Many of us have felt the ache of unresolved conflict in our lives despite our attempts to untangle and resolve it. In fact, as long as there are people, conflict is inevitable. Conflict can turn the most beautiful day of the year into the gloomiest. Two close friends of mine parted ways after years of fruitful partnership in ministry because of unresolved conflict. Hours and hours went into mediation and counseling in an attempt to resolve their differences, all to no avail.
Then there was Dan’s experience after he had come to faith in Yeshua. His parents had brought in anti-missionaries to dissuade him from his belief. When he decided to marry another Jewish believer, things got even worse. His family refused to attend the wedding, with the sole exception of his brother—who came only to dissuade Dan from the marriage.
Conflict is both inevitable and painful. It can be time consuming: according to one statistic, a typical manager spends an average of 30% of his or her time dealing with conflict.1 Yet conflict can also be healthy because it can reveal our blind spots and lead to personal growth. After ten years of marriage and three children, I am convinced that the greatest growth in my life has come from working hard on resolving conflicts.
Fortunately, the Bible has much to say about conflict that is helpful in “cooling things off” when everyday life situations are heating up. Scripture gives us numerous examples of interpersonal conflict; and it also gives us principles of conflict resolution.
The Bible and Us
My friend Dan was certainly not the first to experience conflict from family members. As far back as Genesis, Joseph was betrayed by his own brothers (Genesis 41–50). Jealous of the favor he found with their father, they sold him into slavery. Imagine the bitterness and confusion he must have felt. And Yeshua himself was misunderstood by his own family; they thought he was “out of his mind” and tried to pull him away from the ministry he was called to (Mark 3:20-35).
Beyond parents and siblings, there’s our larger mishpochah, the family of all our Jewish people. When I was a new believer living in Jerusalem, I was supervising a window-washing business for an Orthodox Jewish man. He had noticed my growing interest in the New Testament and decided to hire an undercover anti-missionary to work alongside me. It became obvious what was happening when my new co-worker not so subtly pulled out a copy of the New Testament and began pointing out discrepancies in the book of Acts! I felt deceived and betrayed, and matters only got worse when my boss denied his actions. Again, I was certainly not the first to experience this kind of opposition. Yeshua himself was accused by his fellow Jews of breaking tradition, violating Torah and serving the devil.
Even more difficult can be conflict among believers. Our expectations are higher for those who share our faith than for those who do not. We have come to expect conflict from nonbelievers, but we become confused when we encounter it in a congregational or ministry setting. Yet such conflict is also nothing new. When other Jewish believers came around, Peter separated himself from gentile Christians, causing division in the body as others followed his lead (Galatians 2:11-13). After missionary-team member John Mark had ditched them, Paul and Barnabas parted ways over John Mark’s suitability for continued missionary work (Acts 15:36-41).
Yet the above scenarios all ended on an encouraging note:
- Dan didn’t allow himself to become embittered, nor did he match hostility with hostility. Instead, he showed patience and forgiveness, and his relationship with his family has dramatically improved.
- God turned Joseph’s situation around so that he ended up in a place of influence in Egypt where God could use him to bless others. Eventually, he reconciled with his brothers in such a way that his entire family experienced blessing.
- Yeshua did not disrespect his family, nor did he cave in to their pressure, but sought to follow his heavenly Father’s will. Ultimately, some of his family became well-known persons and even leaders in the Jerusalem church.
- I was honest with my employer about my feelings and gave my two weeks’ notice. Eventually he apologized and we more or less resolved things positively.
- Peter found himself in another conflict, a healthy one in this case, when Paul confronted him about his behavior (Galatians 2:14-16), leading to a positive change of behavior.
- Barnabas and Paul not only reconciled, but Paul later mentioned John Mark as being a helpful co-worker (2 Timothy 4:11).
Moving Toward Resolution: The Principles
Not every conflict ends on an upbeat note, of course. Yet there are common underlying principles we can draw on as we seek to resolve conflict. Ken Sande, president of Peacemaker Ministries,2 notes:
To some, conflict is a hazard that threatens to sweep them off their feet and leave them bruised and hurting. To others, it is an obstacle that they should conquer quickly and firmly, regardless of the consequences. But some people have learned that conflict is an opportunity to solve common problems in a way that honors God and offers benefits to those involved.3
Sande then outlines four biblical principles, all beginning with the letter “G,” that we should consider when conflict arises.
Principle One: Glorify God. Paul’s letters to the Corinthians show that much of his energy went into dealing with divisions in that church. Paul urged unity in mind and purpose despite differences, with God’s glory as the unifying factor. “Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31, emphasis added). Admittedly, this is easier to do when we are getting along with people. Yet Joseph brought glory to God by remaining faithful to him despite his circumstances, and he glorified God by pursuing reconciliation with his brothers despite the evil they had done to him. Paul, whose word in 1 Corinthians 10:31 was given to a congregation deeply divided, brought glory to God through the power of his story to a hostile crowd in Acts 21:27–22:21.
Principle Two: Get the Log out of Your Eye. Blame rarely falls entirely on one party in a conflict. Yet it is easy for us to see the speck in someone else’s eye while remaining blind to our own sin. Yeshua, however, instructs us to reflect on our own sinfulness before focusing on someone else’s problems (Matthew 7), while James talks about the selfishness in our own hearts as the root of conflict (James 4).
