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Though it’s possible to go a day or a week without any conflict in your life, it is not possible to avoid all relational struggles. Disputing is everybody’s regular recurring antagonist. Relationship tension is a “promise from God” (Genesis 3:18), and only when Jesus returns will conflict go away.
Though it’s always with us, how we choose to respond to conflict is an option. Everybody reacts to disagreements one way or another. Passive Biff tries to avoid conflict at all costs. His response is passive.
He does this because he is afraid of conflict. The truth about Biff is that he is insecure, and it makes him nauseous to know someone is displeased with him. His people-pleasing, be-friendly-to-everyone style does not insulate him from conflict.
As much as he tries to bury his head in the sand, those who are around him become annoyed because he responds to conflict by ignoring, hiding, dismissing, or putting a positive spin on things.
His wife says Biff is a wus. Mable should know because she has lived with him for 31 years. As you might surmise, the central conflict in his life is with her, who has a low-grade frustration because of Biff’s passivity. Mable does not mask her anger any longer.
It is ironic that for a guy who seeks to avoid conflict at all costs, he seems to find himself in battles often–especially with Mable. A passive response to conflict is not wise or useful.
Ranting Ralph, on the other hand, is condescending when it comes to people pleasers like Biff. As Alexander Pope once said, “Fools rush in where angels dare to tread.” That’s Ralph. His approach has a sandpaper quality to it.
I speak the truth. That’s what Jesus would do. The truth is the truth! It’s not my fault if they can’t handle it. No need to pussy-foot around: that’s my motto.
While I agree with Ralph that Jesus was the ultimate truth-teller, Jesus was more mature, wise, discerning, compassionate, patient, and forgiving. I could go on talking about Christ, but you get the idea. He knew how to relate to others biblically.
Biff and Ralph want good outcomes. The problem is that their methods lack sound judgment. Biff wants peace and Ralph wants to communicate truth. I commend both of them for their excellent desires.
What they do not understand is how the doctrine of sin intersects relationships and how the gospel brings redemption to those relationships.
If you do not factor the gospel and the doctrine of sin into how you think about yourself and others, it won’t take long before you’re in one of Biff’s and Ralph’s ditches. On the one side is passivity and insecurity and in the other ditch is unkindness and uncharitable judging.
When a person sins against you, how do you handle it? How do you respond? How does the gospel bring redemption to the conflict? Are you tempted to take Biff’s approach of passivity? Are you tempted to take Ralph’s tactic that exacerbates turmoil?
What about an approach that cherishes and implements the point and the purpose of the gospel? To nobody’s surprise, God does have an answer for relational conflict.
The reason Christ came was to resolve our conflicts. There was enmity between God and us. There was strife in the human family. We were broken and separated from God and each other. The gospel’s solution was not a path of passivity or harshness, but a path of redemption.
Though Jesus was in the form of God, He took on the form of a servant to rescue us from ourselves (Philippians 2:6-7). This kind of humble obedience is what God is calling us to do. If we humble ourselves the way the Savior did, the Father will defeat the sin in our lives and (possibly) redeem our relationships.
Passivity or harshness is not serving others. Those responses do not help but divide. Biff and Ralph are choosing unkindness. You are to actively love others, or you will actively un-love them. Our two friends are actively un-loving, one through passivity and the other through harshness.
The gospel is the power of God (Romans 1:16), which means the gospel is transformative. The gospel (Christ) can change your life, and it is your job as a Christian to spread the transformative gospel near and far, praying that God would be pleased to transform lives.
What better place to see the power of the gospel unleashed than in the life of another person? If your spouse rubs you the wrong way, you have the privilege and the opportunity to activate the gospel into their lives.
If you have a conflict, you can choose to “open the gospel can” and let it do its thing. Don’t hide the gospel in the ditch of shyness and passivity. Don’t rely on your strength by using anger and other manipulative means to change people.
It may change them, but not in the way you hope. Choose to be humbly courageous by submitting yourself to the power of the gospel. Let it redeem “its way” rather than your way (Proverbs 14:12).
Lucia and I married many years ago. As you should rightly assume, we both have angered, frustrated, and annoyed each other more times than we can count. Sadly, the doctrine of sin has been alive and well in our lives.
We have resorted to many different sinful means to hurt each other, to make our points, to posture for superiority, to mask our fears, and to maintain our preferred self-righteous positions.
After we married, we began to realize there was a problem in how we handled conflict. We were selfish as we demanded our ways. After many arguments and through a lot of frustration we began to grow in our understanding of what it meant to live out the life of Christ (the gospel).
Part of this process meant that we needed to learn how to argue well and work through conflict. In time, God gave us a gospel-centered template for conflict resolution. The ten steps below is that process.
It is not something that we have to think about any longer. It is what we have learned to do habitually, by the grace of God. When sin is in play, we (eventually) reorient our minds and lives around the gospel. It usually goes like this.
#1 – I Was Angry With You – I do something unkind, dumb, sinful, or just me being me. I have a level of thickness that sometimes tempts Lucia to sin. We like to use the metaphor of the American bison (buffalo), which means I can be thick-headed.
At some point, Lucia will come to me and say that she is angry with me. The provocation for this is because I did something dumb or sinful. My action tempted her to sin.
