Lesson 2: Biblical View of Conflict
Last week, we discussed various responses to conflict. This week, we’ll talk about the way we view conflict.
Should we view conflict as a bad thing or a good thing? Let’s answer that question by looking at various causes of conflict.
Causes of Conflict
One horrible effect of sin is that it muddles our thinking, and muddled thinking often leads to misunderstandings, which can lead to conflict. You thought you told your wife that you were planning to work on the yard all day Saturday; but somehow, she missed the memo–and made plans for everyone to attend a birthday party. Or the pastor says something in his sermon that sounds like heresy; but really, he just failed to word himself clearly. Or you understand from a church member’s body language that he’s mad at you, when in reality, it has nothing to do with you!
Can you think of a biblical example of a misunderstanding that led to conflict? Turn to Joshua 22. When Israel conquered Canaan, the tribe of Reuben, the tribe of Gad, and the half tribe of Manasseh decided to settle on the east side of the Jordan River, whereas the rest of the nation settled on the west side. That fact sets the backdrop for this story (vv. 10-16, 21-29, 32-33).
In communication, you have the sender and the receiver. Both parties have responsibilities when it comes to avoiding misunderstanding. The sender is responsible to communicate clearly. Pastors ought to be very careful what they say. Husbands, tell your wife that you’re planning to work on the yard, and make sure she gets the message! The receiver is responsible to listen carefully and to ask clarifying questions, if necessary. “I understood you to be saying that Jesus isn’t God. Is that what you intended to communicate?” “Now, when you say that you want to work on the yard ‘all day,’ is that like, eight in the morning till five at night? Does that include the evening?” Both of these responsibilities are matters of Christian love; and if we give attention to them, we can avoid many misunderstandings. However, since we live in a fallen world, some misunderstanding is inevitable. That’s why it’s so important that we not jump to conclusions, like the children of Israel did in Joshua 22. Proverbs 18:13 says, “He who answers a matter before he hears it, It is folly and shame to him.” What at first glance looks like a major problem may be nothing more than a misunderstanding.
Misunderstandings are not inherently sinful. In fact, they can even lead to better unity if we view them as opportunities to understand one another better.
Differences (in Values, Goals, Gifts, Calling, Priorities, Expectations, Interests, Opinions, Standards, Etc.)
God made each of us unique. Just like no two snowflakes are exactly alike, each of us is different, and that’s a good thing! But our differences can also lead to conflict. Can you think of any examples of how this can happen?
- You feel loved when you are served, so you try to clean up the house. But your wife feels loved when someone spends time with her, so she doesn’t understand why you won’t just sit on the couch with her and talk.
- You’ve always been taught that the customers are the priority, so you take extra time with them. But your co-workers are getting frustrated because your task list is mounting!
Does the Bible discuss dealing with these types of differences (1 Cor 12:25)? So here Paul warns about schisms in the body. But what is this whole chapter about? (spiritual gifts) So how do those two topics relate? The fact that we’re all wired differently can lead to conflict. How do we keep our differences from dividing us? We’ve got to love one another. That’s why 1 Corinthians 13 (which comes right after 12:25) is all about love. As my dad pointed out in one of his sermons while he was here, love is the perfect glue.
Disagreements that arise over differences can actually be very helpful and can serve to stimulate growth if we work together toward better solutions. I read a book one time called, “Death by Meeting.” The author talked about how a lack of conflict in the form of different opinions being voiced can actually make meetings boring and limit the amount of work that gets done. Of course, too much conflict in a meeting and interpersonal conflict can also be problems, as well, so you’ve got to be aware of the context and you’ve got to have love. However, my point is that differences and even the sparks they sometimes create are not necessarily bad things. We should seek unity in our relationships, but not uniformity.
This can be as small as two kids who want the same toy or as big as two countries who want the same waterway. And this doesn’t just have to be about physical resources, either. It could also be two siblings vying for attention. Of course, most money disputes would fall into this category.
Can you think of a biblical example of competition over limited resources? (Abraham and Lot) How did Abraham solve the problem? He suggested that he and Lot split up, and he also gave Lot first pick of the land. Selflessness has a big part to play in settling conflicts over limited resources.
