Don’t settle for less, #08: Don’t avoid all conflict

Don’t avoid all conflict.  Sometimes it’s tempting.  Conflict can be a real pain.  Not to mention, painful.  But there are times when avoiding conflict can be the wrong thing to do.  Of course, there’s also the flip side where conflict seems to be option one.  But that’s for another day.

Don’t avoid all conflict is the eighth in a series of traits for successful people in the secular world that we’re looking at.  However, we’re also seeing how these same traits can be applied to becoming a “successful” Christian.  Someone who not only has an idea what Christianity is really about, but who also lives it.  Finally, who also does the Great Commission and not what Dallas Willard calls the Great Omission.

Don’t settle for less, #08: Don't avoid all conflict is article #8 in the series: Settling for less. Click button to view titles for entire series

don't avoid all conflictWith that in mind, here’s the eighth, from 23 Things Successful People Never Do on bestlifeonline.com:

Like collaboration, avoiding conflict generally falls into the “things you should do” category. But there are definitely limits. If you’re avoiding conflict even in situations where you’ve been seriously wronged, you’ll find that you’ve opened the door to more lines being crossed. If you don’t address something that bothers you, it’s only going to get worse.

In the secular world, this can be so true.  Don’t kick someone when they’re down is a saying that seems to have been completely forgotten about in many circles.  It can seem more like when someone is down, that exactly the time to kick harder and more often.  Go for the kill.  And at some point, if we don’t defend ourselves, it’s time to suffer or leave the situation.  Of course, there are also those times when we try to defend ourselves, like at work, and get fired.  Or crushed, smashed, or flattened like that egg about to be hit with a big wooden hammer.

Don’t avoid all conflict

Christians shouldn’t avoid all conflict either.  That may sound a bit odd when you consider something Jesus said.

An Eye for an Eye

Mt 5:38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 39 But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”

There’s a catch though.  Let’s look at another passage and see if you notice the difference.

Jesus Heals a Paralytic – Matthew

9:2-8 pp — Mk 2:3-12; Lk 5:18-26

Mt 9:1 Jesus stepped into a boat, crossed over and came to his own town. 2 Some men brought to him a paralytic, lying on a mat. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.”

Mt 9:3 At this, some of the teachers of the law said to themselves, “This fellow is blaspheming!”

Mt 9:4 Knowing their thoughts, Jesus said, “Why do you entertain evil thoughts in your hearts? 5 Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? 6 But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins. . . .” Then he said to the paralytic, “Get up, take your mat and go home.” 7 And the man got up and went home. 8 When the crowd saw this, they were filled with awe; and they praised God, who had given such authority to men.

Do you see the difference between the two passages?  Why does one of them result in conflict, while the other avoids conflict?  

Let’s look at what’s happening in each passage

An Eye for an Eye

In this passage, someone’s doing something to us.  There are various scenarios – being hit, having something stolen, and “walking a mile”.  We probably think we know what those all mean, but let’s look at the culture at that time.  

Mt 5:38 “An eye for an eye.”

“You have heard that it was said, “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.”

This is the principle of justice that requires punishment equal in kind to the offense (not greater than the offense, as was frequently given in ancient times). Thus, if someone puts out another person’s eye, one of the offender’s eyes should be put out. The principle is stated in the Book of Exodus as “Thou shalt give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” This saying is often quoted today by those who wish to extract equal revenge for something done against them.

As soon as Jesus speaks the words, You have heard that it was said, we know something’s coming to tell us what we thought we knew isn’t correct.  And that’s exactly what happens.  This eye for an eye thing is going right out the window.

Mt 5:39 “Turn the other cheek.”

“But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”

This means to accept injuries and not to seek revenge. Or, in other words, swallow your pride and walk away, and thus avoid a confrontation that could result in permanent injury or death to someone; to say nothing, in this day, of ensuing lawsuits.

I usually like what I read from this book.  However, this time it feels less than satisfying.  This is too modern.  It’s customs and situations in our time today, not is Jesus’ time.  So let’s look at another source.

Jesus’ first illustration challenges the desire for personal vindication—that is, revenge (5:38). “An eye for an eye” never meant that a person could exact vengeance directly for his or her own eye; it meant that one should take the offender to court where the sentence could be executed legally.

Oops.  Is this for real?  We’re really not supposed to take matters into our own hands?  Well, no, we’re not.  There are three instances in the Old Testament where this “eye for eye” phrase comes up.  I know I try to keep the posts in this series short, but I feel this needs an explanation.  It’s not something we normally think about.  And, given the apparent differences between the Old Covenant and what Jesus teaches under the New Covenant, it’s worth the time and effort to understand it.

