Although Christ proclaims, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God,” too often we see the children of the Church embroiled in destructive conflict and controversy. Has there ever been a parish council free from conflict? Who has not experienced rancorous divisions among fellow parishioners? Who does not know Orthodox families who have gone through acrimonious divorces? We can shrug it off, saying such conflict is “normal” and do our best to survive it. But in reality conflict often leaves behind enduring damage – severed relationships, broken ties, people left scarred and embittered.
Should we Christians not do better than this? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could respond to conflict in gracious and constructive ways? Might we learn how to handle conflict so as to build relationships rather than harm them? I believe we can – that we can learn to see conflict as a way to minister to each other and to glorify God. We can harness conflict as a transforming power toward growth and healthy change.
Christ gives us a model of handling conflict constructively when a young man approaches and asks his help in settling an inheritance. Instead of behaving as a judge, Christ addresses the underlying issue: “Take heed and beware of all covetousness, for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” He then illustrates this truth in the parable of the rich fool. (Lk 12:13-21)
When faced with conflict, we often focus on what the other person has done wrong. In contrast, scripture and Church tradition call us to focus primarily on what is going on in our own hearts when we are at odds with another. In the Lenten prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian, we are called first to see our own sins, and not to judge our brother. Why? Because according to scripture, the human heart is the wellspring of conflicts. “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.” (Mt 15:19) The heart’s central role in conflict is vividly described in the epistle of James:
What causes wars, and what causes fights among you? Is it not your passions that are at war in your bodily parts? You desire and do not have; so you kill. And you covet and cannot obtain; so you fight and wage war. (James 4:1)
This passage hints at the underlying cause of destructive conflict: conflicts arise from unmet desires within what the Church Fathers call the “heart.” When scripture and the Fathers speak of the heart, they mean both the spiritual heart (nous) and the physical heart (kardias) – the place reserved for the contemplation of God, the center of our being where we have communion and union with God. When the desire for something earthly replaces our desire for God, we commit idolatry.
When we feel we cannot be satisfied until we have something we think we need, desire becomes a demand. In relationships, if someone frustrates or fails to meet our desires, we judge him or her in our hearts, and a fight ensues. In short, conflict arises when desires grow into demands, and then we judge and punish those who oppose us. This is the normal progression in the establishment of an idol, and an idol always demands sacrifice. Let’s look at the four stages of idolatry one step at a time
Stage 1:“I Desire”: Conflict always begins with some kind of desire. According to scripture, some desires, such as vengeance, lust or greed, are categorically evil. But many desires – the desire for peace and quiet, a clean home, an intimate relationship with a spouse, or children who are respectful and well-behaved – are not wrong in themselves. If a good and holy desire is not being met – for example, there are problems in a marriage – the two partners need to talk about it together. They may discover ways that they can better understand, help and serve each other. It may be a slow and difficult process. One partner may be unwilling to discuss particular issues. Husband and wife then stand at a crossroads where conflict can either be avoided, even at the cost of stagnation, or seen as opening a gateway to growth. Each has a choice between dwelling on frustrations and allowing these to control his or her life – which is likely to result in self-pity and bitterness – or actively looking for solutions while continuing to love the other and praying for God’s help (and also the help from others, such as a marital therapist).
Stage 2: “I Demand”: Unmet desires can work themselves deeper into our hearts, especially when we perceive a desire as something we need for our happiness or fulfillment. We justify and legitimize desires:
• I work hard all week. Don’t I deserve a little peace and quiet when I coemme home?
• I worked two jobs to put you through school; I deserve your respect and attention.
• I spend hours managing the family budget; I deserve a new car.
• My family has been in this church for generations; we deserve to be recognized.
• I have given a lot of money to this church – you’d better listen to what I say.
• Scripture says a husband and wife should be one flesh. I need more sexual intimacy.
• I only want what God commands – children who respect and honor their parents.
Each of these demands contains an element of truth, but we find it easy to let unmet desires lead to destructive entitlement. The more we think we are entitled to something, the more convinced we are that we cannot be happy or secure without it. Again, this is the normal progression in establishing an idol. “I wish I could have this” becomes “I must have this.”
Even if the initial desire was not inherently wrong, it has grown so strong that it becomes an idol that controls our thoughts and affects our behavior. According to scripture, an idol is something other than God that we set our hearts on (Lk 12:29), that motivates us (1 Co 4:5), that rules us (Ps 119:133; Eph 5:5), or that we trust, fear, or serve (Is 42:17; Mt 6:24; Lk 12:4-5). In short, it is something we love and pursue in place of God. (Php 3:19) The reality is that every sincere Christian must struggle with idolatry. We may believe in God and profess the Creed, but at times we allow other influences to rule us.
