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 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 in 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 speak 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” (James 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 Corinthians 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 Corinthians 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 1:10-“Pride only breeds quarrels.” We have the insolence 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:
1. Always accept personal responsibility.
2. Make whatever effort necessary to move toward the person with whom you are experiencing conflict.
3. 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.
1. Always act in obedience to what you know God says.
2. Accept God’s solution for failure-that is, be willing to confess your failure to God.
3. 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 laying 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.