I didn’t start my graduate studies with the intention of combining it with my faith. In fact, it wasn’t until several years after receiving my degree that I started to try to understand the connection. The biggest question that emerged was “How should a Christian handle conflict?” In essence, how does being a Christ-follower influence the choices I make in a disagreement or difficult situation with other people?
Conflict Studies and Graduate School
When I applied to a graduate program in conflict studies, I was intrigued by the idea that conflict could be constructive instead of destructive. The program didn’t ignore the reality of conflict or the reality that it can be a very negative factor in relationships, communities, and the world. What it did suggest was that how conflict is handled has a great deal of impact on the outcome.
In one of our first classes I was surprised to find a textbook from the Mennonite tradition as a key part of our class. Given the anabaptist tradition of peacemaking it was not surprising that they had a textbook; it was surprising that a secular program was using it as a foundational piece of their coursework.
Conflict Studies and Church Ministry
Unfortunately, that was as far as I took my inquiry into how what I was studying connected with how I should handle conflict as a Christian. Fast-forward over a decade later and I had the chance to develop a short class for our church to help Christians handle inter-personal conflict.
I started with several of the general frameworks I had learned from my time of study that I appreciated for their simplicity and potential effectiveness. I then asked, “But how is this different for a Christ-follower?”
It turns out that the strategies are generally similar. There are helpful ways for learning to speak and listen that resonate with a range of situations and relationships. These are broad and good for general application.
The Christ-follower is challenged in the underlying assumptions and attitudes about engaging in a difficult situation with others.
Please note that these are very broad distinctions made suitable for a blog post and not an in-depth examination of each step. Nuance applies every step of the way, and that is perhaps why the first step is the most important.
4 Ways to Handle Conflict as a Christian
In particular, four adjustments are necessary for a Christian to handle conflict with a Christ-centric attitude and approach. That’s what this post is going to introduce.
The four adjustments are: seeking wisdom, bringing humility, initiating, and emphasizing reconciliation. Let’s take each one in turn.
I make a point to emphasize seeking wisdom when I teach this course at church. Taking direction from James 1:5, I repeat over and over the importance of seeking wisdom.
If living a life as a Christian is a claim to follow the instructions of Jesus, then we need to seek his leadership first.
Tense situations and difficult conversations don’t always bring out our best. Chances are they won’t bring out the best in the other person either. Seeking wisdom at the beginning sets our priorities and focuses our intent.
Additionally, each situation is going to bring distinct and different dynamics into play. In some cases, it is right and well to shrug off a slight and not instigate a conflict; in other cases, it might be exactly the right time to approach someone and work towards understanding. The gray areas of life need wisdom. Jesus promises to “…give generously to all..”
Before you start anything or approach anyone, seek wisdom.
Oh boy is this a tough one.
Approaching a touchy conversation with an attitude of humility is only possible if you start with the first directive to seek wisdom.
Then, one of the best ways to engage humility is to ask yourself a couple questions before you approach the other person.
Quite simply, ask for God to show you if you are part of the problem and then how you are part of the problem.
Two Verses to Lead to Humility
Psalm 139:23-24 invites God to search your heart and requests his leadership in areas that are wrong.
Matthew 7:3-5 reminds us that we may see a speck of sawdust in someone else’s eye, but there is every reason to think that perhaps we have a plank in our own. Fortunately, God has the perspective to show it to us. If we ask and listen.
Why is Humility Important?
Two things immediately change if you have worked through your role in the situation first.
One, consider the shift in the tone of the disagreement if you come prepared to first own your own role in it, as best as you’ve been able to discern. You apologize instead of attack.
I’m not talking about false humility or making up an apology just to have a manipulative emotional advantage. No. I’m talking about acknowledging the places where you were in error and bringing it to the other person as part of the broader conversation.
Two, if you are in the wrong, then this approach also takes out the “who started it” element. You’re starting with where you were wrong and continuing the conversation from there. “Who started it” doesn’t matter, or doesn’t hold as much weight, if you’ve already made the effort to correct your error.
Notice that this is entirely putting the onus of responsibility for initiating the reconciliation in your hands. Yep, that’s what comes next.
One of the most distinct ways in which Christians are called to pursue peace is to be the initiators. A couple poignant examples affirm that Christ-followers are to pursue peace.
Romans 12:18 says, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”
Also, in Matthew 5:23-26, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus instructs his listeners, “…if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift…”
Notice in this example that Jesus didn’t say that the person making the sacrifice remembered that he had created a situation. It says that the person making the sacrifice knew that someone else had a problem with him.
For people who are generally unbothered by confrontation, this may not seem like a big deal.
For those of us who would rather swallow a fistful of fire ants, taking the first step into a difficult conversation because we suspect or know that something is “off” is horrifying.
Nevertheless, the instruction is here. We cannot force someone else to make amends, but we are responsible for making the effort to bring about a restored relationship.
What makes initiation important? It signals our true interest in the outcome: namely, reconciliation.
The narrative of conflict approaches in modern society emphasize winning – especially in negotiation strategies for commercial or political situations. Or, at the very least, they emphasize some variation of “getting what you want.”
God doesn’t direct us to take whatever we think we deserve from others. Rather, our motive and our emphasis should be in restoring our relationships.
This doesn’t mean that we need to be a doormat. It means that our focus going into a conversation needs to be on having the conversation and setting our priorities in such a way that the relationship is restored.
This approach brings a different view of what a successful end to the conflict looks like. Christ-followers should prioritize restoring the relationship over and above getting what they want.
Again, Jesus’ words during the Sermon on the Mount provide our instruction. This devotional combines the elements of “initiate” and “reconciliation” well.
These four components of handling conflict as a Christian should be distinctions of our commitment to live peaceably. You cannot guarantee that every person you come in contact with in this way is going to respond kindly and openly. That’s okay. You’re not asked to worry about everyone else; you are called to do what you can “so far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”
If you remember anything from this, start with seeking wisdom through prayer. Always start here. Every situation, every relationship, every dynamic is going to play out differently with each issue that you engage. Even how you approach the other three steps will be influenced by the direction you receive from seeking wisdom.
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