What I am saying here is an important point. This “little detail” sets your trajectory. How you begin your conflict resolution will determine how you will complete it, or it may be ongoing if you don’t start correctly.
Yes, I sinned first. I am aware of this, but we will deal with my sin later. As you can see, this “backward approach” speaks volumes to her humility. Though my sin initiated the problem, Lucia sinned in response to mine. Though I was oblivious to what I did, she was stewing. At this point, she has three options.
Don’t think that you can fake out God. If you “push play” on points one or two, you will activate the opposition of God in your life as well as invite division into your relationship. No matter how justified you are, God will not bless you if you do not humble yourself–even when someone sins against you.
#2 – God Has Forgiven Me – By the time Lucia comes to me, she has already “done business with God.” She has humbled herself before the mighty hand of the Lord, and He did what the Lord said He would do: He forgave her (1 John 1:9).
Now with God’s power and grace propelling her, she can come to me and confess her sin to me. It’s a twofer: she sinned against God and me. The sphere of confession and the sphere of the offense should be the same. You confess your sins to those you hurt.
The Spheres of Reconciliation
#3 – Will You Forgive Me? – She lets me know that she was angry with me and she wants my forgiveness and will not be satisfied until I forgive her. Yes, I sinned first. I have not forgotten this, as I’m sure you have not either. My sin is still alive, active, and real.
Do not miss this fundamental point: you should never deal with another person’s sin when there is sin in your heart, even if they sinned first. If you do, it will probably not go well for you. Lucia’s chief desire is to make sure her heart is right with God and me.
#4 – Yes, I Forgive You – I forgave her. Done! My wife experiences forgiveness, and she can live in the freedom and power of the gospel. Her sin has been neutralized, killed, and removed. Her offense is now a non-issue.
Because she has adequately dealt with the log in her eye (Matthew 7:3-5), she can move to the next order of business–taking care of the speck in my eye. She is impressive to me. My wonderful wife is a humble servant to her thick-headed buffalo.
#5 – What Did I Do – At this point, it now becomes evident that I have done something wrong. (Think buffalo here.) You may be surprised to know how many times I have sinned against my wife and did not realize the depth or severity of my actions.
Because she comes to me the way she does, I am not tempted to focus on her anger, her sin, or any other of her actions. The reason for this is because there is no sin from her. She has God’s forgiveness. It’s my time now.
#6 – We Talk About It – We can now talk about what I did to her and how I hurt her. We can talk about how she processed what I did and how I could have responded better.
Here is another crucial point: because God neutralized the sin, it’s like a regular, non-emotional conversation. It is not a big deal because the offense does not control our thoughts or emotions.
Once the power of the gospel kills a sin, it should not be a problem to enter into a discussion about what went wrong. The gospel frees us from the temptation to protect or defend ourselves.
#7 – Will You Forgive Me? – The more we humbly talk, the more I understand what I did, which is essential to me. We must discuss what I did. I want to change. I want to grow in Christ. I don’t want to continue to sin against my wife. I don’t want to hurt her.
I praise God that she is not passive when it comes to helping me in my sanctification–like Biff. I thank God that she does not bludgeon me with harsh tones, a cynical spirit, or condescending speech like Ralph.
Because of her ever-present awareness that she put Christ on the cross, the good Lord governs her temptations to be self-righteous. Her humility is a “means of grace” that frees me from the temptation to take a defensive posture.
#8 – Yes, I Forgive You – At this point, she forgives me. She releases me from the bondage of my sin through the power of forgiveness. Her actions are amazing grace. No people group on earth possess what Christians possess. We are a forgiven people, who continue to experience forgiveness and we can also forgive others.
#9 – Let’s Talk About It – Now that God has neutralized my sin by the power of the gospel, we enter into a full discussion about all the elements of what we did. We can best serve each other, so we don’t do it again.
Our offenses are like talking about mowing the lawn or running an errand or some other non-controlling conversation. It is a discussion, that’s all, except it’s restorative.
The power of the gospel has overcome the strength of the offense, and God has removed the thing that was between us. She is not stewing, and I am not oblivious. We both have matured in Christ.
#10 – Our Relationship Is Strengthened – Two forgiven sinners can embrace, hug, and kiss, and we do. There is no stain left on our relationship and no future accumulative negative impact. She learns more about the gospel and grace. She is encouraged to approach me more often. I learn more about her. I learn more about myself. We both learn from God and experience mutual edification by His Spirit.
Perhaps you’re in a relationship where the other person is unwilling to walk in-line with the gospel (Galatians 2:11-14). I have a couple of those people in my life too.
You’re right to assume that it takes two to do what I have outlined. You’re right to expect that everyone will not humble themselves before the empowering grace that allows you to live out the gospel. In such cases, here is the same advice that I give myself:
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be conceited. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. – Romans 12:14-18
There is nothing that should hinder the gospel in your life. Minimally, you can confess your sin to God. You may also be able to do more, but nothing should keep you from going to your heavenly Father, seeking His forgiveness and appropriating His grace.
If you do this, you will be able to live out an attitude of forgiveness toward those who are currently unwilling to change. Who knows, maybe God will use your humility as a means to bring change in their lives.
Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?”Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven. – Matthew 18:21-22