How Do We Deal with Conflict?
‘The Bible tells us to love our neighbours, and also to love our enemies; probably because they are generally the same people!’ wrote GK Chesterton.
Conflict is inescapable. Even for those of us who shy away from confrontation, it is impossible to avoid. As we go through life, we will inevitably encounter people with whom we will have conflict. Additionally, for a Christian, an internal conflict exists between the desires of our sinful nature and the Holy Spirit.
We may also experience conflict when we stand up for the truth within the church, or when we engage with the prevailing culture. Even in the UK, a country that has traditionally been seen as ‘Christian’, the culture is becoming increasingly hostile towards the Christian faith.
So, how do we deal with conflict?
1. Conflict with those who hate and attack us
David cries out to God ‘whom I praise’ (v.1). He is in conflict with ‘wicked and deceitful people who have opened their mouths against’ him (v.2). ‘They have spoken against me with lying tongues. With words of hatred they surround me; they attack me without cause. In return for my friendship they accuse me … They repay me evil for good and hatred for my friendship’ (vv.2–5).
It is deeply distressing when people we love and consider our friends attack us. Their accusations and words of hatred cause deep pain.
David’s response in this Psalm is to bring his pain and struggles to God. In the midst of it all he declares ‘I am a man of prayer’ (v.4), and pours out his heart to God. In no uncertain terms, he calls on God, not to remain silent, but rather, to pay them back.
Some of what he says can be difficult to read and reflects just how difficult it is to forgive without God’s help. It is at odds with Jesus’ call to ‘love [our] enemies and pray for those who persecute [us]’ (Matthew 5:44). If you are being unfairly attacked, copy David’s prayerfulness and honesty before God. At the same time ask God to help you overcome bitterness and hatred.
Lord, help us to respond in the right way when we come into conflict with those who hate and attack us. Help us not to respond in a natural way, but in a supernatural way.
2. Conflict with heresy and in our hearts
Conflict and confrontation are never easy, but they are a necessary part of courageous leadership. Paul finds himself in conflict with the agitators (v.12). He is passionate about the truth, and uses very strong language about them because they are leading the church astray (v.12).
In effect, he says that if they are so keen on cutting that part of a man’s anatomy through circumcision, they may as well go the whole hog and castrate themselves. It is rather surprising language to find in the New Testament! But the truth matters, and Paul is prepared to face conflict in order to defend the truth.
Paul then moves on to the conflict between the sinful nature and the Holy Spirit. He writes that the Holy Spirit and the sinful nature ‘are in conflict with each other’ (vv.16–18).
The whole point of Paul’s argument has been to stress freedom. However, freedom from sin does not mean that we are free to sin.
Paul contrasts two forms of slavery: legalism (slavery to law), and licence (slavery to self). His argument is that the Christian has been liberated from both of these. We need to avoid both legalism and licence: ‘Just make sure that you don’t use this freedom as an excuse to do whatever you want to do and destroy your freedom. Rather, use your freedom to serve one another in love’ (vv.13–14, MSG).
That is true freedom – not the absence of morality, but the freedom to serve others in love: to love our neighbour as ourselves. ‘That’s how freedom grows. For everything we know about God’s Word is summed up in a single sentence: Love others as you love yourself’ (v.14, MSG).
If we continue responding to conflict as the world does, ‘biting and devouring each other’, we will destroy each other (v.15).
We must be ‘led by the Spirit’ (v.18). Paul lists four realms in which this conflict operates:
- Sexual: ‘repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness’ (v.19, MSG).
- Religious: ‘trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness’ (v.20a, MSG).
- Society: ‘cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival’ (v.20b, MSG).
- Sins of excess: ‘uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community’ (v. 21, MSG).
The list is not exhaustive. The passage ends with ‘and the like’ (v.21).
