But if ye have bitterness and envying and strife in your hearts, glory not, and lie not against the truth.—James 3:14
By Ben and Joy Thompson
All of us face conflicts of one kind or other—a clash of needs in families, in ecclesias; a clash of differing perspectives, hurtful words, or of unacceptable behavior amongst brethren and friends.
What do we do when we experience conflict? The first thing I tend to do is to run away. I have avoided those I haven’t agreed with, or those who I thought disapproved of me or disapproved of my family. I have harbored feelings of anger and resentment. Sometimes I have volunteered information about brethren that was uncomplimentary and unnecessary to repeat.
But the Lord has assured us that there is a better way. Blessed be the Lord my strength, which teacheth my hands to war, and my fingers to fight (Psa. 144:1). The Lord is saying to me that he is willing to teach me to deal with conflict. The enemy is not our brother or our ecclesia. Most likely, our enemy is our fear-based approach to the problem.
We fear discussion of an uncomfortable topic. We fear rejection if we talk about our real feelings and struggles. We fear to follow the counsel of the Scriptures because it takes courage to do what is right. Some things have become painfully clear to me. If I do not take care of my feelings of anger and resentment, they will find expression in my life through my words and my behavior. The end result is the choice to trespass against my brother (Matt. 18:15). Then, if my brother does not come to be because of his fear, we have created a cauldron of conflict that can involve many people and that can destroy the life-sustaining relationship of the body of Christ. Conflict creates the opportunity to hate or to love. The choice is ours.
So what does the Lord counsel us to do?
Put away lying, speak every man truth with his neighbor: for we are members one of the other (Eph. 4:15). It is foolish and dangerous to hide hatred or conflict (Prov. 10:18). The Lord asks us to be honest with one another because we are part of one another. He asks us to deal with the conflict on the lowest level first (Matt. 18:15). That means going directly to the person who wronged us. He asks us to make the approach with kindness and in the spirit of equality, realizing our own vulnerability and mistakes (Ga. 6:1).
In Ephesians 4:31 he asks us to put away all evil speaking or “hurtful blasphemy”—to speak of God or something sacred in an irreverent or disrespectful way. He is asking us to see each brother and sister as sacred. To speak evil is to pass on negative information that is unnecessary. To speak evil is with the intent to lessen the respect one has for another, to gain a following of people that agree with me, and to make me look better and the other person worse. Evil speaking is the natural result of unresolved anger and hurt. How do I know if the matter is important enough to approach the other person? There is a simple way to tell. Is it something that repeatedly comes to my mind? Do my feelings or thoughts influence my view of one of the Lord’s own? Is the relationship irritated or strained? These conditions create vulnerability to gossip. These attitudes can lead to exasperation (anger), then to a lessening of respect (“Raca“) and finally to a judgmental condemnation of the individual in which I am superior and have no need of you (“Thou fool” Matt. 5:23, 24). If I have a need to talk to others about this person I have a responsibility to talk with this person (Eph. 4:29-32). The tongue can start fires. Lack of direct communication with the person involved can create much destruction both in our relationships and in our own hearts (Jas. 3:5, 6).
Sometimes we have a fear that direct communication will make things worse, or hurt the person more. It may hurt and it may be very difficult, but an open rebuke [with kindness and in the spirit of equality] is better than secret love. Faithful are the wounds of a friend (Prov. 27:5, 6).
No matter which side of the conflict we are on we can remember the example of our precious Savior. Jesus did not receive his trying experiences as from an individual, but from his loving Father, the only opportunity he would have to show loyalty and patient endurance. Thus his attitude was one of surrender and acceptance (John 18:11).
I acknowledge my littleness before God [and my need for help.] . . . Yet I also claim his power with confidence as your child, that the arrows of his love might destroy the enemies within each heart [whatever obstacles to truth and righteousness there are in any of us (Psa. 144:3-8).
I will sing praises unto God. It is he that giveth victory over kings (vs. 9, 10). No matter how discouraging the conflict his purpose will triumph. It is nor us to learn not to question the ways of the Lord, but to rely upon his unerring wisdom in the management of his own cause. He has sent us a message which if rightly appreciated should give us comfort amongst all the discouragement that might come to us. That message reads, My word that goeth forth out of my mouth shall not return unto me void, but shall accomplish that which I please and prosper in the thing whereunto I sent it (Isa. 55:11). If we are willing, his purpose will triumph in our hearts.
He is able to deliver David his servant from the hurtful sword (Psa. 144:10). He can teach us to deal graciously with misunderstanding and hurt. Even these challenging experiences with conflict can have a sweetness to them. To the hungry soul every bitter thing is sweet (Prov. 27:7). His mighty power is at work through pain and, despite fear, tests, refines, and accomplishes his purposes. Painful experiences can be sweet according to the degree of our hunger—our hunger for righteousness, for wholeness and healing of heart, for greater closeness and dependence on our precious Savior. Such needs can make us ready to receive, even through bitter experiences (Deut. 8:2, 3).
“The eagle said, `I could fly so much faster if it wasn’t for the wind in my face.’ But then he suddenly realized that if it wasn’t for the wind in his face he couldn’t fly at all (Martin Luther).
May the end results of all of our experiences be the blessing of the spiritual Jerusalem—a functioning body where all needs are met (Psa. 144:11-15).