A lack of conflict is not necessarily a sign of spiritual maturity, as some Christians might be tempted to believe. The way in which we manage conflict says a lot about how we understand the role of grace, forgiveness and reconciliation in a sinful world.
Conflict eats away at our time and energy. Furthermore, when we are caught up in a conflict, we miss out on the opportunity to get involved in more constructive things. Lawyer and Christian author Ken Sande says in his book, The Peacemaker, “When Christians fight among themselves, these battles overshadow all they are trying to convey to the world about Christ.”
On the other hand, various relational conflicts and failures seem inevitable, as long as we are imperfect people who interact with other equally imperfect people, under circumstances that are far from ideal: “To be alive is to be in conflict,” says writer John Ortberg, noticing that, no matter how complex a conflict might be, the first step to solving it is admitting that there is a problem in the relationship, even if the respective conflict is not an open one.
Can conflict be an opportunity?
In and of itself, conflict is not a bad thing. On the contrary, it can be the instrument we use to recalibrate a relationship and place it on a foundation of empathy, mutual understanding, and integrity, Pastor Brent Hutchinson says. Although conflicts can sometimes help us grow and understand those around us better, other times they activate fears and make old wounds bleed. This is why we are tempted to sweep disagreements under the rug, or simply give up on a relationship.
The secret to preserving relationships does not lie in denying or avoiding conflicts, but in a constructive approach, psychologist Marisa Franco says. According to studies, open conflicts, where those involved do not blame each other for the problems that have put pressure on the relationship, bring a series of benefits.
People who manage conflict in a healthy way enjoy more popularity and suffer less from depression, anxiety and loneliness.
For some people, the very idea of conflict is as terrifying as a natural disaster, but conflict can be healthy for a relationship, says Elizabeth Dorrance Hall, professor at the University of Michigan. To change our perspective on conflict we must understand its utility, Hall says. In a couple, for instance, conflict signals the need for a change and offers the opportunity to solve existing problems. Secondly, conflict is proof of the fact that the partner’s lives are (still) interdependent. Thirdly, we should know that a conflict is rarely triggered by the incident that seems to have caused it, Hall explains. This can, therefore, be an opportunity to discuss the deeper layers of a dissatisfaction which seems to have been activated by trivial incidents.
A series of studies, conducted by the researchers Amie Gordon and Serena Chen, showed that understanding one’s partner’s point of view in a dispute turns conflict from a negative experience into a positive one. Furthermore, researchers concluded that, even in situations when a marital conflict remains unresolved, partners remain equally happy with their relationship if they feel that their opinions and feelings have been understood.
The biblical way to manage conflicts
According to psychologists, people react to conflict in three different ways: they either withdraw from it (and experience feelings of guilt or denial, preferring to avoid, ignore, or postpone openly admitting the existence of the conflict), respond with warrior-mode (manifesting aggressiveness, insulting or blaming their adversary, or gossiping about them), or they approach conflict in a peaceful way—seeking to restore the relationship and re-establish harmony.
Christians should always go for the last option, that of restoration, says Brent Hutchinson. But this is only possible when they understand the way in which God designed community – as a reflection of the unity and love present within the Holy Trinity. The Bible contains clear instructions regarding the way we should act when our relationships stumble.
These rules are so simple that even a child can understand them, says writer John Ortberg, who analyses the stages of an approach defined by Jesus’ own command: “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over” (Matthew 18:15). Although the passage speaks about the way in which sin must be approached, Ortberg believes it can be applied to solving conflicts in general.
Jesus places the responsibility for taking the first step on His followers, even when they are not at fault for the deterioration of the relationship. The reason for this task seems evident to Ortberg: people who cherish community need to get involved in solving relational failures, in a world with “a surplus of weapons and a shortage of peacekeepers.” This search for the guilty person by the offended one, who seeks the restoration of one’s relationship with God and fellow men, is the mark of forgiving love, so rare and so misunderstood in an era of self-centeredness.
Perhaps the last person we wish to see is the one we are in conflict with, but the biblical advice is to go to them, before hard feelings take root in our hearts. As far as we are concerned, we would rather go to a friend who would pity us for the injustice suffered, but, involving a third person in a problem they know nothing about is as damaging as it is tempting. When we talk about what troubles us, the result is not the diminishment of our sadness or anger, psychologist Carol Travis says. The effect is the exact opposite: the more we talk about the grief we feel, the more our negative emotions are amplified, to the point that they once again reach the intensity of the initial incident that caused them. Furthermore, while we share with others the events that hurt us, we develop hostility towards the person we are in conflict with, Travis says.
Sensitivity is one of the key factors of conflict management, says Ortberg, underlining the golden rule for the management of a misunderstanding: treat the other as you yourself would like to be treated.
