Foundations

Wanted: Conflict

Conflict is the single greatest missing thing in recovery today

Conflict has a bad reputation. It is common for couples, ministries and organizations to think that conflict is, by nature, a negative thing and best avoided or, at least, kept to a minimum. Conflict is a harsh and ugly thing that has no place in good mannered conversation. It’s easy to agree that it should not exist, or at least, is a result of our sin saturated nature. However, those who take such a view are in fact avoiding one of our greatest assets. When applied correctly, conflict reveals weakness, encourages openness, and communicates love. Of course, not all conflict is good. Rather, there is good conflict, and bad conflict. At a binary level, I like to think of conflict as productive or unproductive. 

Productive conflict occurs when both parties are seeking a discoverable external truth. The discussion may be strong, even heated, but the end goal of both parties is not personal victory, but a personal understanding of what is actually true. When engaged on this foundation, all that is needed is protection against the ugly parts of our sin, simply boundaries such as, “no mean words” or “no yelling”. Then we can freely discuss, even animatedly discuss, a controversial topic to discover the truth and how it applies to my personal life. This opens a world of freedom for me to explore any topic, better understand those I interact with, and become ready to give answers to those who disagree with me. Conflict, when productive, is a wonderful aspect of any healthy relationship.

Unproductive conflict occurs when the discussion is merely about control. In such interactions, I am not considering what the other person says so that I might better understand, but that I might gain some kind of upper hand in the struggle for power with this individual and others. The hallmarks of unproductive conflict are normally pretty obvious, such as becoming defensive, insulting, talking over them, or aggressively repeating the same argument over and over again. My intent when behaving in this way is not to understand the other party, but to dominate them. Such conflict only produces hurt, for the other party immediately, and often for me afterwards. There is no discovery and no growth in understanding. Such conflict is exhausting, and what’s worse is no progress is ever made. Conflict, when unproductive, is destructive to any relationship. 

Without conflict, the discovery of personal truth is almost impossible. My ability to deny reality and embrace some internal fantasy is quite amazing. What is worse is, this self-deception is almost impossible to notice! How desperately I need others who are willing to confront my ideas, challenging my assumptions and conflicting with my logical conclusions (or illogical ones) to help me examine reality and how I should live my life in accordance with it.

It is for this reason that in recovery environments, productive conflict is not just good, but essential. It must be placed as a center point of what we do, for those who enter addiction-based recovery need to be confronted with reality so they might make honest decisions in regard to it. But if this is so, why has it not been widely embraced? It seems that there are three primary reasons that productive conflict has been avoided and even condemned by the majority of recovery groups: fear, comfort, and control. 

Fear

Most people attend groups looking for something that will relieve the intense stress and strain of the addictive behavior. They want freedom, but rarely want to walk the difficult path that leads to it. Confronting someone’s denial likely means there will be some kind of conflict. The more direct the confrontation, the more likely the conflict. For many groups, this makes conflicts appear to be a losing proposition. Afterall, is not it more important that they continue in attendance, than that their denial be challenged? A fear exists that if I engage in conflict, I may drive the individual away. In this case, it seems easier to avoid conflict entirely, and by its association, avoid most confrontation as well, than risk the potentially negative consequences of someone leaving. This fear of consequences prevents many leaders from taking the necessary actions in recovery simply because they may result in conflict. 

Comfort

A natural result of conflict is discomfort. It is hard to bandy an idea with someone who sincerely disagrees with me, trying to both honestly understand their view and clearly communicate mine, without falling into defensiveness or acquiescence. Simply put, it is much less stressful to avoid conflict altogether. This can be done in a variety of ways: setting group rules, changing the topic, assent, silence, or leaving. The end goal is to maintain a certain level of comfort for myself and potentially for others. In this, the responsibility of giving the challenge is avoided in exchange for a watered-down definition of love that primarily involves my personal comfort and is far less concerned with the long-term consequences to the addict should he continue his behaviors. 

Control

There is a pervasive view in modern culture that there is no ultimate truth. As such, all attempts to communicate values to another individual are really just attempts to control. This is because, my truth is not your truth, and therefore, attempting to convince you of my truth, is an attempt to remove your truth. This view of control has seeped into many recovery groups, to such an extent that they actively avoid confrontation of any sort for fear that it is just an attempt to control. The idea goes something like, “if you are attempting to convince someone of something, you are just trying to control.” But it is more commonly stated, “Judge not”. Aside from the fact that conflict has little if anything to do with judgement, this entire concept is based on the faulty assumption that truth is not absolute or jointly discoverable. However, scripture is rife with examples of the Apostles giving strong arguments in order to convince others to consider the truth. The truth is discoverable, and it is being personally related to each person through the Holy Spirit, by which we can be confident in our conflicts that Christ is revealing what is true, we need only to discover it. 

To be clear, what I am suggesting is not that we pursue brash discussions bordering on heated debates as often as possible, but rather that we should never shy away from that which brings about these brash discussions and heated debates. We must make use of every tool available in the pursuit of Christ and love of our brethren. The end result of allowing conflict is not more conflict, but less avoided conflict. Not more stress, but greater freedom to seek the truth. And in that freedom, we find can be sure we will find the Truth, who is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. 

In the end, it is all about pursuing Christ. 

Hebrews 3:12-13
Take care, brethren, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God. But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called “Today,” so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.