Most of us prefer to avoid thinking about it, but the reality is unavoidable—life is full of conflict. Regardless of your personality or circumstances, relationships present endless opportunities for every imaginable type of disagreement. Relationship disharmony can manifest in many ways, including misunderstandings, hurt feelings and unfulfilled hopes or expectations.
These early manifestations of conflict can result in a few different outcomes. Ideally, they are recognized, proactively addressed and resolved. Sadly, this is often not the case, and the conflict deepens over time with words and actions that are directly or passively aggressive. Eventually, unresolved conflict leads either to toxic and unhealthy interactions or to a separation that ends the relationship. In either case, broken relationships bring tremendous difficulty and pain, both physically and emotionally.
Before we examine a critical key to mitigating life’s constant conflicts, let’s understand where it comes from. Why do we have so much trouble getting along?
Bombarded from Outside and Within
The Bible reveals that Satan is our adversary (1 Peter 5:8). He has chosen to be an opponent and enemy of both God and mankind. As humans created in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-27), we are the targets of Satan’s constant attacks and accusations (Revelation 12:9-10). These antagonistic moods, attitudes and emotions are broadcast throughout the physical and spiritual atmosphere that we live within (Ephesians 2:1-2). That’s right—conflict pervades the very air around us!
Based on those factors alone, it’s little wonder that we struggle to live in harmony with one another. Unfortunately, those aren’t the only factors. In addition to Satan continually pushing us toward conflict from the outside, our own human nature pushes us toward it from within. We are inherently self-focused, and pursuing our own desires continually places us at odds with the other people around us who are busy pursuing theirs.
What happens when the external and internal forces pushing us toward conflict combine? The result is the world that we live in now—a world saturated with perpetual strife. Does ongoing conflict solve the problems we experience? No, not really. As folk rock band The Avett Brothers describe it in their song I and Love and You: “When at first I learned to speak, I used all my words to fight, with him and her and you and me . . . ah, but it’s just a waste of time . . .”
That’s the bad news, but there’s plenty of counteracting good news too! Like so many aspects of this life that are difficult, God’s way of life provides hopeful alternatives. We gain many benefits from pursuing them in this life. Beyond that, we have the promise of an ultimate life transformation in God’s Kingdom to come! Let’s review some principles from God’s way of life that can help with avoiding conflict—especially through properly handling disagreement.
The Answer Is in the Mirror
There is a key lesson concerning conflict that we must all internalize. Our natural reaction is often to try to change or control something about the people we disagree with. The truth is that we can only change and exercise control over ourselves.
The last half of the twelfth chapter of Romans contains some of the Bible’s clearest teaching on what it means to think and behave as a Christian. It includes this profound instruction on how to approach conflict in relationships: “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 12:18, English Standard Version, emphasis added throughout).
When addressing conflict, our focus must be on the things that we can personally change and grow in—not on the things that we think others need to change.
When avoiding or addressing conflict, our focus must be on the things that we can personally change and grow in—not on the things that we think others need to change.
There is one area of relationship management with positive impact that is regrettably very underused in our society.
Reaching agreement with others is a noble and worthwhile goal. However, it isn’t always possible. There are many benefits to gain from learning to disagree without being disagreeable! Most people have a wide range of relationships in life. These include a broad spectrum of differences in personality, preferences, values and life choices. An average person will disagree about many things with many of the people in their lives.
Disagreeing about things is a normal aspect of all relationships. In healthy relationships, working through disagreement strengthens the relational bonds between individuals. Even in more difficult relationships, disagreement can be properly managed. Careful and care-filled communication is a major element of not letting disagreement escalate to conflict.
The Bible records a critical and timeless key for communicating in this way: “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person” (Colossians 4:6, ESV). This passage tells us to make every effort to extend the benefit of gracious communication to others, regardless of whether they deserve it or not! This is especially true when we disagree with someone.
“Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person” (Colossians 4:6, ESV).
There are many ways to put this into practice. When a topic of disagreement arises, start by asking questions about the person’s thoughts or feelings to better understand what they are saying—and just as importantly, what they are not saying. Try to wait for them to ask what your views are before stating them. If they don’t ask about your thoughts, it’s often best to just remain quiet on that subject (Proverbs 11:12, 17:28, 29:9).
When someone does ask about your views, respond with the simplest answer that is truthful and kind. Wait to see if additional questions come. If the person is interested in hearing more, their questions will provide context that helps with determining how to best respond. Or, in some cases, whether to not respond and change the subject or excuse yourself from the conversation.
If conditions seem right for an open conversation, state your beliefs and the reasons for them honestly and clearly. Try to ask questions about why the person believes or acts the way they do, and ask them to explain more when something isn’t clear. Listen to their answers, and ask God to help you respond in a way that avoids confrontation and provides the best outcome.
The old saying “calm is contagious” is true! Use a gentle and respectful tone of voice. Identify areas of common ground and use them as reference points in your responses when possible. Look for opportunities to share kind or encouraging words.
These things are simple to say, but hard to do. When we put in the effort to practice them, especially with God’s help, they will become habits that result in immeasurable blessings!
It’s good to be realistic in our expectations and acknowledge that these habits won’t avoid all disagreements. But with God’s blessing, they can mitigate many levels of conflict and enable healthy and functional relationships between people who are very different from one another.
Society around us is and will continue to be filled with conflict at every level. We can reduce the level of conflict in our own lives by managing the inevitable disagreements in our relationships with civility and grace. To the extent that we do, we can fulfill this inspirational admonition: “Do all things without complaining or arguments, so that you will prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world” (Philippians 2:14-15, New American Standard Bible). CC