Resolving Conflict by God’s Grace
Getting into conflict with other people is easy. We don’t usually wake up in the morning wanting to pick a fight with someone. And yet we end up having tense moments surprisingly often. Your husband or wife can be really trying. You have a dispute with a brother in the church. One of your co-workers is lazy or your boss is micro-managing you. These days it’s easy to get into an argument with someone about vaccine mandates, government overreach, or consistory’s way of implementing the latest COVID regulations. Can you think back to the last time you were in conflict with another person?
So how did you deal with that? Our natural reaction is to respond in one of two ways. We attack or escape. We argue, criticise, gossip, slander, yell, bully or even litigate or hit the other person. But then there is another part of us that hates conflict. And so sometimes we just try to escape. We walk away, avoid the person, give the silent treatment, stop going to Bible study, quit our job, stop showing up at family functions, withdraw from the church or get divorced. Often we both attack and escape in the same confrontation.
This is not the LORD’s way. He is a God of relationship, and he has the character traits that are needed for deep relationship. Our God is loving, good, forgiving, merciful, kind, patient, gentle, faithful and honest. He tells us that peace and unity are extremely important to him. His ultimate purpose is not only to establish peace and unity between him and his church but also between the members of his church. He tells us in Ephesians 1:9-10 that “he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” God’s grand plan for all time is to recreate his people in Christ so that they live with him and each other in love, peace and unity.
So what does that mean in real life? How do we find unity with someone who is proud or selfish? How can you resolve a conflict with someone who has hurt you deeply and isn’t willing to apologise? You look to Christ. You trust Christ can resolve the conflict and you plead for his Spirit to work that out in your life. Christ has the power to do that, for he reconciled us and God. Ephesians 1:7 tells us that he restored the unity between God and us by securing the forgiveness of our sins and redeeming us by his blood. He also has the power to restore us to others. If you think you have a serious division that seems insurmountable, you haven’t seen anything. Christ brought the Jews and Gentiles together in one church (Eph: 2:14-16). For generations they hated each other. And yet Christ broke down the dividing wall of hostility and made peace through the power of his Spirit and the teaching of his apostles.
He is also willing to help you work though any conflict you may have. As you draw near to Christ, you become like him. Do you know the most important quality? Humility. Philippians 2:3 says, “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus who did not count equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, took on human form, and humbly became obedient to death on a cross (Phil 2:6-8). Quite a calling! Are you humble? Do you think of others better than yourself? Do you look after the interests of others before your own interests?
In Matthew 7:1-5, the famous passage about logs and specks, Christ warns us against hypocrisy and calls us to be moderate in our judgements. We often judge others by their words and actions, but we judge ourselves by our intentions. God says it doesn’t work that way. Don’t be hypocritical. First deal with your own stuff before you start casting blame on others. I like the way Benjamin Franklin put it many years ago, “Search others for their virtues, thyself for thy vices.”
The LORD also calls us to try to understand the other person before we try to be understood. So often our focus is on telling others what we think and convincing them of our point of view. In Proverbs 18:3, God warns us against that: “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.” Shame on you if you don’t listen but start marshalling answers in your head even before they are done talking.
And then in Proverbs 20:5, God addresses this issue from a positive perspective: “The purpose in a man’s heart is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out.” You are a person of understanding if you spend your time in a conversation trying to understand the other person’s viewpoint and motives. I don’t do it well, but I like to walk a few miles in the other person’s moccasins before I criticise or condemn them. It helps me to be more nuanced in my approach. How much of the arguing we have done about COVID could have been avoided if we spent a bit more time trying to understand the other person? And then if you have listened well, at times you can speak the truth into the person’s heart. That’s pure gold. Proverbs 25:11 says, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver.”
When you have honesty, humility and understanding, you have the basis for conflict resolution. And then you actually need to talk it through. Unless you overlook the matter (which God commends in Proverbs 19:11 and Ephesians 4:2), conflict resolution is done by talking the issue through. In Leviticus 19:17, God says, “Do not hate your brother in your heart. Rebuke your neighbour frankly so you will not share in his guilt.” And again in Matthew 18:15 he says, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone.”
What’s the goal? That you honestly admit your sins and they honestly admit their sins and that you forgive one another. Ephesians 4:32 says, “Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” Pretty tough, for being honest about our sin is super hard. Forgiving others is even harder. If you forgive someone, it means that even though someone has offended you and owes you, you are willing to bear the loss yourself. Who can do that? We don’t have it in us. But thankfully God doesn’t leave us on our own. He does it for us. God demonstrated his love and grace by sending his Son to die for us while we were his enemies (Rom 5:8). This grace is heart changing. As we understand God’s grace in forgiving all our sins, it becomes our great joy to forgive others and put the matter to rest.
Conflicts are not always resolved. In some ways we have a lot of growing up to do, and we can be pretty immature in Christ. Sometimes we refuse to repent. We refuse to give up the idols of our hearts. We are too afraid or proud to admit our contribution to the problem. We are too angry to be willing to forgive. We don’t understand the grace that God has given us and so we don’t delight to extend that to others. What a sadness for our Lord Jesus when he sees us in that place. He has all the power to bring us together, and yet we are not willing.
And yet there are other times when conflicts are resolved. As we look to Christ, he enables us to be reconciled. The trust that at one time was obliterated between husband and wife is again restored. Brothers in the church who are in disagreement are able to genuinely put it behind them and have a stronger relationship than they have ever had. Parents are reconciled to their adult children despite profound difficulties in the past. It’s the work of God, and it is truly astounding.
May God bring us to maturity in Christ so that pursuing unity is as great a priority for us as it is for the LORD. The good news is that Christ will accomplish his work among his people. He will bring all things to complete unity and present the church to himself in splendour, without spot or wrinkle or any other blemish. To him be all glory!
Rev Dirk Poppe
FRC Southern River