In September of 2023, The Owen Center hosted a community event to help people understand the biblical framework for dealing with personal conflict. Below is a summary of the answers given by our counselors during the panel discussion. If you would like to read a transcript of Dr. Gary Spooner’s lecture at the beginning of the event, you can find it here.
1. How do you handle conflict with someone who refuses to talk about it or denies there is a problem?
It can be a lonely place when you find yourself in a conflict where the other party involved seems unaware of it or flat-out denies there is a problem. This can lead you to feel alone, misunderstood, and even crazy at times. You ask, “Why can’t they see their sin in this?” “Why do they not seem to care that I am bothered or hurt?” “Am I crazy, or am I wrong?” These are all understandable questions, yet they might lead you into acting out of emotion, cultivating resentment, avoidance, blame-shifting, or apathy. One guarantee is that these responses will certainly not help the current situation. As Christians, we must seek another option that glorifies God over self.
Matthew 18:16-17 advises that if you go to a brother who has sinned against you and he does not listen, take one or two more people along with you that others may witness his denial. If he still denies it, then you go to the church with the conflict. This is a helpful playbook of what we as Christians are supposed to do, but to do this in a God-glorifying and loving way.
This comes by us seeking counsel from a trusted source of truth, ensuring you have a proper understanding of the conflict. Do you see all of the factors? Every situation will be impacted by many things: yourself, sin, brokenness, others, environment, God, Satan, past, future, and so on. Do you have a full understanding of all of the impacts? If yes, what does God think about your conduct within this conflict? These are the important questions we must ask ourselves before bringing a conflict to the attention of those who have hurt us. If you believe yourself to be truly innocent and respond in a holy way, then you are on the path to a Christ-like response. If you are guilty and responding in a negative, self-serving way, the situation will likely only worsen. Reach out to those you trust to seek counsel. If those you trust are the ones you are in conflict with, schedule a biblical counseling consultation to have an unbiased third party objectively look at the situation from a biblical lens. This is only the beginning of pursuing peace.
2. If respect is something to be recognized in a person, how do you recognize respect in someone who might be abusive?
What has really changed my willingness to relate to a person whose speech or posture is overbearing or abusive is the truth of the image of God. God has endowed every person with the dignity of His image. We crack and smear it, but it remains, fundamentally in place. I want to press through to the good of that; to see it and to relate to it even if the other person has no idea that it’s there! The truth of the image of God gives me bold freedom to engage anyone.
However, there are some who use words to intentionally hurt us and it is the image of God in me that justifies disengagement from such people. No one is required to stand and accept a barrage of demeaning words or actions. You must, then, set boundaries for conversation or in some cases, find a safe place away from the abusive person. Strategic separation can, at times, awaken an abuser to the violence of words or actions and seek help. The ultimate goal is the rescue of the abuser by promoting repentance from sin, faith in the Lord Jesus and the obedience of personal and relationship restoration.
3. What about power differentials where it might not be abusive, but conflict is still prevalent?
When counseling adolescents, I always encourage them to speak with their parents about the conflict they are going through with them and to do so in such a way as to not be overly emotional. I encourage them to move towards their parents in love and to be quick to listen and slow to speak—always reminding themselves that their parents operate from a posture of love. When the parents create certain boundaries for the adolescent, it most often out of love for them (this is only applicable when it is coming from a healthy household dynamic—not in cases of abuse).
Conflict is challenging in the family dynamic because teens often believe that they do not have a voice in the midst of conflict, which at times may be the case. They may have proven themselves to be untrustworthy, or unreliable, due to certain circumstances. I will often remind them that they are called to obey their parents for this pleases the Lord (Col 3:20), however, there is a way to respectfully disagree and respectfully open the door for a further conversation on a particular topic of debate and frustration with their parents, while still obeying them. Sometimes, I will remind the teens that honoring their parents is the first command within the Ten Commandments that also has a blessing attached—it is not always easy to honor, but the Lord sees and he will bless those that strive to honor their father and mother (Ex 20:12; Deut 5:16).
