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Conflicts in Life
The following quotations are from Charles R. Swindoll’s book, “Paul---A Man of Grace and Grit,” published in 2002.
Paul and Barnabas stayed on in Antioch, teaching and preaching the Word of God. But they weren’t alone. There were a number of teachers and preachers at that time in Antioch.
After a few days of this, Paul said to Barnabas, “Let’s go back and visit all our friends in each of the towns where we preached the Word of God. Let’s see how they’re doing.”
Barnabas wanted to take John along, the John nicknamed Mark.
But Paul wouldn’t have him; he wasn’t about to take along a quitter who, as soon as the going got tough, had jumped ship on them in Pamphylia. Tempers flared, and they ended up going their separate ways: Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus; Paul chose Silas and, offered up by their friends to the grace of the Master, went to Syria and Cilicia to build up muscle and sinew in those congregations.(Acts 15:35—41 NASB)
. . . . . .
RAW TRUTH FOR REAL LIFE
One of the characteristics I find most attractive about the Bible is its raw realism. When God paints portraits of His servants in the Scriptures, He resists airbrushing away all the warts and blemishes.
Moses was a murderer. David had adultery and hypocrisy on his record. Jonah was a proud and stubborn prophet, who nearly missed an opportunity of a lifetime because of his ugly bigotry. Jacob had deceitful ways. Abraham lied, more than once. Peter waffled when the pressure was on. Even John the Baptist struggled with doubt. So did Thomas.
So we shouldn’t be shocked that Paul and Barnabas had their conflict. When the curtain closes at the end of Acts chapter 15, the two are parting company. Let’s take a ringside seat for this ancient middleweight match.
MULTIPLYING THROUGH DIVISION
The powerhouse ministry team of Paul and Barnabas is almost without rival in Scripture. But to cut to the chase and give you some idea of the significance of their disagreement, this contention caused such a rift in their relationship, the two permanently separated. Their paths never crossed again.
Paul and Barnabas finished the first journey and, no doubt, were still caught up in the excitement of it all. They had co-founded numerous churches and, therefore, became known throughout Asia Minor and points beyond for their remarkable giftedness and ministry savvy. During a lengthy rest-and-recovery period in Antioch, they were summoned to Jerusalem to help settle a debate over circumcision. Acts 15 records the issues and events surrounding the Jerusalem Council, the meeting of Jewish Christian leaders to resolve the matter, once and for all, and the official decision on what the message to the Gentiles should be.
Almost the entire chapter is devoted to the hammering out of this emotionally charged theological debate. Finally, after careful consideration of the Scriptures and calm counsel from Peter, James, Silas, and Paul, the gavel came down. Gentiles would not be required to be circumcised. Grace abounded again.
Unfortunately, the next argument recorded in the same chapter, didn’t end so amiably. As you read Luke’s account, allow your imagination to picture the scene:
But Paul and Barnabas stayed in Antioch, teaching and preaching with many others also, the word of the Lord. And after some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us return and visit the brethren in every city in which we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are.” And Barnabas was desirous of taking John, called Mark, along with them also. But Paul kept insisting that they should not take him along who had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. And there arose such a sharp disagreement that they separated one from the other. (Acts 15:35—39a NASB)
They remained a while longer in Antioch, following the Council session in Jerusalem. While in that great missions hub, they taught and preached the word of the Lord (15:35). What kind of men were these? Men of genuine character and true godliness, the kind you and I would stand in line to spend an evening with. Who would ever expect such a rift would fracture the time-tested friendship of Paul and Barnabas?
It all began with a visionary idea. Paul suggested they return to the places they had visited on their initial journey. It was a pastoral visit he had in mind—--two shepherds making the rounds to visit the sheep.
Barnabas responded, “Great thought, let’s do it, and let’s take John Mark with us as we go the second time.”
“No, John Mark won’t be going.”
“Oh, yes, he will,” Barnabas shot back.
“Oh, no, he won’t, absolutely not!” Paul retorted.