The question then arises, how can we discern the deterioration of a good desire into a sinful demand. We begin by looking inward and asking ourselves these questions to reveal the true condition of our hearts:
• What am I preoccupied with? What is the first thing on my mind in the morning and the last thing on my mind at night?
• How would I complete this statement: “If I only had [x] I would be happy.”
• What do I want to preserve or avoid?
• Where do I put my trust, and what do I fear?
• When a certain desire is not met, do I feel frustration, anxiety, resentment, bitterness, anger, or depression?
• Is there something I desire so much that I am willing to disappoint or hurt others in order to have it?
As we search our hearts for idols, we often encounter multiple layers of concealment, confusion and justification. One of the most subtle ways in which we may develop a sinful demand is to argue that we want things that are in and of themselves good and holy. A mother may desire that her children be respectful and obedient to her and kind to one another. When they do not fulfill these goals, even after her repeated encouragement or correction, she may feel frustrated, angry, or resentful. She needs to ask herself, “Why am I feeling this way? Is it a righteous anger, or selfish anger?” Most often it will be a mixture of both. Part of her truly wants to see her children grow in the image of God, but another part of her is motivated by a desire for her own comfort and convenience. She must ask which desire is really controlling her heart.
If the God-centered desire is ruling her heart, her response to disobedient children would resemble God’s discipline toward us. “The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love.” (Ps 103:8) As she imitates God’s love for us, she will respond as in Galatians 6:1: “If someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted.” Although her discipline may be direct and firm, it will be wrapped in gentleness and love, and leave no residue of resentment.
On the other hand, if her desire for comfort and convenience has become an idol, she will react with harsh anger and hurtful words or discipline. She may feel bitterness or resentment because of her frustrated desires. Even after disciplining her children, she may maintain a lingering coolness or a distance toward them that extends their punishment and warns them not to cross her again. If attitudes and actions of this sort tend to characterize her response, it is a sign that her desire for godly children has probably evolved into an idolatrous demand.
Stage 3: “I Judge”: In judging, we play God. A sign of idolatry is the inclination to judge. When people fail to satisfy our demands, we criticize and condemn them in our hearts, if not with our words. The truth is that when we judge others – criticize, nit-pick, attack, condemn – we are literally acting like a god. We commit the sin of Lucifer, coveting the judgment seat reserved only for God. Scripture tells us clearly that “There is one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you that you judge your neighbor?” (James 4:12)
When we fight, accusations fill our minds. We play the self-righteous judge in the mini-kingdoms we establish in our families, workplaces, and churches. When we judge others and condemn them in our hearts for not meeting our desires, we are imitating not Christ but the Devil. We have doubled our idolatry: we have let an idolatrous desire rule our hearts, and we have set ourselves up as mini-gods. This is the formula for destructive conflict.
This is not to say that it is inherently wrong to evaluate – even judge – others within certain limits. Scripture teaches that we should observe and evaluate others’ behaviors so that we can respond and minister to them in appropriate ways, which may even involve gentle confrontation. (Mt 7:1-5, 18:15; Gal 6:1) But we cross the line when we begin to judge others based on feelings of superiority, indignation, condemnation, bitterness, or resentment. Sinful judging often involves speculating on others’ motives. Most of all, it reveals a self-centered love for ourselves and the absence of a genuine love and concern toward others. These attitudes show that our judging has crossed the line, and we are playing God. We expect more of those who are closer to us, and we are more likely to judge them when they fail to meet our expectations. We may look at our spouse and think, “If you really love me, you above all people will help meet this need.” Or we look to our children and say, “After all I’ve done for you, you owe this to me.” We can place similar expectations on relatives, close friends, or members of our church. Expectations are not inherently bad, but expectations can become conditions and standards against which we judge others. Instead of giving people room for independence, disagreement, or failure, we impose our expectations on them. We expect them to give allegiance to our idols. When they refuse, we condemn them in our hearts.
Stage 4: “I Punish”: Idols demand sacrifices. Whether deliberately or unconsciously, we find many ways to hurt or punish people who refuse to gratify our desires. Sometimes we react aggressively in overt anger, with hurtful words toward those who fail to meet our expectations. Only if they give in to our desires and demands will we stop inflicting pain upon them. Children may use pouting, stomping, or dirty looks; adults, alike, may do the same. We may withhold our stewardship from the church as a punishment. Some may resort to physical violence or sexual abuse.
