Resolving Conflicts and Overcoming Strife – Part 1

Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many (Hebrews 12:14-15 NIV).

Conflict can be defined as a serious disagreement, quarrel, argument, or contention, typically one that lingers on for a while. Other synonyms in the dictionary for conflict include: strife, discordance, hostility, disharmony, antagonism, antipathy, enmity, ill feeling, bad blood, squabbling, bickering, wrangling, feuding, disunity, dissension, dispute, friction, division, opposition, and infighting. As we have seen throughout history, if conflict is not resolved quickly as the Bible counsels us (Matthew 5:23-25; Ephesians 4:26), it can escalate to full-scale war and bloodshed.  The opposite of conflict is agreement, harmony, and peace. The Lord desires for His creation to have peace and to live in peace with one another (John 14:27; 16:33). As a matter of fact, one of the names attributed to God is “Jehovah Shalom” or “The Lord is Peace” (Judges 6:24), and the Apostle Paul also reminds us that Jesus Christ Himself is also our peace (Ephesians 2:14).

While there are different types of conflicts, such as conflicts within one person, family or group, and conflicts between two separate individuals, families, or groups, this message primarily focuses on interpersonal conflicts. Conflict can sometimes be positive, constructive and productive, generating optimal value with minimal harm at the workplace or at home. For example, two and a half years ago, my wife and I had a serious conflict on whether to enroll our children in public school (and hold them back a year as a result since they didn’t meet the birthday cut-off date) or private school (there would be no need to hold them back because of birthday cut-off, but it would be expensive financially). After visiting and reviewing various schools, deliberating between ourselves, and seeking wisdom from other like-minded believers and the Lord through prayer, we realized that neither public school nor private school was the best option for our family. Instead, the Lord gave us lots of peace about Christian homeschooling! In the past, we also had positive conflict over whether to take a bank loan to buy a house or car, only for the Lord to show us in His Word that the best option was not to be a borrower because “the rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is slave to the lender” (Proverbs 22:7). An example of a positive conflict in the Bible was the agreement between Abraham and Lot to go separate ways since the land was no longer sufficient to accommodate their growing families and wealth (Genesis 13:5-9).

The reality, in most cases, is that conflict becomes negative and destructive, often resulting in someone getting hurt emotionally or physically, and this violates the Biblical command for believers to “encourage one another and build each other up” (1 Thessalonians 5:11). Conflict resolution is a complex and multi-faceted topic, so what we are sharing here is no way exhaustive, but rather a synopsis based on our experience and study of the Bible.

Usually, people learn to deal with conflict and strife, for better or worse, at a young age. As children, many of us might have learned from our parents, relatives, and teachers not to snatch things from others, not to hit or physically hurt others, not to say mean or demeaning things that could be offensive to others, and to be polite and have good manners. Some children might have been taught otherwise, or not taught at all, and as adults, they don’t know how to resolve conflicts in a peaceful way. Simply put, if we parents don’t work out our issues and resolve conflict in an amicable way, how would we expect our children to do the same when they grow up, especially in a society where we are increasingly being surrounded by broken families, individualistic ideals, and laissez-faire attitudes and lifestyles?

Sources of Conflict and Strife

The Bible clearly tells us that “God is not the author of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints” (1 Corinthians 14:33 NKJV). So, by process of elimination, we can safely conclude that Satan is the one who sows seed of division, in order to steal our peace and cause escalating conflicts that ultimately end in people hurting and destroying one another, so that we may miss out on God’s promise of everlasting life and share in Satan’s fate (John 10:10; Revelation 12:17; 20:10; 21:8). The Bible warns us that in these last days “many will be offended, will betray one another, and will hate one another” (Matthew 24:10 NKJV). The Lord Jesus Christ warned us that Christians will also be hated and treated spitefully, just as He was treated (Matthew 5:10-12; 10:22; Revelation 2:10). Since Jesus set us an example of how we should conduct ourselves (John 13:15), we should, therefore, guard against being unloving and hateful towards those who offend us. Offence is one of the most effective tactics the enemy uses to steal, kill, and destroy our joy and our unity of the Spirit with fellow brethren and loved ones (John 10:10). Offenses are stumbling blocks and temptations to sin. The Lord Jesus said, offenses will come, but “woe to him through whom they do come!” (Luke 17:1 NKJV).

Why do people end up fighting and quarreling? The Apostles identified one main source of conflict, strife, and contentions: our sinful, selfish desire for fleshly pleasures (including passions and material things) (James 4:1), instead of pursuing “righteousness, faith, love, and peace” (2 Timothy 2:22 NKJV). The Bible further warns us to avoid foolish, ignorant and stupid arguments and controversies, because they are unedifying and produce conflicts (2 Timothy 2:23).

Resolving Conflict the World’s Way

Have you ever confronted someone, to point out their sin, and suddenly they switch the subject or “flipped the script” against you? Some people may act prideful and begrudging, point their fingers back at you, bring up past issues, and start calling you colorful names. Alternatively, you may be the one who handles conflict in this manner when confronted. Brothers and sisters, such negative attitude is displeasing to the Lord. As we shared in our messages on A Humble Heart (Part I and Part II), the Lord loves it when we are humble, and present a sacrifice of “a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart” (Psalm 51:17).