Paul emphasises that we must not gratify these desires. Rather, we need to live by the Spirit. If we choose to live by the Spirit, we will not follow the lusts of the flesh that continually tempt us. Instead, we will produce the fruit of the Spirit: ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control’ (vv.22–23). These are the characteristics we see in Jesus.
He continues that, ‘Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires’ (v.24). The temptation is always to go back. But ‘since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit’ (v.25). Let us avoid personal conflict, ‘Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other’ (v.26).
Now that the Holy Spirit lives in us we need to involve him in all our decisions and follow his prompting. If we are thinking, saying or doing something that makes us feel uncomfortable inside, that may be the prompting of the Holy Spirit to stop. On the other hand, the times when we make a decision and feel a deep sense of peace, which comes from keeping in step with the Holy Spirit.
Lord, give us discernment to know when we need to fight against heretical teaching in the church and defend the truth. Help us also to deal with the internal conflict in our hearts. Help us not to go back to gratifying the desires of our sinful nature. Thank you that they have been crucified. Help us to live by the Spirit and keep in step with the Spirit and produce the fruit of the Spirit in our lives.
3. Conflict with culture
Like many today, the people of God often found themselves in a culture with very different standards from their own. We are not called to withdraw from the culture, but we are called to be distinctive. We are to live counter-cultural lives that have a powerful impact on the culture for good.
The people of God found themselves in a cruel society that ‘showed them no mercy’ (47:6). ‘Even on the aged you laid a very heavy yoke’ (v.6c). They were a very proud culture (vv.8–9). Furthermore, they indulged in the magic arts, astrology and horoscopes – ‘many sorceries and all your potent spells’ (vv.9b,12–13).
It is very hard to live a totally counter-cultural life. In chapter 48, the prophet turns his fire from Babylon to Israel. He says that if only they had paid attention to the Lord and his commands, ‘Your peace would have been like a river, your righteousness like the waves of the sea’ (48:18).
Despite all Israel’s failings and problems, God did not give up on his plans and purposes for ‘my servant Israel, in whom I will display my splendour’ (49:3). We read of another ‘servant of the Lord’ (see BiOY 17 September), this time an individual, who would ‘bring Jacob back to him, and gather Israel to himself’ (v.5). God’s original purposes for his servant Israel would be revealed and fulfilled in him. This points ahead to Jesus. He was an Israelite sent to Israel. He was totally identified with his nation, yet distinct from it.
The main work of the servant is to declare the truth. His mouth was ‘like a sharpened sword’ (v.2). God spoke to one nation and told them to tell all the others. The second task of the servant is to make God visible, ‘in whom I will display my splendour’ (v.3). The third task was to be a blessing to the world: ‘I’m setting you up as a light for the nations so that my salvation becomes global!’ (Isaiah 49:6, MSG).
The prophet then gives us a glimpse of how the servant will achieve this. In a foreshadowing of Isaiah 53, he speaks of ‘him who was despised and abhorred by the nation’ (49:7). The servant glorifies God (49:3). Now God glorifies the servant (v.7). The prophet says of the servant, ‘Kings will see you and rise up, princes will see and bow down, because of the Lord, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you’ (v.7).
This was fulfilled when the Magi came to worship Jesus (Matthew 2:1–12). It has been fulfilled again and again over the last 2,000 years as kings, emperors, presidents and prime ministers have bowed the knee to the king of kings.
Israel did not succeed, but Jesus did. Now, it is our task to be the servant of the Lord. Paul and Barnabas quoted this verse: ‘This is what the Lord has commanded us: “I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth” ’ (Acts 13:47).
Lord, help us to engage in the right way with the culture around us. Help us to remain distinct and be counter-cultural. Help us to have mouths like a sharpened sword to speak the truth into the culture. Help us to display your splendour and to be a light for the Gentiles, that we may bring your salvation to the ends of the earth.
‘But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control’.
I have two little apples trees in the garden. I only had one apple this year. I hope this isn’t a picture of my spiritual life!