And on it went. The longer they argued, the more the heat intensified in their verbal debate. Neither party gave ground. Finally, the resolution was to divide company. They had irreconcilable differences. (I wish I had a ten-dollar bill for every time I have heard that excuse!)
The idea of going on the trip wasn’t the problem. Both of them wanted to go. What followed the idea created the rift. In the argument that arose, the strong-hearted missionaries laid themselves bare, warts and all. In some ways, their argument brings me a measure of relief.
G. Campbell Morgan writes of this encounter, “I am greatly comforted whenever I read this. I’m thankful for the revelation of the humanity of these men. If I had never read that Paul and Barnabas had a contention, I should have been afraid. These men were not angels, they were men.”
The venerable expositor is correct. These were good men. Godly men. But it is essential to remember they weren’t perfect men. It must have hit Paul across the chin to think Barnabas would include a proven defector. And Barnabas must have been deeply disappointed that Paul (of all people!) didn’t have enough grace to forgive John and allow him to travel with them. Dr. Bob Cook’s words are especially fitting here: “God reserves the right to use people who disagree with me.”
We’ve made great progress in life when we realize that there are others whom, though they don’t embrace our convictions, God still chooses to use.
FRESH PERSPECTIVE ON STRONG DISAGREEMENTS
I pause here to share three important elements that apply to strong disagreements. Maybe you’ll never have another strong disagreement (if that’s true, you need to be sainted!), but if you do, these principles might help you sort through the battle so that no one gets mortally wounded.
First, in every disagreement, there is one issue but several viewpoints. Take this argument going on between these two friends; there is an issue at stake. It’s objective and clearly stated. Firm principles surround the issue. The viewpoints, on the other hand, are more subjective because they involve personalities. You look at it one way and your wife (or husband) looks at it another. You view the situation from one perspective, and your son or daughter sees it quite differently. Viewpoints are subjective. The way we look at it has a lot to do with how we’re put together. That’s where differing personalities play a role.
Keeping those few factors in mind will help regulate the heat and avoid a complete meltdown from occurring. Let me offer a simple definition: A disagreement is a conflict that involves an issue seen from opposing points of view.
“This is the issue, this is how I see it,” says Paul. “I agree that’s the issue, but here’s how I see it,” says Barnabas. That leads to the next observation.
Second, in disagreements, each side has validity. Both sides have strengths. Sure, every argument has its weaknesses, but both sides have their strengths. Neither side is what I would call a “slam-dunk.” Unless, of course, you’re doing the dunking! The point is, there are strengths on both sides of most legitimate disagreements.
Third, in heated disagreements, someone usually gets hurt. The more intense the heat, the deeper the wounds. Regardless of the level of maturity you’ve reached in your walk with Christ, you are not immune to hurt. Sharp words strike like shrapnel, and they get imbedded in the brain. That’s especially true when character assassination occurs. Someone calls you an insulting name or attacks your character. The result is the inflicting of a wound that’s slow to heal. Sometimes, regrettably, it never heals.
A friend of mine, who is in his late seventies, still recalls when his father-in-law belittled him in front of the entire family following a Thanks giving meal. Over some silly disagreement, the patriarch snorted, “You know, I never had much use for you, anyway.” Though the words hit him decades ago, the wound still breaks open and bleeds as if it happened yesterday. The words and tone of that father-in-law’s verbal cut pierced permanently into my friend’s soul.
I give you those three observations, not because they’re original or insightful, but because I believe they are worth remembering. That is especially true as we look more closely at this verbal missionary brawl.
A NEUTRAL LOOK AT A NASTY SCENE
For the next few pages, I’m going to ask you to sit behind the bench, and in a sense, play the judge. We want to work hard at being neutral because we respect both Paul and Barnabas, not only for the kind of men they are, but on account of their remarkable achievements. Some of us are much more like Barnabas than we are like Paul. Others of us think like Paul more than like Barnabas. And so we must first get down to the issue at hand.
Allow me to present it in the form of a question: Should a person who once walked away from a serious responsibility be given a second chance? Worded another way, Should someone who leaves people in the lurch later be allowed to go on a similar mission? That’s the primary issue.