Conflicts that arise over limited resources are not inherently sinful, but they can easily become sinful when we elevate our desires for resources above God. These types of conflicts can be positive when they force us to use our resources more wisely or to evaluate our own motives and desires.
Some conflict is just caused by sin, plain and simple. Also, any conflict can be aggravated by sin, even if it wasn’t started by sin in the first place (James 4:1-2). James 3-4 is all about conflict in the church. In 3:1, we find out that this conflict is rooted in the desire for positions of prominence in the church. Everyone wanted to be in the limelight, so they were cutting each other down to get ahead. In 4:1-2, James gets to the heart of the conflict, which is sinful desires, and specifically the pride of life (v. 10). So in this case, the presenting problems were not the real problem. The real problem was sin in people’s hearts. And that is often the case in our lives, as well.
So to summarize, we shouldn’t view conflict as either all bad or all good! To view it all as all bad would be too simplistic. As we’ve seen, not all conflict is inherently sinful, and oftentimes good can come out of it. However, to view conflict as all good would be wrong, too, because many times, conflict is either caused or aggravated by sin!
View Conflict as an Opportunity
Instead of viewing conflict as either bad or good, we should view it as an opportunity. (1 Cor 10:31-11:1).
The context of this passage is conflict; it’s the disagreement over how to approach the issue of meat offered to idols. This passage encourages us to view conflict as an opportunity to do three things: 1) glorify God, 2) serve others, and 3) grow to be more like Christ (1 Cor 10:31-11:1).
So let’s flesh this out a little bit more. If we are going to view conflict as an opportunity to glorify God, what are some ways that we can use conflict to glorify God?
Trust Him (Prov 3:5-6). Don’t lean on your own ability or instincts to solve the problem; instead, look to God and His Word. Also cast your cares on Him and choose not to be anxious about the situation. Don’t let the fear of man motivate you. Believe that God has your best interests in mind, and that He is using the conflict to help you grow. If you respond to conflict in these ways, you will bring great glory to God.
Obey Him. One of the most powerful ways to glorify God is simply to obey Him. This means following the commands and principles in His Word, even when doing so seems unnatural. Sometimes, obeying God in regards to conflict will feel unnatural. But if we choose to obey, we will glorify God.
Imitate Him (Eph 5:1-2). When the church at Ephesus was facing conflict, Paul gave them this invaluable advice. He said, “Therefore be imitators of God as dear children. And walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma.” When we live out the gospel and imitate the forgiveness, mercy, and love of Jesus, we bring great glory to God.
Acknowledge Him. When we trust and obey God and imitate Christ in conflict, people are going to notice. First, they are going to notice that our disposition. A humble, selfless, reasonable person in the midst of a heated argument stands out like a sore thumb. But also, as God blesses our obedience, they may notice the results of our peacemaking efforts. They may say, “Woah! How did you bring those people together!” In that moment, we can either take credit for ourselves, or we can give it right back to God. We can tell them that God answered prayer and worked through us to accomplish things that we could never accomplish on our own. This would also be an excellent opportunity to share the good news of God’s love and forgiveness.
Ken Sande says, “Every time you encounter a conflict, you will inevitably show what you really think about God.” That’s a powerful statement. You won’t just show what you say you believe; you will show what you really believe about Him.
Viewing conflict as an opportunity to glorify God isn’t just good for God; it’s good for us, too! For instance, if we keep our focus on God, we will avoid doing or saying things that we would later regret. Also, if we view conflict as an opportunity to glorify God, we will be less dependent on results. Even if others refuse to make peace, we can take comfort in the fact that God is pleased with us and that our efforts have glorified Him. And that comfort can help us to persevere through difficult circumstances. If you have done your best to resolve a conflict in a loving and biblical manner, then God is pleased, no matter how the situation turns out.
