How to Handle Conflict
Good News Magazine
April 1982
Volume: VOL. XXIX, NO. 4
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How to Handle Conflict
Neil Earle  

Christians are promised troubles and conflicts! How can we handle personal conflicts so as to qualify for God's Kingdom of peacemakers?

   You've heard it before — "If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men" (Rom. 12:18).
   This command of God's Word is no small order for those trying to live the way Jesus taught!
   The Christian life is often punctuated with sharp clashes and conflicts: Sabbath employment problems. School schedules versus God's Holy Days. Explaining three tithes to unconverted mates. Returning Christmas gifts. Office Halloween parties. In-law conflicts, especially where only one mate is a member.
   The list is long. Conflict, real or potential, is very much interwoven into our lives as we struggle to disengage ourselves from "this present world" (II Tim. 4:10).
   The fact is that Christians are promised trouble (John 16:33, Acts 14:22). It is a required course.
   How, then, can we fulfill Romans 12:18?

Apply the living laws

   God, in the treasure chest that is His precious Word, unlocks piercing insights into human behavior, strategy that, when applied, steers a Christian through much enervating conflict (Rom. 15:4).
   What are the sound principles that, if applied, "give subtilty to the simple, to the young man [the inexperienced] knowledge and discretion" (Prov. 1:4)? Let's study some of the most important.
   Yet note well this fact: Learning to handle or reduce conflict requires major changes in mental and emotional approaches, over a period of time. No gimmickry or cure-alls lie hidden in the Word of God. Rather, the challenge is to search out and apply living laws of human relations.
   To those willing to pay the price, the living Word of God, Jesus Christ — the Prince of peace Himself — promises overall success in resolving life's thorny situations (Rom. 16:20).
   Let's examine these important keys.

Strive for a balanced, realistic approach to life

   This is a broad but vital area. Even carnal human beings who make a sincere effort to overcome selfishness and immaturity find a payoff (Eccl. 2:13-14). These are the real achievers in society.
   What is a balanced view of reality? I Corinthians 13:11 defines it: "When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things."
   What childish things must we put away before we can reach maturity?
   Ponder this: Sweet, gentle infants are sometimes demanding, inconsiderate and dictatorial. They don't lie in their cribs thinking: "I'm hungry. But it's 3 a.m., and Daddy's had a hard day. If I cry out I may wake up my brothers and sisters, and Mommy will miss sleep." We don't expect totally mature reactions from little children.
   Personal growth means rejecting the selfish, inconsiderate responses of childhood and developing an approach characterized more by consideration for other's feelings — an accommodating, conciliatory attitude, a willingness to wait and suffer inconvenience, a nondictatorial expression of basic needs.
   This is progress! This is transforming the reactions of get by the strategy of give (Acts 20:35). Sad to say, many people do not outgrow childish reactions and responses. Only a handful achieve responsible adulthood.
   Immaturity is costly! Sooner or later we all are thwarted in the expression of desires, lawful or unlawful. Selfish disillusionment sets in. A hardness forms within us (Heb. 3:13). The beautiful childlike attitudes of innocence, trust and wonder wither.
   All because, to one degree or another, we selfishly felt let down by life — or how we felt our lives should go. Since our lives revolve so much around selfish gratification (Ps. 39:5), we are ripe for absorbing the satanic spirit (Eph. 2:2).
   This is how cynicism and bitterness start. Continual defeats and disillusionments crush the basic optimism of the human spirit (Eccl. 7:29). The world is harsher, crasser, more ignoble than we imagined. Good guys don't always win!
   "There is a vanity which is done upon the earth; that there be just men, unto whom it happeneth according to the work of the wicked: again, there be wicked men, to whom it happeneth according to the work of the righteous" (Eccl. 8:14). The rip-off society triumphs.
   We then react selfishly, like spoiled children. "Everybody's doing it. I might as well get my share!" Too bad.
   Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived, enjoyed a balanced view of reality — a truly mature outlook. Notice Ecclesiastes 8:12: "Though a sinner do evil an hundred times, and his days be prolonged, yet surely I know that it shall be well with them that fear God."
   How true! This perspective on life rallies our sometimes sagging zeal to fight on in the face of anguish and seeming futility.
   Some people reading this article are single parents, some are married to alcoholics, some mourn loved ones lost in unexpected tragedies. How easy to feel life has dealt us a raw deal and fall into a "what's the use" attitude (I Cor. 15:32).
   Yet God counsels, "Surely there is an end; and thine expectation shall not be cut off" (Prov. 23:18). God's Word is emphatic: Every human being will give account for his physical life (II Cor. 5:10).
   So take heart amidst life's difficulties! Conflicts and trials force us back to God to learn wisdom, vision, determination and faith. They refine our sometimes flawed and unsteady character (Jas. 1:2). Learning to handle conflict is a vital facet of character. The lessons will last for all eternity (II Cor. 4:17).

