Fighting Fair

Original Date: 
Sunday, October 12, 2014

Song of Songs 2:15 The Song: Fighting Fair

The Great Ice Cream Debate
It’s always fun to start a sermon with a little peek at my life. But, of course, we’re in the middle of a series on marriage, so any story I tell is going to inevitably involve Beth. So I thought it wise to check with her first. This week’s message is on Fighting Fair, we’re talking about conflict in marriage. So I asked her if she had any examples of things we fight about that I could safely talk about. She gave me the green light for this one.

So, it’s time to come clean, and admit to it publicly: Beth and I fight about ice cream.

Here’s the deal. We like ice cream at our house. We like it in a bowl with chocolate on top. We like it in homemade malts. We like it on top of freshly baked brownies. Mostly, we like good old vanilla ice cream. So we usually have a one gallon, plastic bucket on hand. And we have a deep freeze in our garage, so that’s where we keep it.

Now, of course, that means when we want ice cream, it’s usually frozen pretty solid. Sometimes it’s hard to scoop up. So, when Beth gets ice cream, she likes to microwave it first. It’s a plastic bucket, with a plastic handle. Microwave safe. So she puts it in there, powers it up to high, and runs it for a minute or two. Then, when she takes it out, it’s as easy to scoop as you could want. Clever solution to a vexing problem.

I, however, have a problem with this. And my problem is that when you put the bucket back in the freezer, the parts that were melty from the microwave re-freeze even harder than before. So, the next person to scoop from the bucket has an even harder time. Plus, even more annoying, when ice cream re-freezes it forms all sorts of ice crystals. So when you eat it, you can feel these crystals in your mouth. The ice cream gets crunchy. I don’t think ice cream should be crunchy. To me, her microwave is a short term solution that causes long term problems.

And so, we have conflict. Beth is a hospitable person who wants everyone to have easy access to generous helpings of ice cream. I am a hungry person who wants his ice cream to taste right.

So, I thought we’d put it to a vote. How many of you think microwaving ice cream so it’s easier to scoop is a good idea? How many of think that microwaving ice cream is something that you should never, ever, ever do?

Here’s the thing: if you are married, you will have conflict. It’s inevitable. You cannot avoid it. Because, as Mark Driscoll says, “marriage is an unconditional commitment to an imperfect person.” (Real Marriage, p. 86) Think of it as a math equation: 1 Sinner + 1 Sinner = Conflict. It’s going to happen. This side of heaven, any time you put two sinful people together eventually disagreements are going to happen.

So: If you are married, you will have conflict. The challenge is to deal with conflict in a God-honoring way. Conflict can kill a marriage. Or conflict can strengthen a marriage. The difference hinges on how well you handle the conflict that inevitably comes your way.

There is a graphic that I often use when I am doing pre-marital counseling. It comes from a book that I really appreciate called The Peacemaker by Ken Sande. It’s called the slippery slope of conflict and it looks like this:

I like this graphic because it illustrates the dangers that lie on both side of conflict. On the right-hand side are the attack responses. This is what we usually think of as the ugly side of conflict. It involves raised voices, red faces, and worse. This is “peace-breaking”. At the extreme, it involves assault, litigation, and even murder. Obviously, this is not handling conflict well. As the whole Ray Rice incident has so vividly reminded us, physical confrontation is never a good way to resolve conflict.

But there is danger on the left-hand side as well. These are the responses of people who would rather escape conflict than resolve it. This is what we might call “co-dependency”. It’s the passive acceptance of bad behavior out of fear of what confrontation might lead to. This is “peace-faking” and it is no more healthy than peace-breaking. At the extreme it involves denial, flight, and even suicide.

The goal is to be in the middle, to be a peace-maker. This is where conflict is met head on, but dealt with in constructive and loving ways. In the middle lie activities like: forgiveness, discussion, loving confrontation, and reconciliation.

Most of us are scared to end up on the right hand side of the chart--we don’t want to be peace-breakers—so we spend too much time on the left hand side of the chart—we become peace-fakers. We don’t have the hard conversations because we are not confident that we can do it well. But peacemaking is the goal.

We’ve been using the Song of Songs as the Biblical basis for this series. The Song is primarily a book of romance. It is a celebration of the love between a man and a woman. There’s not a lot of conflict in this book. But it does touch on it. Chapter 2, verse 15:

15Catch for us the foxes,
the little foxes
that ruin the vineyards,
our vineyards that are in bloom.

Now, my daughter Ellie loves foxes. They are her favorite animal. We usually think of foxes as beautiful animals. But here, they are pests. They are rodents that have the potential for ruining the vineyard. And so, the Bible says they must be caught. Catch them while they are little.

