Many people would like to live totally conflict-free. Their idea of paradise is a world without any criticism, difference of opinion, argument, or debate. But this side of heaven, conflict is an unavoidable part of every person’s life. It is found at home, work, school, between friends, and yes, even in the church. That’s why we must learn to respond wisely to it.

When we are faced with a situation involving disagreement or criticism, it is helpful to begin by seeking out the cause. Generally speaking, there are four main reasons for conflict:

1. A failure to communicate clearly. When I want to make sure that another person has understood me, I’ll ask, “What is it that you heard me say? What is it that you think I meant?” Often, the person says something back to me that is not precisely right. It’s better to clarify immediately rather than let a matter proceed in error.

2. Emotional baggage and protection. Those who grow up in an abusive environment are prone to respond to life with a defensive, self-protective attitude. Any statement that comes close to sounding like the hurtful messages they heard as children are likely to trigger an angry, self-justifying response or perhaps a wall of silence. Opinions and motivations, which may be far from the truth, are projected onto the speaker.

3. Perfectionism. A genuine perfectionist cannot accept responsibility for anything that is less than faultless. Therefore, when something goes awry, the perfectionist tends to become defensive, accusatory, or angry.

4. Pride. Those who are arrogant can not admit they are wrong. They find it difficult to say “I’m sorry,” “Please forgive me,” or “I made a mistake.” This type of attitude will limit a person’s potential to grow because a significant amount of maturity comes as we learn from our mistakes. The proud person lives in a world in which he or she feels compelled to maintain a position as “number one.” Conflict with others is always a consequence.

Since conflict affects both parties, we should realistically consider its impact on us and then respond in positive ways. The apostle Paul, for example, was sorrowful and discouraged when he learned that the people would preach the gospel with a wrong motive (Phil. 1:15-17). Even so, he refused to wallow in self-pity or engage in an argument. He chose instead to see the big picture—that the gospel was being preached—and made a conscious decision to rejoice (Phil. 1:18).

Some people routinely respond to conflict in unhealthy ways:

1. Blaming and accusing others. Such individuals refuse to accept any part in the conflict.

2. Suppressing feelings. Some people deny the impact the conflict has on them.

3. Repressing emotions. Although they acknowledge the problem, they refuse to express their concerns.

These responses are often motivated by insecurity. They may stop the pain of the moment but offer no genuine resolution to the conflict. Stifled feelings don’t dissipate naturally but continue to grow. In time, bitterness or resentment will explode or manifest themselves in sickness. The possible effects include the destruction of relationships, a loss of joy, a stunting of spiritual growth, and a growing ineffectiveness in one’s ability to minister to others. So if you are dealing with conflict and criticism in a negative way, change your approach.

Make healing, growth, and resolution the goal.

Christians are to take the lead in seeking a peaceful resolution to disagreements. If you see them as an opportunity to fight for your cause, to gain vengeance, or to justify yourself, you are likely to increase the conflict rather than diffuse it. Instead, immediately ask the Lord to give you an attitude of humility and to help you make peace and personal growth your goal. Any conflict, when handled correctly, can have a positive outcome. As people discuss the reasons for their conflict, more understanding and appreciation for each other can develop. The Bible says, “As iron sharpens iron, so a man sharpens the countenance of his friend” (Prov. 27:17).

To respond wisely to conflict, you must listen carefully to the other person, avoid justifying yourself, and forgive. You should ask the Holy Spirit to give you discernment, future direction, and the ability to respond to the other person with Christ’s own character traits. Accept your part in the conflict and then change if necessary. To learn more about how to respond to conflict, please see this week’s Life Principles Notes.

A word of warning: Don’t expect resolution every time.

Will you always be able to make peace with everyone? No. Sometimes, other people simply will not reconcile with you—perhaps they’ll refuse to admit they were wrong, or they may just fail to change. You can’t control how others respond. But you can focus on your role in restoring or maintaining peace in the relationship. And when that is unwise or impossible, you can choose to walk in forgiveness rather than give in to bitterness.

A godly believer chooses to respond to disapproval and disagreements wisely, not instinctively. I encourage you to make a commitment today to respond to conflict with God’s wisdom.

By Charles F. Stanley