Dealing with conflict correctly is vitally important to our spiritual and relational lives. If we handle conflict incorrectly, it will separate us from others, will hurt sometimes the most important relationships we have, and will inhibit our potential for personal growth and spiritual success.
Running from conflict means we will continue to have unresolved issues between us and others. Those issues create barriers between people that must eventually come down. If they don’t, the relationship begins to shrivel and eventually will die.
On the other hand, handling conflict correctly can strengthen relationships. Conflict resolution in God’s way is an opportunity to be more vulnerable and more in tune with another and eventually can create an atmosphere in which trust and love will grow.
So what does God’s way of resolving conflict involve? It is to bring issues to light, deal with them honestly, and then allow the Spirit to heal the hurts that have been caused. How do we do that? As you may have guessed, Proverbs has some guidance here, too!
Open the door.
First, we must find a way to open the door. The person we are angry at may be angry with us, too. How do we get him to at least be open to conversation? Solomon has an idea, “A quietly given gift soothes an irritable person; a heartfelt present cools a hot temper.” – (Proverbs 21:14 The Message)
I was, at first, surprised by this biblical directive. It seemed devious or manipulative to give a gift as the precursor to resolving an argument or a conflict. But there is something in human nature that responds to a gift or an unexpected kindness (cf. Jacob approaching Esau, Joseph’s brothers on their second trip to Egypt).
Take the lead.
After we’ve figured out a way to gain a hearing, we must take appropriate responsibility for our role in the conflict. “A man’s own folly ruins his life, yet his heart rages against the Lord” (Proverbs 19:3). Sometimes we make foolish decisions and then have to have someone to blame. In this case, the person blames God. We tend to blame the person with whom we are having the conflict. But, even if we’re more right than wrong, most likely we have contributed something to the problem, and we need to let the other person know we acknowledge and confess our mistakes in the relationship.
A summary understanding of acknowledging our own role in the problem, then, might be something like this:
We make sure we have our own anger under control or resolved before we approach the offender. As long as we are angry, we will not be able to see our role in the problem clearly.
We must not raise our voice. “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1). If we need time to get our emotions under control, we can ask for a break in the conversation, but we must never shout or leave the conflict in a huff.
Let’s not make it worse. “As charcoal to embers and as wood to fire, so is a quarrelsome man for kindling strife” (Proverbs 26:21). Here are some guidelines for putting out the fire instead of feeding it.
Keep our attitude in check. That means we use no condescension, no exaggerations, no generalizations, no name calling, and no negative body language or facial expressions.
Stick to the conflict at hand and don’t allow the conversation to broaden to other issues.
Don’t interrupt. We can bring up an issue, but then we must let the other person have his say.
Then, choose carefully the issues to respond to, addressing behavior without attacking character. Keep in mind the final goal: “He who pursues righteousness and love finds life, prosperity and honor” (Proverbs 21:21). This proverb reminds us that our pursuit, overriding everything else, is righteousness.
It’s a process.
We may have to be content at first with making a little progress toward the ultimate goal of reconciliation. Then, over time, we can work to keep the door open for future discussions and more complete restoration of the relationship.
Conflict drains us of energy and, in most cases, is a barrier to our relationship with God. Because it is an arena of such strong emotion and such clear biblical instruction, perhaps there is no better testing ground of our willingness to humbly follow Jesus than in this area of our lives.
Are we willing to be obedient? To see the other person’s perspective? To focus on the issue? To preserve and strengthen a relationship? Then we must take seriously the instructions God’s word gives about dealing with interpersonal conflict in our lives. The rewards far outweigh the risks!
“ . . . nothing, but nothing, is the cure for anger like the wonder of grace. – Dan Allender