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How do human beings deal with conflict?
From the way we act, you might conclude that human beings don’t actually deal with conflict.
Whenever a conflict rears its head, we respond in one of two ways:
(1) Fight We insist on being the wronged party and we demand restitution.
For example: Person A hears that Person B was gossiping about them to others. They become rightfully upset. Person B, however, says that they’re just telling others the truth about Person A—who does break many of God’s commandments. Both Person A and Person B are in the right and in the wrong, but neither will admit to their own fault. Eventually, Person A and Person B refuse to speak with one another because neither “will listen to common sense.”
(2) Flight We pretend not to be hurt or upset by an action to avoid conflict.
Example: Person B says something that Person A thinks is offensive. Rather than talk to Person B, Person A decides to “be the bigger man” and not tell Person B they were offended. Later, however, Person A makes several off-hand comments about Person B to other people, and asks their pastor for prayer. They never tell Person B about the problem.
Note that neither of these responses address or resolve a conflict—both are equally ineffective! How, then, do we resolve conflict?
As Christians, our immediate thought should be of Matthew 18:15-20, where Christ spells out the process of reconciliation. We should take care when we read this passage. Our natural tendency is to translate this passage into the following list of commands:
☐ “Tell [your brother] his fault” (Matthew 18:15)
☐ “Take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses” (Matthew 18:16)
☐ “Tell the church” (Matthew 18:17)
☐ “Let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matthew 18:17)
There is nothing wrong with the list (each of its commands are taken directly from the scripture). What is wrong, however, is when we hurriedly check each box after a half-hearted attempt to do the step. For example, if Person A approaches Person B, tells them what they did wrong, leaves when Person B disagrees with them, and marks the box complete, then Person A fundamentally misunderstands the scripture.
This is probably because person A is asking questions such as, “How does this scripture relate to my situation?”, “What does this scripture say about my life?” and “What does this scripture command me to do?” By asking these questions, Person A overlooks not only the context of this passage but also its purpose: revealing the character of God.
Matthew 18:15-20 fits snugly between Matthew 18:10-14 (The Parable of the Lost Sheep) and Matthew 18:21-35 (The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant) (two passages that are also frequently read out of context). When all three are read together, we see the image of a God who not only “[leaves] the ninety-nine [sheep] on the mountain to search for the one that went astray,” (Matthew 18:12-13) but who also requires us to do likewise (Matthew 18:32-33). When Jesus tells us that we are to go to our brothers in private, he does not mean to do so once and move on. He does not want us to go to our brother only seven times, “but seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:22)!
Essentially Jesus is saying: “If you have a conflict with someone, it is your responsibility to work through this conflict in private—until your brother refuses to work things through with you.” We must note two things here. First, Jesus does not present us with advice about conflict resolution; he is commanding us to follow these instructions. That means that these instructions should hold just as much weight as the Ten Commandments (or the command that encompasses all of them: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31)). Refusing to follow these instructions is a sin of which we must repent.
Second, the scripture does not say, “If you have a conflict, consult a spiritual counselor, spouse, or friend.” Jesus explicitly says to speak to the person with whom you have the conflict. By taking our conflict first to a counselor, spouse, or friend, we are showing God that we trust human advice more than we trust his Holy Spirit—even if we’re just asking our pastor to pray for us. If we attempt to work the conflict out in private, we are forced to rely on the Holy Spirit to work things through, and the Holy Spirit isn’t partial to any party. In fact, the Holy Spirit has a way of convicting both parties of sins before the conflict has been resolved.
One thing we often overlook when in this passage is that Jesus never says that we are “right” or we are owed an apology. Rather, he tells us, the more important thing is for us to privately bring our hurt to the brother and for them to listen or hear us out. Jesus goes on to say that, “if two of you on earth agree about anything, it shall be done for you by my Father in heaven” (Matthew 18:19). There is no power when Christians disagree, but when we agree, all of heaven is moved.
Remember, the most important thing is not to convince our brother that we are right. Ultimately, we are fallen human beings—if we know ourselves, we know that our own self-interest shades our thoughts of right and wrong more than a little. It is not our truth that we need to confront our brother with, but the Lord’s truth: the Nicene Creed, trusted creeds, and Scripture. This is why we are instructed to bring witnesses in when our brother refuses to listen to us: not to convince the brother of our truth, but of the Lord’s truth. After all, Christians are not held accountable for testifying to your character, but God’s character.
Furthermore, even if we are right, it is better for us to lose our pride and reputation than to lose our brother or sister. As Philippians 2:3-4 says, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or empty pride, but in humility consider others more important than yourselves.” Why should you humble yourself on behalf of your brother? Because, much like the king humbled himself to take on the debts of his servant, Jesus “humbled himself by being obedient to death—even death on a cross” so that you might be won (Philippians 2:8)—and you are expected to do likewise.
The human mantra is: Wherever two or three are gathered, there is bound to be a conflict. God never denies this; rather he chooses to be present in these very situations—if you let him. The important thing to note here is that God isn’t just another person. There isn’t you, your enemy, and God. When you and your enemy come together, God chooses to be present through both you and your enemy. Despite the tears, the screams, and the insults, God promises to be present.
God’s promise (“if two of you on earth agree about anything, it shall be done for you”) is contingent upon the verse immediately after it (“where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am, also”) (Matthew 18:20). This means that God isn’t simply rewarding two people because they have managed to agree. People can agree on all sorts of ungodly things! When we have conflicts with one another over matters of our own personal hurt, our focusing on the character of God rather than our own gain or loss is what guarantees that heaven is moved. This is always why working through conflict is important.
If we are in a conflict and think, “This conflict is hopeless and unnecessary; it is better if we just terminate the relationship,” then we are breaking Christ’s body apart. We are destroying the image of Christ for our own sake. In a way, this action is just as bad as Paul’s persecution of Christians. Jesus could just as aptly say to us, “Why are you persecuting me?”
Furthermore, when we choose not to follow these commands, we are ignoring the fact that Christ did, and continues to do, all of these things for us. As fallen human beings, we continue to fall short of his commands. Every day, we do some wrong—and yet Jesus never breaks away from us. Instead, he died for us—despite having every right to abandon us or demand recompense.
In Matthew 5:9, Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” These peacemakers aren’t the people who “won arguments”, “held fast to ‘the truth’”, or “had no conflicts.” They are the people who continued to go back to their enemies in private, the people who considered their brother more important than their own pride, and who did all this knowing that Christ had done it all before them. Let us then be peacemakers, for it is the peacemakers who are “called children of God.”