Lesson 1: Responses to Conflict
Today, we are going to get started with a new study on what the Bible has to say about conflict. I’ve been wanting to teach on this topic for quite some time. You say, “Why would you want to teach on something like that?” For one, I think that my personality and giftedness tend to make me interested in this topic. Few things give me more joy and fulfillment than helping different people work together to accomplish a meaningful task, and conflict resolution tends to be a big part of that role. And second, God has given me some unique opportunities to steward conflict. I haven’t always handled those situations perfectly, but I trust that I’ve grown through them; and those situations have also motivated me to help others grow in this area.
This series applies to you because everyone faces conflict! How many of you are currently involved in some sort of conflict, whether with a spouse, a parent, a sibling, an extended family member, at work, with your neighbor, etc.? Whether or not you’re currently involved in a conflict, you will be again, probably soon. As long as we’re living together with sinners, conflict is inevitable. The only way to escape it is to die or get yourself marooned on a desert island somewhere like Robinson Caruso. Sometimes we’d rather be marooned than deal with some of the conflicts that arise! But that’s not an option for most of us, so it’s very important that we learn to steward conflict biblically!
This study will basically be an adaption of Ken Sande’s book, The Peacemaker. This book is very biblical, it’s thorough, and it’s well-organized, so it didn’t make sense for me to reinvent the wheel. If you are very interested in this topic and you want to learn more or dig deeper, I would highly encourage you to buy the book.
This morning, we are going to look at various responses to conflict.
Growing up in Phoenix, snow was not part of my everyday childhood experience. However, my dad would make it a point to take us to Flagstaff to play in the snow at least once each winter. The challenge on these trips always seemed to be finding a good sledding spot. On one particular family trip in Flagstaff, I remember driving down a dirt road in our Suburban looking for something. (I think part of it was just that my dad liked exploring.) The snow was pretty sparse at first, but as we continued down this particular road, it got deeper; and there were various responses to that fact within the family Suburban. My two youngest brothers thought it was great fun and were trying to get my dad to go off-roading. My little sister and I were concerned, but optimistic about my dad’s ability to navigate the road conditions. But my youngest sister Emily was terrified. At one point, we came to a place in the road that seemed impassible at first, and my little brother quipped, “Well, I guess this is where we all die.” My sister totally lost it.
That story provides a helpful illustration about how different types of people respond to conflict. Some people view conflict as an obstacle, and they respond by trying to conquer it quickly and decisively, regardless of the costs. Others see conflict as a challenge, so they respond by trying to navigate it carefully and deliberately. A third group views conflict as a threat, and they try to get away from it as fast as possible. But how does God want us to view and respond to conflict?
[Slippery Slope Diagram] I found this diagram to be particularly helpful in helping us sort out various responses to conflict. It’s called “The Slippery Slope” because it’s very easy to respond to conflict by slipping into one of two extremes. The first extreme is the escape mentality, and so you see the “Escape Responses” on the left-hand side of the diagram. The second extreme is the attack mentality, and so you have the “Attack Responses” on the right-hand side of the diagram. People with the escape mentality are more interested in the appearance of peace than the reality of peace, so we call them, “Peace-fakers.” People with the attack mentality are more interested in getting what they want than in preserving peace, so we call them, “Peace-breakers.” Of course, God wants us to be “Peace-makers.”
Let’s take a closer look at some of these various responses to conflict. We’ll start on the “Peace-faking” side and work our way from bad to worse.
A very common response to conflict among “Peace-fakers” is “Denial.” Just deny that the problem exists. “I don’t know what you’re talking about; I think everything is fine.” Or, if you cannot reasonably deny that the problem exists, you at least try to ignore it, and you especially don’t take any steps toward biblical resolution, because that would be uncomfortable. It’s easier just to live with the elephant in the room.
Can you think of a Bible characters who handled conflict in this way? (Eli) Eli’s sons were very wicked. 1 Samuel 2 says that they were treating God’s commands concerning the sacrificial system as well as their own offices flippantly; and they were even committing adultery with the women who were supposed to be serving God in the tabernacle! Now, to Eli’s credit, he did express disapproval to them, but he never went beyond that. The prophet’s indictment against Eli was that he honored his sons more than God. In other words, he tried to preserve those relationships at all costs, even when it meant dishonoring God.
