Don Follis: We must courageously, kindly speak truth in love

Don Follis: We must courageously, kindly speak truth in love

Early one Saturday morning when I was in high school, I was doing my weekly chores when there was a knock on our door. When I opened it, an unfamiliar man asked if my dad was home. When dad came to the door, the man asked dad to speak with him out on our porch.

As soon as dad stepped outside, the man started accusing dad and his company of not finishing a job properly. Turns out the man had not paid the upfront money he agreed to, and the job was stopped until the man could come up the funds. This was all agreed upon in writing. Later, I found out my dad already had given the man many chances.

And yet, here was a man at our door on Saturday morning giving it to my dad with both barrels. The man grew louder and increasingly red-faced as he paced around my dad, pointing his finger at him. Dad stood there calmly, speaking a soft voice. Dad was respected for his hard work, his kindness and his fair-mindedness.

Finally, the man stormed off, jumped into his car and sped off, squealing his tires on the pavement. Dad stepped back inside the house, smiling. My brother instantly asked, "Dad, why didn't you kick him off our property?"

Dad looked at my brother and me and quoted a Bible verse from the book of Romans. "Well boys, the good book says 'As far as it depends you, live at peace with all people.' That dispute was not going to be solved this morning so I let the man vent. I'll deal with it Monday."

But then dad stopped, gathered himself and actually apologized. "Boys, I shouldn't have let him go on for 10 minutes on our front porch. You didn't need to hear all his cursing. I should have jumped in quicker and said, 'Leave my property or I will call the police.' I apologize for that."

Now that I work with so many churches experiencing conflict, I often see four basic ways people respond to conflict. They are passive, evasive, defensive or aggressive. Most have a primary way of responding when something triggers their emotions. It's partly their personality, partly driven by culture and partly learned over time.

In fact, our response is almost automatic. We do it without even realizing it. If our main style of responding fails, we usually employ a secondary conflict style. So, you may be passive aggressive, becoming aggressive in passive ways.

When my dad quoted the verse to we boys about living at peace with all people, we might have quoted back to him this verse from the Apostle Paul: "Speak the truth in love."

Truth and love are opposites side of the same coin. We need them both, especially during conflict.

What frequently happens, though, is passive/evasive responders tend to over-emphasize love. To them, conflict is wrong and must be endured quietly. They think mercy and love forbid confrontation, so they may go to great lengths to deny feelings of anger and avoid speaking the truth, even if they have to be dishonest. They might say, "Truth is, I just love everybody. I'm not going to pick sides and hurt anyone's feelings."

If, however, your conflict style is defensive or aggressive, you are tempted to over-emphasize truth. For you, conflict is about proving who is right and who is wrong and you will use power, often forcing the issue, to defend truth and stay in control. To prove you are right, you may manipulate the relationship, bend the truth or worse, sacrifice the relationship.

Defensive/aggressive people can become indifferent to other people as they "fight" for the truth. Thus, you may hear them say, "This is the way we are going to handle this. Period. Good grief, what did you expect would happen?"

Peace-making takes a lot of practice. It's hard to unlearn bad habits — negative conflict styles — and relearn new habits of reconciliation. In what feels like a paradox, I think people, and churches, should engage in more every day disagreements. Healthy conflict could lead to fewer divisive and church-splitting conflicts.

If people and organizations can find the proper forum for processing matters, they have the chance to own the log in their own eye, asking questions like, "What is it about me in this conflict?", "How am I contributing to the conflict?" and "What am I refusing to forgive?"

Until you own your stuff, it is hard to say, "I'm sorry I have sinned against you. Please forgive me." But recognizing how you have offended people can lead you to humbly asking others how you can change and even to start making restitution to those you have offended or hurt. What would it mean to demonstrate the sincerity of your repentance by making every effort to rebuild trust and restore fellowship?

The only way I can imagine this happening is if people will ask God to transform them from the inside out. That means moving toward people, not away from them. It means serving one another, forgiving one another, and submitting to one another as we courageously and kindly speak the truth in love.

Don Follis has pastored in Champaign-Urbana for 35 years. He directs retreats and coaches leaders via Contact him at, and you can follow him on Twitter (@donfollis).

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