I had just kicked off my shoes and sunk into the vinyl chair in my retreat centre room when there was a knock at the door. It was my colleague Nate. "I was just thinking about something I said in our meeting a few minutes ago," he began. "It really didn’t come out right and I wanted to explain what I meant." We chatted for a few minutes, Nate clarifying, me offering assurance that no offence had been taken. Before long we were both smiling at the clear air between us, and after a quick hug Nate was on his way.
Only a few minutes later, there was another tap on the door. This time it was my colleague Helen. "Hey," she said with a sheepish grin. "I’m concerned there may have been a misunderstanding in our exchange this morning. Can we discuss?" I nodded, resisting the urge to tell her Nate had just made a similar visit about an unrelated matter. A quick chat brought resolution and a promise to meet up again at dinner.
When Helen left I sunk back into my chair. "That was weird," I said aloud. As the director of the Renovaré Institute for Christian Spiritual Formation, I have the privilege of working with a team of seasoned teachers and spiritual directors. Four times a year we facilitate weeklong residencies for our students. We call these learning retreats intensives and they are aptly named in every sense of the word—intensely fun, intensely transformative, intensely challenging. Our leadership loves working together and we typically collaborate with striking ease. That’s why it seemed odd to me to hit two relational road bumps in the same day.
I remembered I had left some books in one of our conference spaces. I put my shoes back on and headed down the hallway. I soon encountered Chris, another faculty member, who happens to be the president of Renovaré. "I’m so glad I ran into you," said Chris. "Remember when I teased you after breakfast? That’s been bothering me all day and I’m really sorry."
"Sheesh!" I exclaimed. "Do I seem really offendable today? You’re the third person to come to me with something like this!"
Chris looked startled and then amused. At once I recalled an insight he had offered our staff on numerous occasions. "We are doing work together that has high spiritual stakes. We should expect some opposition in the spiritual realm. And we shouldn’t be surprised if that opposition takes the shape of discord – of some sort of attack on our relationships."
At that same moment I became intensely grateful for the team of intercessors I knew were covering our work in prayer. Standing in the hallway with Chris, my perspective flipped. I’d been seeing my exchanges with my colleagues as troubling signs of relational fragility. But maybe their proactive steps to immediately clear any potential misunderstandings were indicators of great relational – and spiritual – health.
In his letter to the Ephesians, the Apostle Paul offers some counsel strikingly similar to Chris’ advice. "In your anger do not sin. Do not let the sun go down while you are angry, and do not give the devil a foothold" (4:26–27).
Of course, both the Apostle Paul and my colleague Chris get all their best ideas from Jesus. In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus urges us to keep the shortest possible accounts. "If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you," He counsels, "leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them – then come and offer your gift." Similarly, if you’re about to face an adversary in court, "settle matters quickly" (Matthew 5:23–25).
Neither I nor my colleagues had been angry, exactly. But even if we had been, anger itself would not have been a problem. It’s unresolved anger – or hurt or misunderstanding – that leaves a foothold for the devil. Much to their credit my colleagues were not willing to leave the door open even a crack, and we finished that week an even stronger team than when we began, amazed at the work God was doing in us, through us and among our students. Want to frustrate the devil? Keep short accounts.