Just one word: resolution. The beautiful possibility of bringing harmony and peace, reconciliation and shalom. Replacing hostility with hospitality. But, oh, how hard it can be. How fiercely our egos defend themselves. How adamantly our pride demands vindication. How obsessively we nurse our grievances.
If we want to maintain some emotional health as we serve Jesus, it will not be optional to learn how to resolve conflict. If we want a healthy marriage, healthy children and healthy churches, we can neither avoid conflict nor gloss over it with pretending and “peace-faking”.
I was given Ken Sande’s magnificent book The Peacemaker about 15 years ago. Sande is an American attorney who has grappled with what the Scriptures have to say about conflict resolution, and his work has led to the development of the excellent Peacewise ministry here in Australia.
See conflict as an opportunity (rather than a dreaded terror).
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Three ideas from Sande have been formative for me. Firstly, to see conflict as an opportunity (rather than a dreaded terror) is delightfully optimistic! Secondly, it is through these very common human dilemmas that God stretches and grows us. And thirdly, that conflict is a window into our hearts, taking us into the deep territory of idolatry, pride and immaturity, if we are prepared to go there. If we will humble ourselves and pray, and genuinely seek first God’s kingdom, conflict can become a spiritual gymnasium, a place of deep emotional growth.
I love that the Gospel of Matthew contains both 5:23 and 18:15, addressing both the offender (5:23-24) and the offended (18:15-17). There is no room allowed here for resentfully nursing my grievance, waiting for the other to make the move. Nope. Take initiative. Sort it out. Deal with it. And quickly.
At the level of resentment, we have a choice about whether to change our thinking or disclose our concern and ask for what we want. A resentment left to fester will only grow bitterness, with an inherent perception of unfairness, and Jesus is pretty clear on this one (Ephesians 4:31: “get rid of all bitterness …”; Hebrews 12:15: “See to it … that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble”). For Joseph’s brothers, bitterness grew into hatred and murder (Genesis 37).
I have found myself cooking our church dinners a few times recently – think dinner for 35! Initially, it was a fun challenge for my husband and me, but when I found myself cooking twice in two weeks, the shine wore off rather quickly. Now, it does need saying that I offered. But I was still resentful. Figure that out.
So, two things were needed. Some solid preaching to the self – about having offered, about actually enjoying the challenge, about having the time, about wanting to serve and bless our community, and about making this an expression of joyful, sacrificial worship. But I also needed to send an email – an email that carefully, gently asked again for a roster for this job; a roster that shared around both the cooking and the clean up!
A resentment left to fester will only grow bitterness.
When nasty words have been said, however, we are in a different zone, often needing some time for the temperature to settle and to gain some perspective. We need to sort out our own heads before seeking to re-engage, so we are able to articulate how we feel and what we would like to be different. In our house, it might be the offer of a cup of tea that breaks the ice, and can be followed by “Are you ready to talk?” This “checking for readiness” is respectful and super-helpful.
Our rule of thumb is to disclose our observations about what was happening between us, seeking to understand. No blaming. No accusing. But rather trying to make practical suggestions about what we could do differently next time. Apologising for our mistakes. Making up!
But when there is a breakdown in trust, if there has been betrayal or a deep breach of honesty or integrity, we are going to be in for a longer process, which may require professional assistance.
Sande has some excellent material about what makes an effective apology (p. 126-134). This type of apology takes full responsibility for the choices made, for the hurt caused, for the consequences in the relationship and for the changes that are needed. An apology that can open the way for forgiveness. An apology that has fearlessly and humbly listened to the pain caused, with its devastating crashing waves and endlessly permeating ripples. But this kind of apology requires careful consideration and prayerful reflection and, I think, is often best written.
Interestingly, even the Apostle Paul came to the decision to walk away from his “sharp disagreement” with Barnabus (Acts 15:39) over the role that Mark should play in their ministry, resulting in two teams rather than one. This is a very helpful reminder that sometimes we have to agree to disagree and part company. There are certain circumstances when the destruction in a relationship is so profound that reconciliation is impossible (Matthew 5:32).
So, it is certainly a core emotional health and discipleship issue to:
Core idea 9: Seek to be a peacemaker
Make it a regular part of your prayers and self-reflection. Take the lead. Ask God to give you a soft, humble heart that can find the log in your own eye (Matthew 7:3-5) easily and apologise genuinely.
But don’t be a doormat! Allow yourself to be respected enough to disclose your reactions too.
Possibly the most practical tip I have learned from my work in this area is to ask this question:
Practical tip 9: “What can we do differently?”
It is always helpful to have a little bit of structure when seeking to resolve a problem, and I have two favourites.
One is to listen to each other’s perspectives before exploring possible solutions.
The other is to think back over the sequence of interactions that brought the relationship unstuck, i.e. going back to map out what happened with the ever-helpful question in mind: “What could either of us do differently next time?”. Look for little practical ideas, for example, suggesting, “We could talk about our plans for Saturday on Friday night. We could set the alarm 10 minutes earlier to not be in a rush. We could ask for help when we want it.”
Don’t point out each other’s mistakes, but rather, look for what you personally can do differently.
Humility, maturity, kindness, harmony. These are just a few of the magnificent byproducts of learning to handle conflict carefully and proactively.