You know the feeling. The sour taste in your mouth. The heavy feeling in your heart. That unpleasant aura of conflict that everything in you wants to avoid.
It’s so much easier to talk about nice things, and comment on the weather and the playoffs, than to embrace the awkward moment and actually address the elephant in the room.
We’re quick to believe the lie that if we just avoid the conflict, or at least minimize it, then it will diminish over time and eventually go away. But wisdom speaks a different word. Sure, there are offenses we can forebear and personal frustrations we can get over, but interpersonal conflict doesn’t go away with inattention. It festers. It deepens. It curdles.
Conflict Is Inevitable
Relational conflict is not something that should surprise us as Christians. We need not be ashamed that it exists, and that we’re involved. We should expect it. The world is complicated and fallen, and we are complicated creatures, and fallen. Conflicts will come. They are unavoidable.
And yes, conflict is inevitable in the church as well. Christians often have conflict with each other — true, genuine, faithful Christians. The question is not whether conflicts will come, but how we will handle them.
In the healthiest churches, the leadership doesn’t announce, “There will be no conflicts here; that’s not how we do things.” Rather, the message will be that when conflicts do arise, we won’t run from them. We won’t neglect to address them head-on. We can’t afford not to.
Occasion for Grace
One reason that avoiding conflict is such a problem is precisely because it worsens with negligence. It doesn’t just go away.
But another reason is that it cuts us off from the most significant opportunities for grace. This is the way God does his deepest work in a world like ours. Not when things are peachy keen, not when all seems right with the world, not when times are easy. It’s the toughest times, the hardest conversations, the most painful relational tensions, when the light of his grace shines brightest, and transforms us most into his Son’s likeness.
The highpoints of the history of God’s people are accounts not of fleeing conflict, but moving toward it in hope, believing God will be at work in the tension, pain, and mess. Such is the story of the prophets —Moses with the stubborn people he refused to give up on; Elijah at Carmel squaring off against Baal; the embattled Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel brought into increasing conflict, seemingly at every oracle, with a hard-hearted people they were commissioned to serve.
And so it was with the apostles. When tensions emerged in the fledgling church between Hebrews and Greeks, they dealt with disunity quickly and did not let it fester. God had a gift to give these young believers in Acts 6 — seven newly appointed leaders to serve the people’s needs — and it came not through shying away from conflict, but through straightforwardly tackling their troubles. And when conflict arose again along the same fault lines, this time over circumcision, the apostle Paul didn’t avoid or neglect it, but traveled to Jerusalem to address it in person (Acts 15:2).
For Gospel Advance
Then, when Peter’s lapse in judgment at Antioch separated him from Gentile believers, “fearing the circumcision party” (Galatians 2:12), again Paul moved toward the conflict, not away. “I opposed him to his face,” he said (Galatians 2:11), and with it, Peter and the gospel witness in Antioch were restored.
The life of Paul, we might say, became a series of one conflict after another — and each one a catalyst for the ongoing progress of grace. He wrote to the Philippians about “the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have” (Philippians 1:30) — a conflict, which he says, “really served to advance the gospel” (Philippians 1:12).
And he recounted to the Thessalonians how not cowering from conflict was essential to the gospel coming to them. “Though we had already suffered and been shamefully treated at Philippi, as you know, we had boldness in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in the midst of much conflict” (1 Thessalonians 2:2). His thirteen letters are a tribute to the fact that he wasn’t afraid to address emerging conflict and see what good God had in store for his people in it.
The Pattern of Christ
And of course, our most compelling emblem of not shying away from conflict, but turning to take it head-on, is the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame (Hebrews 12:2).
The trajectory of Jesus’s life was toward need, and inevitably toward conflict, not away. He set his face like flint to go to Jerusalem, to the great conflict at Calvary, to rescue us from our greatest conflict, eternal separation from God because of the rebellion of our sin against him.
And so being saved by him, we Christians, “little christs,” learn increasingly to follow in his steps, empowered by his Spirit, to move toward conflict, toward need, toward pain, toward tension, looking past the imposing awkwardness and difficulty that lies before us to the promise of joy on the other side.
The Lord’s Servant in Conflict
Which doesn’t mean we become bull-headed and pugnacious and develop a penchant for a good fight. Rather, our gospel-thickened skin frees us to lean in — with kindness, patience, and gentleness — to the caldrons of conflict that would otherwise send us running. We take on the heart and posture of “the Lord’s servant” who “must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness” (2 Timothy 2:24–25).
And as we consider that hard and scary conversation that needs to happen — to gently remove the speck from our brother’s eye, to address the elephant in the room — we acknowledge our weakness. In ourselves, we are unable to address this conflict with intentionality and kindness. But this we couple with a prayer for his strength. And we move forward in faith, knowing that if tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, and sword cannot separate us from the love of Christ (Romans 8:35), then neither can conflict. No matter how tense. No matter how intimidating.
For the Christian, conflict is not something to avoid or ignore. It is an opportunity for the triumph of grace.