It is inevitable. At some point, probably soon, you will encounter some form of conflict in ministry. Maybe it will come in the form of a disagreement among your elders, pastors, or deacons. Conflict may arise from a misunderstanding between you and your spouse. It could be that there are a few sandpaper-people in your life, and when they come around, discord follows behind them. It is not a matter of if, but when. Conflict will come.
Conflict exists at varying levels of intensity, from disagreements and misunderstandings to raised voices and knock-down, drag-out fights. Sometimes we know conflict is coming, and other times conflict surprises us. The question is not, “Will I have conflict?” The question is, “When I have conflict, how will I respond?” I do not always respond well to conflict, but over time I have learned when I remember the God of the gospel, I approach conflict with less trepidation and more confidence in God’s ability to work through it.
Heart-Orienting Truths to Remember When Facing Conflict
Here are three heart-orienting truths I try to remember whenever I face some sort of conflict:
1. God will get glory through this conflict.
I know myself, and when conflict arises, all I tend to think about is the potential for the conflict to go sideways. But that is only the case as long as I keep my eyes on the issue in front of me and not the God who is watching over me. Rather than travel down all the well-worn paths in my mind of how things could go wrong, I am continuing to learn the peace that comes from anchoring my heart in the unchanging nature of God. Nothing surprises him. Nothing can overthrow his purposes.
The inevitability of conflict in a fallen world does not preclude the possibility of God being glorified through it. The conflict in front of you is a real opportunity to entrust yourself to God and be faithful. Begin with the end goal of the glory of God in mind. If reconciliation is achieved, this conflict will become a testimony to the reconciling power of the gospel.
2. God will make me more like Jesus through this conflict.
One of my favorite Scriptures is Romans 8:28–29. This passage reminds me of the purpose for which God works all things in my life for good — my conformation into the image of his Son. I love how Paul uses the word “Son” in this text because it highlights what I should have in mind when I think about how God uses conflict to transform me. He is not merely working through conflict to make us more resilient, give us tougher skin, or make us mentally stronger. The goal of the transformation is to make us look more like our brother and His Son, Jesus. The “golden chain” that follows in Rom 8:29–30 promises a glorious end. As a part of the family of God, I can have a future hope in the present tension conflict drops on my lap.
But for now, we have to remember that our present imitation of Jesus should look like humility rather than a display of worldly glory. Conflict offers the opportunity to grow hard or to grow humble — and humility looks more like Jesus. Imitating the humility of Jesus is the one thing needful in conflict, large or small. I have to remain humble in conflict because I’m rarely completely without fault or need for improvement. God can use conflict to reveal our pride, highlight our finiteness, and humble our arrogance. He can use conflict to demonstrate how we have been divisive, negligent, uncaring, and ultimately self-centered. When God drags these things into the light, and I run to Jesus as my Substitute and Savior, conflict turns into a soul-transforming tool in the hand of God.
3. God will build up his body through this conflict.
Conflict in the body of Christ has the potential to grow the body stronger. Through strenuous strength training, stress is introduced to the muscles that break down the muscle to some extent. As the body repairs the muscle, it grows in strength and size. In the first few years, new strength athletes can increase their muscle mass quickly — often called “beginner gains.” But through years of training, as the muscles get used to the strain of the weight, it is harder and harder to damage the muscle.
Conflict creates the possibility for growth. As new relationships form, those first few conflicts are crucial. How we handle those can determine the trajectory of the relationship. If we are truly “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3), to serve and love the brother or sister with whom we are at odds, we can expect God to build us up together into a stronger body. The more frequently we train ourselves and the church to deal with conflict well, we will be all the more ready to look to Jesus when a fresh conflict is dropped on our shoulders.
The Final Word
We do not have to view conflict as the plague to be avoided at all costs. Though relational rifts in a fallen world are to be expected, Christ has made us new creations; therefore, we do not surrender the final word to division and broken relationships. When we think this way, we tend to put off conversations that need to be had for too long. The distance between the conflict and the resolution increases, and it provides space for bitterness to grow like gangrene. The final word can be a word of reconciliation. Not even the worst of conflicts is outside of the redeeming power of Jesus Christ.
I have been working to shift my mindset when conflict arises—from avoidance to embrace. If we truly believe that God brings reconciliation to separation, which is what he has accomplished ultimately through the person of Jesus, then we can approach conflict with a hopeful realism, anticipating what God can do through it.
If the gospel of Jesus can bring reconciliation between a rebel sinner like me and an infinitely holy God, it can most certainly bring reconciliation between the children of God. Whether we are in the middle of the conflict, or an outside observer, we can trust that God is in the business of bringing glory to himself through broken things, making his children look more like Jesus, and strengthening his body. We can be hopeful, even in the midst of conflict.