Accept your responsibility

   "But it's all the other person's fault!" some complain. "I didn't do a thing. I'm dealing with a hopeless case."
   In cases of alcoholism, wife beating or sexual abuses, major fault usually lies on one side, and such troublemakers have an amazing ability to make others, especially their mates, feel guilty. God's Word clearly condemns the incorrigible (Isa. 57:20-21).
   Most conflict, however, especially in marriage, is not usually that starkly one-sided. It takes two to tangle, as they say. Even in conflicts over the Sabbath, unconverted mates, tithing and school problems, we still bear a certain responsibility.
   Why is this? For the simple reason that none of us approach and handle these delicate areas with perfect tact, sensitivity and balance ("for there is no man that sinneth not" — I Kings 8:46). This is a spiritual matter!
   Human relations is no precise science like engineering or architecture. Why? For the simple reason that human beings are largely creatures of emotion, bristling with prejudices, unwarranted assumptions and hostility. Thus we are obligated to possess a measure of timing, discretion and diplomacy.
   Yet how often do we enter delicate areas of life — parent-teacher meetings, asking for time off work, correcting a family member — without the skill and subtilty God provides free of charge (Prov. 1:1-5)? In scriptural terms, we "lean to our own understanding" (Prov. 3:5).
   No wonder people sometimes react negatively to our sincere efforts. "A wise man feareth, and departeth from evil: but the fool rageth, and is confident" (Prov. 14:16). Fools rush in where angels fear to tread (Eccl. 7:9).
   Be honest. Let's analyze some of our present conflicts (II Cor. 13:5). Have we always armed ourselves with godly wisdom?
   The apostle James put it succinctly: "In many things we offend all" (Jas. 3:2).
   But take heart! The good news is that once we humble ourselves to see our own responsibility, we are more approachable, more reasonable, more willing to bury the hatchet.
   Mature Christians possess a keen awareness of personal faults (Prov. 30:2). By taking the first feeble steps as peacemakers where it counts most — in our own minds — we are actually applying a living law of human relationships, Matthew 7:5: "Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye."
   This attitude prepares us spiritually. It helps salve tensions. Listen! How can there ever be peace on earth when every human being is himself a walking civil war, torn between strong impulses toward evil and weaker yearnings to do well (Gal. 5:17)?
   No wonder humanity finds the road to peace blocked (Isa. 59:8, Jer. 10:23). Peace comes when we let God's Holy Spirit show us our own wrong attitudes, give us insight into our own behavior and help us evaluate our own wrong thoughts, the evil triggered by our carnal nature (John 16:13, II Cor. 10:5).

Don't be oversensitive

   People who bear grudges, who store the real or imagined slights of others like some save stamps — do not find lasting peace of mind. People hypersensitive to the words and actions of others and those convinced that others are out to get them are often labeled paranoid.
   Listen to more priceless counsel: "Also take no heed unto all words that are spoken; lest thou hear thy servant curse thee: For oftentimes also thine own heart knoweth that thou thyself likewise hast cursed others" (Eccl. 7:21-22).
   There it is! If we understood our own human nature we'd be a lot more merciful and understanding toward those who offend us (Luke 6:35).
   Do we really believe that people lie awake at night thinking up ways to make our lives miserable? Do we? In most of our life conflicts it just isn't that way.
   When contentious, thoughtless people bother us, we must remember that they've offended others as well. So we are not the problem — they are. Their contentious, thoughtless, hostile approach doesn't pay. Read I Samuel 25 to see how one miserable ingrate shot off his mouth once too often.
   Of course, when we grasp the big picture of human life, such people are to be pitied. "Anger resteth in the bosom of fools," Solomon said (Eccl. 7:9), and there is a penalty hanging over those who love conflict (Ps. 52:1-5).
   Never allow others to dictate your emotional state. Don't allow people who clatter through life with all the grace and finesse of a Sherman tank ruin your day: "Fret not thyself because of him who prospereth in his way, because of the man who bringeth wicked devices to pass. Cease from anger, and forsake wrath" (Ps. 37:7-8).
   Shrewd Nehemiah refused to allow razzing and threats to distract him from his responsibilities (Neh. 6:2-3). He had work to do, and so do we. Nehemiah knew how important it was to put God in the center of his emotional life: "He that hath no rule over his own spirit is like a city that is broken down, and without walls" (Prov. 25:28).

