Conflict Resolution in the Shadow of the Cross (Part 2)


In Cormac McCarthy’s unsettling novel, Blood Meridian, the Judge, a truly terrifying character, sits with the men of his gang around the fire and holds forth on the nature of war. He begins by making a statement about the enduring power and inevitability of war.

It makes no difference what men think of war, said the judge. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way.

He goes on to talk about how war permeates every aspect of life.

All other trades are contained in that of war. Is that why war endures? No. It endures because young men love it and old men love it in them. Those that fought, those that did not.

Finally, he reaches his shocking conclusion.

Seen so, war is the truest form of divination. It is the testing of one’s will and the will of another within that larger will which because it binds them is therefore forced to select. War is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence. War is god.[1]

Perhaps you can see why I called the Judge “terrifying.” There are those who suggest that the hulking, violent, seemingly indestructible character of the Judge in Blood Meridian is the personification of war itself. For me, one of the things that is so jarring about his musings is the way in which any sober-minded observation of the world lends credence to some of them.

When the Judge says, “War endures,” is he mistaken? He appears not to be. Somebody has said that Americans love peace monuments; we build one after every war. Yes, war seems to endure.

And what of his idea that men love war—“young men love it and old men love it in them”—is that true? Honestly, it may very well be. War, viewed from a distance, has a kind of romantic idealism about it. Many are the men and women who likely feel towards war something akin to love.

But what of his last statement, indeed, his worst statement—“War is god.”—is that true? And here, thankfully, we see the wickedness behind the Judge’s words unmasked. No, war is not God and God is not war. On the contrary, God is love and those who walk with God should exhibit the marks of peace, love, joy, and unity in their lives.

Human conflict and strife and war is not of God. Therefore, the children of God must learn to navigate it and resolve it rightly. But whatever we do, we must not worship and love it.

To conquer a thing, you must first know and name that thing. We must do this with human conflict. So I ask: What is human conflict? From whence does it come? Why do human beings conflict so much? Indeed, why do Christians conflict so much in the church? To these questions, the scriptures give us telling answers. But I would like to consider this last question in particular: why do Christians conflict so much? To this question, we will offer five reasons.

We conflict because we wrong one another.

Let us begin by noting that some conflicts are indeed a result of legitimate wrongs. Scripture does not assume that all conflicts are simply mistakes in perception. Rather, it assumes that it is in fact possible to wrong and to be wronged. Jesus makes this point in two passages. First, in Matthew 18, Jesus says:

15 If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.

The clear insinuation of these words is that one may actually be sinned against in the church. Jesus also acknowledges in Matthew 5 that it is possible for us to wrong another:

23 So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24a leave your gift there before the altar and go.

Again, there is no insinuation that the offended brother is wrong to be so. Thus, Jesus acknowledges that there is such a thing as legitimate offense. Later in this series we will consider what to do in such cases of actual wrong. For now, though, let us go on to consider the less noble reasons why Christians conflict.

We conflict because we want what we want.

In James 4, James actually asks our question and then offers a very specific answer. What He is says is fascinating:

1 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. You do not have, because you do not ask.

B.H. Carroll wisely observed that in James 4:1-2 James was “tracing things to their fountain head” and summarizes James to mean “that when we covet things contrary to God’s law this lust leads us to make war upon all who oppose our selfish ends.”[2]

Let us first begin, however, with the way that James labels conflicts among believers. In commenting on James’ use of quarrels (machai) and fights (polemoi), Spiros Zodhiates writes:

There is actually the same difference between them as between “war” and “battle.”… polemos [fights]…generally indicates the whole course of hostilities against an outside power, while machee [quarrels] would refer rather to the actual armed encounter of hostile armies. The…word, machee, “battle,” also often means “contention,” which falls short of the actual armed encounter.[3]

If we see these words as referring to the scope of conflicts, we might say that what James is talking about is the whole gamut of conflicts: small skirmishes and great clashes. In other words, James wants to diagnose the cause of Christian conflicts regardless of their size. He is talking, then, about the two members who get their wires crossed, the church that splits right down the middle, and everything in between. And what is James’ diagnosis? Listen again:

1 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. You do not have, because you do not ask.