Barnabas says, “Yes, by all means.” Paul answers, “No, absolutely not.” Obviously, a line is drawn in the sand. The men possess opposing points of view. Barnabas was interested in building the character of John Mark. He was concerned about the man. Luke writes, “Barnabas was desirous of taking John, called Mark, along with them also” (15:37). That word “desirous” appears in the Greek in the imperfect tense, meaning “to will something forcefully.” Barnabas not only willed it, the text suggests he may have even demanded it. “The young man is going. He has every right to take the trip with us. Yes, he failed. Admittedly, he walked away. No one’s denying it. But, Paul, nobody’s perfect. He was young and inexperienced then. And remember, the mission got accomplished. He walked away, but we still made it. His leaving, I agree, made it harder, but we made it. He not only needs our encouragement he could also benefit from our endorsement. What else are mentors for, if not to give encouragement and affirmation to the weak?”
If you’ve been blessed by the ministry of a mentor, you appreciate their willingness to stand beside you, back when the chips were down. They were there. Barnabas said, “This is our opportunity.” Don’t forget, they were cousins (Colossians 4:10). Blood always runs thicker than water. Barnabas was bound and determined to include John Mark on the mission.
Paul’s reaction was far different but no less passionate. Luke used the imperfect tense again here to say that Paul “kept on insisting” they should not take him along. Can’t you just hear Paul?
“He has proven himself a quitter. Faithfulness is job one in God’s eyes and in mine as well.” Remember Barnabas was concerned about the man. Paul was protecting the mission. Barnabas looked to the future. Paul wasn’t over the past.
For Paul the issue boiled down to a lack of dependability. They’d need strength and stability, someone with a proven track record they could count on when life became unpredictable. Paul knew how hard the journey was the first time around. He could only imagine the increased difficulties they would encounter on the next arduous trek. The opposition will have had time to regroup. The obstacles would be even greater. This next trip offered no time for wimps or quitters!
If they were going to lean on any man and rely on him to be there when they needed him, Paul wanted someone who could go the distance. In his eyes, John Mark definitely was not that man.
But wasn’t Paul the preacher of grace? Paul, himself, was once a persecutor. Surely he appreciated the opportunity of a second chance.
It’s tough, isn’t it? There was no quick-and-easy solution. Be careful. You may be feeling overly generous at this point. I mean, what was Paul thinking? Give the kid a break!
Before you get too magnanimous, allow me to ask you a few of questions: Would you loan money to a person who didn’t pay off the first amount he borrowed from you? Or would you loan your car again to some kid in the youth group who wrecked it the first time around? Or would you let your sister’s son use your condo in Vail, if he trashed the place on spring break last year? Funny how perspective changes, isn’t it? Now you feel the tension. That’s why such a “sharp disagreement” arose between those two men.
Paul could have quoted Proverbs 25: “Like a bad tooth and an unsteady foot is confidence in a faithless man in time of trouble.” That fits, doesn’t it? Literally, “Putting your trust in an unreliable man is like chewing on a broken tooth or trying to run on a sprained foot.” Ever done that? You don’t get very far. Barnabas, on the other hand, could have quoted from David’s psalm: “Bless the Lord, 0 my soul, and all that is within me, bless His holy name. Who pardons all your iniquities; Who heals all your diseases; Who redeems your life from the pit; Who crowns you with lovingkindness and compassion” (103:1, 3—4). (Don’t scripture verses come in handy when you need to buttress your side of the argument? You’re smiling.)
When my wife and I have an argument (every decade or so!) I like to point her to verses of scripture that help her see my point of view. Then I have to get used to sleeping on the patio for a while until she finally lets me back in the house.
No doubt about it, God offers second chances. But He also holds us accountable. He’s a God of grace, but He also represents justice.
With these two strong-willed bulldogs there was no compromise. Their convictions would not be softened, so their differences could not be eliminated.
