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How to Fight
April 25, 1976

St. Paul's United Methodist Church


It is strange that a sermon on the principles of good fighting in marriage and in the church, needs to begin with making a case for fighting. For somehow over the years, you and I have been taught that it's wrong to fight, or if you don't like the word fight, to disagree. Somehow we've been taught that Christian people have good, loving, peaceful marriages in which there's never any dissension. We've been taught that Christian people, certainly when they come together to form the church, establish loving, kind, sweet relationships with never any dissension or trouble or disagreement. Because of this teaching that we've been given over the years, we have formed marriages, we have formed churches in which the guiding principle seems to be “peace at all costs”. Whatever happens, keep the surface smooth. For appearances’ sake, keep everything peaceful, serene and quiet. 

And when an irritation, or an abrasion or a cut occurs in the marriage, or in the church, we ignore it. We pretend it's not there. Then it gets infected. It begins to accumulate pus, the sore swells, and we cover it all up with cream, makeup and cosmetics. Pile stuff over it so we can't see it. Then it gets to the point where it bursts and all that junk, all that crud goes all over the marriage and all over the church. The infection goes deeper, and begins to spread out from that initial irritation where finally, the only recourse left is amputation—called divorce in a marriage, called church splits in the church. Have you ever been in a church where there was a split, where it divided into factions and groups— “party spirit” says Paul. It's ugly. It's destructive. Such happens with a philosophy of peace at all costs, being taught that we are never supposed to disagree, never supposed to fight. When we do fight, when we do disagree, then we feel guilty. “My, I'm such a failure. My marriage is such a failure.” When we do fight, because we have not been taught how to fight properly,  it becomes destructive, rather than constructive. Fighting is a normal, natural part of life. Every relationship must involve some kind of tension, some kind of disagreement, some kind of arguing, some kind of fighting. It's natural, it's normal, and to feel guilty when we fight leads to destructive results. 

Whereas fighting done in a healthy, open manner, following good principles can be very constructive, healing, a productive, creative force in the marriage and in the relationship. But because we don't know how to fight, often it becomes destructive, and we end up with those words Paul uses over and over in his letters: jealousy, slander, gossip, disorder, wrath. When those kinds of things happen, it's been a destructive fight. Fighting is a natural part of life. The biblical heroes were all great fighters. Paul's letters are often written to help settle church squabbles, to help settle church disagreements, especially the Corinthian correspondence. Fighting is okay. Fighting, disagreeing in marriage is okay, but learn to do it constructively, not destructively. Fighting in church is okay. Tomorrow evening we gather at a very important church conference. Let's disagree. Let's fight. But let's do it constructively so that we may leave with power, strength and unity as the people of God. 

There are ways to fight and there are ways not to fight. Let's look this morning at some of the principles of how to fight in your marriage, in the church, in your relationships. I turn to Paul's letters for Paul was an expert on fighting. He was an expert in handling disagreements. We read from the book of Ephesians 4:25-32. The first principle in how to fight is verse 25, “Put away falsehood. Let everyone speak the truth with his neighbor.” Put away falsehood, let everyone speak the truth. The first principle of fighting is to deal with the truth: say what it is, lay out the facts as you see them. Falsehood, pretense have no place. Speak the truth. And prior to speaking, over in the book of James, we have a beautiful principle. In James 1:19, he writes, “Let every man (includes women) be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” What a beautiful principle—be quick to hear and slow to speak. Listen before you respond. And listen that you really understand what the other person is saying. Before you speak before you react, clarify, make sure that you have heard correctly. Many arguments go on and on because the two people are talking about different things. They’re so busy trying to think of how they're going to react, they don't listen to what the person is saying. Stop, be quick to hear before you speak. And in very delicate situations, rephrase what you have just heard. Begin by saying, “I hear you say such and such. Is that correct?” Rephrase, play the tape back to the speaker. Put it in your own words what you have just heard before you respond. Then when you communicate, you will both be on the same wavelength. Be quick to hear, slow to speak. 

Secondly, when it comes your turn to speak, after you've clarified and after the issue is clear, speak the truth. Speaking the truth implies speaking in the first person. “I” not you, not they, not them. “I”, for the only truth you know is the truth you experience. The only truth you know is what you feel. You don't know any truth for anyone else. You don't know what they're thinking, you don't know their life, you don't know their experiences. The only truth you know on this earth is what you've personally experienced and what you can speak of out of your experience. Speak in the first person. Say, “I feel as if I'm not listened to, rather than saying, “You never listen to me.” That's not true—you never listen to me. You don't know if they never listen to you. You don't know if she never listens to you. You suspect it some time, but you don't know. And when you accuse someone of not listening to you, and you put it in the second person and say “you” or “they”, then they get defensive and you're into a quarrel. Keep it in the first person. “I feel as if I am not being listened to. I feel hurt. I feel angry,” rather than saying, “You make me mad.” For that’s in the second person, “you make me mad “, but you don't know that. You don't know what their intent was. But you can say the truth from your perspective, “ I feel angry.” Truth should be spoken in the first person. 

