Relationships are not easy. To be in a relationship usually means that parties will be resolving conflict at some point. There is a quiet calmness about Jesus’ ministry. When reading the Gospels I cannot think of any place where he shows anger, other than when clearing the temple. Throughout his ministry he encountered many difficult people and situations that made him have to manage conflict. To all of them he responded with wisdom and calm.
One such text is Matthew 9:10–13. There, after calling Matthew to be a disciple, he is eating with various tax collectors and persons of ill repute. In the midst of it, the religious leaders, the Pharisees, catch wind and are immediately anxious about it.
Assured of our Rightness
The Pharisees seem to be folks who are really in love with their “rightness.” They spent a lot of time trying to be right. As a rule, the more someone is concerned with being right, the more prone they will be to conflict. As the obsession with being right goes up, conflict resolution skills plummet. And before you say, “Amen,” in regard to that person you know like that, let me say that is precisely what they have in common with all people—you and me included.
Jesus never had to worry about being right, accepted, or feeling insecure the way we and the Pharisees do. Besides that God is always right, just, and perfect, Jesus was never insecure or aggravated by someone thinking, saying, or doing something that disagreed with him. But that is not the case with us, and it is precisely why most of us lack the disarming calm of Jesus.
Our problem as a species stems from a simple little sin of the heart: It is the certitude of our rightness. Once make ourselves the judge, there is no telling us we are wrong and then there are few actions that cannot be justified. I have also commented more on the problem of our heart in 3 Reasons You Should Not Follow Your Heart
When people’s actions or expressed beliefs contradict our own, we can easily become agitated. Our desire for “rightness” kicks in. We all have a justice impulse wherein we want to rid the world of evil. But here is the problem: our hearts are too crooked. Scripture says that “for athe anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God” (James 1:2) NASB) The best we can ever do is have unrighteous indignation.
The Pharisees in the same way cannot entirely control themselves. The agitation they feel propels them to negative activism. They are unable to watch, listen, learn, and pray. Rather they are compelled, almost with animal instinct, to intervene. And again, I find their behavior here not much different than the vast majority of us today. When we see worldviews, lifestyles, and actions contrary to our own, we are compelled by the passions to intervene. We believe so passionately and blindly in our own rightness, that we rush in like fools.
This is not to say that there is not a time to intervene. There is of course. But it is far less often than we think. Typically we respond out of our fear, anger, and anxiety (negative emotions) rather than the prayerful and compelling calm of Spirit lead thinking.
Disillusioned with our “Rightness”
The healthy spiritual life begins with a healthy fear of self. We need a fear of our own moral crookedness that prevents us from acting on beliefs, ideas, and feelings that lead us to sin. The true Christian is in love with God’s rightness and entirely skeptical and disillusioned with his own.
When we see Jesus in this situation, he seems unflappably calm. As bad as the world is, as unjust and bent by sin it may be, there are no anxious, chicken-little, “the sky is falling” responses in him. Jesus placidly moves in and among people with total peace and purpose. He just gently answers the Pharisees, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice. For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.'”
The Path to Humility and Calm
Jesus knows that everyone in the room, both tax collector and Pharisee are sinners, equally in need of God’s mercy. The difference is their self assessment. The Pharisees think of themselves as righteous. The tax collectors don’t. We could reword Jesus’ final statement to say, “For I came not to call those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are not.”
Most conflict in our hearts is ready to burst out it at any moment. Like the Pharisees, we hear something we don’t like and we are ready to pounce. But if we pay attention to our inner self, we can nip it before it starts. The key strategy in conflict resolution is humility and self management. It is awareness of the inner man that stops the conflict in us before it starts. Certitude of our “rightness” leads to every social evil from playground spats and divorce, up to the Twin Towers and the Third Reich.
The path to humility and peace is a sober self assessment. This is the only path to becoming true persons of peace in the world. When we begin to become intimately acquainted with our own unrighteousness, our own propulsion to injustice will diminish. We will suddenly become far less worried about what other people are doing and saying—right or wrong. We will begin to till our own field, rather than our neighbor’s. A sober attention to our personal injustice charts a course to a calm trust of God in a world that has not yet been put right.
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