Sometimes conflicts come upon us so stealthily that we seemingly wake to find ourselves in the midst of strife with another person. There are those who love conflict. That cannot be denied. Even so, I suspect that many are frustrated to find that despite their best efforts not to be involved in conflicts, they sometimes cannot avoid them. And I would say this is true: try as we might, we will at times find ourselves in conflicts. Of course, at other times, there really is no great mystery to it at all, is there? Sometimes we know perfectly well why we are in the midst of conflict and it is because we caused it! Sometimes—perhaps more rarely than we like to tell ourselves—we find ourselves in conflicts because there truly is a matter of righteousness and unrighteousness at stake. Sometimes issues are black and white.
What, then, do we do? How do we handle conflicts? While exceptional situations may call for unusual and varied responses, I believe that scripture gives us certain strong and guiding principles that, if adhered to, can greatly lesson the amount of conflicts in our lives.
Assess the conflict from the perspective (1) of heaven and (2) of the other person.
The default perspective we have for any conflict is, inevitably, our own. We see things the way we see them. Nobody has to be talked into looking at things from their own vantage point. We are born knowing how to do that. On the contrary, what is truly difficult, but is absolutely essential in conflict resolution, is learning to see matters from the perspective and vantage point of the other. But there is more than that. In fact, we must first learn to see the conflicts in which we find ourselves from the vantage point of Heaven itself.
In Matthew 18, Peter asks Jesus for guidance in conflict. In particular, Peter wants to know how often we must forgive somebody who wrongs us. Jesus answers the question somewhat enigmatically then uses the occasion to tell a story, a parable. And the point of the parable has to do with adjusting our perspective concerning the conflicts we are in. Listen:
21 Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times. 23 “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. 24 When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. 25 And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. 26 So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. 31 When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. 32 Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt.35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
This text is many sermons in and of itself, but let us notice in the broadest sense what Jesus is doing here with Peter: He is adjusting Peter’s default assessment perspective. He is challenging Peter’s vantage point.
Peter had asked a very Peter-centric question: “How many times must I forgive somebody who has wronged me.” This is the normal default perspective of all humanity. In Peter’s hypothetical, he is the one who is wronged, the other is the one who has wronged, and he, Peter, is wanting to know just how gracious he must be.
Jesus responds with a story about a man who forgot just how much he himself had been forgiven! In Jesus’ story, the man who struggles to forgive another is the villain, not the hero. He is the villain because in his struggle to forgive he forgot how much he himself had already been forgiven!
In other words, had Peter considered the vantage point of Heaven he never would have asked the question in the way that he did. He would instead have realized that in light of the forgiveness he had received from the Lord God—and, might we say, in light of the forgiveness Peter himself would soon need for his shocking denials—putting himself in the seat of the wronged hero needing to forgive the foolishness of others was quite a presumptuous thing to do.
Heaven’s perspective must be considered before our own is given pride of place.
Notice too that Jesus’ stories makes us feel sympathetic for the third man, the man who cannot repay the smaller debt. It helps us think of his perspective as well. We should consider the perspective of heaven and also the perspective of the one who we believe has wronged us.
Yes, it is possible that after considering these perspectives we may still be found to have been legitimately wronged. Again, I certainly am not suggesting that nobody is ever wronged and that it is all just a matter of perspective. No, sometimes people are indeed truly and terribly wronged. But may I suggest that in terms of a great many of the daily conflicts in which we find ourselves and even, most likely, in some of the conflicts we consider to be matters of pure right and wrong, the consideration of (1) heaven’s perspective and (2) the perspective of the other might bring some much-needed light and understanding to our complaint?
Do you feel anger at another who has wronged you? Perhaps they truly have and perhaps the wrong needs to be addressed. But consider first the grace you have been given by God in light of how you have wronged Him. Consider the mercy you have been given. Consider the forbearance of God.
Doing so will undercut any kind of knee-jerk reaction and will give you the insights needed to help you respond rightly in the shadow of the cross.
Move quickly with forgiveness and/or an apology.
If indeed there is a wrong that needs to be addressed—either a wrong perpetrated against you or a wrong you have perpetrated—what do you do next? The scripture is clear: you move quickly with forgiveness and/or an apology toward the other person.
I would propose that we fail in this step more than we fail in almost any other. We let our anger fester. We take time to lick our wounds. In the process we call others into the circle of conflict. In fact, sometimes I think you can get Baptist people to do just about anything but talk to the person with whom they are angry!
But consider the word of the Lord. First, in Matthew 5, Jesus paints a picture of a person going to worship who then remembers that another person has some grievance against them.
23 So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison.
“‘Has something against you’ probably implies a ‘just claim,’” writes Craig Blomberg. He then asks, “How many of our churches would or should be temporarily emptied if these commands were taken seriously?” That is a good question!
That word “quickly” in verse 25 is an important word. So quick should our efforts at resolution be that Jesus depicts the person in his story as leaving their offering before the altar and going! Meaning, this person walks out of church in the middle of the service to make things right (to use our terminology). They walk out mid-praise chorus, mid-sermon and go “quickly” to the other! That is how important this is.
We see the same in Matthew 18 in the case in which another person has wronged you:
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.
There is a repeated word in Matthew 5 (when you have wronged another) and Matthew 18 (when another has wronged you), and it is this: go (5:24 and 18:15). Go. Go to the other person. Do not delay. Do not gossip. Do not text your friends. Do not go to anybody but the person. Go. Go!
