Biblical Help for Resolving Human Conflicts
By BGLVA President (from seminar manual pp 24-27).
After many years in the ministry, the author concluded that the greatest problem in churches is the inability of Christians to get along with each other. When there is conflict or division in the church, the Holy Spirit is grieved and all the ministries are greatly hindered.
In virtually every human conflict both sides have at least some guilt. One side may be more at fault in the original offense, but the other may react in sinful angry retaliation, or spreading gossip about the offender, etc. Suppose you have a conflict. You may think it is 90% the other person’s fault and only 10% yours. However, you are still responsible for repenting of your 10% and making it right. Meanwhile, the other person likely thinks it is more your fault than his, so both are waiting for the other to apologize.
Who is responsible to go to the other first? Jesus says both are responsible. In Matthew 5:23-24, He commands the offender to go to the one he offended. However, in Matthew 18:15-17, He also commands the one who is offended to go to the offender. So Jesus says either party in the conflict who first becomes aware of the conflict is to go to the other and humbly seek to effect reconciliation. We will look at these verses in more detail below.
It is helpful to recognize that both parties to a conflict are hurt and angry. They need help to heal. Following are some principles Jesus gave us for dealing with conflict resolution.
First, Urge Both Sides to Practice Unilateral Forgiveness toward the other party in the conflict. “Uni-lateral” means “one-sided.” In a war, sometimes there is a “unilateral cease-fire.” This means one side stops shooting. Unilateral forgiveness is the most helpful Bible principle for conflict resolution, but also the most difficult. It is also important to point out that unilateral forgiveness is only the first step. Very often further dialog between the parties involved will still be needed to bring full reconciliation.
Is unilateral forgiveness Scriptural? Yes. Sadly, most people wrongly think that you do not have to forgive an offender until he apologizes and asks for forgiveness. Consider Mark 11:25-26: Jesus said, “And whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him, that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses. But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.”
There is no mention of an apology. While praying, you remember you have something against someone. Jesus says, “Forgive him.” He implies here that your prayers are not acceptable until you forgive the one who offended you. Forgive as soon as you can, and then God will receive your prayers.
While it is important for you to apologize when you have offended others, you must not wait for an apology to forgive those who offend you.
Did Jesus practice unilateral forgiveness? Yes! The first words He spoke from the cross were, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do (Luke 23:34).” Those responsible for crucifying Jesus had not apologized, but He had a unilateral forgiving attitude toward them anyway. No, they were not saved yet, Jesus still loved them and offered unilateral forgiveness. So must we.
In most cases when someone hurts us we either retaliate or bottle it up in bitterness. (Neither is in our best interest).
“Amos and Andy” was a popular mid-twentieth century radio program in America. These two men ran a small country store. In one program a big man named Kingfish would slap Andy across the chest every time they met. It was his manner of greeting, but he underestimated his strength and it became very irritating to Andy. In sharing with Amos, Andy said, “Now I’m ready for Kingfish. I put a stick of dynamite in my vest pocket. Next time he slaps my chest, he will get his hand blown off.”
We smile at such foolishness, knowing that Andy will hurt himself far more than he will hurt the big man; however, we do the same thing when we harbor anger or resentment toward someone who has hurt us. How long will you wait for them to apologize before forgiving them?
Early Christians practiced unilateral forgiveness. Stephen, the first deacon (Acts 6:5) preached a mighty sermon in Acts 7. His hearers were so convicted that they cast him out of the city and began to stone him (Acts 7:59). As they were stoning Stephen, “…he kneeled down and cried with a loud voice, ‘Lord, lay not this sin to their charge (Acts 7:60)’”.
With great interest we note in Acts 7:55 that Stephen “…saw the glory of God and Jesus standing on the right hand of God.” Everywhere else in the Scripture, after His ascension, Jesus sat at the right hand of God. Only here does He stand. Many believe Jesus stood to give honor and approval to Stephen, the first recorded Christian martyr, who died practicing unilateral forgiveness toward those who stoned him.
Larry Christenson, in his book The Renewed Mind, amplifies this scene imaginatively: “Picture the Lord, standing up, looking over the parapet of heaven, saying, ‘Who is this that My servant is forgiving? I must go to that man, and go to that man He did, -to Saul of Tarsus (Acts 7:58). Could it be that Stephen’s witness and prayer of unilateral forgiveness for his murderers led to the conversion of Saul of Tarsus?’” Paul later prayed a similar prayer of unilateral forgiveness in 2 Timothy 4:16.
