How to Win a Fight

Heavenly Wisdom for Relational Conflict

Bethlehem College & Seminary | Minneapolis

Today is the ninth anniversary of our wedding day, April 10, 2015. As I’ve thought back over these last nine years of God’s faithfulness and kindness to me and Faye in our marriage, a story came to mind about a particularly terrible fight we had. And that felt relevant for my assignment: “wisdom in relationships.”

Our first year of marriage was hard. I don’t know if it was harder than yours or harder than most (because I’ve never been married to anyone else, much less to any of you). But it was hard. We fought way more than either of us expected. We were very in love and made lots of good memories too. But we were also very different and still deeply sinful. For my part, I was naive and selfish and not ready to lead her well.

On top of all that, she was from sunny, warm Los Angeles, and so she was now 1,900 painful miles away from everything and everyone she knew and loved. So we fought — a lot. And it came to a head that first fall. I knew how homesick she was, how much she missed her family and friends and the beach, and so I decided I would send her back to California — without me, less than six months into marriage. Already a bad idea.

I also decided to surprise her — an even worse idea. So, on the day of her flight, she thinks we’re just picking up friends from the airport, but when we pull up to baggage claim, I have her open the trunk — and there’s her luggage, already packed for her with a sign saying, “You’re going to California!” I even had my phone out to record just how happy she was.

She was not happy. As soon as she saw the sign, she said, “No, no, no, no, no . . .” through tears — lots of tears.

I said, “Oh no . . . you don’t have to go . . .” So, we got back in the car, and I started driving around the terminal. I figured she just needed more time to process what was happening. But she didn’t. She just got more sad and more angry: “Why do you keep driving in circles? You said I don’t have to go!” I decided to stop circling and parked in short-term parking — my 25th mistake so far (if you’re counting). By now, she’s had enough, so she says, “Alright, if you want me to go, then I’ll go!” She storms out of the car and into the airport — no bag, no boarding pass, no idea which airline or where to go.

I followed her into the terminal, now pleading with her to come back home with me. And then a police officer stops me. “Sir, you stand over there.” “No, officer, we’re really OK.” “Sir, stand over there. . . . Ma’am, is this man hurting you?” I’m thinking, here I am trying to bless my wife and send her on a nice trip to California, and I’m going to end up in jail tonight. And I’m supposed to lead small group in thirty minutes.

After further investigation, the officer decided I wasn’t a serious threat. Faye and I got back into the car, and we spent the night at home together. When she opened her luggage, she realized it was 60 percent bathing suits, and the rest were mostly dirty clothes — and no underwear (remember, this was our first year, and I didn’t have any sisters). That night, though, ended up being strangely sweet as Faye talked about all the reasons she didn’t want to leave me for the weekend, even for California — how this was her home now. And I talked about how much I just wanted to bless her and refresh her. We confessed, we forgave, and we went to God together.

Now, why do I share that story? Well, because I think it illustrates our desperate need for wisdom in relationships. Even at their best and most well-intentioned, relationships can be deeply confusing and painful. For one reason, we’re all sinful. I hate to be the one to tell you that, but you’re still sinful, which means you’re still hard to love at times. Maybe you’re being hard to love today. We’re also not God, so when it comes to these hard moments in relationships, we don’t know what he knows, and we can’t do what he does. And so, we constantly need wisdom, wisdom we do not have on our own.

Wisdom for Relationships

When President Tabb sent the invitation, I asked him if he had any particular kinds of relationships in mind. Did he want me to talk about dating? Or marriage? Or friendships? He replied, “You could reflect on lessons the book of James gives us for cultivating wise relationships with significant others, friends, church members, neighbors, extraterrestrials.” Okay, I added that last one. Basically, “Can you share any practical wisdom for whatever relationships matter most to each of us?”

I thought about the kinds of wisdom I need in relationships. I thought about the kinds of wisdom Faye and I have sought out from older, wiser believers. I thought about the kinds of questions younger friends in our church and community ask us. And so many of those questions — certainly not all of them, but so many of them — were rooted, one way or another, in conflict. How do I relate well to someone I love who’s driving me crazy right now?

“Fighting within and fighting with God spills over into fighting in marriage, friendships, churches, and workplaces.”

