By Simon Presland
Conflict. Just the mention of the word sends shivers down our spines. Images of yelling, screaming, and fighting come to mind. People will do almost anything to avoid a conflict. But conflict is part of everyday life. Jesus put it this way: “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). The words “take heart” mean to have courage. Courage in conflict? Isn’t that an oxymoron? No.
Jesus never asks us to do something that is impossible. He never shied away from conflict. But we do. Why? Because we are afraid of rejection. How, then, do we face conflicts in a healthy manner? We allow God to transform us in the midst of the battle, a task that is not easy, but one that will glorify him and benefit each of us.
When it comes to dealing with conflict, some are used to screaming matches. Others choose a path of avoidance. We all struggle with our own flesh, iniquities, defense mechanisms, and voices from our past and present that tell us to defend ourselves at all costs. As well, the enemy’s voice is never far from our minds.
Conflict often involves a clash in values, ideals, or morals. It can also be rooted in lust, greed, or a power struggle. If conflict is born out of bitterness, resentment, or an unwillingness to forgive, the goal might be to cause others to suffer, as with Cain and Abel in Genesis 4 and Joseph and his brothers in Genesis 37.
So how can we resolve conflicts in a God-honoring way? The key is conflict transformation. Conflict transformation is not conflict management or even conflict resolution, although it can include both. Conflict management implies keeping a lid on the problem at hand. Conflicting views must be expressed in an acceptable manner or according to acceptable standards. But who decides what is acceptable? Conflict resolution implies the need to put an end to the conflict and move on. Resolution may even imply the absence or the elimination of conflict as the primary goal, something that isn’t always possible.
Conflict transformation invites God to bring change in the midst of conflict. This begins by each of us understanding who we are as a person and how we perceive that we are being attacked. It involves recognizing where we are emotionally and the goals we are trying to accomplish. Transformation focuses on the individuals involved and their relationship with each other. When a relationship is more important to the people in conflict than “winning” the dispute, transformation can occur in both individuals. They can move from self-absorption and defensiveness to become other-focused while learning to listen to what God is saying.
Our basic understanding of conflict determines how we respond. If we believe a conflict with a spouse, friend, coworker, or fellow church member is inappropriate, we will feel embarrassed. It is human nature to avoid emotional situations. If we cannot avoid these situations, we try to find the easiest way through the conflict, including giving in or compromising. As a consequence, we do not learn healthy resolution skills because our perspective determines what we see and hear.
The Problem Is Not the Problem
When conflict breaks out, everyone believes they know who or what the problem is. But the real source of conflict is usually deeper. For this reason, exploring the surface issues of a conflict will not resolve it.
In conflict, our senses are so overloaded with data and emotions that we selectively pick what we are capable of dealing with. We view others and the world through the filters of our own perception.
Our desire for power is rooted in our basic need for self-worth. Reactions such as anger, shutting down, sarcasm, or belittling come from a need to dominate. But many times our values and needs are themselves in conflict. We are competing with others at the same time as we are competing with our own inner drives, and we project our inner conflict outward onto others.
For instance, Jesus said that peacemakers, those who are merciful, and the meek are blessed (Matthew 5:3-10), but he also told us to confront others when necessary (5:22-24; 18:15-17). We have an inner drive to be loved and to be loving, but we also have a need to protect ourselves when we feel our boundaries are being violated. Whenever we feel conflict within ourselves, there is potential for conflict with someone else.
If we have negative self-worth, we react defensively. If we have positive self-worth, we can more easily handle conflict in non-confrontational ways because our identity is not threatened by the conflict.
Rules of Engagement
It is always important to establish rules and boundaries when engaging in conflict. These include:
• an attitude of mutual respect
• a commitment to actively listen
• acknowledgement of the participants’ interdependence and mutual interests
• no blaming, interrupting, labeling
The purpose is to create a nonthreatening and open environment in which to air differences and learn from and about the other person. No matter how a conflict is dealt with, a willingness to respect the other party is critical. Without that, the possibility of a positive outcome is greatly diminished.
Forgiveness and Transformation
Forgiveness is an integral part of the transformation process. Anger, resentment, and bitterness imprison us. If we hope to forgive, we must start with being honest about the conflict, how we felt during it, how we felt after it, and the role we played in it. Honesty means more than just sharing our feelings; it means revealing our motives. It also means admitting the other person has a valid viewpoint, even if it is completely opposed to our own. Many conflicts can be eliminated if we acknowledge our feelings but do not allow them to dictate our response.
Forgiveness also includes being ready to change. We must realize that emotions are neither right nor wrong; however, our actions, which are based on those feelings, can be right or wrong. Our attitudes trigger a response in others and ourselves. Admission, responsibility, honesty, and acceptance are all keys to recognizing and avoiding these triggers.
We often assume that we must reestablish a relationship if we are to fully forgive. However, this may not always be possible. Reconciliation acknowledges the need to let go of the past. We have agreed on some level to the terms of our relationship and can move on in peace. To be true reconcilers, we must be willing to engage in the process of forgiving others and receiving forgiveness ourselves. Our focus is on God’s grace; we are created in his image, and we can reflect his nature and character.
No matter the end result, God wants to transform us in positive ways as we work through conflict. We may gain deeper insight into ourselves. We might develop deeper intimacy with God or have greater insight into Scripture. Hopefully we will develop a healthy respect for differing points of view, opinions, and goals. Whatever we learn, the process will transform us into different and stronger people—those who can handle conflicts in healthier ways in the future.
Simon Presland is a freelance writer in Clinton Township, Michigan.