What You Must Know about Fish Tanks and Church Fights

Jesus fed the five thousand with some loaves and a couple of small fish. Obviously I’m not Jesus, and I was ready to flush some small fish. Here’s how things went down: For Christmas, we purchased a simple, soothing 10-gallon fish tank for my son Jon. Nothing fancy, but from the packed tank they were in at the pet store, ours seemed palatial. Jon picked his five favorites, added cool rocks, shells, and aquarium décor—Sponge Bob included.

When done, it looked like Disneyland for fish . . . the happiest place . . . in a tank.

What’s the Problem?  

You may not be a fish person, but for a moment, just think about fish life. They’ve got it made! They don’t have to cook, clean, or share; they don’t gain weight, work, take vitamins, drive the speed limit, or pay taxes. Be that as it may, all was not well from day one; two weeks and four funerals later, I was flummoxed. Quite possibly it was operator error, so I checked the water balance, bought another temperature gauge (it’s not a heated tank but just in case), changed filters, and eventually was on a first name basis with the fish store managers. In my most desperate moment, I snuck into my son’s room when he was sleeping, hid under some pillows on the floor, and watched the madness in action.

It wasn’t the tank, it was the fish. Those mean little suckers bullied one another when they thought no one was looking. Well, doesn’t that just beat all, I thought. I’ll show those little brats who is boss and drain the tank and make them suffer and . . . and . . . and what? Be a bigger bully to five brainless fish? Seriously!

Not “What” but . . .

When conflict sends ripples of irritation into our lives—whether it’s politics, pain, problems, or people we can’t fix, to name a few—there’s something going on beneath the surface. The reality is that most surface or external arguments aren’t our real problems; they are just symptoms. The real problem, most often, is connected to something within us—a soul issue that will hurt us and others if we don’t deal with it wisely. With our fish tank, I thought the problem was the tank itself, and I went to battle trying to fix what wasn’t broken.

Under Water
(Photo Courtesy of

The fish were the real problem; they were killing each other trying to establish who was number one in the pecking order. How often is the Christian community like our 10-gallon fish tank? In spite of the fact that God provides for us and profoundly loves us, our instinct is to pursue pleasure, power, and primacy. In fact, not long after God created the world—including the fish in the sea—trouble set in. Human conflict is one of Scripture’s core themes. From sibling rivalry to slavery . . . kings and coups to palace power and feudal fighting . . . creation to the cross to today’s warring culture, conflicts are deeply rooted in our sinful, selfish souls. Here are a few of the countless passages we must remember:

Matthew 15:19: “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders.”

Mark 7:21–23: “For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man.”

Romans 7:23: I see another law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members.

James 4:1–2: What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you? Is not the source your pleasures that wage war in your members? You lust and do not have; so you commit murder. You are envious and cannot obtain; so you fight and quarrel.

Matthew Henry’s commentary on Mark 7 sums things up so well.

As a corrupt fountain sends forth corrupt streams, so does a corrupt heart send forth corrupt reasonings, corrupt appetites and passions, and all the wicked words and actions that come from them. A spiritual understanding of the law of God, and a sense of the evil of sin, will cause a man to seek for the grace of the Holy Spirit, to keep down the evil thoughts and affections that work within. (Mark 7-16)

Let Me Hear from You

Friends and fellow Christians, it’s time to reframe church conflicts, to examine ourselves and own the messes we make. Grave damage is inflicted on others when we point fingers, judge, blame, assume, accuse, and power punch. Let’s remember: the fish tank wasn’t the problem; the fish in the tank were—and are—the problem. As a global church body, we are called to be of one mind and one spirit, to live in harmony and unity with one another. Church buildings are not the problem; people in the church are the root of most problems. Let’s start with the root cause of conflicts from here on out.

It will be nice when my son’s fish finally decide to get along; they have so much to enjoy in their little 10-gallon world. In our world, there’s so much to enjoy . . . what one thing can you do to bring unity to your home and church family? Let’s talk about how to make that happen this next week.

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