Even when the other party is not willing to admit their fault, we must accept responsibility for ours by acknowledging the hurt we have caused, asking for forgiveness and backing up our apology with changed behavior. Sometimes there are unexpected benefits to doing this. I once had a disagreement with a friend who was angry with me. I remember being caught off guard when he acknowledged and apologized for his part in the conflict. I was suddenly aware of how I had been treating him and followed his lead in seeking his forgiveness.
Conflict can therefore be an opportunity for God to deal with issues in our lives by bringing them to the surface. It is good to pray and ask ourselves some honest questions: What is my attitude here? Am I bitter or judgmental? What part have I played in this conflict? And then we should allow God to speak to us on those matters.
Principle Three: Gently Restore. Sometimes we need to enable others to see their part in the conflict in order to enable reconciliation, or the restoration of a relationship. The Bible uses a range of words to describe this process: confessing, teaching, instructing, reasoning with, showing, encouraging, correcting, warning, admonishing and rebuking (see Matthew 5:23-24; Luke 17:3; Acts 17:17; 1 Thessalonians 5:14; 2 Timothy 2:24; 4:2).
In Matthew 18:15-17, Yeshua gives us a process for redemptively approaching those who have wronged us. The progression moves from dealing one-on-one to bringing witnesses alongside. Applying this process of Matthew 18 takes discernment, and it can be helpful to get input from a pastor or trained counselor.4 In any case, our ultimate goal is always restoration, not condemnation.
Principle Four: Go and Be Reconciled. Sande describes a two stage process in reconciliation: first, the injured party needs to have an attitude of forgiveness and second, where possible, the injured party must grant forgiveness.5
Granting forgiveness is conditional on whether someone has repented or apologized and sought forgiveness (Luke 17:3-4). If they have, we must do our best to reach out to them and to truly forgive. If they have not, we must still have the attitude of forgiveness. This is unconditional. It is between you and the Lord. It requires uprooting resentment and sin in our hearts and turning it over to him. We wash our hands of resentment before it turns into gangrene and eats away at our heart.
When Things Don’t Resolve
Unfortunately, things cannot always be resolved in the way we would hope. Sin and injustice plague our world. No matter what steps we take, reconciliation will often elude us this side of heaven. Jesus himself told his followers to expect conflict from fellow believers (Matthew 18, see above) and also from nonbelievers: “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. . . . If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (John 15:18, 20).
So it should not surprise us when we encounter hostility. Most Jewish believers are no strangers to opposition. Several years ago, a friend of mine told his Orthodox family of his faith in Yeshua. Around that same time, his brother announced that he was gay. Guess who encountered more opposition? His parents called in anti-missionaries, confronted him and pressured him to stop associating with believers, while his brother’s boyfriend was welcomed into the home as part of the family.
These are the kind of painful experiences we will encounter as we stand for Yeshua. It is important that we carefully discern the source of a conflict. We must ask ourselves whether the gospel has been the source of offense or whether we just blew it. If we are confident that it is the gospel that has been the source of conflict, we must endure. Paul urged Timothy to “endure hardship” (2 Timothy 2:3-4) rather than shy away from it. Our natural instinct may be to avoid this kind of conflict— who wants to be hated?—but we must do what we can to reconcile and leave the rest in God’s hands.
The Gospel: God’s Gift of Reconciliation
The gospel is God’s greatest gift of reconciliation to us. When we were in conflict with God, he went over and above to reconcile us to himself (Romans 5:8). Paradoxically, the same gospel also brings conflict to the surface as it confronts our hearts with the reality of the truth.
But we can call upon the reconciling power of the gospel to work amidst conflict (2 Corinthians 5:18; Colossians 1:20-22). We must take to heart Jesus’ parable of the unmerciful servant (Matthew 18:21-35). God was willing to release us of our great debts. He had the right to cut us off, but he sought another way. His way demonstrated patience, humility and sacrificial love when we truly did not deserve it.
Conflict is hard and it can be draining. As we take steps to resolve conflict, it can draw us closer to one another and to the Lord. Above all, we must remember that God can reconcile when people cannot, through prayer, patience and time. God is faithful. Remember Joseph, Peter, Barnabas and Paul. Above all, remember Yeshua. As we stand for him, he can work miracles of reconciliation.
For Further Reading
- Ken Sande. The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict. Baker Books, 2004.
- Leslie Flynn. Great Church Fights. Victor Books, 1976 (out of print; used copies at amazon.com).
Title of this article is taken from Genesis 13:7.
- K. Thomas and W. Schmidt. “A Survey of Managerial Interests with Respect to Conflict,” Academy of Management Journal 19 (1976), pp. 315-18, cited in Sal Capobianco, Mark Davis and Linda Kraus, “Good Conflict, Bad Conflict: How to Have One Without the Other,” Mt. Eliza Business Review (Summer/Autumn 2005), p. 32. They also cite a 1996 study bearing out similar findings.
- Sande, Ken. The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict, 3rd ed. (Baker Books, 2003), p. 22; emphasis added.
- For details, see Sande, pp. 185-200.
- Ibid., pp. 210-11.