Responding with maturity and grace is hard for some of us adults at times, which is why Colossians 3:20 on the importance of a child’s obedience is followed by Colossians 3:21—”Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.” As adults, we are called to not drive our children, or adolescents, towards anger, which implies a need to be gentle with them. There are times where we will need to be firm and lay down a particular boundary, but if we are willing to listen to our teen, it will go a long way in helping to build a better relationship with them because they will see our desire to move towards them in love. In us striving to listen well, we will affirm to our child, or adolescent, that we love and care for them deeply.
For further reading on this topic, the Tripp brothers have two great resources: Shepherding a Child’s Heart and Age of Opportunity: A Biblical Guide to Parenting Teens.
4. Say a close family member has a mental disorder, such as bipolar, borderline, or depression. How do you deal with them when conflict arises?
A person with a mental disorder needs a lot. But, you may not be able to give it. Pray. Get help from a friend/third party to maintain your position as a helper, not sole comforter, supplier, friend, etc.
Relate to individuals according to their condition. In the same way that you speak with young children differently than adults, those with mental or emotional disorders are addressed according to the disorder. The most important practice in such situations is listening and empathizing. If your views threaten a disordered person with either distance or assertion, the conversation is no longer about your views but about your relationship. Be willing to move the freight of truth over a relational bridge of trust — and that could take time, maybe a long time, but it’s time worth it.
Two “ditches” run alongside the road of mental disorder:
a.) go along with the person, give in, allow abusive words and actions, etc., and b.) return abusive words and actions, etc. Neither is biblical because both center on you, rather than on Christ, the merciful one, the Helper.
Of course, the range and severity of mental disorders are impossible to address in answering this question. However, the temptation to allow abuse in order to keep peace will not work, as abuse escalates. Habits of accommodation to keep the peace can easily result in the mental disorder becoming kingdom rule. Ignoring or vengeful strategies may be a self-defense mechanism (understandable). Approaches derived from God’s mercy to you and the other person require situational and long-term wisdom and the help of others to advocate for yourself and to treat the other person with dignity while maintaining your own.
5. How would you know when conflict becomes unhealthy and what should you do?
Conflict becomes unhealthy when boundaries are not honored. If continuous efforts and pursuits towards restoration lead to the enablement of behavior, and sinful responses, or if the other individual is intentionally using the conflict to cause physical harm and pain—all are indicators of unhealthy conflict. Manipulation, or continuous lying, is another indicator of unhealthy conflict, as well as abuse.
In these cases, it is necessary to bring in another witness or advocate for the safety of the individual who is being hurt or abused. Again, Matthew 18 helps indicate the process of the response. Another individual may be needed to help assess the conflict and then to call out one, or both of the individuals involved. When conflict becomes unhealthy, you should go to your church, a counselor, or another trusted friend to get further help and have another perspective. Not with the intention to gossip, but with the sole desire to seek to restore and resolve the relationship.
For further reading on this topic, Good Boundaries and Goodbyes by Lysa TerKeurst offers helpful indicators on assessing and responding to unhealthy conflict.
6. Is it biblical to set up boundaries? If so, when? What should they look like?
Boundaries are good when they are necessary but negative when they are just out of confidence. Some of you are in relationships/marriages/families in which a mental disorder seemingly rules your days and nights and threatens to take over your future. Comfort and hope seem far away, and anger–for some–may threaten to undo the threads of connection that remain.
God is merciful. His lovingkindness never fails. And yet, you may be losing, or have lost, hope of recovery for this person or for the relationship. In the threats, in the losses, it is so important to be honest about where you are in your heart in your emotions. Find a person with whom you can tell your deepest, worst, most debilitating emotions regarding the person with the mental disorder. More importantly, tell these to God, who can comfort, help you grieve, give you wisdom, be with you in the suffering. Set a boundary around these processing times, to prevent your emotions from undoing you all day long. See Lamentations 3:17-28.