See the other person's point of view

   Once upon a time the wise application of this principle guaranteed a nation 40 full years of peace. It was during the dark period of the judges in ancient Israel.
   God's servant Gideon, after many searching tests of faith, dealt cruel Midian a decisive blow (Judg. 7:19-21). Gideon alerted his Ephraimite brothers to cut off Midian's retreat and they did so (verses 24-25). Euphoria swept the nation of Israel. But not everywhere.
   "And the men of Ephraim said unto him, Why hast thou served us thus, that thou calledst us not, when thou wentest to fight with the Midianites? And they did chide with him sharply" (Judg. 8:1).
   What a test! Gideon found that winning the peace was as difficult as waging war. What did Gideon do? How easily he could have snapped back that there were no Ephraimites around when he needed them most (Judg. 7:3). He could easily have put them in their place.
   But Gideon didn't want the peace of Israel marred. He realized that the problem was with the Ephraimites' attitude, not with him. He refused to take their attack personally (Prov. 14:29). Read Judges 8:2-3 for his soft answer — it truly turned away wrath (Prov. 15:1). The result? "And the country was in quietness forty years in the days of Gideon" (Judg. 8:28).
   Gideon's remarkable insight into the minds of others — his generosity of spirit — sowed peace. Millions limit themselves because they blindly refuse to understand the sensitivities of others. Yet Christ counsels, "Be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves" (Matt. 10:16).

Don't waste time on revenge

   The Greek noun makrothumia and the verb makrothumeo are characteristically New Testament words, unknown in classical Greek. Why?
   "Makrothumia is the spirit which could take revenge if it liked, but utterly refuses to do so... the spirit which will never retaliate... To the Greek the big man was the man who went all out for vengeance. To the Christian the big man is the man who, even when he can, refuses to do so" (Barclay, New Testament Words, pp. 196-197).
   Makrothumia is translated "longsuffering" and "patience." This godly forbearance is prized highly in Paul's writings to young churches often plagued with internal bickerings and clashes (Eph. 4:2, Col. 3:13).
   Revenge is the direct antithesis of makrothumia. Revenge only ups the ante in a dispute and leads to emotional escalation. Bitter words, which might not be forgotten, may be said (Prov. 6:2). "A brother offended is harder to be won than a strong city" (Prov. 18:19).
   Let's not rub in the mistakes of our mates. We should resist making that choice remark when irritating people leave themselves open for a putdown. Instead of berating children for misbehavior, let's analyze the root cause and present the solution in a positive, challenging way.
   This is much harder than self-righteously blowing our stack. There is a carnal satisfaction in getting even and storming away at people legitimately in our debt, but we shouldn't be surprised if we end up with few friends at the end of a lonely, barren life (Gal. 5:15).
   Tests of character occur constantly. One key to escaping the spiritual ice age prophesied for this end time (Matt. 24:12) is to remember Jesus' brilliant parable of the unmerciful servant. The climax comes in Matthew 18:33: "Shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellowservant, even as I had pity on thee?"
   This focuses it marvelously. A converted person's deep consciousness of his own need of God's lavish pardon should trigger the forgiving attitude, the meekness and conciliatory feelings that are antidotes to the spiritual cancer of hardheartedness and vindictiveness.
   Notice this wonderful advice from the apostle James — some of the most beautiful words in any language: "But if ye have bitter envying and strife in your hearts, glory not, and lie not against the truth. This wisdom descendeth not from above, but is earthly, sensual, devilish. For where envying and strife is, there is confusion and every evil work.
   "But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace of them that make peace" (Jas. 3:14-18).

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Good News MagazineApril 1982VOL. XXIX, NO. 4