As we grow in the awareness of our sin, most of us recognize and reject these obviously sinful tactics. But our idols do not give up easily, and they often lead us to withdrawal from a relationship, giving the cold shoulder, withholding affection or physical contact, refusing to look someone in the eyes, ignoring phone calls, or abandoning a relationship altogether. Sending subtle, unpleasant cues over a long period of time is an age-old method. Often our churches and family relationships are filled with such behaviors. The message is “Either get in line with what I want, or you will suffer.” In reality, such behavior shows we depend on ourselves instead of relying on God. Inflicting pain on others is one of the surest signs that something other than God – an idol – is ruling our hearts. (Jam 4:1-3) These behaviors warn us. The psalmist counsels, “You take no delight in sacrifice. Were I to give a burnt offering, You would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit. A broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.” (Ps 50: 18-19)
The Cure for an Idolatrous Heart: An idol, as we have seen, is any desire that has grown into a demand – something we love, fear, or invest with faith. Love, fear, faith … aren’t these terms of worship? In the Divine Liturgy we hear, “With fear of God, with faith, and love, draw near” at the very moment we are invited to receive the Body and Blood of Christ. In scripture we are commanded to love God, fear God, and have faith in God. (Mt 22:37; Lk 12:4-5; Jn 14:1) Any time we long for something other than God, fear something more than God, or trust in something other than God to make us happy, fulfilled, or secure, we are worshiping false gods. The way out of this bondage and judgment is to look to God Himself, who has provided the cure for our idolatry by sending His Son to free mankind from the bondage of sin and death. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death.” (Rom 8:1-2)
Not only have we been freed from sin and death, but also from the specific day-to-day idols that control us and cause conflict with those around us. Our deliverance, however, does not consist of having all our idols swept away once and for all. Instead, we are called to identify and confess them one by one in the sacrament of confession. To receive forgiveness from God and freedom from our compelling sins, we must acknowledge them and repent. (Acts 3:19) When we do this, we are – by adoption – His children and heirs of the Kingdom. (Gal 4:4-7) This is the Gospel, the good news – forgiveness and eternal life through our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ!
In confession, we examine our hearts before the icon of Christ in a regular, ascetical practice to free ourselves from idols. With the priest’s help, we lay them before the Lord so that He can remove them from our hearts.
To prepare for confession, we do well to use a procedure involving several steps.
1. Prayerfully ask ourselves the questions listed previously to discern the desires that have begun ruling our hearts.
2. Record our discoveries in a journal to identify patterns and steadily go after specific idols.
3. Describe our idols in detail to our spiritual father, spouse, or an accountability partner; ask them to pray for us and confront us with any signs that the idol still controls us.
4. Realize that idols are masters of change and disguise. As soon as we gain victory over a particular sinful desire, our idol is likely to reappear in a related form, with a redirected desire and more subtle tactics.
5. In the case of a particularly difficult idol, we should seek assistance from a licensed professional or such twelve-step groups as Alcoholics Anonymous, Sexaholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, etc.
If someone told you that you had a cancer that would take your life if left untreated, you would spare no effort or expense to pursue the most effective treatment available. Well, we human beings living in this fallen world have a “cancer” of the soul: sin and idolatry. But the cure has been given to us freely on the cross of Christ. This cure is administered through the Word, the Spirit, and the Church. The more rigorously we avail ourselves of these means of grace, the more power we will have to be delivered from the idols that plague us.
Replacing Idol Worship with Worship of the True God: Ultimately, idolatry is what we do when we do not fully satisfy ourselves in God, instead seeking other sources of happiness and security. If we want to eliminate the idols from our hearts and leave no room for them to return, the cure is to pursue whole-heartedly an all-consuming worship of the living God. We must ask God to teach us how to love, fear, and have faith in Him above all else.
Replacing idol worship with worship of the true God involves several steps:
Repent before God. “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.” (Ps 50:19; Isaiah 66:2b) This is true worship. (1 Jn 1:8-10)
Fear God. Stand in awe of the true God when we are tempted to fear another person or the loss of something precious. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of all wisdom.” (Prov 1:7) “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Mt 10:28)
Love God. Desire the One who forgives us instead of looking to other things that cannot save: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your mind” and “Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Mt 22:37, 6:33)
Have faith in God. “It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man.” (Ps 118:8) “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.” (Prov 3:5)
God has designed a wonderful cycle for those who want to worship Him above all things. As you love, praise, give thanks, and delight in God, you will look less to the things of this world for happiness, fulfillment, and security. By God’s grace, the influences of idolatry and conflict in your family will steadily diminish, and you and your family can enjoy the intimacy and security that come only from worshiping the one true God.
Fr. John Mefrige has theological and psychological training, holding both a Master of Divinity from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology and a Master of Science in Marital and Family Therapy from Fuller Theological Seminary. Presently he is pursuing a doctorate in Ethics and Christian Peacemaking. He is founding priest and Proistamenos at St. Ephraim the Syrian Antiochian Orthodox Church in San Antonio, Texas. He serves as chaplain to the San Antonio Police Department and is founder of the Coalition of Orthodox Peacemakers. For additional resources for those dealing with conflict, he recommends The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict by Ken Sande of Peacemaker Ministries.