49 “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50 But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! 51 Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. 52 From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. 53 They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
O dear! This is not the Christian message as we have imagined it. What has happened to gentle Jesus meek and mild? I wonder have I misunderstood his message and impact? “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth?” (Luke 12:51). Well…….yeah? The bible tells me so. You are the Prince of Peace. When you were born the angels sang “peace on earth and goodwill towards all.”
So who is this Jesus who says “No, I tell you, I am here to bring division,” (Luke 12:51). And then goes on to explain how he will cause splits within and between families…utterly and completely. This is not the kind of Jesus we’re used to.
Jesus certainly seems to be under some pressure here. The phrase “what constraint I am under” could be literally translated “I’m struggling to hold this together,” (Luke 12:50). Indeed it seems he wishes that it was all over (“I wish it were already kindled,” Luke 12:49). Undoubtedly this stress would add pepper to the tone of what he says.
I wonder is Jesus talking about primary loyalties here. The Gospel will demand of disciples that they make a choice about their primary loyalty either to the relationships of friendships and families or to the Gospel. The images of fire (12:49) and water (12:50) are both forms of cleansing and purifying. Motives and commitments will need to be purified and cleansed and this will cause division. And sometimes, in the process of purifying conflict is necessary. When we try to avoid the conflict then relationships can never be purified. When we set up our families, our churches and institutions with a view to avoiding conflict it’s a recipe for unhealthy division.
And here’s something else about division: human life would not be possible without it. It is the process of cell division that enables an organism to grow and mature. You would not be you without this developmental process of cell division.
If you can remember your teenage years, or you’ve parented teenagers, then you know about the conflict that often comes between teenagers and their parents. This is about identity development and what’s known as separation-individuation by which the teenager is gradually developing their own separate identity apart from their parents. This is also a process of division and can be creative if navigated well (though it may not feel like it at the time).
Not all conflict is to be avoided, and it’s possible that Luke was also addressing his contemporary audience here who were experiencing their own family divisions as the church expanded and came into conflict with the surrounding Roman culture.
Conflict is necessary for the growth and the maturing of any living organism; a person, a family, a community, even a congregation! But it should also be said that the presence of conflict is not a guarantee that growth is happening. Some conflict is unhealthy and works against the process of cleansing and purification. Often in families, the conflict styles learned in adolescence are repeated in their own families with their own children. If that conflict was characterised by raised voices, heightened emotions, lots of drama, hurtful name-calling and re-directing blame, and the process is repeated generationally, it is a recipe for broken relationships.
Unfortunately positive and negative conflict can look the same on the outside, so what do we look for and what do we avoid?
If a person’s conflict style prevents people talking meaningfully about their disagreements, or if someone rapidly makes conflict personal, what we call ad hominem, thereby diverting a conversation from the matter in hand to the person, this will only cause people to get defensive and is an unhealthy form of conflict. Where people argue without rationale, seek to undermine others or constantly deflect from their own shortcomings this is unhealthy conflict.
Instead, healthy conflict should be about developing a shared understanding and is characterised by disputants who are able to separate people from the problem. The issue at stake is de-personalised and people can talk directly to one another because they understand that they are on the same team. In the give and take of discussion people are able to address the issue without having to bring up past hurts and recognise that the problem needs settled now and not later. And people avoid red lines but demonstrate a willingness to be flexible in the interest of cooperation and collaboration.
Think about the last argument you had with someone. How did it happen? How did you respond? What changes did you notice in your body and your emotions? Recognising your conflict style can be very helpful in navigating conflict in family or church. Google the Thomas-Kilman Conflict Modes to learn something about your own style.
God of our borders and our belongings,
In these days of incivility,
So much of our talk to one another is hard.
Talk of breaks and splits and broken relationships.
Of cliff edges, and disorderly withdrawals.
Even words which should be soft
Our union is disunited. Our Community is coarsened.
I confess that it’s hard to rejoice in the richness of your blessing
If my enemy isn’t impoverished at the same time.
I confess it’s difficult to celebrate my freedoms won in Christ
If my opponent isn’t permanently disadvantaged.
So forgive me if my face is flushed with anger
And the hand of my friendship
is twisted into a cold fist of opposition.
So I pray,
Bring comfort to troubled spirits Whose futures are uncertain
Bring peace to conflicted hearts Whose loyalties are torn.
Bring wisdom to confused minds Whose decisions are momentous
Teach all of us grace and generosity
in this time of discourtesy
Guide us in how to enjoy the liberating work of Jesus
Without the need to see God’s vengeance worked on others.
For the sake of our witness to You
For the sake of our neighbours.
For my sake.