Symbolically, what I think this means is that we should catch the conflicts in our relationship. Deal with them directly. Catch them while they are small. And address them in a way that is God-honoring.

David and Michal
So what I want to do in this message is give you some coaching for conflict. I’d like to give you some suggestions for how to fight well. And while the context is a series on marriage, this is a topic that applies to everybody, and all kinds of relationships. Whether we are talking about how you relate to co-workers, or roommates, or your siblings, or your parents, or other people at church, we can all use some help in fighting fair.

And, since the Song of Songs doesn’t say much about conflict other than the verse I just showed you, we’ll have to look elsewhere in the Bible to get our coaching. So I’m going to share with you a story of a married couple that did not handle conflict well. We’ll look at the story of David and Michal from 2 Samuel 6 to learn what not to do. And then I’ll also take you to the New Testament, Ephesians chapter 4, for some commentary on what we should do when conflict arises. This is an outline that I’m borrowing from Pastor Dave Stone—who is co-pastor with Kyle Idleman of Southeast Christian Church in Louisville.

So, let me tell you about David and Michal. David, of course, is the slayer of Goliath who became the most famous King in Israel. Michal was his first wife, the daughter of his predecessor on the throne, King Saul.

Now, it is important to know that Michal and David started out in love. It was almost a fairy tale. Saul promised to give his oldest daughter to David if he fought the Philistines, thinking that David would die in the attempt. When that didn’t happen, he double-crossed David and gave his eldest daughter to someone else. But his younger daughter, Michal, was in love with David. So David went out and killed 200 Philistines to win her hand. And later, when Saul attempted to take David’s life, it was Michal who helped him escape by hiding a statue in his bed and telling the assassins that he was too sick to come out and be killed.

So, David and Michal started out in love. But over the ensuing years, as David was running from Saul and they were separated, they grew apart. In fact, Saul took Michal and gave her to be married to another man. So, finally, when Saul died and David became king, one of the first things he did was demand that Michal be returned to him. You can imagine their relationship was a bit strained at that point.

And the incident I want to look at takes place shortly after David has been made king. He wants to take the Ark of the Covenant—the vessel that contains the tablets of the law and is said to represent the very presence of God—he wants to take this Ark into his capital city of Jerusalem. The first time he attempts this, it doesn’t go well. They don’t follow the instructions for transporting the Ark and a man named Uzzah dies when he touches the Ark. But the second time, they do it right and it becomes a big moment for David. This is God coming to dwell in the City of David. This is confirmation that David is God’s man. This is proof to the whole nation that David is the rightful king. So David throws a huge parade, and he leads the Ark into the city. 2 Samuel 6:14 and 15:

14David, wearing a linen ephod, danced before the Lord with all his might, 15while he and the entire house of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord with shouts and the sound of trumpets.

This is a big moment. David is really celebrating. So he strips down to just his underclothes—a linen ephod wasn’t much more than underpants and a t-shirt—and he dances with all his might before the Lord. He’s worshipping. It’s a historic day.

But Michal, his wife, isn’t impressed. Verse 16:

16As the ark of the Lord was entering the City of David, Michal daughter of Saul watched from a window. And when she saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord, she despised him in her heart.

There are two ways to read this story. One is through the eyes of worship. David is so sold out for God, he’s so excited about consolidation of the presence of God with his capital city, that he simply does not care what he looks like. He’s going to worship with all his heart. He’s going to say something to this effect in just a moment.

But the other way to read this is through the eyes of a wife. She looks out the window and all she’s sees is her husband—dressed in his boxer shorts—dancing in front of all the women of Jerusalem. She doesn’t see worship. She sees lewdness. I can’t blame Michal here. Any spouse has a right to feel wronged if their mate is acting single. Apparently David has crossed a line. Either purposefully or inadvertently, he was displaying more than he should have.

In Your Anger Do Not Sin
So, this is the basis of their conflict. Here’s where we are going to get our coaching. And the first thing we can learn is this: Deal with conflict quickly—but kindly. Catch the little foxes quick. But be nice about it.

Here’s what happens when David gets home. Verse 20:

20When David returned home to bless his household, Michal daughter of Saul came out to meet him and said, "How the king of Israel has distinguished himself today, disrobing in the sight of the slave girls of his servants as any vulgar fellow would!"

Michal gets part of this right. She doesn’t let it fester. She doesn’t wait hours or days or weeks to stew over what happened. She saw something she didn’t like, and she calls David on it.

