I was afraid.
For much of my life, I’d do almost anything to avoid a direct confrontation with someone I loved. Why? Because conflict was painful, and because I had a nagging feeling that it was a sign of failure. Was it a lack of humility? A lack of love? I wasn’t sure; I only felt that conflict is something we should — and can — avoid.
Almost-twins in age and life experience, yet wildly different in personality, my sister Kate and I have clashed over clutter and cleanliness, over bossiness and indecision, over driving styles and the best route to our destination. We’ve even fought over when to make up after fighting.
But in the end, it was Kate who helped me stop fearing conflict, and that lesson came through a confrontation.
Here’s how it went:
I’ve given Kate a lot of grace for the clutter she leaves in our apartment. It’s true: She is terribly busy, and I enjoy the way housekeeping balances out my work as a freelance writer and editor. But I’m not the maid! Besides, she can walk away from the mess every morning, but I work at home, and too much clutter makes it hard for me to concentrate.
I was happy with my apartment being slightly messy. Then my sister comes back from Israel, and she wants the place to be perfectly clean. I have a job outside the home which demands my energies, and being nagged about little things when I’m tired makes me feel like I’m being pushed out of my own home.
One day in our living room — bam! — it all came out. And this time, we stuck with the issue until we had uncovered what made each of us feel at home and what each expected in a fight. By avoiding conflict, I was saying: You are so valuable to me that I can’t stand anything that threatens our relationship. But by engaging in conflict, Kate was saying, If I didn’t value you, I would not pursue resolution of this issue.
I began to realize that conflict is a part of life; there are no maneuvers to avoid it forever. It’s a tool God uses to shape our hearts, an opportunity to deal with issues that would otherwise go unaddressed, and a project to be worked on together.
The Bible says “Blessed are the peacemakers, “Matthew 5:9 not the conflict-avoiders. In both Greek and Hebrew, peace is much more than the absence of conflict. It’s security, well-being, wholeness — having all the essential parts joined together and in harmony.
God compares Christian community to a living, breathing human body, and His guiding principle for conflict with other believers is the fact that we are already one. Ephesians 4:4-15 This body is meant to grow and show the maturity and love of Jesus. In a body, growth is a group project, not a solo endeavor. At best, a missing brother stunts the body’s growth; at worst, it means an amputation. So we fight for unity.
This is exactly what Kate and I have done. It’s hard to express the incredible feeling of safety in a relationship that has weathered disagreements and confrontation. We’ve found that conflict can be the doorway into deeper relationship — to knowing one another better and trusting one another more. Though the process may be painful, we have a lot of hope. We know God created this relationship, and with Him, it’s only going to get better.
In the meantime, we’ve learned that fighting in a godly way creates space for the next conflict to be successful. How do we do conflict well? Ultimately by recognizing that the issues in our hearts must be addressed; therefore, it’s not a question of whose fault the conflict is, but how we will respond to God’s work in our lives.
The specific practical lessons, however, are unique to our different personalities:
Elisabeth’s Rules of Engagement
Don’t allow anger to turn into bitterness. Don’t lie to yourself, saying “I’m fine,” when actually you are being poisoned from the inside out. Don’t wait until the exploding point to talk. And don’t be cowardly: Address an issue directly, rather than nagging. Give people space to cool off after an argument; don’t try to smooth things over immediately.
Kate’s Rules of Engagement
Don’t be a bully or be a lover of conflict for its own sake. Don’t lie to yourself, thinking that the other person won’t be convicted without your help. Volume does not make right: Give the less forceful person a chance to be heard; check to see if she has said all she needs to. Be willing to give reassurance sooner than you want, once the argument has ended.
God’s Rules of Engagement
According to Ephesians 4, it’s possible to be angry without sinning. This Greek word for “sin” means to miss the mark, like an archer in a competition who overshoots, forfeiting the prize.
- Wrath: A swift, short, heavy-breathing outburst of passion.
- Clamor: Loud shrieking, crying or shouting.
- Slander: Abusive language, or slowness to give someone credit.
- Insults: Suggesting your brother is worthless, heedless, absurd, a fool or completely without morals.
- Holding a grudge: Guarding or cherishing your anger.
- Bitterness: Harshness and resentfulness, which acts like poison.
- Hatred: Seeing your neighbor as an enemy, viewing him with distaste.
- Malice: A desire to injure someone.
- Revenge: Taking on the vengeance that belongs to God.
Here’s the biblical antidote for resentment and frustration: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault.” Matthew 18:15-22 You should “reason frankly with [him], lest you incur sin because of him.” Leviticus 19:16-18 While ultimately conviction comes from the Holy Spirit, sometimes we cooperate in bringing a brother’s error to the light and potentially opening his heart to God’s redemptive work. John 16:7-8; 1 John 1:5-10
In the School of Conflict
We are the oldest of eight siblings. Not only has growing up in a large family provided us with a microcosm of the conflict styles and issues we expect to meet later in life, but God has used our family dynamics to teach us some very personal lessons.
Once upon a time, I found myself as a confidante to one of my younger sisters, and eventually a bridge of communication between her and my parents during a difficult time in their relationship. She confided in me; my parents came to me wondering how she was doing. I didn’t want to compromise my sister’s confidence in me or my parents’ trust. I tried to explain each side to the other, but the result was confusion and frustration. I felt just like the proverbial crazy man who grabs a dog by the ears. Proverbs 26:17 It got so bad that I remember a conversation with both parties ending in my crying so hard I got a bloody nose.
Interfering causes as many problems as it tries to solve. You will never relay the message exactly right. You may even become a crutch, meaning they will never learn to communicate clearly or to solve their own problems. Acting as a go-between is a dangerous situation — for you as well as for the other people. If it has to happen, recognize that it is temporary, and consider yourself expendable in the communication process. Have the attitude that you are working yourself out of a job. I remember the day I got booted from the job, actually by my sister. It was hard, but so relieving.
I have been so blessed with deep and abiding friendships. Perhaps because I know the treasure such a relationship is, simply observing the loss of trust and understanding between close friends or family members (whether in books, movies or real life) causes me intense pain. And yet there have been seasons in my life when a sister or friend was so wrapped up in some internal battle that she simply could not respond to me. Sometimes she wasn’t ready to address the issue between us; sometimes the issue wasn’t about me at all.
It’s hard to live with unresolved conflict, but God’s love has long, long patience. With it, I can accept silence and distance because I care more about my sister’s healing than my own legitimate needs. It means a willingness to live with mystery: worrying without the relief of knowing how she is doing, committing her to God’s to care over and over again. Love means that I allow my sister to be human, keeping no record of wrongs, shortcomings, or unmet expectations. It means accepting the fact that unity doesn’t mean identical thinking, and realizing that I don’t always know best.
Within the body of Christ, conflict is not a negotiation in which we eke out benefits to others. It is not a call to become a doormat, nor a contest to see who will win. It is a battle against all that tries to steal the unity God gave us. We fight (because fight we must!) with this in mind: You are worth the effort. You are a part of me, because both of us are part of Him.
The unseen third person in all our fights has been Jesus. It’s a three-fold cord that is not quickly broken, and it’s His presence in our relationship that keeps me from giving up on my relationship with my sister. Ecclesiastes 4:12 But He needs to be more than just a third party: We both need to look to Him as the central player, expecting Him and Him alone to have a solution.
The longer you’ve been fighting for the health of a relationship, the more sure you may be that it is hopeless. You may even be correct — but Jesus is the wild card. He changes everything.
You won’t know what He can do until you invite Him in.
Copyright 2013 Elisabeth Adams and Kate Adams. All rights reserved.