Living Peaceably with One Another
One of the ways I have been earning money for living and school down here in Dallas is as a swimming pool cleaner. It is the Dallas equivalent to window cleaning in Chicago, I think. I have the same driving route week to week, which means that I know the construction patters and scheduled lane closures. This puts me in a position where I often must decide what to do with the people who either see the lane closure late or purposely prefer to fly down the side of the road aiming to ‘cut in line.’ My instinct—and yours too, don’t lie!—is to lock the other car out and look straight ahead like it isn’t clearly and obviously purposeful. This is a dangerous instinct.
Last year, not far from my own driving route, two drivers gave into that instinct and instead of being peaceful drivers, became driven by their tempers. The situation escalated to the point where both drivers pulled over for a face to face confrontation. The first driver opened his door, yelled some very creative things at the other, slammed his door and approached the other motorist. They meet somewhere between their vehicles and I assume they stared each other down, forehead to forehead, before one of them throws the first punch. As has been established, these guys are the type to escalate a situation. So, when one of them pulls a gun and shoots the other in an illegal show if disproportionate force, it is not altogether surprising.
Each person participated in the escalation at multiple points. At any point, up to the shooting it could have been defused. The driver who had been cut off could have let it go, instead he escalated. The driver who cut the other off could have mouthed “Sorry” and not pulled over for a face to face confrontation. Either one of them could have gotten back into their vehicle and stormed off after cussing the other out. So many points of departure off the angry train—none took one.
While not necessarily as colorful, we experience this. We know this kind of situation: two people locked in a conflict where the inciting incident is no longer the driving factor, but rather the temperament of those involved. Life goes better with less anger, even better with fewer actions permitted in anger.
Anger did not serve these men well (I assume they were men—because). Anger rarely serves us well. I want us to think more seriously about living peaceably with one another. Peaceably means inclined toward peace. It is about managing our tempers.
Solomon shares his wisdom on exactly this topic in the book of Proverbs.
Proverbs 15:18, “A hot-tempered man stirs up strife, but the slow to anger calms a dispute.”
I want you to see the four parts. Two temperaments: “hot-tempered” and “slow to anger.” Two outcomes, “stirs up strife” and “calms a dispute.”
I think all of us (my family and friends back home) readily accept Proverbs to be principles for life and not promises for which God is required to fulfill. But principles are not meaningless. The implication of Proverbs is that even though we live in a fallen world, there is enough of its original purpose intact that the best way to trudge through it is to practice wisdom. And if God is wise, then these wise sayings say something, if even a little, about the character of God. In this Proverb, Solomon has observed or intuited via his gift of wisdom that it is virtuous and wise to approach conflict not with anger but with patience.
Demonstrated Anger Leads to Strife
Demonstrated anger can create strife—the initial stage of conflict—where there was none previously. Notice that we have two different words for conflict; that is on purpose and it reflects the original Hebrew. We have “strife” and a “dispute.” The New Living Translation uses “fight” for both uses. This does not bother me because the main idea is there: the easily angered person starts a fight and the patient person stops it. There is a little that gets lost reading it this way, however, that is why we have expository preachers—to tease out the bits that go untranslated.
What is strife?
Think of a scuffle or a confrontation. We are dealing with the spark of a heated conflict. People who anger easily—literally ‘man of wrath’ in the Hebrew—are prone to sparking conflicts. This is not surprising, right? You have watched this unfold—never participated I am sure!
What is a dispute?
Allow me to contrast this initial conflict with a dispute: A patient person can defuse even a dispute—something which is a later stage of strife, allowed to fester. The word here is often used to describe a lawsuit. A dispute is serious. Someone owes someone a goat. The police are on the way and lawyers being called. Or perhaps a feud with a boss or coworker is reaching its zenith and the worst is on the horizon. Solomon says that the “slow to anger calms a dispute.” It is like he is saying, even a dispute. It is never too late to follow wise advice and practice patience.