But she isn’t nice. Her greeting is dripping with sarcasm. There’s bitterness all over what she’s saying. “How the king of Israel has distinguished himself today!” In other words: you’re not much of a king. You embarrassed yourself. You embarrassed me. You acted like a commoner! Like a vulgar fellow! Michal is in full attack mode. She wants to hurt him. She wants to wound him.

And so often, especially in marital conflict, it seems like we want to hurt the other person. We aren’t kind. We aren’t gentle. Something happens that we don’t like, we assume we know exactly what the other person was thinking and why they did what they did, and we attack.

If only we can learn to be nice. If only we can learn to approach conflict gently and with humility. Imagine if Michal had said something like: “You brought home the ark. What an amazing moment for you! What a victory! I can see why that’s something you’d want to celebrate! But there’s something I saw out the window that bothered me, and I’d like to talk to you about it…”

Would this conversation have gone better if she had said something like that? I’d like to think it would have.

Here’s what the Apostle Paul says in Ephesians 4, which we can read as a sort of coaching manual on how to handle conflict well:

26"In your anger do not sin": Do not let the sun go down while you are still
angry, 27and do not give the devil a foothold.

“In your anger do not sin.” Not: “Don’t get angry.” The Bible recognizes that there are occasions when it is right to be angry. Certain situations are wrong and they need to be addressed. Jesus got angry on several occasions. But, “In your anger do not sin.” Just because you are upset it is not an excuse for cutting sarcasm or hostile words. Just because you are mad doesn’t give you the right to start tearing people down. Just because you are angry doesn’t make it o.k. to fly into a rage.

And, notice the other part: “Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry.” In other words: deal with conflict quickly. Address it up front. Don’t let it sit and stew. Another way to read this is: “Don’t go to bed mad.” In 20 years of marriage, Beth and I have tried to live by this principle. We get things settled before bedtime. It’s worked pretty well. Of course, there was that one stretch where we didn’t sleep for three weeks.

Really, what I take this to mean is not that you have to have every issue fully resolved before you go to sleep. That’s probably not realistic. And sometimes, a good night’s sleep brings a whole different perspective to a matter. But I think Paul is saying we at least have to start the process. Address conflict quickly and—if you do need to go to bed—at least say something like: “I know this issue isn’t settled: but I’m committed to working through it with you. Even though we disagree, I want you to know I still love you. We’ll find a solution to this.”

A statement like that can go a long way toward easing the tension, and opening a way to reconciliation. But, here’s the thing, if you say something like that, then you need to follow through. You have to pick it up the next day, you have to work through it. You can’t let it just sit there.

Building Others Up
So here’s the next bit of coaching: Deal with conflict thoroughly—but not vindictively. Work through the issue, and keep it about the issue. Let’s go back to the story of Michal and David. Michal attacks David over what she saw from the window, and here’s how David responds. Verse 21:

21David said to Michal, "It was before the Lord, who chose me rather than your father or anyone from his house when he appointed me ruler over the Lord 's people Israel--I will celebrate before the Lord.

David takes a shot at her father. “Just remember,” he seems to be saying, “God chose me over your dad.” That seems like an unnecessary jab. Then, verse 22:

22I will become even more undignified than this, and I will be humiliated in my own eyes. But by these slave girls you spoke of, I will be held in honor."

In other words: “The other girls didn’t seem to mind.” Oooh! David, David, David, don’t say that! Don’t ever bring other people into your fight, especially people of the other gender. Don’t ever say things like: “She thought it was funny!” or “He doesn’t mind the way I dress.” That is never a healthy part of conflict.

Remember, we’re looking at David and Michal as an example of what not to do while having a conflict. David’s argument is that he is simply celebrating before the Lord. That’s the only audience he cared about, and he was willing to get even more undignified to show his love for God. It’s a decent argument, and maybe Michal would have accepted it if he had stuck simply to the issue at hand.

But that’s not what he does. He sticks in the knife about her father. He twists it around a little by talking about other girls. They’re not fighting over the issue anymore, they’re just throwing insults at each other.

I can’t say this emphatically enough: when you have a conflict, keep it about the issue. If you are discussing ice cream in the microwave, don’t turn it into a fight about how lazy or gluttonous the other person is. If you are concerned about money, don’t turn it into a fight about how selfish or careless the other person is. Stick to the matter at hand.

Here’s what Paul says, in Ephesians 4:29 and 31:

29Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is
helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those
who listen… 31Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.

Be careful of the words you use. Ask yourself: “Am I about to say this because I care about the other person and I want what’s best for our relationship? Or am I saying this because I want to win this argument and I wouldn’t mind making the other person feel bad in the process?”