7. How do we protect ourselves from self-righteousness when we are in conflict?
We must search our hearts and acknowledge that we are rarely free from wronging another in the midst of conflict. Even if what we say is right, we may need to repent of our tone, body language, avoidance, passive aggression, etc. It is always necessary to check our own hearts because, as 1 John 1:8 says: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” We may sin in our very hearts in how we respond to the conflict and we must bring that before the Lord. We must repent openly and honestly before him. David Powlison, helpfully states in Safe and Sound: Standing Firm in Spiritual Battles, “In our culture, anger and bitterness are often psychologized—as if the problem only exists in you. But it exists between people. Conflict is by definition, interpersonal. It is not just a psychological problem; it is a relational problem between you and God, and between you and other people” (p. 50). It is a relational problem, dealing with the dynamic between sinful people, which is why we know and must acknowledge that the likelihood of our perfect innocence in any situation is unlikely. We all make mistakes, and we all sin, which is why there is a continuous need to check our own hearts and determine where we may need to draw near to the Lord and confess the wrong responses of our hearts in the midst of conflict. This act of continually bringing ourselves before the Lord is what will help us to guard ourselves from the tendency towards self-righteousness in the midst of hard conflict.
8. What is the difference between peacekeeping and peacemaking?
The peace-at-any-price person may be motivated by comfort to an unhealthy degree. Peace is nice, but it is not really peace if more important values are sacrificed in its attainment. For example, a husband may speak abusive words at his wife. She puts up with it, maybe because of a false notion that doing so makes her a faithful wife. In the process, the dignity, beauty, and possibilities of an intimate covenant marriage are sacrificed.
In contrast, peacemaking out of love appeals to the wisdom of God (James 3:18) with a recognition of higher purposes. A wise approach to conflict requires relational humility (see Philippians 2:5-8), but not emotional suicide in order to keep peace with the other person.
9. From a mediator’s perspective, how do you handle conflict between others (such as a parent dealing with sibling rivalry, a roommate dealing with roommates, or a person dealing with co-workers)?
From the mediator’s point of view, never get in between the disputing parties. Scripture teaches that a peacemaker coaches, and encourages from behind each person in conflict, speaking words of truth and biblical perspective. For Christians, each person in dispute is responsible for moving toward the other in humility and respect. A mediator is well armed with verses like Galatians 6:1 that encourage humility with the pursuit of peace. The mediator who gets in the middle of conflict becomes a shock absorber and get beaten up by both sides!
10. What is a biblical definition of peace? What may it look like? When should peace be given up?
Jesus himself is our peace (Eph 2:14)—He is the bringer of peace. As Gary Spooner has stated, “Christ brought us through the greatest conflict which was enduring the perfect wrath of the Father being poured out on him at the cross for our sake.” Through the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ, we have been reconciled (Col 1:20). As I am writing this, we are in the season of Advent and celebrating the reality that the Prince of Peace was born—wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger (Isaiah 9:6-7). He came to bring peace. Yet at the same time we know that he entered this world as a child in order to live and then die a gruesome death on the cross. As Isaiah 53:4-5 says, “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.” Conflict—painful, sorrowful, isolating conflict—brought about peace for God’s people because of Christ. We have been given peace by the blood of his cross (Col 1:20). In Christ we have been given an eternal, everlasting covenant of peace through the conflict he endured for our sake and for our salvation. Through Christ—conflict leads to peace.
With this in mind, we must continuously pursue wisdom in how we strive to uphold peace. Peace may look like stepping away—removing ourselves from the situation. It may look like initiating an uncomfortable conversation with another person, or a group of people. It might even necessitate the calling of a higher authority to step in like a parent, church, teacher, or the police. Peace, as it was demonstrated through Christ—came to us through conflict so we should not be surprised by the potential conflict that a pursuit of peace might involve. However, we can trust that, as the Lord is working in and through us, even the greatest conflict will ultimately lead to peace because of Christ and the hope that we have of everlasting peace with him.
11. How do we acknowledge the real emotions that arise in conflict without letting them dictate our actions and words?
If desires are the core of our emotions, then asking, “What is it I really want/feel like I have lost or am losing?”can be very helpful. For example, a young woman looks at social media on Friday night and sees she has not been included in a friends’ gathering. Understandably disappointed, she turns inward, spirals downward, and maybe gets depressed if this is habitual. In the moment (and as difficult as this strategy is!), she can ask the above questions to get to the root of her difficulty. We are ruled by what we want most; thus our emotions are swayed accordingly. In all this living, where is Life? the poet Hopkins asks. We do well to ask the same. I recommend:
—Untangling Your Emotions, Tripp and Lane
–1 John 5:11,12; Psalm 73; Proverbs 14:27, etc.
*This was a collaborative article involving contributions from all of the counselors from The Owen Center.
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