Powerful word. Some people are scared of it and will go to any extreme to avoid it. Others love it and will sacrifice anything for the thrill of being in it. It brings out the best and worst in all of us, providing the opportunity to empty ourselves of our rights for the good of another or assert ourselves at another's expense. It comes in many different forms, from world war enveloping scores of nations to the solitary war within our own heart over whether to buy that pack of chewing gum in the checkout line. As frightening as the word is, one thing is certain in this fallen world: conflict is inevitable. It started when the word of the serpent conflicted with the Word of God and the Word of God conflicted with Eve's desire to be God and Adam conflicted with Eve over whose fault it was and Eve conflicted with the serpent for setting her up and God conflicted with all of them by cursing the world and all of their descendants. And we've all been in conflict ever since.
As a pastor, I must confess that there have been times when I've rushed too quickly into conflict. I've done this for all sorts of reasons - out of fear something bad would happen if I waited or out of a desire to be vindicated or in order to "strike while the iron's hot." This has damaged relationships that could have been spared. I must also confess other times when I've put off a conflict that should have happened sooner. I've done this out of fear something bad would happen if I confronted or out of a desire to trample lightly on the feelings of others or just out of plain laziness. This also has damaged relationships that could have been spared. I have a natural desire to avoid conflict, yet at times compensate for that by forcing myself into it half-prepared just so I can say I'm not scared of a little conflict.
In spite of the unwise and even sinful ways I've dealt with conflict, there are also times when I think I've handled conflict in very God-honoring ways. The results are sometimes the same as when I've handled it sinfully. The relationship is damaged, but at least I can rest in knowing that it's in God's hands to fix it or not. The relationship isn't damaged by my sinful handling of the conflict, but by reasons out of my control. It is my prayer that all of us can do less rushing into conflict and less avoiding it when it is necessary. I hope God in his grace will show us a still more excellent way.
In The Pursuit of Pleasure in the Pleasure of Another, I deal with conflict in Chapter 8 Forgiveness: Guardian of Marital Bliss. I give extensive counsel for husbands and wives in the midst of conflict. I relied heavily on a book by Ken Sande entitled The Peacemaker. I think Sande's book is the best book on God-centered conflict resolution that there is outside of Scripture. The reason it is so good is because it is so dependent upon Scripture.
The Bible tells us what our goals should be in conflict and how to resolve them in a God-glorifying, Christ-honoring way. I'll lay out a little of the process here.
1) Conflict is unavoidable in a fallen world because it's part of the curse. God will not allow this world to be non-conflicted in its rebellion against him. So the question isn't whether we can get through this life without conflict. We can't as long as we are in relationships with other people. The question is much more simple - who will get the glory from the conflicts we have? In a conflict, either I get the glory, you get the glory, Satan gets the glory or God gets the glory. Those are the options. If either you or I get the glory, then Satan gets the glory automatically. I would propose that if Christians aren't very careful, Satan will get the glory more than God from our conflicts. So the most important thing to do in any conflict is make the conscious decision that God will get the glory from the conflict. Don't go through the situation on auto-pilot.
2) Conflict isn't anything to be afraid of. Jesus tells his disciples not to fear man. Fear God. Most sinful handling of conflict is out of fear. I pointed that out in my confession above. Whether I rushed into conflict or avoided it like the plague, it was often out of fear. If God is going to get the glory in conflict, then his followers can't be afraid of it because that will lead to sinful handling of it. So make it a priority to face conflict head-on, but humbly. Head-on BUT humbly.
3) Ken Sande defines conflict as "a difference in opinion or purpose that frustrates someone's goals or desires." This is an excellent definition because it fits with world war or when you gently disagree with your wife over Mexican or Chinese food for lunch. By that definition, how many times a day are you in conflict with another? Often. When those conflicts come up, you may wrong someone else - snap at her or cut off relationship with him or punish in some way - in which case you should humbly confess your sin to the other person. Don't be afraid that confessing makes you look weak or stupid or mean. Everyone knows you're a loser because Christ had to come and die for you. We're all in the same boat. However, when you've searched your heart in light of Scripture, and perhaps had others confirm that you're in the right (without gossip and slander!), then be ready to forgive the sins of the other person, even when the other person doesn't seem to care.
4) Only the gospel of Jesus Christ can truly resolve conflict because any other form of resolution skirts around the main issue; namely, that we're in conflict with other people because we're in conflict with God and are cursed because of it. The gospel is how Jesus resolved the conflict between God and man and how he expects his followers to resolve conflicts with one another. The gospel condemns us so that we don't have to justify ourselves before others, and the gospel justifies us so that we don't have to face the condemnation of others. We are free to confront, free to confess and free to forgive because that's exactly what God did to us in the Gospel.
5) Jesus resolved the conflict between God and man by taking the destructive effects of the conflict upon himself and bearing it fully on the cross. Jesus ended the conflict by forgiving the wrong. When forgiveness happens, the wrong doesn't just go away. It is absorbed by the forgiver. In other words, forgiveness comes with a cost. It cost Jesus the cross and all the humiliation he suffered before it. This is the example that Jesus tells his disciples to follow. However, most Christians try their hardest to be credited with forgiving without actually having to bear any cost for it. They say they forgive, but secretly store away the wrong in their memory somewhere like Gollum stroking his precious ring. So the relationship remains strained forever. True forgiveness simply doesn't work that way. When Jesus forgave you, he accepted you forever, never to let your sins resurface in his mind. You went from scarlet to white as snow forever. When we have our way with those who wrong us, their sins go from scarlet to a kind of dingy gray or off-white that always reminds us of their past wrongs. Just let them be white! Don't force them to be forever gray in your eyes.
6) Forgiveness has nothing to do with the size of the offense. If you can only forgive little things, then you don't yet appreciate how great your sin is before God who forgave you. Go back to Bible 101. Christ went through hell to forgive you because your sin against him is infinitely atrocious. No one has wronged you like you've wronged God. You aren't nearly as worthy of honor as God. So the next time you're tempted to think, "How dare he do that to me? What's the matter with him?" come down off your high horse and forgive like Christ.
Conflict has been on my mind a lot in the past year. I've been forced to think long and hard about how I've personally handled conflict with others and the damage that has been done. And I've seen others in the midst of conflict suffer the slings and arrows, not of outrageous misfortune, but of one another's hard heartedness. But through the gospel of Jesus Christ, we can face conflict head-on but humbly with a power that can only come from God. If God can turn his conflict with rebellious man into an eternal bride and the conflict with Saul into the apostle Paul and the conflict between Jews and Gentiles into the church, surely he can handle anything we throw his way. Don't you believe it?