There is a myth that conflict is inherently wrong, or even inherently sinful. This myth is likely perpetuated by the reality of our consistent failures when it comes to how we respond to the various conflicts in our lives. In other words, because we are so accustomed to the negative outcomes from handling conflict incorrectly, we naturally assume or conclude that conflict in sinful. This is not true and is supported neither by the inspired Scriptures nor practical experience.
The reality is that choices and actions prior to and in response to conflict is what is either sinful or sanctified, not the conflict itself. Standing alone, conflict is amoral. Jesus’ life serves as a clear representation of this difficult reality. The Gospels record one conflict after another between Jesus and the Pharisees, Sadducees and Scribes. The Gospel of Matthew records one of Jesus’ responses in chapter twenty-three. In what is a representative taste of a long tongue-lashing that extends from 23:13 until 23:36, Jesus says,
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. 30 And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ 31 So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. 32 Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started!
33 “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?
In this example, the fact that Jesus was involved in repeated conflicts demonstrates that it (conflict) is not inherently sinful. However, in this instance (and in Jesus’ opinion) these conflicts were initiated because of the sinful attitudes of his opposition. Clearly, had another person been in Jesus’ place, they likely would have responded in a sinful manner. After all, how much continued conflict and personal attacks could a person endure before they react in such a manner?
One other consideration related to the amoral nature of conflict is its inherent inevitability. At its core, conflict is simply the absence of agreement. Or more specifically, according to Dictionary.com it is defined as: coming into collision or disagreement; being contradictory, at variance, or in opposition. It seems rather obvious that disagreements and variances are going to happen between people—even those with especially close and loving relationships (i.e. parent/child or spouses). Man was created to be a unique individual. That one fact alone is bound to create conflicts.
The Cause of Conflict
This leads naturally to the question, “what causes conflict”? Certainly, as has been referred to, conflict can be created innocently; and it may simply be a matter of two people respectfully disagreeing about an issue that is entirely innocuous or benign. However, that is not necessarily the case; and the Bible speaks loudly and clearly about defining those behaviors and attitudes that instigate conflict that may not be entirely above reproach; or that which may actually be sinful. Paul’s comments in his letter to the Ephesians serve to frame this conversation. He writes:
And do not bring sorrow to God’s Holy Spirit by the way you live. Remember, he has identified you as his own, guaranteeing that you will be saved on the day of redemption. 31 Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander, as well as all types of evil behavior. 32 Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you.
Through these comments, Paul appears to be making the case that these particular behaviors contradict the will and nature of the Holy Spirit: bitterness, rage, anger, harsh and slanderous words and all other types of evil behaviors. He then gives three directions that, not coincidently, align themselves with his more famous list found in Galatians 5:22-23 (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control). It’s clear that (according to v.32) Paul is providing direction that, if followed, will limit unnecessary conflict. For example, Paul is saying that we ought to live without rage, anger, harsh words and slander—the perfect ingredients for a feud. So what causes conflict? At least according to Paul, conflict is created when people live contrary to the will and leading of the Holy Spirit.
Many of the Proverbs mirrors Paul’s thinking. Or perhaps, it’s more accurate to say that Paul’s direction may actually be reflecting teachings found in the Proverbs. Specifically, 15:1 states that “a gentle answer deflects anger, but harsh words make tempers flare.” This clearly teaches that angry and harsh words incite tempers; which in turn produces or exacerbates conflict. Anger and harshness is in direct opposition to gentleness and kindness, two “Fruits of the Spirit.”
Proverbs 18:13 shares another direction that aligns itself with Paul’s teachings in Galatians. It states that, “spouting off before listening to the facts is both shameful and foolish.” This is a clear indictment against a lack of patience, another “fruit of the Spirit”. Proverbs 26:20-21 provides one additional example. “Fire goes out without wood, and quarrels disappear when gossip stops. A quarrelsome person starts fights easily as hot embers light charcoal or fire lights wood.” The first of these two proverbs indicate that gossip is a common source of conflict. It’s reasonable to conclude that a lack of self-control is a common source of gossip. In the second proverb, the writer indicates that a quarrelsome person does not live at peace. These are two more “fruits of the Spirit. One last time . . . based upon this evidence, it seems that at least some conflict is generated when people live contrary to the will and leading of the Holy Spirit.
How Is Conflict Remediated?
As was discussed previously, this truly lays at the crux of the matter because it is often at this point that sin enters into the picture. Again, conflict alone is not sinful. However, manner in which it is created and resolved may certainly be. So what does the Bible say with regard to resolving conflict? What direction exists that would lead a God-fearing and Spirit-following person to successfully navigate conflict? The answer . . . plenty.
Keeping in mind that giving in to the opposite party is not necessarily the right choice, Proverbs 19:11 provides a compelling argument. It states that “sensible people control their temper; they earn respect by overlooking wrongs.” In short, it may well be the case that the best way to resolve a conflict is to ignore the transgression that instigated it.
Paul provides several strong teachings on handling conflict. For example, in Colossians 3:13-15 Paul says that we ought to
make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. 14 Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony. 15 And let the peace that comes from Christ rule in your hearts. For as members of one body you are called to live in peace. And always be thankful.
He also shares in 1 Peter 3:8-9 that
all of you should be of one mind. Sympathize with each other. Love each other as brothers and sisters. Be tenderhearted, and keep a humble attitude. 9 Don’t repay evil for evil. Don’t retaliate with insults when people insult you. Instead, pay them back with a blessing. That is what God has called you to do, and he will bless you for it.
Perhaps the greatest teaching on handling conflict comes from Paul in his letter to the Philippians 2:3-5. In this letter it seems that Paul was attempting to reconcile damaged relationships. He writes in this text, “don’t be selfish; don’t try impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too. You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had.”