I wish I never had to deal with conflict. I am a card-carrying conflict avoider. Whatever the reason (character, context, sin, etc). I would rather run away from conflict than take it head on. It wasn’t until I began my training as a counselor at nearly thirty-years-old that someone explained conflict didn’t always have to do damage. In fact, it was possible to have conflict with a person and to feel closer to them in the wake of it.
This was a revolutionary idea to me. However, skilled conflict doesn’t come easy. It requires dedication, persistence and the willingness to forgive when things go poorly. In other words, it mirrors the rest of our Christian walk.
Scripture has something to say to us in this regard. While studying Colossians 3:12–17, I was taken by the fact that these attributes — which we are to cultivate in our lives as Christians — should be exercised both externally (to the world) and internally (to our Christian brothers and sisters). I think Colossians 3:12 specifically helps us to get a bit of a roadmap for what it looks like for Christians to struggle alongside and with one another:
It is no surprise that compassion is the first attribute listed for Paul. Compassion is the emotion most often ascribed to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (Matthew 20:34; Mark 1:41; Luke 7:13; Matthew 9:38; 14:14; 15:32; Mark 6:34; 8:2).
To be compassionate means to be moved, deeply, by the state of another. In order to be moved by someone’s condition, we must struggle to understand his or her condition. It means rushing to hear rather than to speak (Proverbs 18:13). It means being willing to understand how they’ve been hurt, even when you are the one who has done the wounding. This is especially difficult when both parties feel that they’ve been wronged. However, it is a sign of spiritual maturity to be the first one to lay aside (if only temporarily) one’s own feelings in order to listen to someone else’s.
Kindness is compassion in action. Be willing to show through your actions that even in the midst of conflict you still love and care for one another. Nothing can escalate a conflict more quickly than a poorly placed eye roll, shrug, or sigh. Body language and tone of voice are crucial to communicating care in tense times. Being kind also means guarding your thoughts and your words. Constructive communication is so often scuttled in advance as both parties stew in their own thoughts and feelings of hurt and anger.
Confront those thoughts. Remind yourself that you, too, are a sinner who desperately needs grace (Romans 3:23). Pray prayers of thanksgiving for God’s provision of forgiveness in your life and beseech the Lord that you would reflect some of that back to the person with whom you are in conflict (Colossians 3:13).
Humility is action without regard for reward. So often people enter into conflict with a sort of “game theory” mentality. The whole exchange becomes about assigning blame and fault rather than building each other up in Christ (Ephesians 4:15–16; Romans 14:19; 1 Thessalonians 5:11). Die to your desire for personal gain through conflict and instead live to the idea that you have an incredible opportunity to display Christ!
Gentleness is action received as help, not just condemnation. This means that our conflict needs a measure of intentionality to it. So often conflict is just a volcanic eruption of emotion rather than a strategic release of pressure. While we cannot choose when and where someone will hurt us (or us them), we can choose how and when we will communicate about it.
Also, not all hurts need to be discussed. If on a scale of one to ten, your hurt is less than or equal to five, then try to forgive and just move on (Colossians 3:13). But if you can’t or if it’s bigger than that, then be wise about how and when you discuss it. For example, some people are morning people; if you start the conversation and it’s late into the night, you can’t expect them to pay very much attention and vice versa for night people. You can also choose to use words which are not meant to be hurtful and which lack accusation (Proverbs 16:24). No matter how frustrated and angry you feel, choosing to use words that put someone on the defensive rarely works (less than 8% of the time!) We have the ability to accurately describe our experiences of pain without having to try to hurt others.
Patience allows us to continue to offer help even when it doesn’t appear to yield results. In seminary I had a professor who once asked, “Can you be as patient with X as God is being patient with you?” Replace X with the name of the person with whom you are in conflict. Every time we sin, God doesn’t send a giant lightning bolt to zap us. And I’ll be darned if I don’t tend to sin in the same ways now as I did in the past. Yet God doesn’t cast me off or throw me aside. Instead he promises to his people, “[I] will never leave you nor forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:6).
People tend to struggle with the same sorts of things their entire lives. Are you friends with someone who isn’t good at asking for help? Is your spouse someone who doesn’t communicate well? Does your sibling stink at details? Guess what, that’s probably not to going to dramatically change anytime soon. We don’t have to pretend that those things don’t cause hurt — they do — but we shouldn’t let our expectations get too crazy either. Being a lovingly consistent voice is far greater than an occasionally shrill one.
Being compassionate, kind, humble, gentle, and patient in the midst of conflict can be extraordinarily tough. Yet Paul’s advice is clear that these attributes need to be self-evident in every sphere of our lives and at all times (Colossians 3:17). Doing so not only increases the chances that on the opposite side of conflict we will be closer together, but it effectively points to the character of Christ at a time and in a place where the gospel is needed most.