Last summer and fall, I spent six months teaching through the Sermon on the Mount in a couple of different classes at church; at the same time, I also took a graduate school class called “Managing Conflict in Ministry.” Together, these two sources caused me to re-think the way I look at conflict.
By nature, I’m not someone who enjoys conflict. I basically hate it, and my natural inclination is to go out of my way to avoid it. But really, I don’t think it’s possible to always avoid conflict, nor is it healthy to do so. In reality, conflict is inevitable, and this is true in the world, and it’s true in the church as well:
(1) God created us as unique individuals who are meant to live in community. We each have our own thoughts, desires, and preferences. We each think that certain things should happen in certain ways. We have differences of opinions. Combine that with the fact that God does not expect us to live our lives as hermits; we are to live in community. God calls us to live as the church with our different personalities and perspectives, and it’s inevitable that those things are going to bring us into disagreement and conflict with one another at some point.
(2) We live in very anxious times. There was a famous psychiatrist named Dr. Murray Bowen, who suggested that societies go through periods of regression where the amount of anxiety in the culture spikes upward. When these spikes of anxiety occur, the symptoms in society include a rise in crime, violence, terrorism, high divorce rate, willingness to take people to court, racial division, less principled decision-making by leaders, and a focus on rights over responsibilities.
Now, Dr. Bowen proposed his theory in the 1960s, but it’s almost prophetic in describing our own time: if you look around at our world, I don’t think you need me to convince you that we live in anxious times! And when you have a lot of anxious people who are worried and uptight about things, it naturally follows that you’re going to have a lot of conflict to deal with.
So I really do believe that conflict is inevitable, but that doesn’t mean that it’s inherently a bad thing. In fact, I think we could benefit greatly from changing the way we look at conflict, and viewing it as an opportunity to glorify God. A lot of time conflict happens not because anyone has done anything wrong, but simply because, as we mentioned above, we have differences of opinion about things, and when that occurs, we have an opportunity to glorify God by dealing with the conflict in a way that shows love for one another and honors the things that Jesus has commanded us to do. Now, sometimes we are brought into conflict with one another because one party has sinned, and I’ll refer to that below, but even in those instances, we have the opportunity to address the sin in a way that glorifies God.
When it comes to addressing conflict, there are four different steps or ideas that I would like to suggest. Sometimes only one of these ideas will be necessary, while other times, more of a combination will be needed.
Get Over It
We should begin by noting that not everything is a big deal, and sometimes we just need to get over things.
Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
The proverb is probably straightforward enough, but this beatitude has an Old Testament background in Psalm 37.11, and refers to those who don’t worry about what others do to them because they put their trust in God instead. Meekness describes those who are able to remain patient and composed in the face of insult and injury. It is not the surrender of our rights, but it is the ability to overlook slights, knowing that God is sovereign and will ultimately vindicate us.
I hinted at this in the introduction, but we live in a society that is highly anxious, where everyone seems to be constantly offended by everything, and that naturally leads to a lot of conflict. In such a climate, it may seem a brave thing to constantly shout about how everyone is annoying you, but really, it is a very weak position: you are admitting that other people have constant control over your emotions and responses. Those who are meek, on the other hand, boldly refuse to give others control over their responses.
Now, there are times that we shouldn’t overlook things: if someone does something that seriously dishonors God, or hurts another person, or harms themselves…not everything should be overlooked. But I submit to you that a lot of conflict happens or, at least, is escalated, because we get involved in situations when we really should just get over it instead.
I want to emphasize that this is not what the world suggests. The way of the world is about retaliation, about getting what we are owed, getting satisfaction. Nevertheless, the way of Jesus calls us to sometimes just get over it. And in conflict situations, we glorify God when we follow the way of Jesus.
Get The Log Out Of Your Own Eye
This second principle comes from Matthew 7.1-5:
Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.
In context, Jesus is limiting the way we are to judge one another. In 21st century America, Matthew 7.1 might be the most well-known verse in all of Scripture. Since our society values tolerance so highly, it is no wonder that a verse which at first glance seems to indicate that Christians have no place telling other people how to live would be very popular.
However, it is clear that in context, Jesus doesn’t mean for this to be an absolute statement: later on He will talk about how we are to judge people by the fruits they bear, and even here He says that we will be judged in the same way we judge others, and that argument assumes that we will, in fact, judge other people in certain ways. The point of what Jesus is saying here is that we should be gentle and grace-filled in our judgments of others (because that’s how we want God to judge us!) and that we should always begin by looking at ourselves first. And Jesus illustrates that with a humorous picture of a guy who has a massive log sticking out of his eye but who has the audacity to try to remove a splinter from a friend’s eye.
I think this is a really important idea for conflict situations as well.
When we have an issue with someone, maybe they hurt our feelings or we just have a disagreement about something, it’s so easy to focus only on what the other person is doing, and to ignore our own contribution to the problem. But a key first step in conflict is to give ourselves a hard look in the mirror to make sure we don’t have any logs sticking out of our own eyes: how much of the conflict comes from our own stubbornness, poor attitude, or unwillingness to work toward reconciliation?
It’s always easy and tempting to blame any conflict on the other person, but the reality is that we ourselves are almost never as innocent as we’d like to think. It’s essential that you get the log out of your own eye first.
