Ever walk plan on making a home repair in less than an hour, only to find that four hours into it, the problem has only gotten worse?
Unfortunately, this kind of thing happens all the time.
Faced with the thorns and thistles of our fallen world, we groan under the weight of problems and predicaments that are more difficult than we expect. The same is true with inter-personal relationships.
In marriages, schools, and businesses all over the world, people sin against one another. The result? Conflict!Conflict
It is a word that we all know, not just by definition, but by experience. And to make matters worse, when we live life trying to avoid conflict—which is the better than the alternative, attempting to cause conflict—the existential force of such disharmony magnifies if we approach the strife with naivete.
To put it differently. Conflict is bad, but being unprepared for conflict is worse. Blindness to God’s redemptive purposes in conflict, well, that is worse yet.
Therefore, as we follow God’s instructions to be at peace with all people as much as it is up to us, it is vital to remember at least five things about conflict. Indeed, if we are going to be peace-makers, we must come to terms with the way in which conflict works in our sin-besotted world.
(What follows is a modified and expanded outline from Timothy S. Lane’s CCEF pamphlet, Conflict: A Redemptive Opportunity).
According to the Bible, Conflict is Unvoidable
From the beginning to the end, the Bible is a book about conflict. To imagine a world a world without conflict is dream of fairy tale or to hope for heaven. In our world, conflict is unavoidable.
Even more for the Christian, an absence of conflict suggests that you are on the wrong side of history. Faced with his own execution, Jesus said, “If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own” (John 15:19). In other words, friendship with the world reduces many kinds of difficulties (cf. Luke 6:26). By contrast, those who walk with the Lord are promised difficulty: “In this life you will have trouble” (John 16:33), and only by passing “through many tribulations will you enter the kingdom” (Acts 14:22).
Furthermore, only those who experience conflict, affliction, oppression, and hardship will know God as a Divine Warrior (Exod 15:3) and omnipotent Helper (Ps 54:4; 118:7). Therefore, it is impossible, unwise, and unchristian to escape from conflict. Instead, we should like Paul put on the whole armor of Christ and walk by faith, praying for God to redeem the conflict that we cause and the strife that Satan fires at us (Eph 6:10-20).
Conflict Gives the Gospel An Opportunity to Shine
If we live our lives for something larger than temporary gain or comfort, we can approach conflict as the means of great divine glorification, personal sanctification, and corporate edification. Since sin is the cause of every conflict (James 4:1-2), the gospel of Jesus Christ is the universal solution. Therefore, every time fractions divide people, there is a wonderful opportunity for Christ to be magnified, sinners to be humbled, and reconciliation to be embraced by means of the cross of Christ.
It is for this gospel-centered reason that James can speak of trials positively: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2-4). James words remind us that conflict is a means by which God “perfects” his sinner-saints. We should give thanks to God for conflict because it exposes our idols and forces us to embrace Christ with greater zeal.
The Ultimate Source of Conflict is Spiritual, Not Earthly
In Ephesians 6, Paul writes, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (v. 12). Paul’s words are vital for Christians who are at odds. When Christians lock horns and wrestle with each other, it is the devil who has gotten an advantage over them (Eph 4:27). Through personal sin, these children of God have been deceived by the devil. They have let personal offenses overshadow the larger reality of their common share in Christ’s kingdom.
When strife enters the church, it must be remembered that this is the devils work. Our brothers and sisters in Christ are not our enemies. They, like us, are redeemed sinners suffering the affects of indwelling sin. Conflict gives Christians an opportunity to reassert their commitment to the gospel, so that even when disagreements (and hurts) persist, there is yet a willingness to erase the record book of wrongs for the sake of Christ. As Paul suggests elsewhere, we forgive because God forgave us in Christ (Col 3:13).
Conflict is One of God’s Wise Ways of Changing You
Not all of our conflicts are with Christians. Or, as is often the case, we injure or are injured by people who profess the name of Christ but give no evidence of salvation. In these instances, God is still at work. Jesus’ instruction in Matthew 5:44 provides the best counsel: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Since God is working to conform into the image of his Son, the image who perfectly reflects the character of God, we must remember that the enemy-laden world is meant to make us like God.
Difficulty with enemies—whether it be those who oppose us or those repeatedly and spitefully refuse our love—is meant by God to break us of our self-confidence. Jesus command is impossible for the flesh. However, for those born again by the Spirit will love their enemies by faith in God and by the power of God’s love in them. In this way, suffering saints learn to love their enemies “so that [they might prove to] be sons of [their] Father who is in heaven.
Beware of Holding an Unrealistic View of Conflict
In truth, not every conflict will be resolved this side of heaven. This reality has many contributing factors: personal indwelling sin, mental weaknesses, loss of communication (when someone moves), etc. It doesn’t reduce the responsibility we have to be at peace with everyone as much as it is possible with us (Rom 12:19). But even in Paul’s wording there is a concession to the fact that not every conflict is perfectly resolved. Paul knew this personally. In Acts 15:36-41, he separates from Barnabas, his friend, mentor, and co-laborer, because they could not come to terms on the inclusion of John Mark in their next ministry expedition. Ironically, in the midst of gospel ministry, an impasse was reached that neither man could resolve. If this happened with Paul, it can and will happen to you.
What is interesting in this instance is how God continued to use both of these men. The rest of Acts records the fruitfulness of Paul’s ministry. Meanwhile, Barnabas is never heard from again. Yet, this does not mean he squandered his final years. Just the opposite: We know that at the end of his ministry, Paul requested John Mark’s presence. 2 Timothy 4:11 says, “bring [Mark] with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry.” Apparently, in the days that John Mark spent with Barnabas, this younger minister was strengthened and equipped to return to the ministry.
This conflict reminds us that God’s purposes in our daily struggles are far larger than we can understand. In the immediate, the separation of Paul and Barnabas was a grievous experience. Yet, it increased the number of missionaries on the move, and in time, it proved to have a remarkable (no pun intended) effect for the gospel. After all, Mark wrote the first gospel.
A Concluding Word
In the end, these five presuppositions about conflict don’t solve the problems that we face, but they do give us hope that conflict in this world is normal. They remind us of how we ought to approach conflict. And they help widen our view to see how God is using these trials and tribulations to make us like Christ and prepare us for a world free from conflict and strife.
May that day come soon! Maranatha, come Lord Jesus.
Soli Deo Gloria, dss