By Jeff Mingee
Our world is increasingly marked with conflict — about COVID, politics, theology, and more. Too often, that conflict creeps into our own lives, as well.
For the believer, conflict is a recognized part of the framework through which we view the world. We acknowledge the goodness of creation and of our Creator. And we understand conflict as a result of rebellion against our Creator. Every earthly conflict, whether it’s in our neighborhood or in our nation, is an echo of an eternal conflict which began when sin entered the world. We understand that Adam and Eve’s sin, and our following sin, thrust us into an arena that is marked with conflict. Indeed, enmity exists between the serpent and the Savior (Genesis 3:15) as well as between brothers (Genesis 4:8). We interpret conflict in light of the cross and resurrection of Christ. And we endure conflict knowing that one day God will make wars to cease (Psalm 46:9).
So, what’s a believer to do in conflict? Here are three ways believers can think about conflict:
1. Trust that God is at work.
Paul’s short letter to Philemon is perhaps his most intimate. The great apostle penned this letter to a current church leader to call for reconciliation with his runaway slave, Onesimus. When Philemon found himself face-to-face with his former slave after reading Paul’s plea for forgiveness, would the church leader inflict justice or extend mercy?
Paul points out that God is at work both in Philemon as an individual and in the conflict. He writes to Philemon, “I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you” (Philemon 7). He affirms God’s work in Philemon as he celebrates Philemon’s refreshing ministry towards the saints. And then Paul writes, “For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while; that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother” (Philem.on15-16). Paul affirms God’s work in the conflict. Paul invites Philemon to recognize that God has been at work in him, and he encourages Philemon to see that God is at work in this conflict.
When you find yourself in conflict, whether it’s in a family room or a social media post, trust the grace of God and the work of God in both the conflict and the conflicted. God is at work. He is at work in the situation and in the individual, even in conflict. And your conflict does not derail his sovereignty in the moment or his grace in those involved.
Even if the person with whom you are in conflict is not a believer, you can—and should—affirm the image of God in them.
2. See others as they are in Christ.
Even if the person with whom you are in conflict is not a believer, you can—and should—affirm the image of God in them. The disposition of the Christian heart leans towards reconciliation and honors the image of God in every person. Conflict does not negate God’s image.
When you are in conflict with another believer, you must fight to see that person as they are in Christ not just as they are in your conflict. Their disagreement with you does not undo the redemption that Christ has accomplished for them. Nor does it put you in a moral high-ground from which you can point out their flaws and ignore their graces. Even if you are right, you ought not treat others wrong.
Consider how Paul saw the Corinthian believers. With full knowledge of the many corrections that Paul was going to include in his words to them, Paul writes,
In every way you were enriched in Christ in all speech and all knowledge—even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed in you‑so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. (1 Corinthians 1:4-9)
How could Paul write those words to those people? Because he saw them as they were in Christ, not merely as they were in their conflict.
3. Remember how God forgave you.
Conflict ruins our clean orthodoxy and confronts our confessions of faith. It challenges what we say we believe. But conflict can also drive you to the gospel. Your conflict with others should remind you of how you came to be at peace with God.
To the Ephesians Paul wrote, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32). Yes, Paul wanted them to be at peace with one another.
When you feel the pain of relational dissonance, be reminded of the extent to which God went to be at peace with you. When you come face to face with conflict, let the conflict of this world remind you of the Creator of this world and of his kindness to you in Christ.