I want to emphasize that this is not what the world suggests. The way of the world doesn’t really call for a lot of careful self-evaluation, and it assumes the problem is with someone else rather than ourselves. Nevertheless, the way of Jesus calls us to get the log out of our own eye. And in conflict situations, we glorify God when we follow the way of Jesus.
Go And Be Reconciled
The next principle for glorifying God in conflict comes from Matthew 5.23-24:
So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.
This comes in a section of the Sermon on the Mount that deals with our relationships with other people and it is very important that we notice how strongly Jesus emphasizes that when we become aware of a problem we have with another brother or sister, another believer, we stop what we are doing and go to seek reconciliation with that person. Consider this—Jesus places the urgency of reconciliation before even worship! He says to leave your offering at the altar and first go and seek reconciliation.
That’s how important Jesus sees the resolution of conflict to be, and yet, I wonder if we view things the same way. When you have a problem with a brother or sister in Christ—some disagreement or hard feelings over something—do you stop what you’re doing immediately to go and work things out with that person, or do you hold a grudge and develop a long-lasting feud?
Jesus instills urgency in a need to be reconciled with others. He also instructs a directness. Later in Matthew 18.15-17, He says:
If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
Here, Jesus outlines the process for how we should deal with sin within the community of faith. We could probably spend quite a bit of time dealing with this, but I really want to focus on the first part. What is the first thing Jesus tells us to do when a fellow Christian sins against us? “Go to your brother, just you and he alone.” We are supposed to go directly to the offending party.
Just like we struggle to appreciate the urgency of reconciliation, we also struggle with the directness. Be honest: when you are upset with someone or feel like they are in the wrong about something, what is your natural reaction? Do you go directly to the person? Or do you go talk to about the situation to someone else?
I’ve had people at church come to me before to complain about the wrong they feel someone else has done to them. When that happens, I try to encourage them to go directly to the person, as Matthew 18 teaches, and to be honest with you, that advice is rarely appreciated!
Again, I want to emphasize that this is not what the world suggests. The way of the world is to hold grudges against people and to talk about people who have wronged us and make them look bad. Nevertheless, the way of Jesus calls us to go directly to the person, immediately, and seek reconciliation. And in conflict situations, we glorify God when we follow the way of Jesus.
In Matthew 6.14-15, at the end of the Lord’s prayer, Jesus says:
For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, either will your Father forgive your trespasses.
The implication here is clear: if we want God to be forgiving toward us, we need to have an attitude of forgiveness toward others. In fact, our willingness to forgive others should be only natural in light of the forgiveness that God offers us.
Jesus teaches a parable on that specific idea in Matthew 18.21-35. It starts with Peter trying to figure out the limit of forgiveness: Lord, how many times do I have to forgive my brother? Up to seven times? And Jesus sets about to describe the limitless nature of forgiveness. He tells the story of a king who had a servant who owed him 10,000 talents, which is an amount of money that he would never be able to repay. The servant asks the king to take pity on him, and the king forgives the debt. But then that same servant goes out to a fellow servant who owes him a relatively insignificant amount, and mercilessly throws him into prison because he can’t pay. And the king finds out and is furious and throws the first servant into prison, because how dare he not offer forgiveness when such amazing forgiveness had been offered to him?
The expectation of Jesus for those who would be His followers is clear: since God has forgiven us for so much, how dare we not extend forgiveness to others? Here are, perhaps, the hardest words of this post: it doesn’t matter what the conflict is, it doesn’t matter what the source of disagreement is, it doesn’t matter what sin a brother or sister has committed against you. Jesus makes no exceptions; forgiveness is the only answer.
And when I say forgiveness, I mean real forgiveness. Sometimes you’ll hear people say things like, “I’ve forgiven, but I haven’t forgotten.” Guess what? That’s not forgiveness. Or you might hear someone say, “I forgave her, but I don’t speak to her anymore.” That’s not forgiveness either!
Forgiveness means that you don’t dwell on the incident. It means that you don’t bring it up again to use against the other person. It means that you don’t talk about the conflict with other people. And it means that you won’t let the incident stand between you and the other person moving forward.
Something I heard the other day that I thought was really good: a good indication of whether or not you have forgiven someone is whether or not you would be willing to accept that same level of forgiveness from God. If you’re not comfortable with that level of forgiveness from God, then you still have work to do.
Forgiveness is not what the world suggests; it’s not something the world even understands. Nevertheless, the way of Jesus calls us to forgive, no matter what. And in conflict situations, we glorify God when we follow the way of Jesus.
Whether or not you or I like it, conflict is inevitable. We don’t really have a choice about whether or not we will ever have to face it. We do have a choice, however, about how we will face it. Conflict can be an environment for sin; it can lead to destroyed relationships and hard feelings.
But it can also be an opportunity for glorifying God:
- We glorify God when we just get over things that don’t really matter.
- We glorify God when we look at ourselves in conflict situations and see how we are contributing to them, and get the log out of our own eye before we try to correct other people.
- We glorify God when we go to the other party to seek reconciliation and when we do this with urgency and directness.
- We glorify God when we grant forgiveness to the other person, no matter what.
These are not easy things to do, but they are what Jesus commands. And if we’re going to be followers of Jesus, He’s the one who gets to tells us what that looks like.
I was introduced to Bowen’s theory of Societal Regression by Dr. Carlus Gupton in Managing Conflict in Ministry.
These points were partially informed by Ken Sande and Ted Kober, Guiding People Through Conflict (Peacemaker Ministries, 2005), 9-13.