This was nothing short of a heated, ugly, all-out clash of viewpoints. A “sharp disagreement.” Paroxusmos is the Greek word Luke used. Paroxuno means “to sharpen,” as you would the blade of a knife. I suggest you could cut the tension with a knife. We’re talking one intense quarrel. They spoke, they stared, neither blinked. It ultimately led to separation—--a permanent breakup of the dream team from Antioch. You never read again of the companionship of Paul with his longtime friend, Barnabas.
John Pollock writes these wise words: “There must have been serious wrong in the situation which made the lovable, even-tempered Barnabas use angry words, and Paul had far to go before he could write, ‘Love is patient and kind. . . Love does not insist on its own way.”
Those words are right on target. I don’t like having this scene in the Bible anymore than you do. But it’s here, in all its raw, naked emotion. I’d like to take it out, but I can’t. I can’t do that any more than I can erase the argument you’ve had and the pain it caused you and your loved ones. You may still hold the anger. Perhaps you continue to harbor bitter grudges.
I know Christians who refuse to talk to each other because of their differences. Christians! I suppose they’ve decided to wait for heaven to free them from all those sinful hang-ups. Give me a break. Is that any way to live? Can you imagine the resentment and the bitterness that then spreads to children and grandchildren? It’s time all of us grow up in grace!
Renowned New Testament scholar A.T. Robertson writes insightfully, “No one can rightly blame Barnabas for giving his cousin John Mark a second chance nor Paul for fearing to risk him again. One’s judgment may go with Paul, but one’s heart goes with Barnabas.”
That’s about where we have to leave it.
We need a solution. This story aches for resolve.
MULTIPLICATION BY DIVISION
The story ends in a most remarkable way. Luke tells us that, “Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus. But Paul chose Silas and departed, being committed by the brethren to the grace of the Lord. And he was traveling through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches” (15:39—41). Don’t miss something extremely significant here. God multiplied by dividing. Only He can do that. Check Map One. Barnabas and Mark sail southwest, and Paul and Silas travel north on foot. Two teams, armed with the Gospel, pressed on. The latter was commended to God’s grace by His people. I find that extremely encouraging. Only God can take something that seemed so final, so much like a dead end, and transform it into a powerful force for good. That’s a lesson we all need to learn. But let’s not stop with that one. . .
LINGERING LESSONS FROM YEARS OF EXPERIENCE
Let’s be painfully candid here. I’ve had my own share of arguments, and you’ve had yours. I’ve had some that were never reconciled. Thankfully, most ended in a renewed friendship. I’ve learned through the years a few strategies that have proven effective in facing difficult disagreements. I want to give them to you as I bring this chapter to a close. The next time you’re engaged in a heated conflict, you’ll want to remember these four lessons that have taken me many years to learn.
1. When in a disagreement, work hard to see the other point of view. That begins with listening. Include in the formula three qualities that don’t come easily: honesty, objectivity and humility. That’s the full package for handling conflict God’s way. None of that comes naturally. They come to full bloom as products of the Spirit-filled life.
In Paul’s own words, “Do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4) That’s the ticket. It’s hard work to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. But that is a major and essential route to reconciliation.
2. When both sides have validity, seek a wise compromise. For those who were reared as I was, even the thought of compromise makes you bristle. If you’ve got backbone, you don’t give in. You stand firm, regardless. I appreciate an individual with backbone--—true grit. But one who never bends, one who refuses to negotiate toward resolution? Hardly. I admire more someone who willingly and graciously seeks a suitable solution to disagreement, without in any way compromising biblical principles.
I wonder why our men from Antioch didn’t do just that? Paul or Barnabas could have offered a reasonable compromise. Giving in would not have meant heresy. There was no hard-and-fast doctrinal issue at stake. Paul might have said, “We’ll tell him he’s on a temporary period of probation; if he doesn’t stay strong and stable during the early months, we’ll send him back home.”
Or Barnabas could have conceded, “We definitely need faithful workers on our team; let’s give Mark a minor assignment here in Antioch to see if he fulfills the responsibilities. Meanwhile we’ll go ahead on our journey. If he measures up, we’ll send for him and he can join us later on.”
