Understanding Interpersonal Conflict by Naming our Narratives

By Steve Beck on May 24, 2017

So many of the difficulties in my relationship with God over the years have happened in the context of surprising suffering, by which I mean suffering that I thought I might be spared in light of God’s great love for me. Even after all the years, I still find myself fighting to fit Him into my narrative rather than humbly embracing His.

We live our lives in stories. Like the stories we read, the stories we live have plots, characters, conflicts, and themes. Some things happen and others don’t. Some words are spoken and others are left unsaid. We create and interpret stories in light of the connections we perceive between actions in the plot and the judgments we make about the messages and motives of the characters involved.

As image-bearers of God, it seems that we’ve been created with an impressive capacity to read situations and understand people. We use this capacity to construct narratives that help us make sense of life and make decisions about how we’re going to live it. But like all of our other impressive capacities, this one too is far from perfect.

As humans we just don’t know everything and even the things we know, we only know in part. On top of that, we tend to hear and tell stories in the company of people who reinforce familiar narratives — a reality that results in us missing, dismissing or denying data that doesn’t seem to fit.

As a follower of Jesus, Peter lived his life in a story. He’d heard his Teacher’s message that the “time is fulfilled” and “the kingdom of God is at hand.” He’d witnessed his power to heal, his command of the forces of nature, his dominance of demonic spirits and his authority to teach as one proclaiming the very words of God. When asked by Jesus, “who do you say that I am?” he responded correctly: “You are the Christ.” So far, so good.

Then Jesus “began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly.” (Mark 8:31,32)

Suddenly there’s a clash of narratives. Peter’s Son of Man story was about “dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. . . an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away and . . . shall not be destroyed” (Daniel 7:14). Jesus’ prophetic story about suffering, rejection, and death didn’t fit the familiar narrative and so Peter, rather than seeing any need to update his own story, decides in his “rightness” to correct the Son of Man. Bad idea.

“And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” (Mark 8:32,33)

Our conflicts almost always involve a clash of narratives.

Knowing our capacity for reading people and situations, we should pay attention to the stories we’re constructing. Knowing our capacity for getting it wrong, we should deploy massive amounts of humility, curiosity and empathy as we listen to the stories of others. Authentic understanding alone won’t resolve our deepest conflicts, but it certainly provides a more productive context for the gospel of peace to thrive.

About Steve Beck