Now in the background here is another thing that is so obvious it is easy to miss: “strife” and “disputes,” are not the ideal way for a people to interact. This is a community issue. Not only would things go better for Solomon’s student if he or she follows this principle, but things will necessarily go better for the community because this is about relationships.
A Timeless Truth
Sometimes it is difficult to pull out those timeless truths from Scripture, but in this case it is fairly straightforward: If there is conflict in which the key element is a bad temper, it ought to be to be soothed instead of stoked. Or to say it another way, it is not acceptable nor is it wise for anger to be the spark that starts a conflict.
Those who fear the Lord are called to maintain peaceful relationships. Anger is nowhere denounced wholesale, but we ought to master it instead of the other way around. The “slow to anger” is not ‘angerless’, but certainly angry reactions are not primary in the same way that a hothead is ruled by his or her temper. The idea here is peace first.
Even when drawn into a dispute by another, the right response is graceful and understanding in attitude. In other words, the way we get into disputes matters, but so does the way in which we act when we are steeped in a feud. There are some disputes with a built-in off-ramp: patience and the ability to let anger go. Sometimes a conflict will deflate if one of the participants refuses to up the ante.
I think you know where this is going. What should we do about all this?
First, live at peace with one another. Live at peace with one another.
It may not always be possible, but it is the wise person who makes the attempt! Am I saying that conflict itself is bad? No, but I am positing that conflict can be peaceful. I have experienced this kind of conflict and it has stuck with me.
I worked myself through college by cleaning residential and commercial windows. During my first time at a residence I knocked a decorative plate off its stand with my pole and it shattered on the floor. I felt fear, shame, and a little irritated that the plate had been placed right there! So, I sheepishly went and found the resident and told him what I had done. I did not yet have liability insurance and so I was concerned what this was going to cost me. The resident and I were on the cusp of a dispute, exactly the kind to which this proverb applies. He was disappointed about the broken plate but stayed calm and cordial through the whole ordeal. I also remained calm and agreed to replace the plate. Our dispute was ended. At any point one of us could have made things much worse and it could have even become a full legal dispute. But it didn’t—because we kept cool heads.
Second, keep an eye on anger; it is not inherently sinful but is one of those emotions, that, for people in a fallen world is not neutral. If you do not believe me, keep a list of ten times you acted while in anger and see how often you are proud of a response or how many times you wish you could go back and react differently. Anger rarely serves us well. Unbridled anger never does. So, treat it with suspicion.
Third, even when dragged into a dispute or a heated debate that you did not instigate, act with patience. The man whose plate I broke had his patience rewarded with a quickly replaced plate. If he had been belligerent I may have dug in my heels. And if I am dragged into a dispute that I had no part in, I am not justified in acting out in anger. If it is possible to take the off ramp of patience, I ought to take it. If you can get out merely by a winsome reaction, then what would motivate you to stay in and defend yourself besides pride or something worse? So, avoid the conflict you can, and make the unavoidable conflict as peaceful as possible.
In his wisdom Solomon charged that it would go best for those who reacted not in anger but with patience. In other words, this fallen world still retains enough of its original order that wisdom is still wise. And this is wise: when conflict is due to a temper, we are called to avoid it. Not all conflict, but if it has arisen because of a temper, take that off ramp and do not allow your own anger to be the next on ramp. And remember, even a dispute—a more heated conflict such as a feud or lawsuit—can at times be soothed with patience.
A challenge of a most difficult sort:
The next time that someone tries to squeeze in a head of you in a lane merge because they did not merge when they ought to have, just let them in. Our tendency is to ride the bumper of the car in front of us, so they cannot get in just like I sometimes do—that is participating in strife, brothers and sisters. It is ten feet of ground you will recover in seconds. Feel the anger, then choose not to act out because of it. You can probably practice this once or twice every day! Do not stoke with anger but soothe with patience.