“Mom, what do you want for your birthday?” we’d asked. She’d be bent over the floor mopping or pulling cookies out of the oven or hanging sheets on the line. (Sure, we could’ve just lent a hand for her special day. But, our immaturity would blind us for another decade or so, until we had our own houses with dirty floors and beds and hungry mouths.)
“Oh, you know,” she’d say around the clothespins. “Just a day without you kids fighting.” She’d say the same thing almost every year. Somehow, my brother, sister, and I preferred spending a few bucks on cards and gifts than waving a white flag around for a full 24 hours. Even a simple piece of paper marked up with stick figures and I-love-mommy-hearts could justify hours of standing up for our rights and slamming doors.
My mom directed her request at my sister and me primarily. Suffice it to say, Rachel and I had a conflict-ridden relationship. I’ve never hurt anyone or been hurt by anyone as much as her. I’ve never yelled at or harbored so much anger against anyone. I’ve never said I’m sorry as many times to anyone or been apologized to from anyone else as many times.
And yet there’s not one soul that compares to my sister in this lifetime. This person with whom I’ve fought the most is embedded into the deepest places of my heart, and I love her beyond what I’m capable of loving the majority of others around me.
Because here’s the thing: I’d say that it’s not despite our conflicts butbecause of them, that my sister and I are inseparable. Because, conflicts aren’t exit ramps. Conflicts aren’t endings.
Conflicts are fertile ground in which relationships can grow deeper.
Recently, I had the gift – yes, the gift – of a season of awkward dancing and miscommunicating with a friend. We needed to focus on completing a task together, but we came to the work table hunched over with the weights of baggage, insecurities, fears, and distrust. As we worked, sensitive nerves were pressed and tensions rose to the point of nearly abandoning the task completely. Nearly.
But neither of us took the exit ramp, praise God. We stayed in it and willed our feet to stay pointed toward the benefit of the doubt. Years back, my sister and I hadn’t had that choice to exit; we shared a room, the dinner table, a school bus, and a hundred other circumstances that kept us together, despite our fighting. But in life beyond our nuclear family – in God’s family, we see endings of relationships based on minor infractions and misunderstandings. And, it grieves me.
Friends, what if unconditional, Jesus-love – the kind that secures the insecure, that heals the distrust, that covers shame, bandages hurts, and lifts off years of baggage – what if that kind of love is birthed from conflict-induced pain, not despite it?
If that’s true, then every time we walk away, we forfeit a possibility for authentic, mature community based on that kind of love. We rob the other person of the opportunity to grow, and we stunt our own growth. Walking away in conflict resigns us to surface-level relationships where we insist on faking and avoiding and mask-wearing rather than sticking around for grace and resolution. Worst of all, when we choose to exit, we disprove grace, grace for ourselves and for the other person.
I learned a lesson during that time, unexpected and unforgettable:staying is a precious, vulnerable gift that we give each other. It whispers that we know love is stronger than fears and that Christ-honoring community is more valuable than saving face. By God’s grace, staying produces a deeper and truer love, one that’s out of reach if we stand smiling on the surface or skirt away when tensions rise.
For, conflict drives us to authenticity, vulnerability, self-awareness, and an up-close look at grace – Grace who wears a crown of thorns.
“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.” Yes, Jesus, it’s me…
So, raise the white flag. Choose grace. Ignore the exit ramp, and stay standing on that fertile, hopeful ground of loving relationships in God’s family. No good works, embellished with stick figures and I-love-Jesus-hearts, can distract a heavenly Father from the reality of His children leaving conflict unresolved. For the sake of His kingdom come and His will be done, let’s choose grace – uncomfortable, self-sacrificing, pride-swallowing, thorn-bearing Grace.
I’m guessing that’s the most honoring gift we could ever lay at our holy Father’s feet.
*In some cases, relationships are not safe emotionally or physically to remain, in which case staying is terrible advice. Please note: misunderstandings, disagreements, and hurt feelings may be an unexpected, beautiful means of experiencing God’s grace and extending it others. But, conflict beyond those examples, including, but not limited to, mental, physical, verbal, emotional, spiritual, or sexual abuse or other patterns of damaging behavior, is altogether different. In such cases, security demands healthy boundaries and medical and therapeutic intervention. Simply, abusive relationships are not OK, and staying in them is outside of God’s ideal.
Anne Dahlhauser blogs at Front Porch, Inspired about surrendering everyday living for sacred purposes. She and her husband, Jay, are founders of a ministry called The Bridge, focusing on missional living, training, and intercultural relationships. She holds an MA in Teaching Languages (English and Spanish) and is a lover of words and the Word, culture and communication. Jay and Anne have four young kids, a front door that can’t stay closed, and an abundance of messy, holy chaos at their neighborhood center/home in Iowa – of all places.