As we continue to slide down this slippery slope, the next response we come to is “Flight.” Once you can no longer ignore your problems, you run away from them. Flight responses might include moving out of the house, getting a divorce, cutting off a friendship, quitting a job, or leaving a church. Now, in some cases, any one of the actions I just mentioned could be justified. (The potential exception would be “getting a divorce,” depending on your view of divorce and remarriage.) However, we run into problems when we jump straight to one of these responses without carefully taking steps to resolve the issue. There are many people who make it a habit whenever they experience significant conflict of cutting off relationships, burning their bridges, and then moving on to the next thing. What’s wrong with that strategy? Your problems tend to follow you! Also, at some point, you’ve burnt so many bridges that you have nowhere to go! Meanwhile, you’ve deprived yourself of all of those fruitful relationships that you could have enjoyed had you just taken the time to work through the conflict.
Can you think of someone in the Bible who ran from conflict? I think Hagar is a potential example. When Sarah treated her harshly, she ran away, but God sent her back. Another example could be Onesimus in the book of Philemon. Also, when Timothy was facing conflict in the church at Ephesus, Paul urged him to stay there and stick it out. And those are just a few examples.
The most extreme escape response to conflict is suicide. “I don’t know what else to do, maybe I’ve burnt all my bridges, so I’m just going to end it.” Suicide is a tragic, selfish response to conflict. You may tell yourself that people will be better without you, but that is a lie. Also, it’s incredibly selfish to lash out at others by hurting yourself. However, on the other side of things, it’s also important for us to remember that a suicide attempt is sometimes a desperate and misguided cry for help. So we ought to respond to those situations with firmness, but also with compassion.
Let’s turn now to the “Peace-breaking” responses. Again, we’ll work our way from bad to worse.
A very common response to conflict among “Peace-breakers” is “Assault.” Now, when we hear that word, our minds jump immediately to physical assault. But this would also include verbal assault, intimidation, slander, and even some passive-aggressive tactics. Of course, biblically, all of these are ruled out by the law of kindness. Not only that, but they always make conflict worse. Proverbs 15:1 says, “A soft answer turns away wrath,
But a harsh word stirs up anger.” If you want to escalate a conflict, just attack the other person. Write that email, send that text… it will always turn out badly.
As we continue down this slippery slope, the next response is “Litigation.” Now, in some cases, litigation may be an appropriate step. However, many times, litigation is unfortunately nothing more than professional assault. Ken Sande says, “When you enter the legal adversarial system, your attorney is expected to make you look faultless and paint your opponent as the one who is entirely responsible for the problem. This distortion of reality usually takes a devastating toll on relationships.” I’ve found this to be true even within my extended family and you’ve probably seen it, as well. Of course, 1 Corinthians 6 is clear that Christians are not to sue one another because doing so would bring terrible disgrace to Christ and His church.
The most extreme attack response to conflict is murder. Of course, it goes without saying that we shouldn’t kill people, but remember that 1 John 3:15 also says, “Whoever hates his brother is a murderer.” It’s possible to have murder in your heart, even if you are not guilty of the physical crime.
So those are the negative responses; now, what are the positive responses to conflict? Let’s take a look at the “Peacemaking” responses from left to right. The three “Peacemaking” responses on the left can be categorized as “Personal Peacemaking” because they don’t require any third-party intervention. The vast majority of conflicts can be solved using a combination of these three responses.
The simplest “Personal Peacemaking” response is to overlook an offense. Proverbs 19:11 says, “The discretion of a man makes him slow to anger, And his glory isto overlook a transgression.” Many potential sources of conflict are so insignificant that the best course is simply to overlook them.
For instance, let’s say that someone at church is rude to you (imagine that). You’re in the middle of a conversation with them, and they just turn and walk away. Or, you can tell that this person is having a bad day, and he says something insensitive. Or whatever. Is that right? (no) Should that person probably apologize to you? (maybe so) Will they always do so? (Often they will not.) So now you have two options: you can go to that person and say, “Brother so-and-so, you might not have realized it, but when we were talking last week after the Sunday night service and you said ____, it really hurt my feelings.” Or, you can just say, “You know what? So-and-so is having a bad day. I know I’ve had a lot of bad days in my life and, I’ve done or said things that hurt other people, too. I’m just going to overlook that offense and maybe pray that so-and-so would walk in the Spirit.”