Another useful rule for a constructive and long-term solution to a conflict is the rule of 10%, Ortberg says. According to him, often, at the end of a difficult discussion, we no longer have the courage to put our finger on it and call out the other’s undesirable behaviour. The reason we plunge into ambiguity exactly when we should clarify what is wrong with the other’s behaviour is not our love for them, but fear of making the conflict worse. The reality is that we need sensitivity to draw attention to an inappropriate behaviour, but also a courageous love to help someone close to us make the changes they need to make.
Our purpose when we deal with a conflict is to restore the relationship, the writer says. He says that reconciliation is not a simple process and it almost never happens swiftly, but it’s the direction in which God expects us to move.
Practice forgiveness to manage conflict
Sometimes conflicts deepen instead of dying out, and the confrontation concerning the problem that generated the break yields no positive effect. It seems as if things reach a dead end. The Bible, however, shows us a road that appears when no signpost can be seen anymore: forgiveness.
According to biblical teaching, forgiveness is not a favour we decide to offer or not, after we have critically analysed the behaviour of the one who hurt us. In reality, forgiving others is a condition for us to obtain divine forgiveness for ourselves: “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:14-15). The parable of the unmerciful servant (Matthew 18:21-35) displays God’s displeasure with an unforgiving attitude as well as the serious consequences of not forgiving. The hard feelings we have towards those who have wronged us are rooted in our inability to stand in awe of God’s love for us, the sinners, says pastor John Piper.
In his famous lecture on “the duty of prayer,” philosopher and theologian Jonathan Edwards compared our unwillingness to forgive with God’s immeasurable generosity to us. When we are hurt, we might not seek ways to retaliate, but the major temptation is to stop searching for ways to bring blessing to others, Edwards says. Hard feelings stop us from being generous to those who wronged us while we continue to enjoy the generosity of the One whom we have wronged the most.
“To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you,” C.S. Lewis said.
There are at least four promises which authentic forgiveness makes, Ken Sande says:
1. I will not insist on the incident that took place.
2. I will not use this incident against you.
3. I will not talk to others about our conflict.
4. I will not let this incident come between us and change our relationship.
Forgiveness not only makes our suffering bearable, but gives it meaning, says Lourdes Morales-Gudmundsson, professor at La Sierra University, in a book that analyses the different faces of authentic forgiveness. Authentic forgiveness is connected to responsibility, while false forgiveness has to do with selfish self-preservation. True forgiveness bestows power both upon the culprit and on the one who was wronged, while counterfeit forgiveness deprives both of them of power, the author says. Forgiveness can be a painful process, but one of its benefits is that it invites us to see what is in our heart, giving us the opportunity to discover how much our weakness may resemble the weaknesses of the ones who have sinned against us, and opening ways to empathy, understanding, and healing.
Forgiveness versus reconciliation
Sometimes we mistake forgiveness for reconciliation, says Pastor Shane Pruitt, explaining that this misunderstanding makes us reluctant to forgive.
Forgiveness is an act of faith by which the wronged person takes the burden of bitterness and entrusts it to God, being convinced that only He can judge imperfect situations and people perfectly. This act may take place regardless of whether the two parties involved in the conflict communicate to solve the misunderstandings. On the other hand, reconciliation is a different process, Pruitt says. To restore a relationship that has been broken one needs two people to ask and offer forgiveness, to once again invest trust in the relationship, and to be willing to change so that the relationship works.
Forgiveness represents a necessity in any circumstance but restoring the relationship is not always possible and perhaps not even a good idea if the respective relationship is dangerous or toxic.
When we ask ourselves if we haven’t forgiven too much, we mistake forgiveness for restoring the relationship—but also for justice, Lourdes Morales-Gudmundsson says. In reality, forgiveness is about the decision to free a person from our anger and expectations of justice being served, but it also has to do with freeing ourselves from the prison of negative emotions. It is about replacing the “mathematics of vengeance” with the “irrationality of grace”.
The other person cannot establish the limits of my forgiveness, although it is true that they can impose limits when it comes to reconciliation, says Morales-Gudmundsson. If the person who was wrong does not ask for forgiveness and does not regret what happened, a certain form of distancing, depending on the situation, is even recommended, the author says. We need to honestly assess things ourselves to establish whether our forgiveness is authentic or whether we are using the impossibility of reconciliation to fuel our hard feelings, from a distance.
Forgiveness implies letting go of anger or bitterness, and discovering the ability to wish the other well, to pray for them, and even to act in keeping with this prayer when the opportunity presents itself.
We would prefer forgiveness to be a singular event that we can manage with our finite resources. In reality, this is a lifetime’s marathon because we are constantly hurt by others and, most probably, we hurt them too.
“If [your brother] sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says , ‘I repent,’ forgive him” (Luke 17:3-4). This is Jesus’ teaching, cancelling the petty human tendency to keep a record of all the times we have been wronged. Forgiveness has never been an easy or popular choice—not because others’ mistakes hurt us too much, but because His wounds pain us so little.