I couldn’t believe she said that. Well, technically she typed it, but the tone was clear. And she calls herself a Christian! My face flushed with anger. I tapped out a snarky retort on my phone with some force. How dare she! But my finger paused over the send button. There was probably a better way to handle this…
Conflicts, arguments, misunderstandings, and disagreements happen — even among brothers and sisters in Christ. In our COVID-19 reality, tensions are running particularly high. Stressed and anxious, we’re much more likely to pop off in anger or leave a snide comment on Facebook. But we can prevent relationship-ruining encounters and manage our disagreements in God-honoring, even relationship-strengthening ways.
This is a huge topic, and we’ll only scratch the surface, but we’re going to cover three big ideas in two posts.
- Relationships are more important than being right.
- Disagreements escalate when they become more about identity than issues.
- Humility and grace are your biggest allies in a fight.
Let’s start with point 1, relationships are more important than being right. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong to believe we’re right. If we didn’t think we were right and the other person was wrong, we wouldn’t be disagreeing in the first place. But we can approach conflict with the health of the relationship in mind.
Conflict is sometimes unavoidable.
Now notice what’s implied here: disagreements will come up, even among believers. If in the family of God, we never rub each other wrong, we’re either not close enough, or we’re sweeping all our issues under the rug. Personally, I’m wired to withdraw rather than risk conflict, so I understand both temptations. But I’ve learned that you can’t live the Christian life alone, and the lump under the rug will grow into a pile that you can’t walk over without stumbling. Conflict is sometimes necessary.
Family is forever.
So, disagreements will, and sometimes should, happen. But in our quest to win an argument, we can lay waste to our relationships, and frankly, that isn’t an option in the family of God. In Christ, we’ve been united together as brothers and sisters. The Apostle Paul says to the Corinthian church, “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought” (1 Corinthians 1:10). Paul doesn’t leave us a lot of wiggle room here. He’s not open to our excuses that start with “but, what if…” But, what if this person is REALLY difficult? What if they are REALLY wrong? What if I am CLEARY the one in the right?
Paul doesn’t give us the option of turning our backs on our siblings even when we disagree. There is no picking up our toys and going home. We’re related. And in the church, family is literally forever. Now, it’s possible that a relationship can become so toxic that distance from the other person is the only option, but it should always be the last resort.
Fight for truth AND love.
So, if we’re going to try and preserve our relationships while having productive conflict, we have to change our definition of “winning” an argument. Winning can’t be “decimating the other person’s argument until they admit I’m right and beg for mercy.” It has to become “expressing my point of view while preserving the relationship.”
So, what should conflict between Christians look like? Well Ephesians 4:15 may be overused in Christian circles, but that doesn’t make it any less helpful. Speak the truth in love. It is important that you are honest and express yourself truthfully in a conflict. Yet, you’ve got to remember that the person you’re arguing with isn’t a villain or enemy combatant. He or she is your sibling and God loves this person as much as he loves you. Even if you seem to be in conflict about everything else, you share God’s love in common. And from that foundation, you can not only resolve your conflict, you could potentially even grow closer.
The Spirit is essential.
So, when you find yourself in the middle of a conflict, take a deep breath and ask the Spirit to help you see the other person as he sees them. In the example I gave above, that’s where I had to start. With my finger hovering over that send button, I could already feel the Spirit nudging me. Lest you think I’m bragging about how super-spiritual I am, let me admit my initial response was to ignore him and let the verbal battle begin. Righteous indignation feels satisfying in the moment.
But instead, I took a deep breath. Although this person was hurting me, she was a sister in Christ. Even though I was convinced (in the moment at least) that I was 100% right and she was a spiteful idiot (I still had a long way to go), I wanted to see her as a sister and not as an enemy. I asked him to open up my heart and mind so that I could see beyond my own pain to the sister standing beyond. I needed to pray that THE truth — not my truth, not her truth, but God’s truth — would be revealed. I needed to look beyond the conflict and imagine a day when our relationship was healed. I was going to choose to love her even though my first instinct was to hurt her the way she’d hurt me.
I could have ruined a relationship that day. At other times in my life, I’d done just that. But by the grace of God, I didn’t press send. It would take a lot of work and prayer to unravel the tangle of misperceptions, false allegations, hurt feelings, and white-hot anger to come to a better understanding of one another. In the second post in this series, we’ll talk through some tips to do just that. But what made the biggest difference in that conflict was that I decided to act as if the relationship mattered more than being right.