For those who just can’t forgive offenders, consider this. For many years there was a syndicated counseling column in many U.S. newspapers called Ann Landers. People would send her questions to answer in her column. She consistently counseled people to forgive and forget offenses from others. Here is one of her columns, used by permission of Field Enterprise, Chicago, Illinois:
DEAR ANN LANDERS:
You must be made of stone. You tell every wronged husband or wife, daughter or son, sweetheart, friend or neighbor to forgive and forget. Did it ever occur to you that some people just can’t? They are too deeply hurt; too badly damaged. Please pull your head out of the sand or the clouds or wherever it is, and use it to think with. It’s preposterous to expect mere mortals to behave like saints. –Made the Scene
For those of you who don’t like my advice to forgive and forget, here’s an alternative:
Don’t forgive and forget. Keep alive every agonizing tortuous detail of the past. Talk about it. Cry a lot and feel sorry for yourself. Lose weight and look haggard. Friends will worry about you. Build an ulcer. Get a migraine. Break a leg …anything to create pain and serve as a reminder of what that dirty louse did to you.
If you follow this advice, you are sure to end up miserable, sick, bitter and alone.
Second, Apologize When You Hurt Others. In Matthew 5:23-24 Jesus says, “Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” He said leave your gift at the altar, go and resolve the conflict. This could be either a private prayer altar or a public worship service. In either case, Jesus implies your worship, gifts, and prayers are not acceptable if you have a broken relationship you have not tried to resolve. Why else would He command us to leave that prayer or altar, be reconciled and then come back to worship?
Just a word about apologies. When you apologize, do not justify yourself or blame the one you offended for provoking your actions. That might be needed in later dialogs but the purpose of this apology is simply to admit where you were wrong (even 10%) and ask their forgiveness. Consider this kind of wording. “I was wrong in what I said or did (be specific). I have asked God to forgive me. Will you please forgive me as well?”
Third, Change Yourself before expecting others to change. In Matthew 7:1, Jesus said, “Judge not, that you be not judged…” He continues in verse 5, “Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”
You can rarely change others until you change yourself. If you forgive others without waiting for an apology, sincerely apologize for your wrongs, and make good changes in your life, it will not go unnoticed. Others will notice and best of all, God will notice and bless you.
Proverbs 16:7 says, “When a man’s ways please the LORD, He makes even his enemies to be at peace with him.” When you humble yourself, God gives you grace to see the problem more honestly. Suppose you apply these steps above, and the conflict is still not resolved?
Fourth, Humbly Confront Those Who Offend You.
- A. Go to the Offender Alone. Jesus said in Matthew 18:15, “Moreover if your brother sins
against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother.”
Notice Jesus says go to the offender alone first; not gossiping to others about it. This works best if you have already dealt with your anger by forgiving the offender unilaterally, confessed your own sins to God, apologized as God leads and prayed much before going to the offender. Your objective must not be to punish the offender, but to effect reconciliation.
Consider this suggested wording: “I really care about our friendship, but there are some problems. Could we talk about it? Did you say …..? or do…..?” (Fill in the blank). Confirm your information. It could be wrong. Give them the benefit of the doubt. Listen carefully without interrupting them or arguing. If you have already forgiven them and your true motive is reconciliation, you will not be angry.
If they admit it and apologize, you have gained your brother. If they bring up something you did to provoke them, apologize. In any event, approach them in humility, not anger, and pray you can avoid more argument.
B. Take One or Two With You. If he refuses to be reconciled, Jesus gives a second step in verse 16, “But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.” The author suggests these witnesses be peacemakers, respected by the offender. Remember, your motive must be reconciliation, not punishment.
C. Take It to the Church. If they still refuse reconciliation Jesus gives a third step in verse 17, “And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.”
Jesus is saying broken relationships in the church are unacceptable. If a clearly identified offender is unwilling to repent, Jesus said he to be excluded from the church. This is not so much to punish him as it is to protect the church from harmful division. Hopefully, the offender will repent, be forgiven, and help resolve the conflict for the sake of the health and effectiveness of the church.
Remember, whoever becomes aware there is a broken relationship is to take the initiative to resolve it. Neither is justified to wait for the other to initiate the reconciliation. Apply these principles of conflict resolution in the spirit of humility. They will work because they were given by Jesus. He will bless them with His Spirit.
Take Conflicts to the Cross. The author has used the figure at left in marriage counseling. The “H” = the Husband and the “W” = the wife. The stars are conflicts between them. The counselor guides them to focus on Jesus and the cross. Talk about His suffering for our sins. Urge each person to temporarily stop focusing on the conflicts in the marriage and focus on his own sins and drawing as near to Jesus as he can. The closer both people get to Jesus and His cross, the closer they will be to each other.
This also can help with conflicts in your church. Preach more about the sacrificial death of Jesus and call people to draw near to Him. God may use this to help bring your people together and give them power to resolve conflicts. Again, the closer they get to Jesus and His cross, the closer they will be to each other. John 12:32-33 can also be applied here.