Issues: Conflicts can take place in our relationships with one another at every level – between husband and wife, between parents and children, with friends, others at work, and even at church. Because we all experience conflict in one way or another, we must know how to deal with it in a biblical, constructive way. What does the Bible say about conflict? What causes conflict? How should we react to it? Is conflict always destructive, or can it be helpful?
A COUPLE WHO had been married for fifteen years once came to me for counsel. The husband was a dominant person, and forceful in expressing himself. The wife was quite intelligent and had good ideas, but because of her husband’s dominance she had adopted only a passive role in their relationship.
This had led to limited dialogue in their communication, along with the resultant frustration. As we looked into the reasons for this, the wife admitted that at some point early in their relationship she had decided it was not worth it to try expressing herself. It created too much tension, since he was so forceful and dynamic. Therefore she had chosen to avoid confrontation. As a result, they were not experiencing the fulfillment in their relationship that God intends husbands and wives to have.
In another counseling situation, a young woman said that for some years she had been reluctant to talk with her parents because she felt she was not important to them. This had led to the normal reaction of resentment, and to her unhealthy involvement with various young men. She also said her mother often told her in tears that she couldn’t bother her husband with her own concerns because he had too much on his mind.
These are only two of countless examples showing how people fail to deal with conflict in a healthy way. Many avoid discussing it and hope it will go away. Others ignore it for fear of admitting they have needs. In other cases, peripheral symptoms are dealt with but the basic issue in the conflict is missed.
Conflict is very much a part of biblical history. The first instance (in Genesis 3) is the conflict between man and God in the Garden of Eden, with the well-known results. In Genesis 4 we see a different kind of conflict – between man and man, as well as with God. From there conflict can be traced throughout the Scriptures, occurring in a variety of ways.
Eventually we come to the New Testament to two important summary statements regarding conflict. The first is Matthew 7:1-5, in which Jesus expresses a primary reason for conflict: our tendency to look at the faults of others instead of our own.
Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? … You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.
We fail to realize that in any conflict, an equal share of the responsibility is our own. Because we are unwilling to begin by examining ourselves before the Lord to see what we must do in a particular situation, the stage is set for problems.
The second important passage is in Ephesians 4:1-3.
I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.
Here Paul establishes the basic character qualities that help us avoid interpersonal conflict, or at least keep it in a healthy perspective.
Later, in Philippians 4:2-3, Paul pleads with two women who had been closely involved with him in telling the gospel to others, and yet now are involved in conflict. He urges them “to agree with each other in the Lord.” Here we have another underlying biblical concept relating to conflict – that of reconciliation. This is an important word in God’s dealing with men, referring both to the reconciliation with God that we can have through Jesus Christ, and to the reconciliation men can have with each other through Christ.
We see this second meaning illustrated in Ephesians 2:14, which speaks of Christ: “For He himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility.” Paul is writing about the wall of separation that had existed between Gentiles and Jews, but the principle relates to every interpersonal relationship – that Christ came to tear down all walls of hostility which separate one person from another, for whatever reason. This concept of reconciliation is especially important in handling conflict within families.
Because there is so much misunderstanding about conflict, many of us are unwilling to admit and face up to it. This can be particularly true in marriage, as a husband and wife become unwilling to admit they are “having problems” for fear of what others may think.
This kind of attitude is very human, but unfortunate. It is also unbiblical. The Bible teaches us that as members of Christ’s body we desperately need each other, and should reach out for the help others can give. The apostle James instructs us that the healing process begins when we are willing to admit to others the problems we are struggling with: “Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed” (Jas. 5:16). When I reach out for a brother or sister who is willing to pray with me in this situation, the inner healing process is enhanced.
The husband and wife who are experiencing a conflict but who are unwilling to admit it will experience a breakdown in their communication. What might have been easily taken care of if biblical guidelines were followed now begins to grow out of proportion. Tension develops. The man and woman may put on their masks when they’re in public, but when they’re alone a cold, condemning silence separates them. What a common tragedy this is, even among the children of God!
So there is a great difference between a simple conflict and the problems that can develop because of it. Conflict is a normal part of life. It can be a healthy and developmental experience. But when it is ignored or avoided and remains unresolved, it inevitably becomes a problem. It then debilitates and destroys both the people involved and the relationship between them.
Satan takes advantage of these situations and adds confusion and accusation to them. We know these are Satan’s works and not God’s, because he “is not a God of disorder but of peace” (1 Cor. 14:33); and Satan is called “the accuser” in Revelation 12:10. Certainly one of the primary workshops in which he confuses and accuses is in the area of unresolved conflict in human relationships.
The good side
But how can conflict be healthy and developmental?
First of all, when two people are willing to face a conflict and work their way through it, they create an opening for a greater degree of understanding and compassion for one another.
Second, they are forced into more meaningful dialogue as they confront the issues involved.
Third, they become more aware of God’s grace as they see His help in bringing about reconciliation. God said to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9), and certainly our weaknesses show up clearly in interpersonal conflicts.
