When Love Is War

Extending Grace in Conflict

Your greatest ally in life now stands opposite you as (what feels like) an enemy. Weapons are drawn. Molten words are exchanged. The contest begins.

Whether you land a blow or receive one, you sustain damage. The one-fleshness makes every foul word a boomerang. Grace is tossed aside for reciprocation — an eye for an eye, as it were. She raises her voice; you raise yours. She jabs beneath the belt; you return her in kind. You each want to stop fighting — but rarely in the same moment. You put your arms down for a second only to get sucker punched. Things escalate.

In bad seasons, some couples may sleep in their designated corners of the bed. The alarm sounds the bell, and they’re back at it again. Sadly, children often sit ringside for the pay-per-view worthy fights.

In marital and romantic love, we wound and are wounded. Whoever penned the lyrics, Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me, must not have known either.

An Assassin

The tongue can be a great assassin. In a terrifying excursus on this weapon, James calls it:

  • a fire, lit by hell, that sets our lives ablaze (James 3:5–6),
  • a stain marring the entire person (James 3:6),
  • a world of unrighteousness (James 3:6),
  • a restless evil full of deadly poison (James 3:8),
  • an untamable creature (James 3:8),
  • a mercenary that sometimes works for Christ and sometimes for Satan (James 3:9–12).

We were — and sadly still can be — a people of unclean lips. With perverse language, we too often lash out at our loved ones and break their spirits (Proverbs 15:4).

As we stand toe-to-toe and slug it out (old-school boxing style), one word can make all the difference in our conflicts with loved ones: grace.

To Grace or Not to Grace

As Christians, we can hardly go a day without saying the word.

Our most familiar hymn declares how amazing it is (and for good reason). Although the Old Testament only contains several sightings of the word, the New Testament explodes with it. God’s grace fills Christ (John 1:14), appears in his person and work (Titus 2:11–14), brands the gospel (Acts 20:24), overwhelms sin (Romans 5:20), founds God’s promises to us (Romans 4:16), transforms weakness into strength (2 Corinthians 12:9), defines God’s throne (Hebrews 4:16), and characterizes God’s Spirit (Hebrews 10:29). God is the God of all grace (1 Peter 5:10).

And God’s grace visits the humble (James 4:6), saves them (Acts 15:11; Romans 3:24; Ephesians 2:5), upholds them (Romans 5:2), chooses them (Romans 11:5), greets them (Romans 1:7; 1 Corinthians 1:3; 2 Corinthians 1:2), builds them up (Acts 20:32), strengthens them (2 Timothy 2:1), trains them in godliness (Titus 2:11–12), gifts them (1 Peter 4:10), and, as it comes to us through Jesus Christ, provokes them to an eternity of praise (Ephesians 2:7).

Grace is the scandalous, active, undeserved favor of God. The Christian life swims within the endless shores of his grace.

But when we fight with loved ones, we forget. And when we forget that God’s grace meets us moment by moment with unmerited kindness, we fail to extend this grace to others.

Inevitably, the moment comes in every bout when we’re faced with a question: To grace or not to grace? Do we lay down our gloves or hit back? In times when I’ve refused to extend grace, I’ve noticed that one of three lies usually prevailed.

1. Giving grace is fair. 

In the first place, we can be tempted to withhold grace because we think that it’s not fair for them to get off so easily. Their crimes loom large in our minds, and even as we are “patient” with them, we slowly ascend to our judgment seat. We find them guilty. In light of their vicious attacks, a simple apology won’t do — justice demands more.

When we think this way, we are exactly right. Justice demands much more than, “I’m sorry, Honey.” Their forgiveness takes more than them buying you flowers, “completely understanding you,” or repenting in dust and ashes before your feet. Forgiveness is costly to the one extending it. And ultimately, for the Christian, it took the Lamb of God standing silent on their behalf, accepting the most unjust sentence any human court has ever rendered (Isaiah 53:7). It took an eternity’s worth of God’s volcanic wrath to be poured upon the Son of God for their sin to be forgiven.

Justification is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone — but too often in conflict, we apply it to us alone. They don’t need to perform penance towards us before we grant absolution. Christ already purchased their forgiveness with the Father at tremendous cost. The question is never, Who are they to be forgiven? but always, Who are we to withhold forgiveness? Jesus has forgiven our infinite debt — how can we try to imprison our loved one who owes us a mere day’s wages (Matthew 18:21–35).

2. Giving grace “teaches them a lesson.”

We think that if we allow grace to abound to that person, they will take advantage of us. If we turn the other cheek, we sign up for a lifelong slapping session. So, we take matters into our own hands, and seek to train the person to act differently in the future. If they want to put their hand on the stove, they will get burned.

But notice how differently God deals with us. Although he unquestionably disciplines us (Hebrews 12:5–11), notice that in Titus 2:11–12 it is the grace of God that trains us to stop sinning and to live righteous lives. The grace of God, not our wrath, has the power to sanctify your loved one. We serve as imperfect reminders of God’s perfect grace appearing in the person of Jesus Christ, and this transforms.

3. Giving grace should follow an apology.

In heavyweight bouts, I tend to make grace about contrition — a broken and contrite heart I will not despise. When, and only when, they feel bad enough, then I can move towards them in love. Grace, in my scheme, isn’t unmerited favor; it is merited fellowship.

But God shows his love towards us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). While we were throwing haymakers towards God, Jesus stepped in and took the knockout blow we justly deserved. God’s unusual grace enables me to put down my gloves towards my fiancé (and friends and family members), and move towards her in kindness — even before she says sorry. God’s kindness leads us to repentance (Romans 2:4) and, more often than not, I’ve found that my weak imitation of God’s kindness, patience, and forbearance does the same.

Three Personal Resolutions

I have plenty of experience with relational conflict. If the options tend to be flight or fight, I’ve jumped into the ring almost every time. I’ve Rumbled in the Jungle, experienced the Thrilla in Manilla. I’ve thrown verbal uppercuts, and taken them. But Christ’s grace has been training me to love my wife, friends, and family with the kindness and restraint that God has shown me.

In my journey towards grace-filled marital conflict, these few principles have been helpful.

1. Plan during peacetime.

I've realized that wartime is the wrong time for developing diplomatic tactics. When shots are fired, planning for how to deal with conflict is not going to work. Utilize peacetime to game plan for future conflicts. Ask your beloved, What can we do to de-escalate heated situations? How have I communicated in the past that made things worse for you? Do you prefer to handle conflict immediately or to wait?

Relational wars are often won in peacetime.

2. Ask for affection.

I noticed that, when in conflict, words of affection get lodged in my throat. When I can dislodge them, and say something — anything — kind, my frustration immediately drops levels, especially when asked to give them. So, my fiancé and I have the green light at any time to ask for words of affection from the other during conflict.

Conflict frequently asks, Do you love me? “You have disappointed me (again) . . . do you still love me?” Words of affection, spoken affectionately, can turn away wrath (Proverbs 15:1).

3. Remember the cross.

The husband who has been forgiven much, will love much. The husband amazed by the grace he receives from Christ will happily extend it to his wife. Christian grace, as opposed to a Victorian nicety, is tethered to the cross of Jesus. Grace bled that we might take our fill and extend it to others.

Oh, for a thousand tongues to sing my great Redeemer’s praise,
And for a thousand tongues to give my great Redeemer’s grace!

The grace we give does not flow down from our moral highness; it flows down from the bloody Savior who rains grace upon his people.