Why? Because the longer you wait the longer the devil has to do work. The longer you wait to address the person directly the more likely it becomes that you and others will talk about it and that the actual issue will become increasingly obscured by pride, ego, anger, self-justification, and all the rest. In Ephesians 4, Paul writes:
26 Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger
That is right. Do not let the sun go down on your anger. Deal with it today! Deal with it quickly.
In Proverbs 17 we read that the absolute best time to move toward resolution in a conflict is at the very beginning of the conflict. Consider:
14 The beginning of strife is like letting out water, so quit before the quarrel breaks out.
This is an amazing picture. Conflict and strife is like a dam with a huge reservoir of water behind it. When we conflict we let a little bit of water out. But the longer we wait to shut the sluice gate (and that is the image being employed here: “sluice gate. In an irrigation ditch for the watering of gardens…”) the greater the threat to the dam itself. And if we wait too long to address the matter, it may just all come pouring out destroying everything and everybody in its wake.
Unresolved conflict is like a wild fire or a raging flood: it can wreak havoc. Charles Bridges writes:
Both destructive elements, fire and water, illustrate the danger of starting a quarrel…To neither element can we say, “This far and no further!” We might as well try to tell a raging storm to stop. The dam may hold back a large body of water, but if you open its sluices, the waters may form a flood. In this way the starting of a quarrel has ended in thousands of murders, and even in the destruction of kingdoms.
It is no less destructive in ordinary life. One provocative word leads to another. Every retort widens the breach. Seldom, when we have heard the first word, have we heard the last word. An inundation of evil overwhelms peace, comfort, and conscience. Does not Christian grace teach us to keep resentment at bay and to bear provocation rather than break the bond of unity?
Truly it is a wise rule to stop evil at its inception. The riverbank is much more easily preserved than repaired. Once the breach is made, even if it is only to let out a drop of water, that is the beginning of evil, the results of which are incalculable.
In being alert to quarrels and disputes, it must be remembered that the time to stop is not when things are at their worst but at the beginning. We must mortify our own proud tempers and cultivate our Master’s meek and self-denying spirit.
Church, I plead with you: deal with your conflicts (1) quickly and (2) directly. The next steps go hand-in-hand with this.
Keep the circle of conflict as small as possible for as long as possible.
When you go quickly to the one with whom you are having conflict or with whom conflict might flare up, you must commit to keeping the circle small. By that I mean we must include ideally only two people: ourselves and the other. Life is messy, however, and sometimes others are involved at the inception. If so, they might very carefully be included as well, but only if they must be and only if the issue simply cannot be resolved between the two of you. Two people, alone, resolving their differences, is the first step in the process Jesus lays out in Matthew 18.
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. 16a-b But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you…
Again, I am not speaking here of, say, the victim of a crime or somebody who is in danger. We are thinking here of the types of conflict that can be resolved like this, and this likely includes most of our day-to-day conflicts. But of course we would not ask an abused person to go be alone and confront their abuser. We would not ask, say, a child who has been victimized to go be alone with the one who committed the crime. Of course not. Other biblical principles come to play there that make such cases very different indeed.
But the general rule is that when we feel we have been wronged or if we have wronged we should (excepting the situations mentioned above) go quickly to the other and seek resolution. This is the model. This is the biblical path of conflict resolution. And, tragically, it is in this first step that we so often stumble and fall and fail. “How often personal confrontation is the last stage rather than the first in Christian complaints!” writes Craig Blomberg. “It frequently seems as if the whole world knows of someone’s grievances against us before we are personally approached.”
In general, the more people involved in a conflict, the harder it is to get resolution. More people means more opinions, more possibility of varied approaches and therefore less possibility of being on the same page, a greater chance of angry outbursts, and a greater chance of misunderstanding. The smaller the circle the greater the chance of actual resolution.
Keeping the circle small means not going to your friends or getting on social media first. Keeping the circle small means protecting the dignity of the other person as much as is humanly possible. We are tempted to widen the circle so that those sympathetic to us can be brought in. We must resist this. Our goal is resolution, not coalition building. Our goal is peace, not winning. Our goal is to see objectively, not to be told by those who like us that we are right.
May I simply point out that it is Jesus who said “go…between you and him alone”? Here we see whether or not Jesus is truly Lord. To be a follower of Jesus is to follow Him in the places that are most difficult for us, and conflict resolution is one such place!
What if you are currently in a conflict and have neglected these biblical principles? Simply put, start now! It may mean telling a friend who you included in the circle, “Look, from now on I need to try to resolve this with him/her alone. It is what I should have done in the first place.” It may mean that part of going to the other alone is saying, “First, I need to apologize that I have delayed so long in coming to you.” If you have failed to go to the other, you can still go quickly now, now in the moment when the truths of God’s Word are impressed upon your mind and heart.
Close the circle. Shut down the chatter. Board up the echo chamber. Humble yourself. Pray. Look at the situation the way God looks at it. Consider that you might be at least partially mistaken. And go. Go to him. Go to her. Alone. Quickly. Go and seek peace and resolution. Go and seek to hear instead of to speak, to forgive instead of to win, to say you are sorry instead of demanding an apology.
Conflict resolution is a forgotten mission field. We must go and love and carry our cross even in this area of life! And when we do, the peace of the church can be maintained, your relationships can be saved, forgiveness and grace can freely flow, and love can flourish!
 Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew. The New American Commentary. Vol.22 (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1992), p.108.
 R.B.Y. Scott, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes. The Anchor Bible. Vol.18 (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1965), p.111.
 Charles Bridges, Proverbs. The Crossway Classic Commentaries. Ser. Eds., Alister McGrath and J.I. Packer. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2001), p.143.
 Craig L. Blomberg, p.278.