Fighting Fair

Third in the series called Making Good Connections.
Delivered February 15, 2004 by Rev. John Schmidt.

Theme: Learning to fight fairly is a critical relational skill.

Sermon Text:
Ephesians 4:25-32

Oh actually, I would like now to kind of just go into, before I read the Word I would just like to talk a little bit about sports. I am not that much of a sports fan, but I do watch, football in particular, a little bit of baseball and basketball and only occasionally hockey. Hockey is not one of my favorite sports. Being from the south you know, we don’t see ice, much less we now have a hockey team down in Louisiana, but for years I didn’t know much about it, but I do watch some of the games, and in my not very sophisticated opinion, I see two types of hockey players. The first are the finesse players. They look like they are going to collide with somebody and at the last minute they turn on their skates and slip around them and go past the defense and try to make the play. There is a lot of finesse players in hockey. But really they are the smaller group. There is a larger group, which are the flatteners. These are the people who far from trying to avoid a collision, go out of their way to have a collision, and they are constantly trying to push people into the sides of the rink or knock them down. And in hockey you see the finesse players always trying to avoid the flatteners.

Well, relationships usually begin with everybody being a finesse player. You are in those early stages of a friendship and you know you notice things that aggravate you a little bit, or they are not quite perfect and all. But you avoid these things, and you skirt around them and make the best out of everything. And then after a while the relationship goes on and it deepens and then there are some things that just don’t go away, and avoiding things doesn’t work anymore. And at that time a lot of us will switch our strategies and instead of being the finesse people avoiding conflict, we become flatteners and then our anger rises and we try to eliminate or push down the opposition. Neither of these techniques works well in relationships. You can’t avoid everything and you can’t flatten everybody when you are in conflict.

Avoiding the issues won’t work in an intimate relationship. You can avoid a few things, but every time you avoid an issue it’s like planting a mine in a field. You have one issue that you don’t deal with that bothers you and bothers them and you don’t talk about it and you avoid it, you plant that mine and that’s fine. There is only one mine. There is this big field, let’s just walk around it. Then a little later you plant another one. So now there is two, but you know we are smart people and we can figure out that there are two here. But in a little while there is maybe three, or four or five and if the relationship goes on long enough soon you have maybe 60, 80, 100 mines in this field and you start to lose the map on how to go through it. And one day you don’t avoid the issue and you trip off one of the mines. And you have been carrying this around so long that it explodes, but unfortunately you’ve got a field full of mines, and the whole thing explodes. Avoiding issues doesn’t work. Inevitably, if we avoid these issues that stand between us, whether it be in a friendship, in a church relationship, in a marriage or a parental/child relationship it doesn’t matter. If we avoid these relationships, inevitably affection, intimacy, closeness and understanding, all of these things suffer.

But flattening people doesn’t work either. Avoiding doesn’t work and flattening doesn’t work. Flatteners are those people who use their anger to intimidate the other person. Maybe they use their physical size and in some cases there is even a danger of physical abuse. More often it’s a matter of words where people use words to push down other people. Harsh words. They belittle, they insult, and they accuse. Use every ugly word at their disposal in order to win and this too; destroy relationships, intimacy, affection, closeness and understanding. All of these things suffer. So we can’t avoid it all. We can’t knock people down. Is there a solution? What do people like us do when we have problems that won’t go away? How do we deal with them in such a way that it doesn’t overwhelm our relationship and that dealing with the problems doesn’t hurt the relationship even more? I think there is an answer. I think there are answers to this and it’s in learning how to fight fair.

I would like to read to you know from Ephesians 4, beginning at verse 25.

“Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one body. ” In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold. He, who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need. Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ, God forgave you.”

Let’s pray. Lord, we thank you for your Word and we pray that you will open our eyes up to whatever in it we need to hear, what we need to see, what we need to obey. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

In this letter of Ephesians, Paul talks in the first few chapters about the incredible things God has done in Jesus Christ. He uses the word lavish in the first part of the book. God has lavished things on us. He has lavished forgiveness on us. He has done something decisive to unite parties like the Jews and the non-Jews into one body. He is reconciling all of creation to himself. He is doing something universal in scope, and we are a part of that as the church. Then in chapter four Paul begins with these words. “As a prisoner for the Lord then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling that you have received.” He talks in the early chapters about how incredible this calling is, that God has drawn us into and now he is saying that we’ve not got to live in a way that honors that. We are already something special. Now live like you are somebody special. Become who you already are is another way of thinking about it.