Modern readers sometimes cite this example as a case of Jesus disagreeing with the Old Testament. But Jesus is not so much revoking a standard for justice as calling his followers not to make use of it; they qualify justice with mercy because they do not need to avenge their honor.  [1]Keener, C. S. (2009). The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (p. 196). Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

Ah – mercy.  We love to talk about God’s grace and mercy for us.  But what about the times when we should show grace and mercy to others?  Jesus spoke to that issue.  As you go through the passage – remember, the unmerciful servant is us.  Maybe not all the time.  But at some points in our lives, it clearly is us.  Whether we want to admit it or not – that’s another issue.

The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant

Mt 18:21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?”

Peter’s trying to find out where the line is.  Jesus tells us to forgive – but Peter, like us, is trying to find out how many times.  At some point, surely, we don’t have to forgive.  Then we can do something else.  Something not forgiving.

Mt 18:22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

No, we’re really not released from forgiving after 77 times.  Or seventy times seven if that’s what your translation says, which would be 490 times.  Imagine actually keeping track.  Sounds a lot like a Pharisee to the nth degree – counting up to 490 times and then feeling free to be unforgiving.

So Jesus goes into the parable, to let us know that God doesn’t keep track of the number of times He forgives us.  And that’s a really good thing. 

Mt 18:23 “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. 25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. 

Jesus lets us know that the penalty for what was done is severe.  Something we, like this man, can never pay.

Mt 18:26 “The servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.

The master, God in this parable, forgives the man.

But then look at what the man does next.  And while you’re at it, try to remember the times we’ve all done something very much like it. 

Mt 18:28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.

Mt 18:29 “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’

Mt 18:30 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened.

Of course, in our case, the one who’s going to accuse us is Satan.  And then there’s the reality that God already knows what we did anyway.

Given the things we’ve all done, we have to know this isn’t going to end well.    

Mt 18:32 “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34 In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

Of course, it ends badly for the wicked servant.  And again – whenever we refuse to forgive or have mercy on someone, that wicked servant is the person we see when we look in the mirror.

Mt 18:35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”

This isn’t the first, or the only time Jesus made a statement like this.  You may or may not remember, but at the end of the passage from which we get The Lord’s Prayer, Jesus said:

Mt 614 “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”

If you’re interested, I have a series on The Lord’s Prayer, from the point of view of what we’re actually praying for when we ask for God’s Kingdom to come to earth now – as in the Second Coming. 

What did we learn from an eye for an eye?

With those examples, we can clearly see that justice was to be determined by the court.  Now, consider the passage we’re looking at where Jesus tells us something’s up with our interpretation of this “eye for an eye” concept.

Question – who’s in charge in a court?  The judge, of course.  And for Christians, who is our Judge?  Obviously, that’s Jesus.  So now, as the One in charge of the court, Jesus is telling not telling us that the Old Covenant is wrong.  Rather, Jesus is telling us that He is now the Judge, and this is how Judge Jesus wants us to act. 

Mt 5:41 “Go the extra mile.”

“If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.”

The reference here is to an ancient Persian custom. The Persians introduced the use of regular couriers to carry letters or news. The king’s courier had absolute command of all help that was necessary in the performance of his task. He could press horses into service, and compel the owners to accompany him if he desired. To refuse compliance with his demands was an unpardonable offense against the king. There was also a practice in Roman-occupied territory that any Roman soldier could require a citizen to carry his equipment, cloak, or other burdens for one mile. This may have been the practice that the Lord was specifically referring to when He instructs His followers to unselfishly “go the extra mile” as testimony to the generosity of the Christian spirit. The expression has come to mean to help someone beyond what is required or expected of you.  [2]Freeman, J. M., & Chadwick, H. J. (1998). Manners & customs of the Bible (pp. 411–412). North Brunswick, NJ: Bridge-Logos Publishers.

Maybe this sounds like too big deal out of this to some people today.  Carry some clothes for a mile.  Well, OK – maybe it is a big deal when you absolutely hate the person making you carry something.  And when that person is oppressing you.  But then, we’re not supposed to hate them.

So is walking a mile a big deal?  Maybe 15 to 20 minutes of our time – times two if we have to get back to where we were.  How much can a Roman soldier’s stuff weigh?  Actually, it weighed quite a bit.  Usually between 66 and 100 pounds.  It just got a whole lot harder to tolerate. 

