How should you handle conflict?

“Conflict” is any difference of opinion among people, where each person is trying to show how their position is correct. According to this definition, conflict doesn’t necessarily involve sin. Many conflicts are the result of misunderstanding or miscommunication. Sometimes conflicts are necessary because important principles are at stake. Thus, conflicts aren’t necessarily harmful. But far too often, conflicts involve sinful attitudes and behaviors.

Conflicts are inevitable among people who live or work closely together. That’s why so many conflicts happen in the home, the church, and in the workplace. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul addressed a conflict between two women in the church. He called them to resolve their conflict biblically and in accordance with the gospel: “I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord” (Phil 4:2). Paul’s charge to them was that they come to “agree.” We should always seek agreement with our brothers and sisters in Christ (1 Cor 1:10). But we should seek agreement “in the Lord.” That means there’s a biblical way to resolve conflict.

Here’s an outline of the biblical method of conflict resolution I’ve used many times in my own life and one which I’ve commended to others. I’m greatly indebted to Ken Sande’s volume, The Peacemaker for this approach. If you don’t have his book, I would encourage you to get it, and read it. Though I don’t necessarily agree with everything in the book, it is a treasure of faithful instruction.

1. Determine to Glorify Christ. In order to engage in healthy, biblical conflict resolution, you need to decide beforehand that you’re going to obey Christ speaking in His Word. You need to set your mind on the gospel and His great love for us, knowing that whatever He says in His Word is good and right.

Pray and ask for the Lord’s help. Jesus bought you with a price. He is your Savior and King. Confronting someone else’s sin might mean they bring up all of your sins. It might mean they condemn you and attack you. But Christ is your righteousness. No one can name any of your sins that Christ hasn’t paid for. You can go boldly and humbly when you confront others because you are clothed in Christ’s righteousness. Christ loves you, and that means you can love others. The gospel enables you to confront others without fear and in love.

And remember that the goal in confronting another person is that they will know more of the love, grace, and mercy of Jesus. You are an emissary of Christ. You shouldn’t confront people because you want them to change for your own selfish benefit. Rather, you should confront them because you love them. You want more of Christ for them, and you sincerely desire their good. True biblical confrontation is an act of service, self-exposure, and self-sacrifice. It is never proud self-serving, or self-righteous.

Galatians 6:1-3 says, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.”

2. Get the log out of your own eye first. Matthew 7:5 says, “First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” That means before you address the sin in someone else’s life, confess your sins against the other person.

And when you confess your sin, you need to use biblical language. Don’t sugarcoat it. Don’t say, “I really felt frustrated by what you said to me, and I lost my cool.” Those are not biblical words. Instead, you should say, “I murdered you in my heart and with my words. And that was a terrible sin.” Use the language of the Ten Commandments. Say, “I lied to you.” Or “I stole from you.” And so on. Call sins by their biblical names.

Never make excuses for your sin. Don’t say, “I’m sorry you were offended.” That’s blame shifting. It suggests that the other person is at fault for being offended. Don’t say, “I’m sorry you made me so angry.” That’s a complete cop out. That person didn’t make you angry. You became angry. Your anger is your fault, not theirs. Some people say, “I’m sorry if you were offended.” That’s changing the subject. The issue is that you sinned, not whether they were offended. In this step, don’t talk about the other person at all. Only confess your own sin.

There will be an opportunity to confront the other person later, but in this step, just confess your own sin. Even if you can’t think of a serious sin you’ve committed in this conflict, you can usually find something to confess. You may often be able to say something like: “I should have listened to you more carefully, and my failure to do that was selfish and unloving.” After confessing your sins, ask for forgiveness. Don’t just say “I’m sorry.” Instead, ask for forgiveness, specifically. Say, “Will you please forgive me for my sins?”

3. Go and show your brother his fault. After getting the log out of your own eye, you’re in a position to go and show your brother his fault. Matthew 18:15 says, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.”

That said, the Bible also teaches us that it’s normally wise to cover the sins and offenses of others. We shouldn’t confront every sin we see in another person. We would be confronting sin constantly if that were the case and there would be no grace in our relationships.

Proverbs 19:11 says, “It is his glory to overlook an offense.” Proverbs 12:16 says, “The prudent ignores an insult.” 1 Peter 4:8 says, “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins.”

It’s best to overlook as many sins and offenses as you possibly can without confronting them. But we should only overlook another person’s on the following conditions:

(1) The sin or offense does not bring public reproach on the name of Christ.

(2) The sin is not hindering your relationship to another person.

(3) The sin is not causing harm to you, that person, or to other people.

If the sin meets these conditions, then you should overlook it. But if you can’t faithfully cover a person’s sin, then you have to confront it, following the pattern of Matthew 18:15-17.

