I grew up in a family of six kids, all very close in age. My position as “number five” out of six is probably a huge part of why I became a psychologist. My earliest pictures are often of me in a playpen observing family life.
As teenagers, my sisters and I became good friends. We stopped fighting and began to really appreciate one another. My father one day said to us, “When you girls get along and look out for each other, it helps me understand how God feels when His people love each other.”
“How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!” (Psalm 133:1).
I have a sneaking suspicion that it’s always been a challenge for God’s people to live together in unity. Perhaps this is why the Bible highlights the importance of how we treat one another. God really cares about how we love.
The night before He was crucified, Jesus prayed for His disciples. His prayer is recorded for us in John 17. What’s really cool is that Jesus prays for His future disciples – that’s us! The one thing He emphasized in His prayer is that we would be united in Him as He is with the Father. Earlier in His ministry, Jesus said something to His disciples that is absolutely profound. The proof of a person’s status as a Jesus follower would be found in how we love one another (see John 13:35). True unity is impossible without the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. In our own flesh, we will never love each other well.
Those who led the early church (Paul, Peter, John and others) understood two things about Christian unity. They acknowledged that we would have differences and that we should diligently work to treat one another with love in the midst of those differences.
In recent days, I’ve witnessed Christians genuinely striving to do what they believe is the right thing, the wrong way. No matter the cause, Satan always wins when Christians attempt to solve problems in their own wisdom and strength. We become self-righteous, defensive, accusing, judgmental and divisive. This can happen in a larger context (church/ministries) but also in family relationships.
Fortunately, the Bible is very clear in teaching us how to avoid this snare. Unfortunately, we rarely put these well-known teachings into practice.
We sometimes point to Matthew 18 as the “go-to passage” of how to resolve conflict in a Christian manner. In this passage, Jesus instructs us to go directly to someone who offends us. If that doesn’t work, we take one or two witnesses and then bring the matter before the Christian body. While this is an invaluable passage of instruction, seldom do we apply it while also keeping with the further instruction of Philippians 2: 1-11, James 1:19-20, Colossians 3:8-17, Ephesians 4, Galatians 5:13-6:1-5, II Timothy 2:22-26 and others passages like it. Within these letters, the early church leaders were clear in telling us not only to stand on what we believe to be true, but also to do so in a manner that honors Jesus as Lord.
The passages I cited above are somewhat repetitive, which makes it convenient for us to summarize and apply. Here are five questions I am learning to ask myself when I am in the midst of conflict:
Will I humble myself? I always think I’m right. I think I’m the one with the answers and the insight no one else has. I believe that conflicts and problems result because of what someone else says or does. This is human sinful nature. God tells us to resist this natural tendency and to humble ourselves before Him and people. Humility means admitting that my view of the world is flawed and that I very likely contributed to a problem as much as the other person. Humility says, “I’m sorry.” Humility seeks and accepts feedback even when it hurts.
Am I understanding? One of Stephen Covey’s seven habits of highly effective people is to “seek first to understand and then to be understood.” Covey didn’t invent this principle, but expounded upon age-old wisdom that is found in the Scriptures. James wrote, “Be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger.” In conflict, rarely do we determine to truly listen and understand the other party’s perspective. God has given us different personalities, experiences, strengths and weaknesses. Through understanding, we become unified and our differences reflect the complexity of God’s amazing character.
Am I kind? When is the last time your heard a sermon on kindness? Yet, I cannot think of a more important word to describe how God wants His children to treat one another. In my work in Christian ministry, I’m sad to say that I rarely see kindness. We can disagree and be kind. We can work for positive change, yet be the kindest people on the planet. Yes, there are times to draw boundaries and to confront, yet Paul urges us to do so with gentleness and in the spirit of love.
Am I patient? When we resolve to be kind and understanding, typically that resolution comes with an expiration date. We give our spouse three days to apologize or the other party in a dispute a week to get their act together. Once we’ve given kindness a chance to work, we shift into attack mode. Patience means that there is no expiration date on our love for each other. It means giving God time to work and to move and recognizing that true change rarely happens quickly. While God is working on the other person, His slow timetable usually means that He is also working on me, exposing my pride and desire to control the outcome.
Do I seek unity? It grieves my heart that the Christian church and family are often places of dissension, slander, resentment and anger. I can’t imagine how deeply it grieves God’s heart. Jesus said that we would be known by our love for one another, not first and foremost by our written creeds and spoken convictions. Absolutely there are times to take a stand for truth within the Christian body. Yet we must also recognize that our enemy will use any opportunity (even a righteous cause) to prompt us to “bite and devour one another.” As Paul wrote, “And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body.”
Remember that a righteous cause doesn’t give us an excuse to treat one another poorly. It’s not enough to stand for what the Bible teaches. We must also do so in a spirit with which we honor Christ our Lord.