Ken Sande says, “It is important to realize that if you do not glorify God when you are involved in conflict, you will inevitably glorify someone or something else. By your actions you will show either that you have a big God or that you have a big self and big problems. To put it another way, if you don’t focus on God [and His will], you will inevitably focus on yourself and your will, or on other people and the threat of their wills.” When glorifying God is more important than getting what I want, it becomes so much easier to respond to conflict biblically.
We should also view conflict as an opportunity to serve others. Luke 6:27-28 says, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who spitefully use you.” So, as Sande points out, we are clearly not exempt from the command, “Love your neighbor as yourself” just because that neighbor is being hateful, spiteful, or even because he is cursing us! There are several ways that we can serve others through conflict.
Sometimes, God will use us to help another person better understand his own interests, and to find better solutions to his problems than he could have come up with on his own.
Other times, God can use us to bear burdens. Have you ever had someone get mad at you, and then you found out that the real cause of their anger had little to do with you? The person was just lashing out because of problems in his or her own life. Oftentimes, in a situation like that, we may have an opportunity to provide comfort and perhaps even counsel.
Also, God may use us to help another person see his sin and to get right with God. We’ll talk about this more in future lessons.
We can serve others through conflict by maintaining a good testimony and thus encouraging them to trust Christ as Savior.
Or, we can serve believers by modeling Christ-likeness for them. When you’re dealing with conflict, more people are watching than you think. And particularly, your children and grandchildren are learning how to deal with conflict by observing how you handle conflict. An excellent way to serve them is by modelling well.
Can you think of an example of someone in the Bible who served others through conflict? (Jesus!) I mean, whether he was in conflict with the Pharisees or the Jewish people or Pilate, He always sought the good of the people who were angry with Him. In fact, He died for His enemies! There is no greater example of sacrificial love than this.
It can be very hard to view conflict as an opportunity to serve others, because conflict tends to make us either afraid of others or angry at them. But with the help of the Spirit, we can imitate Christ in this area.
Grow to Be More Like Christ
Finally, we should view conflict as an opportunity for Christian growth. God’s goal is not to make you comfortable; it’s to make you Christlike. God can use conflict in several different ways to help us grow.
First, He may use conflict to expose your weakness and to force you to depend on Him. I know there have been times in my life where I was just sailing along smoothly, until something blew up, and then all of a sudden, I felt so weak and even helpless! Did you know that God is good to put us in those types of situations? He told Paul that He wasn’t going to take away Paul’s thorn in the flesh. Why? Because His strength is made perfect in our weakness. Conflict is one of those things that exposes our weakness so that God’s strength can be magnified.
Second, God may use conflict to expose sin in our lives. There’s an illustration that Dr. Berg at Bob Jones uses to teach about how trials expose sin. He says we’re like tea bags. Put us in hot water, and all of sudden, whatever was in our hearts, comes out. When this happens, people tend to point the finger and say, “I’m not usually like this! He just brings it out of me!” I’ve got news for you buddy: if it wasn’t in your heart in the first place, nobody would be able to bring it out of you! You see, the problem is that our tea bags are full of things like pride, stubbornness, bitterness, and a critical spirit. We may be pretty good at hiding those things most of the time, but there’s nothing quite like conflict to bring all of that to the surface. You want a true test of someone’s character? Observe them in conflict! Guys, girls, you’re trying to decide who to marry? Observe whether that person produces the fruit of the Spirit in conflict. I remember very vividly an “ah ha” moment where I determined that a girl I thought I was interested in wasn’t really walking with God. And it all came out as a result of conflict. God is good to expose sin in our hearts, because when it is exposed, then we can deal with it.
God also uses trials to produce perseverance in us. James 1 says that we are supposed to rejoice when we fall into various trials, because we know that the trying of our faith produces perseverance. Some of the greatest trials that you will ever face will be conflicts with other people. But if we will persevere through those trials, God will use them to fortify our character in ways we would have never imagined. This is “ABC Christianity”: “Adversity Builds Character.”
All of this leads to a view of conflict that’s alluded to in the theme slide I made. If conflict is an opportunity, then I become a steward. My goal is not to run away or to charge ahead, but to obey God so that He is glorified, others are served, and I grow to be more like Jesus.