How to Deal with Conflict
How to Deal with Conflict
‘The Bible tells us to love our neighbours, and also to love our enemies; probably because they are generally the same people!’ wrote G.K. Chesterton.
Conflict is inescapable. Even for those of us who shy away from confrontation, it is impossible to avoid. As we go through life, we will inevitably encounter people with whom we will have conflict. Additionally, for a Christian, an internal conflict exists between the desires of our sinful nature and the Holy Spirit.
We may also experience conflict when we stand up for the truth within the church, or when we engage with the prevailing culture. Even in the UK, a country that has traditionally been seen as ‘Christian’, the culture is becoming increasingly hostile towards the Christian faith.
Conflict with those who hate and attack usPsalm 109:1-20
David cries out to God ‘whom I praise’ (v.1). He is in conflict with ‘wicked and deceitful people who have opened their mouths against’ him (v.2) with ‘lying tongues’ (v.2) and ‘words of hatred’ (v.3): ‘They repay me evil for good and hatred for my friendship’ (v.5).
It is deeply distressing when people we love and consider our friends attack us. Their accusations and words of hatred cause deep pain.
David’s response in this psalm is to bring his pain and struggles to God. In the midst of it all he declares, ‘I am a man of prayer’ (v.4), and he pours out his heart to God. In no uncertain terms he calls on God, not to remain silent, but rather, to pay them back.
Some of what he says can be difficult to read and reflects just how difficult it is to forgive without God’s help. It is at odds with Jesus’ call to ‘love [our] enemies and pray for those who persecute [us]’ (Matthew 5:44). If you are being unfairly attacked, follow David’s example of prayerfulness and honesty before God. At the same time ask God to help you overcome bitterness and hatred.
Lord, help me when I come into conflict not to react in the flesh, but to respond in the Spirit.
Conflict with heresy and in our heartsGalatians 5:7-26
Conflict and confrontation are never easy, but they are a necessary part of courageous leadership. Paul finds himself in conflict with the ‘agitators’. He is passionate about the truth, and uses very strong language about them because they are leading the church astray.
In effect, he says that if they are so keen on cutting that part of a man’s anatomy through circumcision, they may as well ‘go the whole way’ and castrate themselves (v.12). It is rather surprising language to find in the New Testament! But the truth matters, and Paul is prepared to face conflict in order to defend the truth.
Paul then moves on to the conflict between the sinful nature and the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit and the sinful nature ‘are in conflict with each other’ (v.17).
The whole point of Paul’s argument has been to stress freedom. However, freedom from sin does not mean freedom to sin.
Paul contrasts two forms of slavery: legalism (slavery to law) and licence (slavery to self). You are liberated from these. Avoid both legalism and licence: ‘Just make sure that you don’t use this freedom as an excuse to do whatever you want to do and destroy your freedom. Rather, use your freedom to serve one another in love’ (vv.13–14, MSG).
That is true freedom – not the absence of morality, but the freedom to serve others in love: to love your neighbour as yourself (v.14). If we continue responding to conflict as the world does, ‘biting and devouring each other’, we will destroy each other (v.15).
Paul lists four examples of realms in which this conflict operates:
- Sexual sin: ‘repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness’ (v.19, MSG)
- Religious sin: ‘trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness’ (v.20a, MSG)
- Societal sin: ‘cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival’ (v.20b, MSG)
- Sins of excess: ‘uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community’ (v.21, MSG)
Do not gratify these desires. Rather, live and be ‘led by the Spirit’ (v.18). If you choose to live by the Spirit, you will not follow the lusts of the flesh that continually tempt us. Instead, you will produce the fruit of the Spirit: ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control’ (vv.22–23). As my friend, Michael Timmis, wrote to me, ‘The way I define love is by using the fruit of the Spirit, which starts with love. I believe that joy is love rejoicing, peace is love at rest, patience is love waiting, kindness is love interacting, goodness is love initiating, faithfulness is love keeping its word, gentleness is love empathising, and self-control is love resisting temptation.’
These are the characteristics we see in Jesus. Paul continues, ‘Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires’ (v.24). The temptation is always to go back. But ‘since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit’ (v.25).
As far as possible, avoid personal conflict: ‘Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other’ (v.26).
Now that the Holy Spirit lives in you, involve him in all your decisions and follow his prompting. If you are thinking, saying or doing something that makes you feel uncomfortable inside, that may be the prompting of the Holy Spirit to stop. On the other hand, when you make a decision and feel a deep sense of peace, know that that comes from keeping in step with the Holy Spirit.
Lord, help me to deal with conflict wisely, to keep in step with the Holy Spirit.
Conflict with cultureIsaiah 47:1-49:7
Like many today, the people of God often found themselves in a culture with very different standards from their own. You are not called to withdraw from the culture, but you are called to be distinctive. Live a counter-cultural life and you will have a powerful impact on the culture for good.
The people of God found themselves in a cruel society (Babylon) that ‘showed them no mercy’ (47:6). A very proud culture (vv.8–9) who indulged in the magic arts, astrology and horoscopes (vv.9b,12–13).
It is very hard to live a totally counter-cultural life.
Isaiah then addresses Israel. He says that if only they had paid attention to the Lord and his commands, ‘Your peace would have been like a river, your righteousness like the waves of the sea’ (48:18).
Despite all Israel’s failings and problems, God did not give up on his plans and purposes for ‘my servant Israel, in whom I will display my splendour’ (49:3). We read of another ‘servant of the Lord’ (see BiOY Day 260), this time an individual, who would ‘bring Jacob back to him, and gather Israel to himself’ (v.5). God’s original purposes for his servant Israel would be revealed and fulfilled in him. This points ahead to Jesus. He was an Israelite sent to Israel. He was totally identified with his nation, yet distinct from it.
The first task of the servant is to declare the truth. His mouth is ‘like a sharpened sword’ (v.2). God spoke to one nation and told them to tell all the others. The second task of the servant is to make God visible, ‘in whom I will display my splendour’ (v.3). The third task is to be a blessing to the world: ‘I’m setting you up as a light for the nations so that my salvation becomes global!’ (v.6, MSG).
Isaiah then gives us a glimpse of how the servant will achieve this. In a foreshadowing of Isaiah 53, he speaks of ‘him who was despised and abhorred by the nation’ (49:7). The servant glorifies God (v.3). Now God glorifies the servant: ‘Kings will see you and rise up, princes will see and bow down, because of the Lord, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you’ (v.7).
This was fulfilled when the Magi came to worship Jesus (Matthew 2:1–12). It has been fulfilled again and again over the last 2,000 years as kings, emperors, presidents and prime ministers have bowed the knee to Jesus.
Israel did not succeed, but Jesus did. Now, it is our task to be the servant of the Lord. Paul and Barnabas quoted this verse: ‘This is what the Lord has commanded us: “I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth”’ (Isaiah 49:6; Acts 13:47).
Lord, help me to engage with the culture around me, speaking the truth in love, displaying your splendour and being a light to those around me.
‘But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.’
How are you doing today? We all need to keep working on each of these areas of our lives.
Verse of the Day
‘… the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control’ (Galatians 5:22–23).
G. K. Chesterton, Illustrated London News, 16 July 1910.
Unless otherwise stated, Scripture quotations taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version Anglicised, Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 Biblica, formerly International Bible Society. Used by permission of Hodder & Stoughton Publishers, an Hachette UK company. All rights reserved. ‘NIV’ is a registered trademark of Biblica. UK trademark number 1448790.
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Scripture marked (MSG) taken from The Message. Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.