They could have agreed on a contingent plan. “Let’s take Mark and a few others also. If Mark defects again, we’ll have the others to fall back on.” Those would have been appropriate compromises.
Diplomacy solves disagreements at the table, not on the battlefield. My dad used to say, “Be careful. You have two fists and one mouth.” We tend first to swing our fists. Calm, intelligent people don’t go there; they use their mouths. As usual, my dad was right. Appropriate compromises alleviate a lot of needless pain.
The words of David Augsburger bear repeating: “Conflict is natural, and everyone should be willing to come part way in an attempt to resolve things. A willingness to give a little will lead to a working solution which is satisfactory to everyone.
“Compromise is a gift to human relationships. We move forward on the basis of thoughtful, careful consensus and compromise in most decisions in conflict. But it calls for at least a partial sacrifice of deeply held views and goals which may cost all of us the loss of the best to reach the good of agreement.”
3. When the conflict persists, care enough to work it through rather than walk out. Slamming a phone down in the middle of a conversation or breaking through the screen on the front door as you stomp into the street solves nothing. Nor does a lengthy, manipulative silent treatment benefit either party. Or bolting from a marriage. Or quitting your job in a huff. That’s not how to handle disagreements. Work it through. Stay at it. It’s some of the hardest work you’ll do, but it’s also the most rewarding.
4. When it cannot be resolved, graciously agree to disagree without becoming disagreeable. I think Paul and Barnabas did that. Paul never takes a shot at Barnabas when he later wrote to the churches they had planted. In all of his letters you’ll not find one slam against his former companion. And there’s no evidence of Barnabas licking his wounds either.
Can I add three more words of advice? Get over it! It’s funny, but growing up and going through school in Texas, I didn’t know the South lost until I was in the eighth grade! I thought the South ran out of time and ammunition and resources. Finally, a reliable American history teacher set me straight. When I heard the truth I got over it.
I’m amazed at how so many people brood over past injustices. They may bleed from a wound that was suffered way back in 1977. Or they’ll pull the scabs off a marriage that ended in 1982.
Whatever it is that holds them in its grip, they’ve never gotten over it. As we’ve learned, Paul and Barnabas didn’t serve together again. But it all worked out in the end. They got over it.
Honestly, not all separations lead to bad endings. Some of the greatest seminaries were birthed from a crucible of conflict. Some significant churches started as a result of an ugly split. It’s never too early to start moving on.
Phillip Melanchthon, that persuasive tempering force in Martin Luther’s life, put it best in these few words: “In essentials unity. In non-essentials liberty. In all things charity.”
A FINAL THOUGHT
“Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they’re doing.” Jesus managed to utter those penetrating words through bleeding, cracked lips, swollen from the noonday sun. Impaled on that cruel, Roman cross, He interceded on behalf of His enemies. What a magnificent model of forgiveness!
He paid the penalty in full for the sins of the world, the just for the unjust. As a result of His sacrificial death, reconciliation was made between man and God. He’s our model for correctly resolving disputes. Ultimately, it’s a matter of forgiveness.
“Father, forgive them. .”
What a way to live!
Before going on to the next chapter, you may have some honest reflecting to do. I invite you to revisit your own unhealed wounded past. It may date back many years, it may bring to mind the face of a parent or a child or a friend, a former mate, a fellow employee, a boss, a coach, a pastor, or a sibling. They’ve wounded you. The pain has lingered all these years. You can’t even hear their name or see a photograph without all the anger and mistrust flooding your soul like a river overtaking its banks.
My friend, it’s time to move on. Seek a solution. Get help from someone else, if you must. But get on with it. Whatever it takes to be free, do that.
Right now, I invite you to stand all alone at the foot of the Cross, look up to Him, and deliberately release it all. See Him hanging there, bleeding and dying, and embrace His forgiveness, for you and for your enemy. By forgiving, you’re not condoning their sin. You’re simply leaving that to God. That’s His turf, not yours. That’s grace. And you can offer it to others because you don’t deserve it either.
Got a little homework to do? Get started on it before it gets too late and you lose your way home. (181, 183-198)
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