So, I walked slowly through James several times, on the lookout for especially practical help for the kind of conflict we all experience with those we love. (I couldn’t help but think mainly of my marriage, but the principles here really do apply to every other relationship we have — maybe even to aliens.) I made a list of twelve, which is way too many for chapel, so I tried to pare the list down to just the essential ones — and I ended up with eleven. So, I did another, more cutthroat pass and landed on five.

1. At the root of your conflict is conflict with God.

What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. (James 4:1–2)

Do you want to know why we fight with those we love? At its root, it’s because one or both of us want the wrong things. In that moment, we want something other than God more than God. Usually, we want something from God more than we want him. That’s what sin is. These are “passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul” (1 Peter 2:11). These desires start a war within us (which means we’re already at war with ourselves), but they also put us at war with God. And because we’re at war with ourselves and at war with God, those wars very often spark wars with others. Fighting within and fighting with God spills over into fighting in marriage, friendships, churches, and workplaces — and James says all of that hostility is rooted in wanting the wrong things. So, what should we want?

You know this: We should want God. We should count everything else as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord. We should gladly lose anything else if that’s what it takes to gain Christ and be found in him (Philippians 3:8–9). So, when the fight comes, we might stop and ask,

  • What am I wanting so bad right now that’s not him?
  • What am I demanding that God hasn’t promised me yet?
  • If I really believed that in Christ all things are mine — this world and the next, life and death, the present and the future — how would I respond to this conflict?

We could ask James, then, What resolves quarrels and fights between us? What stops many of them before they even begin? A mutual treasuring of Jesus — when both of us desire him above all the things (and there are so many things) that might separate us and turn us against each other.

2. You won’t have wisdom if you don’t ask.

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. (James 1:5)

If any of you lacks wisdom, it’s available to you. Think about that. “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God . . . and it will be given him.” Some of you are nodding along, yes, of course. God gives wisdom; I know that. Others of you, though, aren’t so sure. You’re quietly desperate for wisdom right now, and I mean desperate. You’re stuck in some situation or with some decision, and you feel like you’re out of options. You feel like you’re in a dark, cold room feeling the walls for a way out. You know full well that you don’t know what to do next.

Listen to what James says here one more time: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God . . . and it will be given him.” It will be given to you. It might not be the wisdom that you wanted. And it may not come as quickly as you wanted it to come. But God promises you here that he won’t leave you in the dark in these relationships — if you ask.

“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God.” The only people who get wisdom are people humble enough to ask. And notice: it’s not those who know to ask him, but the ones who actually do it (and then keep doing it).

At a school like this, I know that you know to ask God, but are you still asking? It’s amazing, isn’t it, how we get into these relational tensions, sometimes over weeks or months or years, and we think and stress and argue, and we even go ask other people what they think — but how often do we forget and neglect to ask God? To stop, to kneel down, to bow our heads — our thoughts, all our potential solutions and next steps — down before him, and then simply ask: God, would you show me what to do now? Would you open up a path that I can’t see yet? Would you break in here and miraculously mend this relationship?

It’s not too late to ask him.

3. Our words often do the most harm.

The tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. (James 3:6–8)

You can feel James reaching for words and imagery to try and pry our eyes open to this reality — flames and stains, bears and sharks, snakes and poison. We don’t think of words like this. Sticks and stones — that’s where the real harm is. That’s the secret Satan’s been dealing out all these years. He knows that words are way more likely to hurt us in the places that really matter. If he wants to start a fire in a home, he reaches for the tongue — and too often, we’re all too glad to give it to him, aren’t we?

There have been times — again I’m thinking primarily in marriage — when I’ve remembered this just a moment too late. I said something impulsive, emotional, and then almost immediately remembered that words hold this staggering power. For a split second, I’d forgotten, and then a fire broke out. Words feel so small and safe in those moments, like a birthday candle and not like an inferno. They come so easily, especially the sinful ones.

Words have an enormous potential for harm, but they have just as much power for good. They can set a home on fire, and they can be a cool, gentle stream of blessing. So, what kind of tongue do you bring to conflict? As you think about the rhythms of your communication in these sensitive or difficult relationships, ask God to make your words a stream and not a flame.

4. Your anger won’t solve this.

Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. (James 1:19–20)

Now, this doesn’t mean it’s not right to be angry at times. “Be angry,” the apostle Paul says, “and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil” (Ephesians 4:26–27). I had to learn this in my first years of marriage — that some anger is good anger, that it was right for Faye to be angry with my sin. James 1:19–20 doesn’t mean we don’t get righteously angry at the right times; it does mean we don’t put our hope in anger. And it’s so easy to hope in anger — isn’t it?

