A Pastor I once worked for taught me a brilliant lesson about dealing with people, and it has revolutionized the way I see misunderstandings, conflicts, and flare-ups in relationship. It is even helping change the way I parent my kids and relate to my husband.
My Pastor used to say that we all carry around with us a bucket of gasoline and a bucket of water, and wisdom is knowing which bucket to throw on the “spark” of a given situation*.
See, conflicts don’t just explode out of nowhere. There is a spark. Most of the time that spark is small and commonplace – a miscommunication or an unmet expectation, a tone or even a look. And we have a choice in how we deal with that spark. Do we escalate, react, “take it to the next level”? Do we bring the gasoline and burn that thing up? Or do we walk away for a minute, process, deal calmly, ask questions, speak kindly. Is water what we employ to deal with the spark?
It sounds simple, but don’t forget it is a spark. Sparks lead to fire, and we have all been burned. So reaction is actually the normal, default mindset. Your adrenaline gets going. Your fear kicks in. Your instinct to protect and defend flares up. The “us” versus “them” sin-nature we all possess shifts into high gear.
- You get an email that seems to attack you, and other people are copied on it. Gasoline or water?
- You have a child throwing the fourth fit in 20 minutes. Gasoline or water?
- You have worked hard all day, and immediately upon arriving home, your spouse starts in. Gasoline or water?
I think gasoline is easier, at least in the moment. It is quick, definitive. You feel strongly that bringing the gasoline is justified. But most of the time, after it is over, all you are left with is a charred mess.
Whereas water, well, water is harder. You have to stop. Slow down. Pray. Breathe. You have to try to warp your mind to see things from the other person’s perspective. You have to speak kindly, even when you are being spoken to in a harsh or disrespectful way. Water doesn’t come naturally – it’s entirely supernatural and only really possible when we get our eyes off ourself. But when we work at it, we see things differently. We can suddenly see that an angry reaction to an email will only provoke more angry emails, and a child who is exhausted cannot reason, and a tired overwhelmed spouse sometimes just needs to vent a second. Sometimes our relationships are worth humbling ourselves and choosing the water, because it restores what is broken.
Gasoline or water?
This is a gasoline world. Sound-bites flying, reactions spouted-off, rage and offense the default reaction to any perceived slight.
But we serve a water Jesus. He did get angry and bring the gasoline twice that we know of from Scripture, but it was rare and incredibly justified. Most of the time, peace, mercy, grace, and love flowed from him like a never-ending stream of water. He died refusing to fight. He had enough gasoline at his fingertips to torch the earth, and yet he held it back.
And when he breathed his last, the earth grew dark. And I have to wonder, do you think it rained?
Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. James 1:19-20
Love is patient, love is kind, it does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud, it is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 1 Corinthians 13:4-5
*I believe my Pastor got this illustration from John Maxwell’s book “Go For Gold”