This is perhaps unexpected. James writes that what is behind our conflicts are our “passions,” our “desire[s]”,” and our “covet[ing].” Sinful conflicts among believers arise, in other words, from our lusts and our wants. We conflict because we want what we want.

Maybe you protest. Maybe you would say, “No, I am not angry because of my desires, because I am coveting.” But let me ask you: is that not possibly the exact cause?

What kinds of things might Christians covet and desire that would lead to conflict? There are many possibilities: to be right, to win an argument, to have our way. Maybe they are more basic desires: we desire something that somebody else has or we desire the attention that somebody else is getting. Yes, it is in fact easy to see how, as James says, our passions and desires lead to conflicts.

But notice something else. James is not merely speaking of desire in an outward sense. Rather, he says that “your passions are at war within you.” In saying this, James is proving himself quite the psychologist indeed! He is, of course, correct and his words are God-breathed.

Our desires, the things we covet, the things we want, the things we think we must have, create, first, inner conflict, James writes: “your passions are at war within you.” Then, this inner conflict, this inner lack of peace, manifests itself in acts of hostilities, great or small, towards others: “You desire and do not have, so you murder.”

This is a powerful observation. It means that human lusts and coveting make us miserable, make us conflicted, and then, in the course of our relationships with others, we take out the conflicts that are already within us on others.

Show me a person who is always in conflict and I will show you a person with deep-seated issues in their own heart, mind, and soul. We clash with others because we clash first with ourselves and, lacking the peace that Christ wants to sow in our hearts, we bring to the relational table all that we have: strife and discord.

There is another element involved in this whole dynamic and it is ego. Behind our desires and coveting and passions is ego, the need to be exalted or satiated in some way by the acquiring of these things that bring conflict inwardly and outwardly. We conflict with others because we make too much of ourselves. We are lost in our own heads. John Michael Talbot put it nicely when he said;

       When the ego is still on the throne of our life, then we are easily offended. When the ego wants something and doesn’t get it, it gets hurt and angry. Especially when we want recognition, good treatment, or even some appreciation—any time we don’t receive what we think we are owed—we easily get offended. The trouble is that our definition of what is good and proper is often distorted when ego is driving our life. When the ego is at the foot of the throne where God rightly resides, we are not easily offended. There is nothing to offend.

       When the ego is “sticking out” in places where it is not supposed to be, then we easily get our ego stepped on by others. So our taking “offense” is because we are out of order. It is not so much a matter of the behavior of others. That is between them and God. In the final analysis it is our problem, not theirs.[4]

Consider this, you who are prone to conflicts: is it not just possible that the problem is not the other person or other people but the problem is your own inner lack of peace, your own inner conflict, and your own unchecked ego? Yes, we conflict because we want what we want.

We conflict because we allow hatred to take root.

We conflict also because we give ourselves over to hatred. We allow hatred to take root in our lives. In Proverbs 10 we read:

12 Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses.

Yes, indeed, hatred stirs up or agitates strife. I believe that there are many people who hate somebody or some group who would adamantly deny that they do so. We tell ourselves that we hate no man and no woman. Even so, hate—real, actual hate—is often lurking beneath even our small conflicts. In 1846, Charles Bridges wrote of this verse:

Hatred, however disguised by a smooth exterior, is the selfish principle of man…Like an underground fire, it constantly stirs up mischief and creates or keeps alive envy and criticisms. When this dissension is set on fire, God’s name is greatly dishonored.[5]

Yes, hate hides, hate lurks, hate crouches in the tall grass, and it does so so very stealthily that we can fail to see it in our own lives.

We must be clear on this. We must not mince words. Hatred among believers has no place in the church of the living Christ. In 1 John 4, John writes:

20 If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.

I ask you: are you trafficking in hatred toward another? If so, heed the words of Proverbs: “Hatred stirs up strife!” And heed the words of 1 John: you cannot actually love God if you hate another.

