How to Resolve Most Relational Conflicts

Few things sap more of our joy, are as emotionally demanding and mentally distracting, as relational conflict. And few things wreak as much havoc and destruction on lives as relational conflict. And so much of it is avoidable.

Of course, not all conflict is avoidable. Some disagreements are based on issues so fundamental to truth, righteousness, and justice that conscientious conviction demands we stand our ground, even if it shatters a relationship. After all, even Jesus made it clear that for some of us, his coming would result in the painful severing of the important and meaningful and intimate relationships in our lives (Matthew 10:34–36).

But most of our conflicts in life are not over such fundamental issues. They erupt over secondary, or peripheral, or trivial, or even utterly selfish things. And there’s only one path to peace in these cases.

Warring Passions

James nails us when he says, “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?” (James 4:1) God knows that we need to be told this. But it’s not that we don’t already know this. We often admit it to ourselves in the privacy of our own thoughts. We just have such a difficult time admitting it to someone else.

How many times following a conflict, once we’re alone, have we felt convicted over the sinful way we spoke to or treated someone? How many times have we then fantasized the kind, loving things we wish we would have said, and rehearsed the forgiveness and reconciliation we wanted? And then how many times, when it comes to actually saying something to the person, have we found it suddenly so hard to own up to our sin, and so started softening and qualifying our apology? Even sometimes resurrecting the conflict rather than resolving it.

Why do we do this? Why is conflict resolution so hard for us?

Why Do We Hold Back?

We know the answer: it’s just ugly, selfish pride. We don’t want to place ourselves in the vulnerable place, we don’t want to lose all negotiating leverage in the relationship. We don’t want to admit how foolish and selfish we really are. Once that cat’s out of the bag, we’ll never be able to bag it again. We’d rather our passions remain at war than surrender our pride, even if it means our families, friendships, and churches suffer the collateral damage.

James wants us to take this very seriously, which is why he minces no words in calling us to account. He calls these warring passions friendship with the world and spiritual adultery, and says that giving into them puts us at enmity with God (James 4:4). When we allow them to govern our behavior, we act like God’s enemies. And, as Jesus’s parable about the unforgiving servant illustrates (Matthew 18:21–35), that is serious indeed.

The Only Way to Peace

You cannot negotiate or compromise with pride; you must kill it. And this is likely the most difficult faith-fight we will ever engage in.

Pride is the enemy inside us that speaks to us like a friend. Its counsel sounds so much like self-protection, preservation, and promotion that we’re often blinded to the fact that it’s destroying us and others. It rises in great indignation as a prosecuting attorney when others’ pride damages us, but it minimizes, qualifies, excuses, rationalizes, and blame-shifts our behavior when we damage others. We can be easily deceived into believing that our pride wants to save us, when really, it’s our internal Judas betraying us with a kiss.

We must, to use an old term, mortify it — put pride to death. And there is only one way to do this: we must humble ourselves.

The Promise in Humility

We must reject the counsel of our pride and accept the instruction of our Lord, who says “humble yourselves,” because the humble will ultimately be exalted, but the proud will ultimately be horribly humbled (1 Peter 5:6; Matthew 23:12).

And, yes, this is hard. Killing pride is hard. It requires courage — the courage of faith. For it means nothing less than placing ourselves in the vulnerable place where we fear we may (and just might actually) be rejected; in the weak position where we will lose our negotiating leverage; in the lowly place where we are forced to admit how foolish and selfish we really are. We must trust God with the loss of reputation capital we might experience, and with the possibility that others could use our confession and humility to their advantage.

We must trust God that his promise through the apostle James is more reliable than the promises our pride makes: that if we humble ourselves, he will “[give] more grace,” because “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6). More grace will flow the more humble we become.

What Makes You Shine

When our sin is fueling a relational conflict, pride tells us to hide the truth behind the disguise of deceitful defensiveness and manipulative anger. A façade of dignity seems more valuable than God’s glory, and preserving our reputation seems more valuable than preserving our relationships. But God tells us to humbly expose our sin, because his glory (and a restored relationship) will satisfy us far more than superficial posing and a false reputation.

When through humility we put away selfish grumbling and prideful disputing, we “shine as lights in the world,” showing ourselves to be God’s children (Philippians 2:14–15). Pride conceals this light, but humility lets it shine bright. It is humility that really makes us shine.

That’s why Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matthew 5:9). The peacemakers that shine brightest are not those who merely mediate between conflicted parties, but those who, by their humble example of admitting sin and graciously forgiving others, demonstrate how peace is made — the only way real peace is made.

Do you have a relational conflict? Then you have an invitation from the Lord to show the redemptive power of the gospel, to lessen the hold pride has on you, and to allow more of his grace to flow to you and through you by humbling yourself. It is an invitation to submit yourself to God, resist the devil, and watch him flee from you (James 4:7).