Today’s passage deals with a number of things we ought to do, right next to things that we shouldn’t do. Paul puts them side by side giving some contrast and gives us a direction about what it means to live in a way worthy of the calling that God has given us. Now, the first thing that you need to note about this passage that we read today is that Paul assumes that there is going to be tensions in relationships, even in Christian relationships. God is doing this universal work of drawing all things to himself, of reconciling creation, breaking down the walls of hostility, but it’s a work in progress, and so that means that we will have conflict. So we have to put our idealism away for a moment. A part of us that says, you know if everybody would just pray in the morning, we wouldn’t have these conflicts. There is also a part of us that might feel like well if we just ignore this problem for a little while then everybody will grow up and then the problem will disappear. ‘No’ in both cases. An unfortunate reality is, that even in the church, even among mature people, inside or outside the church, conflict is a reality. It’s not something we can deal with by avoiding it, because it will still be there and maturity is built in our lives as we learn how to fight fairly. So Paul gives instructions here, and I would like to focus in on the fact that he gives some instructions here about dealing with anger.

Anger is a big issue for most of us. America is becoming a country filled with angry, short-tempered people. There is road rage. Airplane rage. Going postal. There are parents beating up parents at sporting events. We are part of a culture that invented the Jerry Springer show. Anger is right there in our culture. According to a recent USA Today poll, more than 75% of Americans believe that angry behavior has increased in places like airports and highways. Flight attendants and pilots report dramatic increases in problem passengers. For example, in 1997 in all of the country on all of the airlines there were only 66 incidents of angry people that were reported. In 1999, not even three years later, there were 534 incidents and its only climbing. We are surrounded by angry people and we are often angry ourselves, and so it’s in this kind of pressurized situation that Paul says that we are to live a life worthy of the calling that we have received, or as he says in chapter five, the first verse, “the imitators of God live like God.” In verse 26 Paul says, “In your anger, do not sin.” That means that it is possible to be mad at someone or something and not sin. Jesus was angry.

It’s a false notion that we have sometimes that it is wrong to have strong feelings about something or to express those feelings, but that’s not true. It’s okay to have those strong feelings. It’s a matter of how we express them that determines whether it is sin or not. We are not supposed to sin when we are angry, but how? How do we avoid it? Paul goes on here by telling us, “Don’t let the sun go down while you are still angry.” The first thing he tells us is that we can’t harbor anger. If we want to avoid sin while we are angry, then stop harboring anger. Anger is like coffee. It becomes lethal if you let it simmer overnight. Anger is a serious thing and if we constantly, night after night, day after day mull on the injustices and hurts, then things become bigger and bigger. The stronger the anger gets and more likely it is that our response is going to be something hurtful.

Debbie and I held to this and still hold to this literally in our relationship, that we would not go to bed without resolving the issues as well as we could so we could lay aside our anger. It was a very eventful first few years of our marriage. There were many nights that we didn’t get to bed until 2:00 or 2:30 and might have even made it to 3:00 on some occasions. It’s fascinating how at 2:30 something doesn’t seem nearly as important as it did at 9:00 when you started arguing, but we just resolved that these were things that were important enough to deal with and by building those habits early in our relationship, we don’t have that stamina to argue until 2:30 anymore, but the need isn’t there either because you grow. It’s important not to harbor anger. Now not all issues can be dealt with in one night. Some things are going to be unresolved, but if we can’t resolve it in a day, we still have a responsibility here to put the feelings aside a bit, to lay a foundation that allows a positive effort to be made at solving it in the future. So if day after day you find yourself slamming doors and drawers when nobody is around and running these conversations through you head constantly about what you would like to say to somebody, chances are you are losing this battle about harboring anger. And there is no easy solution to that. Certainly not one that I can talk about in just a few minutes of a sermon, but the important thing here is that you need to deal with that and prayer is a first step, but probably not the only step in trying to deal with that anger.

The second thing that Paul says here is that don’t give the devil a foothold. Anger is one of the easiest ways to give Satan a place to start destroying a relationship. Bringing us into community, whether it be a community of friends or a community of marriage or the community of the church, bringing people into community, particularly the community of the church is something that God delights in, and that’s part of the work of the Holy Spirit. And there is little that Satan opposes more, probably the only thing that Satan opposes more than opposing our being drawn together is us being drawn to God. That’s his first battle, but he also opposes us being in good relationships with one another. The Greek word used 21 times in the New Testament for Satan is the word Diablos, which is the word that we use here for devil. It means to throw apart, to divide, to set against each other, to accuse. To make us one is the work of the Holy Spirit. To divide us and destroy is satanic work and anger is a critical thing that gives him a great chance to get a foothold in a relationship.

So how do we take the foothold away? Well there is a lot of things that we can do and they are very practical things. They are not particularly spiritual things, but they are important things about keeping that foothold from being taken. Here are a few suggestions. When there is a conflict or an issue of disagreement, say something. Say something. Don’t wait for the perfect opportunity. There are some people who have been waiting for years for the perfect opportunity to bring up this issue of disagreement and they are going to bed every night angry, because it is unresolved. Say something.

