Jesus calls us to a life of love. Sometimes love has to be tough, especially when there has been a conflict. Arguments and disagreements separate people and create division between friends, families, communities, and even in the church. It takes a great deal of courage, wisdom and sensitivity to resolve conflicts and restore relationships.
Jesus understood that conflict would occur and he prepared his followers for these times. He warned against anger and made reconciliation a priority for disciples (Matt.5:21-23). He commanded loving confrontation and taught a clear process for sorting out differences (Matt.18:15-17). He expected his followers to give their best efforts towards resolving every conflict as quickly and thoroughly as possible.
The apostle Paul picked up the teaching of Jesus, emphasising unity and living at peace with everyone, if at all possible (Rom.12:18; 14:19 Eph.4:1-3). He also warned against the dangers of anger and its potential to destroy relationships (Eph.4:26-27) as did James (Jas.1:19-20).
Biblical Principles of Conflict Resolution
Here are five extremely important principles for resolving conflicts:
1. Control your anger
When conflict occurs, it is normal for us to feel angry. It is not wrong to have angry feelings but what we do with our anger is critical. Avoid pushing your anger down inside (‘repression’) and avoid giving uncontrolled expression of it through your behaviour (‘ventilation’), both of which can do great damage to our relationships. Confronting other people in anger puts the relationship at further risk. Wait until your emotions have settled down, so that you can talk about the situation in a constructive and more objective manner. Anger management is essential for healthy relationships (Prov.14:29; 16:32. Ecc.7:9. Eph.4:31-32).
2. Have the courage to confront
When a conflict has occurred, it is much easier to ignore the issue or talk to other people about it. Unfortunately, this does nothing to help resolve the situation. Jesus commands us to “Go” to the person who we have had a conflict with and talk to them about it (Matt.18:15-17). This could qualify as one of the least obeyed commands of Jesus. There are a variety of reasons why people don’t confront. Some feel afraid of it and may lack confidence in how to go about it. Others believe that confrontation could make the situation worse or they don’t think it will accomplish anything, so they don’t bother. However, none of these reasons excuse us from obeying Jesus’ command.
Avoid aggressiveness as this usually worsens the situation and escalates the conflict. Also, avoid under-assertiveness that fails to be honest about true feelings and thereby minimises the situation. The apostle Paul taught people to “speak the truth in love (Eph.4:15).” This takes both courage and consideration. Avoid speaking the truth in an unloving manner but also avoid being so loving that you skirt around the issues. Confrontation should take place in private and not while we are angry. Remember, a soft or gentle answer turns away anger while harsh words stir it up (Prov.15:1). Talk opening and honestly about your feelings. Don’t allow emotional distance to remain. Make every effort to reconnect your hearts.
3. Seek to understand the other person’s perspective
In every conflict, there are different perspectives. Division is simply two (di-) visions – two different ways of looking at something. Relational maturity is demonstrated by our ability to listen to the other person’s feelings and perspective so that we truly understand where they are coming from. Understand, as much as possible, other person’s point of view. To gain this depth of understanding, we have to learn to listen well, not just put our case forward (see Jam.1:19-20). Once people are truly understood, they are far more open to understanding us as a result.
4. Learn the art of apology
In most conflicts, there are wrongs on both sides. Pride causes us to justify ourselves and to refuse to take responsibility for our own attitudes and actions. Instead, we focus all of our efforts on blaming the other person. In contrast, God calls us to have the humility to take responsibility for our own mistakes, oversights or lack of sensitivity. Learning to say, “I’m sorry,” “I was wrong,” and “Would you forgive me?” is an important part of being the peace-makers that God calls us to be (Matt.5:9). A sincere apology can help us reconnect emotionally and rebuild trust with others.
5. Value reconciliation over being right
During conflict, we can tend to focus all of our attention on the issue(s) at hand and forget the importance of the relationship. Without ignoring the issue(s), it helps to see the restoration of the relationship as the primary concern. Once the relationship is restored, which usually requires appropriate apologies and forgiveness, there is a much better chance that the issues can then be resolved. If the focus is only on the issue(s), the conflict can easily reoccur and reconciliation often becomes improbable if not impossible. Ultimately, reconciliation is an issue of the heart. True forgiveness results in treating the person better after the offence than before.
The Blessing of Unity
Jesus understood the power and the blessing of unity. He knew the Psalmist’s declaration of how good and pleasant unity is and the fact that that is where God commands his blessing (Ps.133:1-3). That is why Jesus worked so hard to create a spirit of unity and agreement amongst his disciples. He also prayed that they would be as one as He was with the Father (Jn.17:21). May we be a church community who does life together with one heart and one mind, even if it takes some tough love to make that a reality!
- What are some of the common causes of arguments or disagreements?
- What are some common “anger triggers?” How can we prepare in advance for these situations, so that we don’t always give in to anger?
- Discuss Paul’s teaching about “forbearing” with one another in love (Eph.4:2. Col.3:13).
- Think about a conflict that you were involved in that was resolved. What were some of the contributing factors to the resolution occurring?
- Why is it so difficult to obey Jesus command to “go” to someone when a conflict occurs?
- Is there a strained relationship in your life now? What could you to do help repair it? How can you take responsibility for anything you’ve contributed to the current situation?
- Finish with some prayer for improved relationships – in every area of life.