In Hebrews 12:15 we are reminded not to miss out on God’s grace, which can result in a root of bitterness springing up “to cause trouble and defile many.” I’ve watched this happen in several situations of conflict. Those involved were unwilling to appropriate God’s grace and to apply biblical principles. The resulting bitterness spread to others within the family and even outside the family.
Whose fault is it?
To better understand what our biblical responsibility is for handling conflict, let’s examine first what the Bible says about the reasons for conflict.
In Jeremiah 17:9 we read. “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” The deceitfulness and wickedness of our hearts is one underlying cause of interpersonal conflict.
This is demonstrated outwardly by the self-centeredness described in Isaiah 53:6 – “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way.”
Another factor is found in Proverbs 13:10 – “Pride only breeds quarrels.” We have the insolence (audacity) to presume that we are right and others are wrong.
In view of this biblical perspective about the cause of interpersonal conflicts, it becomes fairly obvious that to end a conflict honestly and effectively I must start with myself. This is clear, for example, in the passage in Matthew 7 in which Jesus said to “first take the plank out of your own eye.”
So I must ask myself:
- Am I blaming the other person? Or am I willing to begin by asking God to examine me?
- Is there deceit, self-centeredness, or pride on my part?
- Am I deceiving myself?
- Am I willing to give up all rights to myself, as Jesus said – ‘If anyone would come after Me, he must deny himself’?
This is always the essential first step in handling conflict biblically.
The wrong way
To better understand this responsibility to examine ourselves, let’s examine a biblical illustration mentioned earlier. Genesis 3 records the disobedience by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and the subsequent rupture of their fellowship with God. The first obvious factor we see is that Adam and Eve were unwilling to accept personal responsibility for their conflict with God. He blamed her and she blamed the serpent.
Second, we see that they hid themselves from God. Rather than moving toward Him, they withdrew from Him. This, of course, is often what takes place when there is conflict. Rather than moving toward one another, we move away from each other. We isolate ourselves. A silent, invisible steel curtain drops between us and we are unwilling to take the initial step.
Third, we see a fear of confrontation. Adam and Eve knew they had done something wrong, and that they would have to face the consequences. This made them unwilling to confront the issue.
There are, of course, more profound theological implications in this story in Genesis 3, but theology notwithstanding, here are three practical lessons about dealing with conflict that we can learn from this account:
- Always accept personal responsibility.
- Make whatever effort necessary to move toward the person with whom you are experiencing conflict.
- Take the risk of confronting the issue for the sake of the relationship.
Another passage mentioned earlier was the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4. Cain became angry because his offering to God was rejected. God graciously offered Cain instructions on how to meet His standards, but Cain refused God’s way of escape.
In 1 Corinthians 10:13 we read that “God is faithful; He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, He will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.” When conflict arises in a relationship with someone, God says there is always a solution to that conflict. Our problem is that we refuse to take it, and this is what Cain did.
In Cain’s example we immediately see the first dynamic in the process of broken fellowship – that is, the self-centeredness of the human heart. As a result there was a chain reaction of envy leading to jealousy, then to frustration, and finally to murder. Cain’s conflict was with God, but he expressed the frustration of it against his brother Abel.
In this account we see an illustration of three more guidelines.
- Always act in obedience to what you know God says.
- Accept God’s solution for failure – that is, be willing to confess your failure to God.
- Ask God to examine your heart, and be willing to deal with anything He shows you before confronting another person.
Often in interpersonal conflict the real issue is our conflict with God. We may be well aware that God has said our action or attitude is wrong and needs to be confessed and made right, but we choose to ignore or resist what God has said. In our resistance and frustration we then react wrongly to someone with whom we are trying to relate. Because we are unwilling to face our personal responsibility to God, it leads to conflict with our wife, our husband, our children, or someone else.
An example would be a man who day after day must fight traffic on the freeways as he returns home from his job. Unfortunately, too often he becomes frustrated with other drivers and the congestion of the traffic. But rather than recognizing his wrong attitude – his lack of patience and self-control – and confessing these to God, seeking His help and grace, he arrives home upset and irritable. He uses the nearest target available to vent his frustration upon, and usually this is his wife and children. He blames them for one thing or another and gets upset about unimportant matters.
This can happen to any of us.
Getting back together
We looked before at the importance of reconciliation. This concept is expressed vividly in Matthew 5:23-24 and Matthew 18:15.
If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift. …If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.
In both passages, the first step in handling conflict is emphasized: It is always my move first. In Matthew 5, I am the offender and I am to go and be reconciled. In Matthew 18, I have been offended – but still I am to go and be reconciled. It is always my responsibility to be the initiator.
Note also that reconciliation takes precedence over worship, showing the importance God places on the right kind of relationships and the proper handling of conflict.
Reconciliation has been defined by Merrill F. Unger as “the restoration of friendship and fellowship after estrangement.” Reconciliation has to do with relationships, and it does not necessarily mean agreement or understanding on every issue. Reconciliation between people and the resolution of issues are two separate things.
Too often these are confused, and we demand agreement on every issue before we can experience reconciliation. This is not biblical thinking. The Bible teaches unity in biblical doctrine, but does not demand uniformity in non-biblical issues.