Now this is not the same as “Denial.” “Denial” is when you ignore a problem or refuse to take steps toward biblical resolution. But you didn’t ignore the problem; you just chose to overlook it. And that in itself was the step that you needed to take toward biblical resolution. Sande says, “Overlooking an offense is a form of forgiveness and involve a deliberate decision not to talk about it, dwell on it, or let it grow into pent-up bitterness and anger.” You just let it go.
However, there are some offenses that you cannot just let go. These are usually more serious offenses that have already damaged the relationship. This is where “Reconciliation” comes in. The two of you need to get together and have a conversation. This conversation should include at least a short description of your perspective and feelings, confession, loving correction, and forgiveness. And depending on the depth of the hurt, it should probably happen face-to-face. Phone conversations work too, but texting and emailing are usually not the best way to resolve these sorts of conflicts because you need to be able to hear the tone in the other person’s voice and respond to his thoughts immediately in more of a give-and-take exchange. Emails tend to lend themselves toward building a case against the other person, and that generally isn’t helpful. Sometimes if a conflict is particularly touchy, if it has been sitting dormant for a while, or if one of the parties is having a hard time expressing himself in person, writing a letter could be a good alternative to another face-to-face discussion, but we’ll get into all of that more later. Right now, we’re just introducing these topics.
The Bible has a lot to say about “Reconciliation” in Matthew 5, Matthew 18, and other passages on forgiveness. But for the sake of time, we won’t get into those passages this morning.
The third “Personal Peacemaking” response is negotiation. Sometimes, if a conflict involves physical resources, processes, etc., we may still need to negotiate a compromise, even after the relational tensions have been dealt with. For instance, let’s say that two siblings get mad at each other as they work through issues related to their deceased parent’s estate. The first thing that needs to happen is confession and forgiveness. But after that is over, they will still need to sit down and work out the details.
However, the order of those two things is very important. Often disagreements are aggravated by unresolved personal conflict. So if you can resolve the personal offense, the other stuff basically takes care of itself. Sande talks about one situation in which he spent all kinds of time trying to help a family work through a situation, and they were getting nowhere. Come to find out, the two sisters were mad at each other because of something that was said years before. Once that came out, and forgiveness was granted, they were able to solve the other issues in about 20 minutes.
The next three “Peacemaking Responses” can be categorized as “Assisted Peacemaking.” Every once in a while, Christians will become involved in conflicts that are so heated or complicated that they cannot be resolved between just two people. This is where the church needs to step in to help.
The first “Assisted Peacemaking” response is “Mediation.” Matthew 18:16 says, “But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’” So other people are being brought into the situation, but they these people do not have authority to force the parties to take a particular course of action. They are just there to ask questions, share insight, give advice, and facilitate a profitable conversation.
The next “Assisted Peacemaking” response is “Arbitration.” The difference between mediation and arbitration is that an arbitrator can force the two parties to adopt a particular course of action. They agree ahead of time that whatever he decides will be the end of it.
In 1 Corinthians 6, Paul suggests that in lieu of taking an issue before a secular court, the parties in conflict should choose a wise man from the church “who will be able to judge between his brethren.”
The final “Assisted Peacemaking” response is “Accountability,” and this just refers to the process of church discipline. If someone who professes to be a Christian persists in blatant sin or refuses to be reconciled with his brother, he is to be disciplined out of his church. You say, “How is that a peacemaking response? It is a peacemaking response because the goal of church discipline is always restoration. We see this in 2 Corinthians 2, where Paul command the church at Corinth to reaffirm their love for the same man he had previously told them to discipline! What changed? The man had repented of his sin, so there was no longer a need for church discipline. So church discipline can help to facilitate peace by urging the offending party to repent.
Also, even in cases where the offending party never repents, church discipline brings a sense of closure or at least clarity to the situation. In that sense, the conflict has been resolved.
Philippians 2:4 is a helpful verse when it comes to handling conflict. It says, “Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.” Good peacemaking is characterized by an “us” mentality. People who tend toward “Peace-faking” often have a “me” mentality. They are looking for the course of action that seems most convenient and nonthreatening for them. People who tend toward “Peace-breaking” usually have a “you” approach. They see the other person as the problem, so they determine to attack him until they get their way. But the Christ-like peacemaker has an “us” mentality. He is humble and selfless, and he bears both his own interests and the interests of the other party in mind. Because of this, he is reasonable. This is the kind of peacemaker who brings glory to God.
That was a very quick overview of where we are going, especially as it relates to particular peacemaking responses. Next week, we will discuss how to have a biblical view of conflict.