Also, when confronting another person, consider the specific sin they have committed, and think of particular biblical texts that identify the sin. Use the 10 commandments (Ex 20) to identify sin in another person (1 Jn 3:4). You should never confront another person with your own independent thoughts, opinions, or feelings. Your thoughts and feelings may be wrong, and they’re often debatable in conflict situations. So, you need to make sure you’re thinking biblically, and you need to make sure that you’re able show the other person that your concern isn’t based on your personal law, but on God’s law.

Finally, when you confront another person, you should lovingly engage him in conversation, rather than hurling accusations at him (2 Sam 12:1-7; Esther 5:1-8; 7:1-7). It’s often wise to ask questions when you confront someone. For example, you might say, “Do you think the way you spoke to me a few moments ago was loving?” If the person says “Yes, I think it was loving. I don’t understand what you’re talking about.” Then you might open your Bible to Ephesians 4:31-32 and say, “Do you think the way you spoke to me was consistent with this text?” The goal of confrontation is to start a conversation, not make accusations.

4. Go and be reconciled to your brother. Colossians 3:12-14 says, “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”

When you forgive someone, you’re canceling that person’s personal debt against you, and you’re turning away from your sinful anger. The Lord Jesus Christ forgives you and loves you; therefore, you may choose not to dwell on personal offenses, hurt feelings, or angry thoughts toward the other person. Forgiveness in this sense is not optional for believers. Matthew 6:15 says, “If you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” For believers, forgiveness is based on the fact that Christ has forgiven us of our sins (Matt 18:21-35). Every Christian is obligated to extend this sort of forgiveness.

Full forgiveness, however, goes beyond merely canceling another’s personal debt against you and letting go of any sinful anger. It ultimately means reconciling a broken relationship. Reconciliation, however, is conditioned upon the offending party’s sincere repentance. Luke 17:3 says, “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.”

God does not require you to reconcile with someone who does not repent. In fact, the Bible strongly warns against continuing in a relationship with anyone who persists in hurting you and does not repent of their sin (Prov 22:24; 1 Cor 15:33; Ps 1:1-2). Some Christians wrongly think that all sinners are entitled to reconciliation. But that’s not true. Full forgiveness, or reconciliation, depends on the sincere repentance of the sinning party.

Forgiveness involves a number of promises. They’re the same promises God in Christ makes to us when He forgives us of our sins (1 Cor 13:5; Ps 103:12; Isa 43:25).

One Unconditional Promise:

I will not dwell on or brood about this incident. Here you promise someone who has sinned against you that you will not continue to harbor anger or hurt feelings in your mind and heart. The Bible tells us that love is not “irritable or resentful” (1 Cor 12:5). “Everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment” (Matt 5:21). Remaining angry, hurt or resentful will only hurt you and dishonor Christ. Though forgiving in this way can be very difficult, we must do it because Christ has forgiven us, and because He requires it of us. “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against someone so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses” (Mk 11:25).

Three Promises Conditioned on the Repentance of the Offending Party:

I will not bring up this incident to use it against you. If a person sincerely repents of his sin, then you can promise him that you won’t keep any record of his wrong. You don’t need to keep dragging it up again in future conflicts. This is the same way God forgives us. “As far as the east is from the west, so far does He remove our transgressions from us”(Ps 103:12). God doesn’t use our sins against us. To those who have repented of their sins, He declares, “I will not remember your sins [against you]” (Is 43:25).3.

I will not talk to others about this incident. This promise is an extension of the one above. If a person sincerely repents, then you’re free to promise not to talk to others about the sin or conflict. If a person persists unrepentantly in sin, then you must not make this promise, since you’ll need to involve others to help you resolve the conflict. But, if he has repented, there isn’t any need to involve anyone else.

I will not allow this incident to stand between us or hinder our personal relationship. If a person has sincerely repented (evidenced by bearing fruit in keeping with repentance), and you’ve forgiven him, there isn’t anything to keep you from being reconciled. You’re free to be on friendly terms with one another, open to growing further in your relationship, if possible, and as the trust between the two of you continues to grow.

When you ask someone to forgive you, you’re asking a lot from that person. You’re asking someone you have wronged to make enormous promises to you. If you’ve sinned against someone, that person may not be able to make all of these promises immediately. Be patient with those you have wronged, and keep loving them. Do not demand that they forgive you quickly. Sometimes, forgiveness can take a long time, and if you’re the offending party, you shouldn’t be the one demanding that the other person forgive you. If you sin repeatedly against someone, he may have trouble believing that you’re truly repentant. If this happens, get a wise third party involved to help you resolve the conflict. Ultimately if someone continues in their sin without repentance, it becomes a matter of church discipline (Matt 18:17).