Why do we overreact and lash out at our spouse or roommate? Why do we yell at our kids when we shouldn’t? Because somewhere deep inside of us, we think our anger’s going to make this right. If I can just raise my voice high enough, or glare hard enough, or withdraw far enough, then they’ll shape up and submit, and everything will be alright again.

Unrighteous anger is an attempt to control what we can’t control and produce what we can’t produce. It’s an attempt to be God, which is the very definition of foolishness, instead of rejoicing that God is God, which (as we’ve already seen) is the heart of wisdom.

Our anger doesn’t produce the righteousness of God, so how does wisdom respond in this kind of conflict? James goes on to tell us in 3:17–18: “The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.”

5. The wise don’t fight alone.

Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. . . . My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins. (James 5:16, 19–20)

This last chapter in James gives us some glimpses into the corporate dimensions of wisdom, the togetherness of wisdom. Yes, the wisdom we need will ultimately come from God, but again and again, we see that the best place to hear from him is in meaningful community with other believers — the kinds of believers who know our particular weaknesses and temptations because we’ve confessed our sins to them; the kinds of believers who know us well enough to know how to pray for us (and then actually and consistently pray for us); the kinds of believers who, if we ever started wandering away from Christ, would climb over mountains and swim across oceans to bring us home. We need those brothers and those sisters all the time in the Christian life — “exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today’” (Hebrews 3:13) — but especially when we’re in the dangerous and disorienting fires of some conflict.

Pastor John has said that eternal security is a community project. Well, conflict resolution often is too. So, who are those courageous climbers and swimmers for you? Whom could you exhort, even today? Whom do you know who might need that little push to go and make peace with someone they love? The wise don’t fight alone.

We don’t win fights in these relationships by winning the argument or getting our way. No, we win the fight when we fight like someone who loves Jesus — when we humble ourselves to ask God (and others) for help, when we make peace even when we’ve been wronged, when we put a guard over our mouths and correct one another with gentleness, when we can rejoice even while relationships hurt us because we have our Treasure in the field, our better and abiding possession — in other words, when our conflict bears the unusual, even paradoxical, marks of grace. That’s how we win a fight.

Thanking God for Bethlehem

Last week, I was appointed President & CEO of Desiring God. Had I known I’d be starting a job like this the week before this chapel message, wisdom might have declined. I’m so thankful I said yes before I knew, and I’m so thankful to be in this room just a week into my new role. Here’s our mission statement at Desiring God, what I take to be my job description:

As a Christian Hedonism publishing platform, persuaded by the indispensable biblical reality that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him, we exist

     to move people to live for the glory of God,
     by helping them be satisfied in God above all else, especially in their suffering,
     by communicating the truth, and beauty, and worth of all God is for us in Christ,
     grounded in, governed by, and saturated with the infallible Christian Scriptures.

Now, I grew up in a marketing home, so I know full well that according to “best business practices” that’s an absolutely terrible mission statement. And I love it so much.

“The only people who get wisdom are people humble enough to ask.”

And the roots of my love for it — for the glory of God, for our joy in him, for the worth of Christ, for the beauty of the gospel, for the centrality of Scripture, for this big, sovereign, satisfying vision of God — are here, in chapels like these and in classrooms like yours, over assignments like yours, under professors like yours, next to classmates like yours. I really believe any qualification and enthusiasm I have for this work is owing, under God, to Bethlehem College & Seminary.

And so, I wanted to take this moment to thank God for this school. To ask the one who gives generously to all without reproach to pour out his grace all over this place and to provide for all you need and more as you spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ. And I also want to plead with you, students: Soak up all that you can while you’re here. Ask God for the hunger and stamina to make the most of these classes and assignments. As I’ve learned firsthand over the last couple of months, you really don’t know what God might be preparing you for.

I know it’s hard. I know you’re tired. I know there might be a dozen things you’re really excited to do when school’s over. But you’ve been given an extraordinary gift to learn in a place like this, and for just a few short years. What you’re learning, the tools you’re being entrusted with, will prepare you well for situations and responsibilities you don’t even know are coming — in relationships, in your future work, in the local church, wherever you go.