The second thing is be honest. You are in a car and the driver says, “Okay, let’s go to a Italian restaurant tonight” and you respond, “Isn’t that restaurant kind of far”. No. You are saying that because you don’t want to go to an Italian restaurant, but you are not saying that. You’re saying, isn’t it a little far. And so the driver says, “Oh, your right. There are this one, this one and this one that are closer.” What you have just done is you are still going to an Italian restaurant, but you are not even going to the best one anymore. The other person hasn’t a clue that they haven’t made a wonderful, sensitive decision on your part and you are still saying, not another Italian dish. Be honest. It’s hard, but it’s important.

The other thing is, use “I” messages and what I mean by that sentence is that it start with “I” and state your own feeling and doesn’t accuse the other person. For example, “I felt hurt when you didn’t call me back like you said you would.” That’s an I statement. It takes responsibility for your feelings, and it specifically focuses in on the action that caused your feelings to be hurt. This is much better than, “you never call, you always forget,” which is an accusation. So use an I statement. Let me give you another example. Flip it over. “You are so self-centered.” Have you ever been tempted to say that? I won’t make you raise the hands like with the kids, but again, what is it that makes you feel that way? “When you come in like this late, it makes me feel like you don’t care about my plans.” Use I statements.

Here’s another one. Use “I want” statements. This gives a positive suggestion for a solution. For example, “I get embarrassed at parties because you make so many jokes about me. I like your humor, but can you watch what you joke about?” You describe your feelings, what the problem is, but then you describe something that you think is a positive step in the right direction. “Go ahead and tell your jokes, that’s part of your personality, but can you be a little more sensitive about what you joke about?” This is an important step because it moves us away from being just a complainer and to be honest, some things don’t have easy solutions. For example, “I get embarrassed at parties because you are shorter than I am.” Now, that doesn’t have a solution. You might actually be feeling that, but if so, the problem is yours and the battle that you’ve got to fight is an entirely different one. It’s no longer a matter of communication and trying to change the other person. It’s a matter of you starting to work on yourself. And some problems are problems that will never be solved, and you are just going to have to learn how to forbear them. And so these sorts of statements start to clarify in our minds, so we need to think about what is it that we want? What does a solution look like with regard to this problem? And don’t head into conflict in the heat of the moment, but think first about constructive solutions, because this is where we do some of the hard work of fighting fairly. Use I want in statements.

Here’s another one. Stick to one topic. Golly, in the middle of a fight is not the time to bring up every hurt you have ever had. Man, particularly if those of us who are married you realize that with each year there is a longer list of things that hurt each other, and if you start bringing up that list, well first of all you are going to argue longer because it just takes so long to go through the list. But it is incredibly destructive. Deal with the issues as they come up and once they are in the past, they are in the past. They are no longer ammunition to help us win new battles. Stick to what’s current. Deal with things as they come up and let the past be the past.

And finally, avoid some of the bombs, relational bombs that are in verses 29 to 31.

The first one here. Unwholesome talk. This is literally rotten words. It could be foul language, obscenities, but it also could be things like sarcasm, anything we say that is deliberately hurtful. It says get rid of bitterness, rage and anger. All of these are the emotions that cause us to cross the line from criticism that works for change and pushes us over into criticism that is just out to hurt the person. We’ve got to deal with those sorts of motivations. It says here that we are to avoid brawling. Now, I certainly would think that this includes physical stuff, but the word also has a strong focus on the idea of shouting. We should be avoiding that.

And then it says here to avoid slander, making up stuff to ruin somebody’s reputation. It’s also exaggeration, making out that a problem is really bigger than it is so that you will seem that you are not being petty in getting angry. And then it says at the end of this section, malice. Malice is that thoughtful intention to hurt somebody and make them suffer. That’s perhaps the most destructive thing in a relationship. When you have gotten to the point that you thoughtfully and carefully planned to make somebody suffer. We’ve got to avoid those things in our relationships. And then right in the middle of this it says, “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.” These things grieve the Holy Spirit because they destroy the community that he wants to build, the body of Christ that Jesus died for. God knows that we are going to fight, but these fights do not have to tear us apart. So I want to read to you again verses 26 and 27.

“In your anger, do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry. and do not give the devil a foothold.”

Let’s pray. Gracious God we do pray that you will help us take whatever the next step is in our struggle to control our anger and to handle conflict in positive ways. Lord, we know these conflicts will come, but we pray that we will handle them, that we will learn to fight fair and that we will not grieve you in the way we treat one another. For we ask these things in Jesus’ name. Amen.