Growing up, I had a tiny, white Maltese named Poppy. Poppy could not handle conflict.
Whenever there was an argument in our house, Poppy would begin to shiver and whine like a teakettle beginning to boil. If the raised voices carried on, he would carry his shivering white body on to the chest of the nearest seated person. From there, with pain-filled eyes and shortness of breath, he would climb to the shoulders. I am convinced, had he been endowed with a greater balance and canine dexterity, nothing would have pleased Poppy more than to stand on the crown of my head. What correlation that dog made between our domestic disagreements and his summit of Mount Human is anyone's guess. But for Poppy, that was his method of coping with conflict.
I think of that dog’s conflict anxiety when I see how some Christians handle disagreement. If ever a theological discussion escalates beyond a placid tone of “agree to disagree,” observers begin shifting their weight, clearing their throats, and contemplating the carpet. I've had Christians with me while I was explaining the gospel to someone, and the Christians seemed more uncomfortable with the situation than the person being evangelized. So, while their apprehension may or may not lead them to physically climb onto your shoulders, the prospect of potential conflict makes many believers nervous.
Not Seeking Conflict, But Faithfulness
Certainly, Christians are to be peacemakers. And conflict, therefore, should not be sought or desired. But the problem with Poppy Christianity is that being a Christian requires believers to step into situations that are irreversibly awkward—situations that have the potential to turn contentious. We must not be so scared of strife that, in attempts to avoid it, we forsake our duties.
Faithful evangelism, for example, will often result in bitter rejection. Church history has attesting to this a mountain of martyrs. Calling a brother or sister in Christ to repent, even when done in love and patience, may lead to conflict. Exercising discernment—dividing truth from error—can also lead to vehement disagreement, even among believers. It’s not that we pursue evangelism and discernment in pursuit of arguments, but being a Christian means doing things that lead to awkwardness, even contention.
More often, however, Poppy Christians are so terrified of awkward conflict that they diligently side-step these Christian duties. Worse, we too often justify our cowardice by painting it over in shades of virtue. “I'd rather be gracious than contentious,” we warmly concede. Or, “It’s more loving for me to just let it go.” “It’s not my place,” we whimper as we retreat from the frontline; “I just want to be encouraging and focus on the positive.”
Many believers will never have that tough talk, will rarely proclaim the gospel, and will act as if a stand against theological error is something of a social faux pas. And how do they defend their tender-hearted neglect of these duties of Christian love? Because they are such gracious, kind, loving, and merciful Christians, of course! But more often, their avoidance of confrontation stems, not from virtue, but fear. Their dodging of disagreement is not the budding fruit of the Spirit, but rather the fear of man. Still, they dress their cowardice in cloaks of kindness and virtue.
Genuine Christian virtue looks much different.
Christian virtue does not seek the fight, but it also refuses to run
Believers, bearing the fruit of the Spirit, do hard things and engage in difficult conversations, not because they cherish contention, but because it is loving and God-honoring.
Real Virtue Fears God, Not Men
Proverbs 29:25 reads, “The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is safe.” If we are honest, we would recognize that behind that fear of conflict lies the fear of man. We are petrified by the thoughts of others, so we do not live as we ought.
Obedience sometimes leads to conflict, at times dangerous conflict. We cannot be so afraid of people that we offer God our disobedience. We need to get our fears straight. As Jesus Himself said, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).
If we properly feared God, we would not hunt for gracious avenues of disobedience in order to appease our fear of man. And what a joy to know that almighty God is on our side, even as we boldly walk into powder keg conversations. When we fear God, not man, we can conclude with the author to the Hebrews, “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?” (Hebrews 13:6) So, I can have that tough talk with confidence.
Real virtue requires a deeper fear of God than man. And that means being willing to sacrifice reputation.
Real Virtue is Willing to Sacrifice Reputation
The last thing most of us desire is to be known as “one of those Christians.” We know how the culture mocks believers. We’ve cringed at the damning street evangelist, we’ve known the judgmental Christian mother, and we’ve rolled our eyes at the goody two-shoes. Please, don’t lump us in with those people!
We don’t want to be embarrassed. We want people to think we are relaxed, the furthest from the tightly-wound fundamentalist. Like the new kid at school, to simply blend in is our desperate plea. We don’t want to be the outlier. So, we strategically avoid conflict—anything that might convince our peers we value more the things of God than we do sports or politics.
The horror is that it is in this attitude that we let slide the signs of our brother's stumbling into sin, the opportunity to talk about Christ to our hairdresser, and that book by a false teacher we saw laying on our aunt’s coffee table. We have a reputation to maintain, after all. We are good people, we whisper to ourselves.
Real Christian virtue, however, is willing to sacrifice reputation, to be called contentious, to be branded a zealot. In the pursuit of faithfulness, believers will be wrongly labeled, they will be maligned, they will be thought strange. But the approval we seek is not from man. The Apostle Paul writes in Galatians 1:10, “For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.” Servants of Christ are willing to have their names trampled in the dust, that His name might be great. They are willing to have their words of loving confrontation mislabeled. Because real virtue has nothing to do with reputation.
As Charles Spurgeon so precisely proclaimed, "If Christ be glorious, it is all the heaven I ask for. If he shall be King of kings, and Lord of lords, let me be nothing, if he shall but reign, and every tongue shall call him blessed, it shall be bliss to me to know it; and if I may be but as one of the withered roses which lie in the path of his triumph, it shall be my paradise."
Real Virtue is Honed Through Embracing Affliction, Not by Avoiding It
Faithful Christians will encounter conflict. We can run from it and excuse it, or we can embrace it. This is difficult, but it is our calling. However, when we do welcome the affliction which flows from faithfulness, instead of hiding our cowardly avoidance of it in appeals to our own virtue, the Lord uses those events to hone our character.
The apostle writes in Philippians 1:14, “And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.” Even seeing another believer suffer the loss of reputation, or in Paul’s case freedom, has the effect of galvanizing our resolve to serve God in trying times.
Mark it as a fact, “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). Affliction hunts Christians. This inevitable persecution may take the form of
Many of us live our Christian lives in lavish comfort. We have no occasion for boldness because we tip-toe around situations which would demand it. Scared to death of conflict, we adorn our cowardice with cloaks of kindness, love, and grace. But the world does not need more timidly bland Christians. The world needs men and women of Christian virtue, who boldly and lovingly evangelize, disciple, and discern without fear of reputation or repercussion, because they are doing it not for man’s praise, but in service to the living God.