’m glad in the moment, we were able to recognize that truth. We laugh about that fight now, about how I can’t remember the name of the movie, about being young and dumb.
Truth spoken in love has power enough to make something beautiful of basically any brokenness. Truth spoken in love will eventually be the only word left on anyone’s tongue. On the day when God wipes our tears away and all truth is revealed. That’s how time is restored into eternity, all the past wrongs dying like seeds and growing into truths which can nourish and bind us. Whenever reconciliation is not possible, or not advisable, truth spoken in love can bring forgiveness. To quote Jon Foreman, “It takes two to go to war, but only one to fall in love.”
Truth is not always apparent, not always easy to know. It’s hard to think of it in the moment. Sometimes, I would say even often, truth has almost nothing to do with what you’re arguing about. But truth is always there, it is always loving, and it will always bring healing. Truth is like a fluorescent light and a vanity mirror, showing us things we would rather not notice of ourselves, but in the process making us more beautiful.
You’ll probably be surprised, when you decide to start telling the truth of whatever is causing you pain in your life, how quickly God brings healing. Your past, your hurt, your relationship, your mistakes, your doubts, your sins. Truth in love is not a mild prescription, it’s surgery. Eventually it will restore society, in the day of the Lord.
When you walk into a conflict determined to love the other person no matter what they do or say, you’ll probably be surprised how quickly the conflict will make you both a little more like Christ.
And I’ll close, citing Keller, with the first truth I want you to tell yourself to begin healing and forgiving today. The truth that your mistakes, your sin, have done more damage to your life and to the world than you will ever know. And also, at the same time, you are more loved than you have yet dared to dream. Whatever conflict you’ve had with our father or his Church, the truth is, your his child and he loves you. Pray with me.