Last month, I broke my glasses and, since I was overdue for an eye exam, I scheduled one. When I first sat down, the letters on the screen were “O-F-L-C-T”. The human brain is very good at recognizing patterns. This was quite handy thousands of years ago when our remote ancestors were fleeing from saber toothed tigers. It’s still handy today, allowing us to recognize modern dangers. But sometimes our brains make mistakes, which is how optical illusions work. In this instance, my brain kept trying to form these random letters into the word “CONFLICT”, only to be frustrated when the letters didn’t match the pattern it expected. There were letters missing and, no matter how hard my brain tried, it couldn’t make sense out of them.
In the same way, when we try to make sense of our lives without God, we can’t do it. In the eye test example, the letters “C,” “N,” and “I” weren’t there, so I couldn’t form the word I had in mind. If the letters “G-O-D” aren’t there, we can’t make the lives we need. We don’t have the spiritual tools to live the way we should.
Jesus told the disciples, “‘I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.’” (John 15:5 ESV). Without Christ, we are doomed to conflict; we’re unable to do anything for God—to “bear fruit”—but a part of us realizes that it’s equally pointless to quit.
Paul wrote to the Christians in Corinth, “I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.” (1 Cor. 11:18b-19 ESV). At that time, there were no denominations so you either agreed with Paul or you were wrong. Divisions in the churches made it possible to see who had Christ (i.e., who agreed with Paul) and who didn’t. Those who didn’t were a source of conflict. Today, Paul probably wouldn’t like our modern denominational system but minor differences of agreement don’t necessarily mean someone is “wrong.”
But for most of us, our conflicts are internal in origin, between ourselves and God or, as Paul would say, between the Spirit and the “flesh” or sinful inner nature (Rom. 7:18-20). He wrote that
That doesn’t mean, though, that we are free from external conflicts—in fact, far from it. James wrote, “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?” (Jas. 4:1 ESV). Internal struggles produce external conflict. The spiritual war that rages within each of us spills over into personal strife between us and others. James blamed this on “bitter jealousy and selfish ambition” (3:14b). When we believe others have things or advantages we don’t, the natural result is jealousy. But we are not called to be “natural” but to be supernatural (1 Cor. 2:14).
When others look at us, they pay attention to the way we deal with everyday conflicts, especially if we claim to be Christians. If we respond with anger, jealousy, selfishness and ambition, they will see that we are unspiritual. They will see hypocrisy. But if we respond with peace, gentleness, reasonableness and sincerity (Jas. 3:17), then they will see God in us. Even though Paul couldn’t always “do the good I want,” I believe people could see that he was struggling on the side of the Spirit rather than on the side of the “flesh.” And, in the same way, they will see which side we are on too.
“Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called ‘the uncircumcision’ by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands—remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.” (Eph. 2:11-12 ESV.)