And Jesus is telling us to go twice as far.  It’s not 15 to 20 minutes anymore.  It’s probably more like hours with all that weight and double the distance.  And long before going that distance, you’ll be totally exhausted.  And Jesus wants us to love the person and willingly go double the distance.

So now our Judge – our Mentor – our Lord and Savior – is telling us not only to have mercy, but to go beyond the simplest mercy possible.  Go the extra mile.

Jesus Heals a Paralytic

Now let’s look at what happened in the other passage.  Jesus doesn’t avoid conflict.  In fact, He brings conflict out into the open, when it was initially kept within the hearts of some of the teachers of the law.

Knowing their thoughts, Jesus said, “Why do you entertain evil thoughts in your hearts?

The question is, why did Jesus open up this conflict?  It was because of what the teachers of the law were thinking.  At this, some of the teachers of the law said to themselves, “This fellow is blaspheming!”

Blasphemy.  But blasphemy against who?  Or is that whom?  Either way – who’s the target of this alleged blasphemy?  The charge against Jesus was blasphemy against God.

9:3 The charge of blasphemy would have been correct if Jesus had not been the Son of God. Blasphemes: A blasphemy is a verbal affront to God’s majesty and the penalty for such was death by stoning (Lev. 24:15, 16).  [3]Hayford, J. W. (Ed.). (1997). Spirit filled life study Bible (electronic ed., Mt 9:3). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.

When to avoid conflict – or not — the ultimate difference:

A backhanded blow to the right cheek did not imply shattered teeth (“tooth for tooth” was a separate statement); it was an insult, the severest public affront to a person’s dignity (Job 16:10; Lam 3:30; m. B. Qam. 8:6; Plut. Platonic Questions 9.4, Mor. 1010F).112 God’s prophets had sometimes suffered such ill-treatment (1 Kings 22:24; 2 Chron 18:23; Is 50:6; Jeremias 1963: 29), as Jesus would himself (26:67; cf. Mic 5:1). Yet though this was more an affront to honor, a challenge, than a physical injury, ancient Near Eastern societies typically provided legal recourse for this offense within the lex talionis regulations (e.g., Hammurabi 202–6; cf. Gaius Inst. 3.220).

In the case of an offense to one’s personal dignity, Jesus not only warns the offended disciple not to retaliate, but suggests that the disciple indulge the offender further. By freely offering one’s other cheek, one demonstrates that one does not value human honor. In a sense, this could constitute a form of resistance by showing contempt for the value of the insulter’s (and perhaps the onlookers’) opinions (Sall. Invective against Marcus Tullius 1; Diog. Laert. 6.2.58; Diogenes Ep. 20). Thus philosophers sometimes declared that the best vengeance on one’s opponents was to avoid behaving foolishly as they did (Marc. Aur. 6.6). Even in a society obsessed with honor and shame (e.g., Sir 1:30), a disciple must be so secure in his or her status before God that he or she can dispense with human honor. Such a person need not avenge lost honor because this person seeks God’s honor rather than his or her own (5:16; 6:1–18). If their lives are forfeit when they begin to follow Jesus (16:24–27), they have no honor of their own to lose.  [4]Keener, C. S. (2009). The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (pp. 197–198). Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

Conclusion – Don’t avoid all conflict

You may remember, the only times in the Bible when Jesus got upset or angry was when someone did something against the Father.  Never for Himself.  That’s the example Jesus wants us to follow.  

It’s not a case of following the Old Covenant Law.  As Jesus said, it was about mercy, not sacrifice.  Rather than continue sinning and making endless sacrifices for each and every sin – over and over – we should “just” not sin.  Apparently that includes not showing mercy, not forgiving and other “nots” that we probably think we don’t really need to do. 

Some call that sins of omission.  The key thing though – it’s still sin.  Sin for which we can be forgiven.  Not that it’s possible to not sin, but we should become more and more Christ-like.  With the power of the Holy Spirit, we can actually sin less.  

When we follow the example of Jesus, follow what He taught, and live with the power of the Holy Spirit, that is possible.  It’s also possible to have the wisdom from God to know when to avoid conflict, and when something needs to be confronted.  Further, with the power and wisdom of the Holy Spirit, reminders and knowledge of what Jesus taught, we will also know how to approach that conflict in a Godly way.

Think about it.  If successful people in the secular world can master conflict – when to avoid it and when to confront it, how much more can we do as Christians? 

So the bottom line is that sometimes, conflict is necessary.  But with Jesus’ life as an example, with His teachings to go by, and from what Paul and others wrote, most of the time conflict probably isn’t necessary.  Especially when it’s between Christians.  


Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay


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