As I type this, conflict carves away at the face of my own nation. Protests over racial injustice ripple from one coast to the other.
But conflict starts at the personal level. Maybe you’re dealing with a stressed relationship from the pressure of being smushed together for months. Maybe you’ve got a racist relative whose words dig at you like spears.
I’m there with you. And I’m being reminded that godly responses to conflict are pretty much all counter-natural—or more specifically, super-natural.
Godly responses beg an overhaul of what I typically want to do: You know, hand someone the silent treatment they so justly deserve. Eloquently let my children (and possibly the neighbors) know exactly how they have trodden on my kingdom. Burn a bridge that isn’t that important to me anyway, I’ve decided.
Conflict is a relational outworking of what’s in my own heart—because out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks (Matthew 12:34). It’s a reflection of what God’s doing in me (or sadly, what I’m lacking, and need Him to repair in my heart).
And it’s often full of such. . . loss. Loss of closeness, of dignity, of whatever was precious to us that someone trampled on. But would you believe me if I told you conflict is an opportunity?
At the center of why God sent Jesus, we find conflict—more specifically our conflict with God. And how we respond to the breaking of relationship can be an expression of the Gospel. It’s a chance to honor God, to love others well, to grow more like Jesus, and to find some practical solutions to care for each other (check out 1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1, Ephesians 4:26-5:1)
So I’m scribbling down a few reminders to myself as you glance over my shoulder. Here are some ways you actually might be cannibalizing the latent beauty that can blossom from conflict.
1. Skipping ahead in God’s order.
I once was called into a meeting with a coworker who—before speaking to me—had gone up the chain of command to both bosses above us. I’d miscommunicated to her in a way that was hurtful, no doubt. But in that meeting, I felt a sense of compounded shame that still sears me when I remember it.
More than ever, I understood one of the concepts of Matthew 18:15-17—going first to the person you’re in conflict with, and then widening that circle of people if the person isn’t responsive. Keeping a conflict as private as you can for as long as you can gives the person a chance to repent genuinely, rather than seeking to save face.
2. Lacking relational context.
I’ve certainly experienced the “ambushed” feeling of a conflict-laden text or email—one in particular from a boss. It isolated the conflict from the whole picture of our relationship (and not in a good way).
I found myself dealing with the words alone, subtracted from any positive rapport, without that eyeball-to-eyeball, heart to heart warmth we receive just being with one another as humans.
Even if you’re a gifted, thoughtful communicator, words are never the same as offering the relational context that says, “I see you. I will be brave to talk about this in person.” In fact, God handled His own conflict with us by sending Himself into our mess, in the flesh (John 1:14). Let’s do our best to do the same with others.
3. Assuming the worst.
When we mess up, we tend to attribute it to our circumstances. But when other people mess up, we tend to attribute it to their character. That’s just the kind of person she is.
But people have malicious intent much less often than we give them credit for. We can save ourselves from tremendous misunderstanding by gently asking questions about others’ motivations, rather than assuming they mean harm. Having been on both painful ends of mistaken assumptions, I am slowly beginning to treat my relationships with the dignity they deserve by gently asking when I wonder about someone’s motives. It’s a chance for both of us to realize the ways we inadvertently leave destruction behind us.
4. Cleaning the surface.
On the spectrum of “peace-breakers,” “peace-makers,” and “peace-fakers,” my weaknesses definitely tend toward the latter. I’d rather fake peace for my own comfort, to seem right, or because, sadly and truthfully, I’m too indifferent to the relationship or person to dive deeper into the opportunity that is conflict. I’m not truly overlooking and graciously forgiving; I am hardening and distancing.
God didn’t fake the severity of my conflict with Him, but chose to change me and honor Himself through it. He valued me enough to care about my holiness. How can I extend grace to others by addressing the true interests and hurts and questions beneath conflict, instead of glossing over them and stuffing them deeper?
5. Mistaking honesty for love.
Truth and love aren’t mutually exclusive. Telling someone “I’m just telling the truth” or “I’m just being honest” can often be a lame excuse for not speaking the truth in love. Directness is fine. But let’s make sure to check our kindness and gentleness, too. As the personal recipient of frequent directness, I find there’s a psychological “noise” I have to push past in order to focus on what someone’s trying to say, rather than being distracted by the pain caused by how it’s being said.
Are you creating an environment where a person feels enough security and care to eventually want to change—or where they feel attacked and defensive?
As someone who naturally loves to run from conflict, arms pinwheeling, I’ve found it can actually short-circuit my relationships. Sometimes I choose my own comfort—and the appearance of love—over loving through difficulty, growing through other perspectives, and caring enough to get uncomfortable. Romans 12:9 reminds me love must be genuine.
Will I care enough to build peacemaking bridges that can get me to the other, brighter side of conflict?