By Kara Johnson
We were on a hike and I was getting upset. I can’t remember what our fight was about, or even what was said, but somehow my husband stepped on an emotional land mine neither of us knew existed. I was practically running because my feet were moving in cadence with the thoughts racing through my head.
Uninvited tears formed in the corners of my eyes as my voice climbed to an octave of anxious intensity. Without thinking, I snapped a defensive insult back at him and busied my brain gathering another arsenal for the next round of attacks.
Using words as arrows, we assumed our positions and with all the energy and intensity of a cowboys and Indians flick, we strategically pinpointed each other’s most vulnerable areas and unleashed our ammunition. I wanted—no, I needed—to be heard. I felt wronged and misunderstood. I was hurt and angry, and had there been a door anywhere around, I would have slammed it hard enough to shake the walls.
We’ve all seen or been part of ugly disagreements. Conflict seems to be a universally known method of communication that permeates through households, businesses, governments, and nations. The Bible warns us about being quarrelsome (see 2 Timothy 2:23-26), so how do Christians successfully navigate through a blatantly argumentative society?
Conflict is not necessarily a bad thing. God created each of us uniquely. Each of us has our own set of opinions, perspectives, and insights that are guaranteed to clash with the thoughts and experiences of others. We run into problems when the sinful condition of life on earth takes these differences and turns them into battle zones of harsh words, insults, and opportunities to hurt, embarrass, or undercut someone else.
It may seem a bit naive to think we could exist without the use of heated words or disagreements. But conflict can be handled in a way that offers a healthy, beneficial, and even peaceful experience. Here are a few key elements I’ve discovered for steering through the battlefield of discord successfully.
Assess the Situation
Too often, we think more about the immediate issue and forget to step back and get a big-picture perspective. It’s important to take a few minutes to walk through a personal and environmental inventory. Reflect on how you are feeling and why. Consider that there may be other factors exacerbating the reactions of those involved. For example, I know I’m more vulnerable to irritability when hungry or stressed, so my husband and I have set ground rules to purposefully avoid certain “hot button” topics late at night.
Take a look at your environment. Are you in a public location or around children? It’s OK for others to know we don’t agree on everything, but it’s imperative that we exercise righteousness even, and especially, in the midst of disagreement. The Bible tells us in 2 Timothy 2:25 that we need to handle conflict with gentleness because people are watching, and the example we set could become a pivotal point in someone’s journey toward Christ.
Ask God to Intervene
Many times, the issue at hand isn’t the actual issue. Each of us has unique and intimate experiences that influence the emotions and outlooks we contribute to the situation. That day on the hike, I know my reaction to whatever my husband said was completely smothered in previous and unresolved hurt. Fear and insecurity often surface through unrelated means, so it’s important to make sure we nail down the real and underlying problems first. That way, we can minimize tangents and stay focused. If we spend our time chasing rabbit trails instead of dealing with the real problem, the cycle will continue over and over again and a real resolution may never be reached.
Although it’s always a good idea to start a tough discussion with prayer, sometimes we don’t see an argument coming. At the very least, personally bathe every word in prayer, and then if it’s appropriate, and the other person is willing, ask if the two of you can end the conversation by seeking the Lord together. This always calms me down and helps me put things into proper perspective. It instills a receptive humility and allows the Holy Spirit to innervate the conversation and work things out on his behalf. It opens the door for his teaching, healing, encouraging, and even reprimanding if needed, leading to repentance.
Practicing active and intentional listening is crucial. Though it’s hard, we need to make sure we don’t dominate the conversation by focusing all the attention on ourselves, or the points we think we need to make. Giving the other person room to fully express concerns (even if we don’t agree) will help us understand where he or she is coming from. It also has a tendency to slow things down enough to create a demeanor of genuine care and concern that can defuse the usual defensiveness and knee-jerk reactions that tend to surface during intense arguments.
Making eye contact and taking slow, deep breaths can also help change the dynamics of a situation. Practicing welcoming body language such as uncrossing arms, turning toward each other, or even holding hands or touching lightly can cause major defensive walls to come down. This will allow you to further express sincerity in your listening and gentleness as you respond. While on our hike, my husband stopped walking and tenderly reached out to take my hand. He then turned his body so he was facing me and asked if we could pray. I’ll never forget how those small gestures served to transform a heated argument into a positive and productive conversation.
Choose Your Words Wisely
The Bible has a lot to say about the way we speak to others. It teaches us to “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths” (Ephesians 4:29-31, New King James Version) and that we will have to “give an account for every careless word” we speak (Matthew 12:36, 37, New International Version, 1984). It warns us about the power our words contain (James 3:5) and shows us that a single statement can cause irreparable damage.
It certainly doesn’t take much effort to recall hurtful words spoken to or about me in the heat of an argument. What is more disturbing, however, is the fact that my own mouth has been a weapon of mass destruction as well. Although my hurtful words haven’t been transcribed in a newspaper or magazine for all to read, God has heard them. Without the cloak of his sacrificial forgiveness, someday I would have to retrace every single syllable in shame. Praise the Lord though; he has granted forgiveness, grace, and an opportunity to change.
That’s why taking time to think through what we are about to say and choosing each word carefully must become a routine. We can’t predict or control what someone else says, but we can be quick to forgive, slow to speak, and ready to let each conflict become an opportunity for growth and extended grace. The important thing to remember is that our response can change the outcome.
Whether they occur with your husband, sister, best friend, or coworker, disagreements can provide opportunities for growth and maturity. Walking with someone through tough issues can result in closer relationships and more cohesive spiritual unity. In order to maximize the benefits God wants to give us though, we need to practice approaching conflict through patience, self-control, gentleness, and personal accountability. When we seek to validate and identify with another person, we can more readily forgive and more easily move on. It’s normal to disagree with someone, but the way we handle conflict can mean the difference between alienation and salvation.
Kara Johnson is a freelance writer in Eagle, Idaho.
Sermons on Conflict
“Church Conflicts” by Derke Bergsma
“The Bible’s Solution for Church Conflicts” by Derke Bergsma
“Lawsuits with Believers” by John Fesko
“Enemy Mission: Resolving Conflict with Others in the Church” by Bryan Chapell
“The Church and Its Conflicts” by Sinclair Ferguson
“Making Peace” by Tim Keller
“Joy in Conflict” by Mark Driscoll
“What Causes Fights And Quarrels?” by Steve Shepherd
“Speaking The Truth In Love” by Guy Caley
“The Do’s & Don’ts Of Restoring Relationships” by Steven Dow
“How To Handle Conflicts” by Adrian Rogers
• The Cure For Conflict by David Owens