There are few things more exhausting than conflict. Navigating conflict can feel like trying to get out of a corn maze wearing a blindfold, and the aftermath of an intense disagreement or fight can leave you feeling wrung out like a washcloth.
As a pastor and counselor, I find helping people deal with conflict to be one of the more challenging ministry endeavors. The greater the number of thoughts, desires, and experiences in play, the more complicated the situation. And while there are a lot of factors that contribute to conflict and threaten peace, one stands out above the rest.
Identifying the Culprit
Simply put, it’s pride. Maybe you were looking for something more profound? To be fair, a straightforward answer doesn’t mean an uncomplicated answer. It’s easy to say, “pride is the problem!” One could argue that pride is at the center of all sinfulness. While it might be easy to identify pride, it’s harder to pinpoint the specific ways pride is manifested. Experiencing relational harmony where self-importance and self-focus exist will be like trying to find water in a desert. Click To Tweet
For instance, pride can look like self-focus. Our eyes can be so fixed and focused on ourselves that we miss what’s going on with others. A high-stress job can leave us feeling like we have to shove everything aside to complete tasks and be successful. Your spouse longs for even a small amount of your time to discuss important personal or family matters, but she gets inattentiveness and impatience. You don’t have time for her because what’s happening with you is more important. Surely she can wait, right? Why can’t she understand how busy you are? Experiencing relational harmony where self-importance and self-focus exist will be like trying to find water in a desert.
Two Kinds of Wisdom
James 3:13–18 is one of the most helpful passages for understanding and responding to relational conflict. In these verses, James compares two kinds of wisdom—the wisdom from above and the “wisdom” of the earth. Notice how earthly wisdom is described: “But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice” (3:14–16).
Jealousy and selfish ambition are two manifestations of pride. They’re the operating system—or wisdom—of the world. Jealousy hardens us toward others when they have what we want (and think we deserve). Selfish ambition bulldozes innocent bystanders in an attempt to benefit self above all else. Those who operate with the “wisdom” of the earth stir up strife, cause division, and leave a wake of burdens and brokenness in their path. In other words, they do the devil’s work for him.
Better Skills or More Spirit?
Couples often tell me their marital issues revolve around poor or underdeveloped communication. “If we could just learn to communicate better, our marriage would improve.” I don’t doubt that learning to communicate in healthier ways could improve problems in marriage. But if we aren’t careful, prioritizing skills could be an exercise in putting the cart before the horse. What good is a tool if you don’t know how to use it?
Let’s say someone gave you a brand new, manual transmission vehicle. Great! There’s only one problem—you don’t know how to drive a stick. What’s going to happen if you take it out on the highway? You’ll likely destroy it and possibly cause damage to others in the process. Those who operate with the “wisdom” of the earth stir up strife, cause division, and leave a wake of burdens and brokenness in their path. In other words, they do the devil’s work for him. Click To Tweet
Communication skills will only be effective if they’re empowered by the Holy Spirit. In reality, many of the taught communication skills are simply the natural overflow of the Spirit God has given us. How would you describe a good listener? Someone who prioritizes the person who is speaking? Someone who listens without interrupting? Someone who thoughtfully responds when appropriate?
Are prioritizing others, listening without interrupting, and responding appropriately skills we need to develop? Perhaps. But I would argue that love, patience, and kindness equip us to prioritize others, listen well, and respond appropriately. What happens when we lack love, patience, and kindness for others? Conflict? Relational discord? Disunity? Yes, yes, and yes. Relational harmony is threatened, first and foremost, by our sin, not our lack of skill.
Take the Person-Over-Problem Approach
One faulty approach to conflict resolution is an over-emphasis on the problem and an under-emphasis on the other person. It’s understandable—we think if we can solve the problem, we can end the conflict. But people are more important than problems.
When you go into problem-solving mode, it’s easy to lose sight of the other person. They can become an obstacle in your problem-solving pursuits. Instead of focusing primarily on finding the solution, let the wisdom of James 3 guide your approach: “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace” (3:17–18).
Notice how this wisdom is others-oriented. It rejects self-focused attitudes and desires and pursues peace. It is gentle and reasonable. Those who navigate conflict with godly wisdom lead with love, are self-controlled, and sow seeds of righteousness wherever they go.
Whether navigating your own conflict or helping others with theirs, may the wisdom from above guard you against pride and equip you to love others like Christ.