One of the courses in my conflict management program was entitled “Conflict in Religious Settings.” This venue presents two distinctive challenges. On the one hand, religious people tend to be especially averse to conflict because “we are good and nice and conflict damages our image.” Such suppression of conflict, of course, does not make it go away.
On the other hand, the intensity of conflict depends to a large extent on the stakes of the issues at hand. What could raise the stakes above one’s view of God and the determination of one’s eternal destiny? When conflict does emerge, therefore, it can be particularly intense. It didn’t really surprise those of us in the class that those who mediate conflict find religious conflict the most challenging.
How does this reality relate to our theme? Let’s consider the relationship among three words: change, conflict, and growth. Change originates either from the impact of forces or people largely outside our control, or from our own attempts to bring it about. Change can make the previous situation better or worse, although the result of change can be mixed and can take time to become fully evident.
The complexity of many situations also makes it difficult to establish a direct cause-and-effect relationship between a given change and its impact. Unfortunately, public discourse on issues such as poverty, climate change, or the economy fails to take this complexity into account.
The complex nature of change partially explains why people disagree over what changes should occur, as well as how they should be implemented. These disagreements, in turn, fuel the close tie between change and conflict.
At present we find ourselves in a period of change that has been characterized as rapid and discontinuous. In other words, not only has the pace of change continued to accelerate, but in so doing it has also disconnected us increasingly from our former moorings. Computers, the internet, smart phones, and social media both reflect and fuel this change. As a result, conflict results not just from a particular change, but from “change fatigue” in general.
The concept of homeostasis highlights why constant change creates such stress. Homeostasis refers to a base state of stability. It applies to the capacity of the human body to maintain a safe equilibrium of temperature, for example. Homeostasis has also been applied to systems such as families and organizations. As a result, such systems tend to resist change unless “the pain of staying the same becomes worse than the pain of change.”
The relationship between change and conflict, therefore, leaves us with a dilemma. Change may be necessary, but determining the proper change will be difficult, and it will almost inevitably meet with resistance. Someone has an investment, even if it only involves comfort, in the status quo.
The importance of growth in the Christian life adds to the dilemma. Not all change is growth, but growth, by definition, necessitates change. Beyond personal growth, if we want to “make a difference” (presumably a positive one), we seek to make things different that they are at present.
As we further consider change and growth, we should acknowledge that, especially today, resistance to change is understandable and, to a degree, normal. Yet even homeostasis requires some measure of response and adaptation to changing circumstances. Our hands and feet get cold, for example, when the outside temperature drops because blood flow focuses on keeping our most critical organs warm.
After I shared some thoughts at church on change, a woman nervously asked me, “What are you planning to change?” I responded that I was not laying the groundwork for some bombshell change, but attempting to cultivate an openness to change as needed. Better questions include: “How does God want us to respond to the changes in the world around us?” “Of what is God calling us to repent?” “In what areas does God want us to grow?”
Next: What Is the Biblical Perspective on Change/Growth?