Individuals will always have different ways of thinking about the same issues, even among husband and wife and parents and children. Obviously there must be agreement on some basic issues, but there must also be a great allowance for diversity in other areas. Someone has said that a good relationship between husband and wife means they think together, and not necessarily alike.
So when there is conflict, my primary objective must be to be reconciled to the other person, reestablishing a oneness of heart and mutual confidence. There may still be disagreement regarding certain issues, but reconciliation means believing confidently that both of us are being mutually honest, and are willing to accept one another on that basis.
Honesty is essential to experiencing reconciliation. “Each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one body” (Eph. 4:25). I must be willing to take the risk of expressing myself and exposing myself whenever necessary. I must be willing to say what I really think and how I really feel.
But this does not give me license for the careless expression of hurtful statements. In expressing truth I must be willing to exercise self-control, and not speak impulsively.
Look at the guidelines regarding our speech in Ephesians 4:15 – “Speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into Him who is the Head, that is, Christ.” The context of this verse has to do with speaking true doctrine, but the principles apply to speaking the truth in any situation.
We are to speak the truth in love, and love demands that I put the best interest of the other person ahead of my own. Patience and kindness (1 Cor. 13:4) are to be the controlling factors.
My expression of truth must also be helpful and edifying. We are to “in all things grow up.” In an interpersonal conflict, therefore, my speaking the truth should produce growth and development, not destruction. I must never deliberately speak hurtfully or sarcastically.
Speaking truthfully in this way should create a greater degree of Christlikeness in both of us. We are to grow up “into Him who is the Head, that is Christ.” I should think about this before expressing the truth to the other person. How would it produce Christ-likeness in us?
Over and done with
The Scriptures clearly demand two important steps in effectively handling and terminating conflict.
1. Confession – We have already established that it is always my move first, and my first action in making that move should be confession – both to God and to the person involved.
But what if I’m not at fault? What if my wife is the offender? Then I must confess that I was offended, and that I probably reacted wrongly to what she did. And since we have seen in Scripture that pride is at the root of conflict, I must confess that I’ve been proud. Otherwise, the conflict would not have arisen.
2. Forgiveness – In Luke 17:3-6 Jesus said to His disciples,
So watch yourselves. If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.
Note that He said first of all, “Watch yourselves.” In other words, make sure your own attitude is right. Begin with yourself. Be willing to take the first step. Take the plank out of your own eye. This is always the place to begin in forgiving.
The disciples replied in verse five that this was too much for them. They said, “Increase our faith!” Christ’s answer to them, in essence, was that they didn’t need more faith. They needed to obey what they already knew.
We know we should forgive; therefore we must do it. Forgiveness is not based on feeling, but on obedience to the command of Jesus Christ. Forgiveness is an act of the will.
But how can I forgive something I can’t forget?
Jesus did not say, “Forgive someone when you are able to forget what he has done.” Actually, it may not be possible to forget something at first (or at all). Our memories are given to us by God. We record things there and remember them. But what we do with our memories is our responsibility.
Forgiving, therefore, requires first of all our commitment to not raise that issue against that person again. It may still come to our mind occasionally, but each time it does we must choose not to bring it to the other person’s attention, holding it over his head.
God tells us about His forgiveness in Isaiah 43:25:
I, even I, am He who blots out your transgressions, for My own sake, and remembers your sins no more.
This is also the attitude we should have in forgiveness.
Second, forgiving means not mentioning the offense to a third party.
And third, it means not allowing ourselves to brood over the offense. I remember one man who came to me asking for counsel. He had been a pastor, and related to me in detail what had happened twelve years before when he had been offended by a certain group in his church. He moved to another church and had a similar experience about three years later. Finally he told me of a third church he had been involved in three years later, and how his involvement there also ended in an unhappy situation.
All of these incidents were recounted in detail about how he had been mistreated and misunderstood. Yet after telling about each one he would say, “But I don’t hold anything against them.”
After forty-five minutes he asked, “George, what do you think I should do?”
I asked him if he really wanted me to answer honestly. He said he did. I went on to point out that he was full of an unforgiving spirit. His life had been warped by the resentment and bitter-ness he was holding inside, and this had undoubtedly affected many other lives as well.
What a tragedy that someone should suffer in this way when God tells us so clearly how to deal with such matters.
A new relationship
The Bible tells us that after confessing and forgiving we must establish a new relationship – a biblically-oriented relationship – with the person we have been in conflict with. This will require making ourselves vulnerable to that person.
God wants us to live in harmony with one another, that together our lives can glorify Him (Rom. 15:5-6). So he says, “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God” (Rom. 15:7). Acceptance means we recognize the worth of each other, and demonstrate an honest, mutual concern. We desire not only to reestablish the relationship and to end the conflict, but also together to grow in Christ.
So what is the purpose of all this? Why should I be concerned about effectively ending conflict? Is it just for my own peace of mind, my own personal benefit?
I will experience personal peace and benefit by ending conflict biblically, but we see the real reason in Romans 15:6 – “that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
George Sanchez, Discipleship Journal