Wait…what are we arguing about?

Reflecting on Paul’s letter to the Philippians, I was reminded of a parable from a well-known organizational text entitled Getting to Yes (Fisher, Ury, & Patton, 1991) that came out of the Harvard Negotiation Project. Various versions of the parable can be found floating about the Internet, but here’s the essence of it. Two people are arguing over…an orange. It’s the only one left, and each person wants it. After wrangling with each other unsuccessfully, they decide to compromise, cutting the orange in two.

Neither is happy with the outcome, but it’s the only answer that seems fair to them in the moment. Neither of them loses, but then again, neither really wins.

What they didn’t realize is that a win-win was possible.

If they had had a different and deeper conversation about why they wanted or needed the orange, they would have discovered that one person wanted the peel for a baking project, and the other wanted the juice. Each person jumped straight to a solution to their own problem: I get the orange. And their solutions hardened into polar opposite positions about who should get the orange. Defending their unquestioned positions made true negotiation impossible. Had they instead discussed their interests or needs more clearly, both may have been able to come away with what they needed.

What does this have to do with Philippians? We’ve seen how Paul prays that the love the Philippians have for each other would “overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help [them] to determine what really matters, so that in the day of Christ [they] may be pure and blameless” (Phil 1:9-10, NRSVUE). Language like that can sound a little abstract, spiritually removed from the nitty-gritty of everyday conflict. But Paul is no stranger to the many ways people hurt each other, and I want us to recognize the practical, real-world implications of his prayer.

The love of which Paul speaks isn’t merely a matter of affection or warm feelings. Its depth and value is shown in both action and attitude. All of us are prone to defensiveness when confronted with a situation in which we find our needs at odds with someone else’s. We quickly jump to solutions in our own minds: “If you would just do X, everything would be fine.” The other person, of course, wants Y instead, and we fall to defending our positions.

But can we pause long enough to consider what else “matters” in these situations? The distinction between interests and positions already suggests that our proposed solutions, which are often mutually exclusive, have become more important to us than the needs that gave rise to them. I need the peel and I need the juice both become I need to win in a zero-sum game in which there can only be one winner.

Part of what it takes to get around the impasse, then, is the vulnerability to be honest about what we really need and want. Beyond this, however, Paul would want the Philippians to recognize not just their individual interests but their mutual ones. In the Christian community, the first casualty of our conflicts is our sense of unity as sisters and brothers in Christ.

I doubt anyone in Philippi questioned the pressure that confronted the church from the outside. But did they recognize the importance of their unity, of having a common mind, to their ability to withstand those external pressures? That, I think, is part of what Paul wanted them to understand.

Ultimately, though, what matters most is what matters eschatologically, in other words, what leads us toward God’s future, who we are becoming in Christ, and who we will be at his return. It takes wisdom to be able to love in a way that keeps such ultimate ends in mind. If God’s future is one of wholeness and shalom, then what am I doing now — even in the midst of this conflict — to promote that shalom? If our future destiny is resurrection, what am I doing that shows the reality of new life now, in the present?

It’s not that the church in Philippi was coming apart at the seams. Far from it. But no one knew better than Paul how quickly the unity of a church could deteriorate. He wanted to build on the love and faith they already had, to help them become more spiritually resilient.

That’s the kind of growth we could all use, especially in fractious and uncertain times. Oranges aside, that’s the fruit that matters.

2 thoughts on “Wait…what are we arguing about?

  1. So timely! Needed a reminder this morning to focus on what’s really important rather than get into an argument with my tween over her styling choices.

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