How are we resolving conflict in a healthy way?
Pop quiz: What is inevitable in all relationships that last? Conflict. Conflict can make relationships stronger or destroy them in one fell swoop. And so it is not a matter of avoiding conflict, but our manner of addressing it. We will need to muster up the courage to handle conflict in a healthy way if we want to cultivate healthy relationships.
First and foremost, let's remind ourselves that we are not any less Christian for having conflict in our lives. We live in a broken world, and frankly, we contribute to that overall feeling of brokenness. Transformation is messy but God is patient with us as His Spirit works in us. So, how can we embrace the reality of conflict in a Christ-like way? We can take the advice of Jesus found in Matthew 18:15-20.
Here is how it goes:
Step 1) Keep the conflict between the specific people involved.
“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over.” – Matthew 18:15
The key phrase here is “just between the two of you.” There is no need to bring others into the mix and cause more conflict and even drama! One of the things we practice among staff at Newbreak is “filling the air with good intentions.” That means we don't automatically assume another person intended to “be a jerk” to us. This knowledge helps us to not feel like our first step needs to be to go and tell others about how we have been wronged. That's just gossip. And when we gossip about the conflict instead of resolving it, we are not only demeaning the character of the other person, but also our own character. After all, we shouldn't be talking about someone when they are not present to defend their own perspective or integrity.
For parents, teaching our kids this first step is a game-changer. Instead of running to mom or dad to intervene at the first sign of conflict, we can teach our kids to go to the person directly. Maybe we have to help them with words. “Go tell Emily that you weren't finished playing with your toy when she grabbed it.” Yet children can learn this crucial first step from the youngest of ages.
Just as we hope others to be open to how they may have wronged us, we have to be open as to how we may have wronged them.
Many conflicts are resolved when we go directly to the person with whom we have a conflict. If they take responsibility and want to reconcile, then conflict is resolved as a one-and-done. No more steps needed! And it truly is amazing how many conflicts are deflated by simply going straight to the person without it involving others and escalating the emotions. We often find there was a misunderstanding or a lack of awareness about how something that was said or done was interpreted. But what happens if that's not the case? Is there a “next step” if the conflict is not resolved through step one?
Step 2) Bring in wise and godly mediators to bring perspective.
“But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’” – Matthew 18:16
So, the conversation regarding the conflict did not go as planned? Don't give up! There is still a way for this to be handled in a godly way. At this time it is appropriate and acceptable to bring in wise counsel, preferably fellow believers who are not interested in escalating the conflict but are helpful in bringing about a resolution. In other words, choose carefully who you bring into the mix! Consider your workplace: maybe this is when you bring your supervisor in to help with a conflict with a co-worker. For parents, this might be the time when you intervene in a sibling dispute — after the kids have done step 1 by themselves. But again, the mediator's job is to facilitate a conversation and resolution, not take sides and “pile on.”
It is important to not just bring in counsel who will automatically agree with you.
Conflict is usually two-sided. At the very least, there are two sides to every story and no matter how right or justified one side feels, there is always another perspective. Even more, there may be something on your part that needs to be conceded to have true reconciliation. It's amazing how much more perspective we are able to have when we have godly people providing wisdom to a situation of conflict. Plus, Jesus promises to be present in our attempt to resolve conflict.
“For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” – Matthew 18:20
The often-quoted verse about Jesus being with us in a community is actually about conflict resolution! And this should not be surprising, Jesus is always participating in reconciliation. Just as He came into the world to resolve the conflict in our relationship with God, so too does He want to help restore all our relationships (2 Corinthians 5:18-21).
From experience, we can share many stories of conflict being resolved from either the one or two-step process listed above! However, what if there is still an issue? While this may happen a few times in our lives, it is possible. What do we do then?
Step 3) Bring in a leader or authority to resolve conflict.
“If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church” Matthew 18:17
Is this giving us permission to tell everyone we know just how badly we were wronged? No. Remember the context. Jesus is talking about conflicts in the church and here, is referencing the leaders of the church body like pastors, elders, or deacons. In the workplace, this is where you might bring the boss in. In a family dynamic, this is where parents together discuss a way to resolve an issue. Again, the goal is resolving the conflict, not proving one person is right and the other is wrong. So elevating an unresolved conflict to this higher level is intended to do just that — facilitate a resolution. But what if this isn't enough? Is there a next step despite going to the person directly, bringing in a mediator, or even elevating the conflict to an authority?
Step 4) Set a healthy boundary by giving distance to the conflict and the person.
“. . . if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” Matthew 18:17
You may be thinking that this does not sound very kind or ideal. It is not ideal, but it is actually the healthiest response for the situation. Jesus does not need to rethink his instruction, we need to reflect on its meaning. Again, in the context of the church, Jesus is saying this person no longer enjoys the connection of close community. Take note: we are not allowed to dishonor the other person, according to Jesus. He is not saying that we are allowed to hate them. We are not allowed to tarnish their reputation or pray against them or do anything that promotes ill-will (Romans 12:18).
What Jesus is communicating is something we refer to as “setting boundaries.”
When our posture of humility and desire for reconciliation is not reciprocated, we can set healthy boundaries to protect ourselves.
Healthy boundaries can prevent conflict from becoming even a bigger issue with more emotional weight and collateral damage. Healthy boundaries are like a hedge of space that gives us distance from the conflict and the person with whom the conflict is with. Importantly, boundaries speak to actions we will or will not take, not actions we demand other people take. Saying “you may not talk to me that way ever again” is not a boundary because that tries to control how other people speak. Saying “I will hang up the phone or walk out of the room the next time you speak to me that way” is a healthy boundary because it states what action we will take.
Of course, setting boundaries assumes that we have done everything in our power and part to acknowledge where we may have been at fault in the conflict. This also assumes that we kept reconciliation as the focus of bringing wise counsel into the mix. But sometimes conflict remains unsettled… for weeks… months… or even years.
The good news, though, is that healthy boundaries do not have to be permanent boundaries. Like Paul's conflict with Barnabas over John Mark in Act 15:36-41, there can be restoration down the line! (See 2 Timothy 4:11 and Colossians 4:10). Let's be honest:
Sometimes it simply takes time and space apart to let the emotions cool so that we can come back together and find a path forward.
So, when the opportunity arises again to restore the relationship, we must practice the way of forgiveness. “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” Colossians 3:13
In our readiness to forgive (and to be forgiven of our part if necessary), we keep the hope of conflict resolution alive!