Have you ever experienced the rather odd moment when you sit in a counseling session with a couple and ask, “What brought you here today?” After a slight pause, both of them, intentionally, stare at the other. Their glances assert a belief that the other person is the problem. So each person begins to devise a plan on how best to change the other while offering a defense of his/her own innocence. This type of blaming is what brought them to sit in the office in the first place, and the finger pointing only makes matters messier.
So how do we approach such conflict? Are the individuals at a stalemate left to jockey for position? Are coercion and manipulation the only way forward in the relationship? Scripture offers wisdom on how best to handle conflict in a way that leads to reconciliation and spiritual growth.
When conflict occurs—and rest assured, with two sinners living in close proximity, conflict is inevitable—our natural bent is to attack the other person. We think if we can get the other person to change, our problems will go away. In fact, when a relationship goes awry, the first person we often examine is not ourselves. Unfortunately, our attempts to eliminate conflict are unsuccessful because we are looking in the wrong direction for the remedy.
James 4:1-3 identifies the root of the conflict. He says the source of quarrels and conflicts is our own selfish desires. The first person we should examine in conflict is our own self.
Jesus explains in Matthew 7:1-5 how to handle offenses within relationships. Rather than believe our interpersonal problems are sociological in nature (simply between two people), we must realize they are first and primarily theological (between the person in conflict and God).
Often, the first assignment I give to a couple having relationship difficulties is to write a “log list.” Each spouse must write a list of his/her sinful offenses, past and present, in the context of their marriage. The list encourages them to contemplate their own faults in the relationship instead of blaming and exploiting the failures of their spouse.
Jesus, in Matthew 7, instructs us to focus on the log in our own eye. He is telling us that our view of one another, especially in conflict, is distorted by our own faults. The only way we can effectively see is to do a bit of self-examination.
We usually do not mind comparing ourselves to others. We can always find someone who we think has more faults than we do. However, using someone else as the standard for examination does not drive us to the depth of our personal struggle with sin.
The only way we can properly remove the log in our eye is by peering into the perfect law of liberty (James 1:25). The law is a mirror that can reveal and discern the depths of our thoughts and intentions (Hebrews 4:12). We must be reminded that God will judge us by this law (James 2:12). Obviously, being judged by God’s law is a pretty bleak picture for us. Knowing we do not have a righteousness of our own enables us to recall the grace and mercy demonstrated by God in forgiving us through the work of Christ.
Once the depths of Christ’s redemption are applied to our past and present flaws, assurance of His forgiveness and mercy has the power to transform our minds. The truths from God’s Word confront the logs in our eye and empower a transformation of mind through repentance and obedience. In turn, the couple is challenged to live with this mind that was also in Christ (Philippians 2:5). We are called with this same mind to “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4).
As the couple returns in a subsequent session, I ask them for their “log list.” I try to help them realize they can only change one person in the relationship, and that one person is not their spouse. As I walk them through the process of repentance for their own logs, it opens the couple’s eyes toward the forgiveness of God in Christ. When one realizes the depth of forgiveness granted by God for his/her sins, that same person is compelled to have compassion and mercy on others (Matthew 18:21-35).
I then proceed to walk them through some significant passages on forgiveness (Matthew 6:14-15, Matthew 18:21-35, and Ephesians 4:32). These passages challenge us to forgive one another in the same way that God has forgiven us. Often, couples use each other as standards of forgiveness. In other words, the husband may forgive his wife if she forgives him of a previous offense. But the other person is not the standard; God’s forgiveness to us in Christ is the measuring stick for our forgiveness to others (Ephesians 4:32).
None of these exercises minimizes the conflict. In fact, this method meets the conflict head-on with God’s remedy of forgiveness and sacrificial love within the relationship. This is real love because we cannot truly love until we have experienced the deep love of God, even though we are undeserving.
Conflicts in relationships, if handled in a biblical fashion, can lead to true reconciliation and spiritual growth. The Holy Spirit heals couples as they humble themselves by confronting their personal sin. Reconciliation occurs as each person offers forgiveness to his/her spouse flowing from a heart forgiven by Christ. Spiritual growth is fostered as the couple chooses to die to their own desires and love the other person in spite of his/her flaws, even when the spouse is underserving. Each individual intentionally chooses to crucify his/her fleshly desires to retaliate for the sake of obedience as an act of worship to God. Relationships are messy, and we should employ the Gospel, as God designed it, to conquer conflict and the destruction caused by our sinful selfish tendencies.