There is such a temptation, when you are in a conflict, to do whatever it takes to win the argument. This is something I struggle with so much: I like to be right. I’m competitive. I don’t like to lose.

But marriage isn’t about winning or losing.

Chip Ingram once said: “Marriage is not a debate to be won, it’s a dance to be enjoyed.” Instead of seeing every conflict as a contest which you must win, how about approaching it with the intent of understanding and loving your spouse? Get rid of the ugly, bitter words. Choose instead words that build up. And stick to the issue.

Just As in Christ
So now, the third piece of coaching: Deal with conflict honestly—but forgive. Here’s the hardest part. You have to be honest about what’s going on with you, and you have to be willing and able to forgive. Here’s the last verse in the story, the last word on Michal:

23And Michal daughter of Saul had no children to the day of her death. 

This is so sad. Either this is God’s judgment on Michal or—more likely—they never got over this fight and so they never came together as husband and wife again. Either way, you get the sense that their marriage never really recovered.

If only they could have dealt with this conflict honestly, and with forgiveness. If only Michal could have said: “I’m so happy you were able to get the Ark home, but it really bothered me that you were dancing half-naked on the street.”

And David could have said: “Oh baby, I’m sorry about that. I got so carried away worshipping God that I kind of forgot what I was doing out there.”

And she would have said: “But all those girls were looking at you…”

And he would have said: “I know honey bear, and that’s my fault. But you’re the only girl I want to look at me when I’m dressed like that.”

“Are you sure?”

“I’ve never been more sure of anything in my life, sugar plum.”

If their conversation had gone more like that—nicknames and all—then maybe things would have turned out differently for them. They could have forgiven each other and their marriage would have been stronger for it. But they didn’t, and their marriage died in a desert of bitterness and neglect.

Marriage can survive with conflict. In fact, it has to. That’s where we started. Anytime you put two sinners together for any length of time conflict is inevitable. So any marriage that is gonna make it is gonna have to survive with conflict.

But marriage cannot survive without forgiveness. You have to be able to work through the conflict and forgive.

Back to Ephesians, verse 32:

32Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in
Christ God forgave you.

There’s a scary word in this verse—a real scary word. And the word is “as”. “Forgive each other, just AS in Christ God forgave you.” The standard for our forgiveness, the comparison we are charged to live up to, is a pretty high standard.

There is a day coming—and this applies to all of us, whether we are married or single, widowed or divorced—there is a day coming where we will stand before the throne of our holy and perfect Father, and the only hope any of us will have of whether He will accept us or not is if we have been forgiven in Christ Jesus. The question will be whether or not we have put our hope in Jesus, who went to such incredible lengths to endure the catastrophic conflict of the cross on our behalf, to pay for all our rebellion and misdeeds and negligence and sin.

That’s the standard of forgiveness that has been shown to us. Are we willing to extend that kind of forgiveness to one another?

I am My Beloved’s
Let me wrap this up by taking us back to the Song of Songs. Chapter 2, verse 16 the verse that comes right after the verse about the foxes:

16My lover is mine and I am his;
he browses among the lilies.

This same verse gets repeated in chapter 6, verse 3, only it gets reversed: “I am my lover’s and my lover is mine.” It even repeats the line about browsing in the lilies. I’m not sure what that means.

But the first line is clear enough. These two belong to each other. They are on the same team. The relationship they have with each other is far more important than being on the right side in any silly argument.

If you are married, I want you to remember this: You belong to each other. You are on the same side. Your spouse is not your enemy.

And one more thing: some of you are in marriages where you just don’t know how to deal with the conflict anymore. The little foxes have become giant wolves. So much hurt has happened, so many harsh words have been spoken, so little forgiveness is left. Either your home is a constant hurricane of peace-breaking; or you’re just leading two separate lives, you’ve gotten really good at peace-faking.

Well, if that’s you, let me ask you to please talk to somebody. I know that’s not really how we do things around here. It’s embarrassing to admit that we have problems. We don’t really want people to look past the veneer we put on for the public. We don’t like to feel vulnerable.

But if the conflict in your marriage has gotten so bad that you don’t know how to fix it, please talk to somebody. Come and talk to me, or to Jay. Find another couple that can serve as mentors to your marriage. Go to a good counselor.

Whatever it’s going to cost you in embarrassment and swallowed pride to admit that there are problems, just remember it’s going to cost you a whole lot more in pain and hurt to see your marriage swallowed up by bitterness and neglect.

You are your beloved’s, and your beloved is yours. That’s something worth fighting for.