Many of our conflicts are simply the bitter fruit of hatred.

We conflict because we can be fools.

This point may offend us. It is intended to humble us. One of the reasons Christians conflict is because we can be fools at times! This is a great tragedy. Proverbs 20 links conflict with being a fool.

It is an honor for a man to keep aloof from strife, but every fool will be quarreling.

Fools quarrel. To quarrel is to be a fool. To be wise, on the other hand, to be honorable, is “to keep aloof from strife.” R.B.Y. Scott writes that “keep aloof” literally means “remain seated from a dispute.”[6] It is a nice picture, and a helpful one. The honorable man or woman, when confronted with a conflict or quarrel, simply “remains seated” or “sits it out,” we might say.

How about you? Do you like a good fight? We must like a good fight. What else could explain the American fascination with reality TV in which people are screaming at each other a good bit of the time? But it is a fool who loves a fight. Proverbs 14 makes the same connection:

17a A man of quick temper acts foolishly

Fools quarrel and a “a man of quick temper acts foolishly.” The scriptures are clear: to indulge in, to seek out, to enter into, to enjoy, to secretly love, or to instigate skirmishes and conflicts and clashes with others is to play the part of the fool. But, brothers and sisters in Christ, we were not made to be fools! Do not play the part of the fool!

We conflict because we fail to bring our tempers to the cross.

A final cause of conflicts in the church was already alluded to in the verse from Proverbs 14, but it is spelled out more vividly in Proverbs 15:

18 A hot-tempered man stirs up strife, but he who is slow to anger quiets contention.

We conflict because we fail to bring our tempers to the cross. Some of the reasons for conflict are deep and profound. Some are really quite simple. And simply put, our refusal to give our tempers to Christ is one of the primary reasons why conflicts happen.

I believe these reasons are all connected. Because we do not have the peace of Christ within us, because we are conflicted, because our egos are out of check, because we lust and want to be right, because we hate, and because we are foolish, our tempers are left to run wild. We are, as Proverbs puts it “hot-tempered,” ready for a fight, ready to conflict. We are primed for strife and so strife we find…or create.

Douglas Moo has passed on an amazing and tragic statement from Spinoza.

The seventeenth-century Jewish philosopher Spinoza observed: “I have often wondered that persons who make boast of professing the Christian religion—namely love, joy, peace, temperance, and charity to all men—should quarrel with such rancorous animosity and display daily towards one another such bitter hatred, that this, rather than the virtues which they profess, is the readiest criteria of their faith.”[7]

Spinoza was right to wonder. Should our lives as followers of the Lamb of God not be marked by peace, unity, and love? Should the outside world not say of us, “It is not that they never disagree, it is simply that they never allow their disagreements to become hatred and strife. See how the Christians love each other!” Should our children not say, “My mom and dad were not perfect, and neither was our church, but there was love there, and cool heads, and restrained tempers. I never saw the members of the church of my youth hate each other, clash with each other, turn on each other!”

Church, see and understand the causes of conflict! It is only at the foot of the cross that we can learn the way of peace. It is only through the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit, in the name of the Son and for the glory of the Father, that we can have peace. But make no mistake: we can have peace! We can be people of peace!

Love one another! Die to self! Embrace the cross! Love on another!


[1] McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West (Vintage International) (p. 245-247). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[2] B.H. Carroll, James, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Corinthians. Ed. J.B. Cranfill. An Interpretation of the English Bible. (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1913), p.41.

[3] Spiros Zodhiates, The Labor of Love. (Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers, 1985), p.215, 219.

[4] John Michael Talbot, Francis of Assisi’s Sermon on the Mount. (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2019), p.79.

[5] Charles Bridges, Proverbs. The Crossway Classic Commentaries. Ser. Eds., Alister McGrath and J.I. Packer. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2001), p.70.

[6] R.B.Y. Scott, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes. The Anchor Bible. Vol.18 (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1965), p.121.

[7] Douglas Moo, The Letter of James. The Pillar New Testament Commentary. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000), p.181.

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