In college, we learnt that in business, politics, or international relations arena, there are five main strategies one can employ to resolve conflict:

  1. Competing or Fighting: In this strategy, the stronger side simply stands their ground or strong-arms the weaker side and wins. In this “winner takes all strategy”, the weaker side is left to lick the wounds and deal with any ill feelings. This strategy clearly promotes pride, is self-centered, and violates the Christian characters of humility and gentleness (Philippians 2:3-4).
  2. Avoiding or Denying: This is where everyone buries their head in the sand, pretends that there is no problem, or the avoiding person withdraws and hopes that somehow the problem will resolve itself without direct confrontation. This can also happen when one party is not willing to humble themselves and take responsibility for their mistakes or role in the conflict. Resolution of the conflict is therefore postponed indefinitely, or until offended party is finally fed up and breaks the relationship. As Christians, we are supposed to address conflict, being corrected and correcting each other in love and gentleness (Matthew 18:15-17; Galatians 6:1).
  3. Accommodating or Giving In: This strategy involves giving the opposing person what he or she wants. This “smoothing over the problem” strategy may benefit one person more than the other, so usually it usually creates resentment and doesn’t hold for long – for example in political coalitions that are created just before an election for convenience in order to increase the chances of the coalition winning.
  4. Compromising: In this strategy, both parties give up something (usually what they consider to be “minor points”), in favor of a mutually agreed solution where the two parties agree to meet somewhere in the middle. As Christians, it might be permissible in some circumstances to compromise on issues that are not sinful or don’t lead to sin, instead of being hung up on minor issues. For example, Peter was willing to eat with Gentile believers, at least for some time, which appears to have been contrary to what the Jewish believers did (Galatians 2:11-15). Another example of compromise happened in the Early Church when the disciples met to decide whether or not new Gentile believers should also uphold Mosaic law (Acts 15:1-29).
  5. Collaborating: This is the ideal strategy, where the parties involved meticulously work through their challenges and find an outcome that is favorable and agreeable to all, in other words a win-win situation. The Jerusalem Council described in Acts 15:1-29 was also a collaborative effort since it was a win-win situation for both the Jews and Gentiles (the Jewish believers in Christ could continue keeping the teachings of Moses, but the new Gentile believers were not obligated to do so, except for the three agreed laws). Abram and Lot’s separation was also a collaborative effort since both parties were happy with outcome (Genesis 13:5-8), but the Lord recognized Abrams’s humility and faith and blessed Him (Genesis 13:14-17).

Other strategies for dealing with conflict that typically don’t work well, and instead exacerbate strife, include the following:

  • Introducing un-related subjects to the conflict (“kitchen sink strategy”) and redirecting focus from the problem to the person; instead of handling one item at a time and focusing on the problem at hand.
  • Sweeping “small” issues under the rug and not resolving them quickly. This just causes trust to grow dim and waters the seeds of division; the “mole hill” sooner or later may become a mountain.
  • Acting cold, giving the “silent treatment”, or being unreceptive to a discussion or conflict resolution by making mean and offensive facial gestures as someone tries to ask for forgiveness and make peace with you. This does not encourage people to humble themselves and seek forgiveness from you or apologize to you. As Christians, we are still called to obey the Lord and repent. Sometimes you ask for forgiveness and leave it in the person’s court to process their feelings and choose to forgive you or not while you continue to pray.
  • Talking to others about a problem/situation (or sharing via social media), but not talking to the person who wronged you. Some people would rather talk to their co-workers, family, and friends than talk to the person who wronged them. This doesn’t resolve conflicts, but creates an avenue for gossip and slander, which further fuels the conflict and diminishes trust.
  • Using insults, name-calling, judgements, and finger-pointing when someone brings up an issue against you. While in the physical realm one may feel justified by intimidating someone else, this kind of contentious attitude is self-defeating spiritually and is a display of lacking Spiritual Fruit (Galatians 5:19-23).
  • Judging people’s motives, declaring their intentions, and diagnosing why you think a person did what they did. We’ve had experiences where we confronted a brother or sister in Christ over an issue, and they started falsely accusing us and declaring that they know what is in our hearts. Judging people’s motive is not only hurtful but is often wrong! Only God knows the secret things of the heart (Psalm 44:21), not man. At the appointed time, “He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart” (1 Corinthians 4:5 NIV) and “bring every work into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:14 NKJV). We should, therefore, allow only the Lord Jesus to judge hearts and motives (Romans 14:9-10), otherwise “you too will be judged” (Matthew 7:1 NIV).
  • Speaking “words of death”, curses, and negatives things about people’s identity and over their lives. In a bid to have control over others for selfish reasons or other motives, some people resort to name-calling and speaking discouraging words; this can have the power to spark dismay, deep disappointment and even depression (Proverbs 18:21). While it is true that sticks and stones can break one’s bones and cause temporary physical pain, the truth is that words can also really hurt, mess up one’s spirit, and create inner wounds that take a lot more time to heal.
  • Burying one’s head in the sand and denying that there is a problem. This is simply not a viable strategy for resolving conflict! Acknowledging that there is a problem is a key step to resolving any issue (John 9:41).

In Part 2 of this message, we’ll discuss how to resolve conflicts the Biblical way, including resolving conflict in marriage.

If you would like to experience peace by accepting Jesus as your Lord and Savior, please pray this Prayer of Salvation to get you started. For any questions or comments about this article please contact us.

Grace and abundant peace be upon you,

Abes and Janet.