If Paul could say to a church that it “completed” his joy when they were likeminded (Philippians 2:2), I think one could say it completes a pastor’s grief when his sheep are divided by conflict among themselves. Some pastors dread every week the ring of the telephone: “X and Y are fighting again.” It makes the pastor’s heart sink.
Why do we humans fight with each other? Why do some of us seem to thrive on it? Why can we not seem to disentangle ourselves from conflict even when it’s killing us? Why does the Cain and Abel story play itself out (albeit not always, thank God, with the full extent of violence) again and again and again?
The invariable answer, were one to ask one of the combatants, is that it’s the other person’s fault. Cain the murderer sprang from Adam and Eve, who blamed others in the presence of the Lord.
Focus on the other combatant is the reason why conflicts cannot be resolved. This isn’t hard to explain. Each combatant comes to the relationship with a certain degree of emptiness. (In Cain’s case, apparently, it was emptiness resulting from wounded pride.) To be quite clear, emptiness is always something that originates in the heart of the one who experiences it. Put another way, emptiness is always something for which the empty soul must take full responsibility. It is true, however, that experiences in relationships can aggravate feelings of emptiness, and it is sorely tempting to view such aggravations as the source of the problem. It’s natural, then, to think that a change in the other person would be the solution (in extreme cases one might even wish the other person dead – Cain carried through on just such a wish).
No amount of change in other people, however – even their ceasing to exist – can ever fill an emptiness they didn’t cause in the first place. It is refusal to accept this simple truth from which human conflict derives its interminability. We fight and war because we lust for something our combat partner is incapable of giving (James 4:1–2). We will not face the fact that we ourselves, our own hearts, are the root of the problem.
Pastors sometimes despair of getting this through the heads of certain sheep. If ever they could, they might well be out of the conflict resolution business. You cannot live as a victor while you still think like a victim. Victory over self is the key to peace; only One can give this, and it is not the other person in the ring.