Thirdly, keep to the present. Keep it current. When you're disagreeing, when you're fighting, keep it in the present tense—what you're disagreeing about right now. Not yesterday. Not “You remember what you said in 1939? I'll never forget what you did in 1939.” And then away you go off the beaten track. Keep it current. What difference does it make what happened yesterday? The issue is right here and right now. All the ground rules of marital fighting and the ground rules of church fighting should be kept in the present. Anything about yesterday is out of bounds. What's happening is right now. 

Therefore, speak the truth. Speak in the first person, speak in the present, and speak after you have heard what the other person is saying. And then, verse 26, “Be angry, but do not sin. Do not let the sun go down on your anger.” It's okay to get angry. Did you know that it's okay? It's all right, I give you permission! You can get angry. And you don't have to feel guilty about getting angry. It's a good valid human emotion. God gave it to us. “Be angry,” says Paul. Admit it. Be honest with yourself when you're angry. Express it. But, “Do not let the sun go down on your anger.” Deal with it and deal with it right now. When you're hurt, when you're angry, deal with it. 

Jesus gave us the principle: “When you go to make an offering at the altar, first go and be reconciled with your brother.” First, go work out things, then come to me, come to worship. Deal with the anger, deal with the hurt, be open about it before the sun goes down. Get it out in the open and deal with whomever you are fightng. Don't telephone somebody else. Don't organize a group. Don't get a movement started. Paul didn't write to the Ephesians about the trouble he was having with the Corinthians. He wrote to the Corinthians. Don't go next door and tell the neighbors about your husband, tell him. Deal with it in the open and be direct. 

Tomorrow night, we will discuss changing the name of the church. I've heard from several  that there are two people in our congregation who are very upset and are threatening to leave the church if we do such a thing. But we don't know who they are. They're nameless, but they're making threats through the rumor process. A good principle in fighting is to not react to threats. When a person has to resort to threats to express his views, he’s in a sad shape. Threatening has nothing to do with fighting. If you do such and such, I'm going to do such and such, and if you don't do such and such, I’m not going to do such and such. That's an invalid method of fighting. It means your case is weak if you have to resort to threats. Don't respond to threats. 

We cannot respond to people who will not come out in the open, who will not deal with what there is to be dealt with—people who hide behind rumors. If church membership doesn't mean enough to come out in the open and fight for something, that membership doesn't mean very much. Be reconciled with your brother. Bring it out in the open, let the light shine on it and deal with it before the sun goes down. Be direct. Be open. Be honest. 

Keep the fighting constructive. Don't try to win. Trying to win has no place in a marriage. Trying to win has no place in the church. We do not fight, we do not disagree to end up with winners and losers. Paul uses phrases in this passage—be kind to one another, tender hearted, forgiving one another. Earlier in the passage, he wrote, “We are members one of another.” We are members. We are the body of Christ. An organ, a part of the body cannot disagree with another part of the body in order to win. We disagree with one another in order that we may be the best body we can be. 

The purpose of fighting, the purpose of disagreeing in a marriage, the purpose of fighting and disagreeing in a church is to make sure that all aspects of the issue are brought out in the open, to make sure that all the evidence is presented, that all feelings are dealt with, that everything is laid out there so that the will of God may be done. The purpose of disagreeing in a marriage and in a church is that the will of God may be done, that we may discover God’s will. We are members, we are his body and we discover the will of God by everyone speaking, sharing their intelligence, sharing their experience, sharing their wisdom, sharing their talents, sharing their feelings. All of us together are his body. All of us by sharing what we have been given and laying it out in the open is the way we discover the will of God. 

As the spirit moves in our midst and as we find unity, we do not fight, we do not disagree to win. We fight, we disagree to reach compromise, which is the best possible solution in this particular instance. Someone has said for most people, the hardest thing to give is to give in. If you must always win, if your ego is of such a weak nature that you always have to win, you are not fit to be married to anyone. You are not equipped for marriage, you don't belong. You have no right under God's heaven to put yourself into a sacred relationship with someone else where you can hurt, harm and bruise them. You have no right to enter such a relationship if you are so weak, so insecure, so immature that you always have to win. Winning and losing have no place in fighting. We fight that the best may result for we are all members one of another, forgiving one another. If you always have to win, get down on your knees, repent and let the love of God fill you, let God's love say to you, “You are a beautiful person just as you are.” You are alright. You are okay. You don't have to win. You’re okay, just the way you are. You don't have to have your way. Let the love of God accept you. 

Then you can deal with other people in repentance and forgiveness. In fact, probably truth is only possible in a context of repentance and forgiveness in the Christian community where we are free to say to one another,” I'm sorry, I repent. Please forgive me. I love you and I trust you. I trust you in the name of Christ. I trust you with my ideas. I trust you with what I have to give. I trust you with what God has given me. I trust you that what I say, you will not take wrong. I trust you that when we disagree, you will still love me. I trust you that when we disagree, you will not hurt me, but that you will work with me that we may find God's will. A marriage and the church need that kind of relationship.

Well, let's fight. Let's disagree. And let's do it by speaking the truth, by listening and speaking the truth in the first person. When we're angry, not letting the sun go down on the anger, but dealing directly with the cause and with the person. Let's do it in a context of repentance and forgiveness. Let’s not fight to win. Let's fight that God's will may be done. And let us pray. You can't fight with anyone for whom you're praying. It's awfully hard to dislike someone if you're praying for them. Let's pray that God's will may be done in your home and in this church.

© 1976 Douglas I. Norris