Resolving Interpersonal Conflicts, Part 1

Our family once visited Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. This town marks the location of a devastating battle in the American Civil War. During July 1-3 1863, the Confederate armies fought the Union armies resulting in at least 5,787 dead, 27,334 injured, and 10,612 missing or captured. [1] The various monuments to the military regiments involved in the battle give testimony of the tragic consequences of war. One display told of two brothers who were separated in life; one jointed the northern army, one joined the southern army. They both fought in the Battle of Gettysburg.

As I counsel believers suffering from personal conflicts (as in marriage, family, work and church), it makes me wonder: How does it grieve the Holy Spirit of God when His people engage in “civil war”–brother against brother, sister against sister? How can we avoid this problem? Peace is greatly needed; God’s perspective and resources can provide it. Although not exhaustive, the following five factors may alert us to some causes of conflicts and how to resolve them.

Reasons for Personal Conflicts

1. Pride

Proverbs declares, “Only by pride comes contention: but with the well advised is wisdom” (Prov.13:10). This shouldn’t surprise us. If humility opens our hearts to the grace necessary for peaceful living, then pride chokes this grace (see James 4:6).

Notice the attitude that triggered a conflict among Christ’s disciples:

“Then He came to Capernaum. And when He was in the house He asked them, ‘What was it you disputed among yourselves on the road?’ But they kept silent, for on the road they had disputed among themselves who would be the greatest. And He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘If anyone desires to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all'” (Mark 9:33-35).

We shouldn’t be surprised to discover that subtle or overt pride is a common cause of conflicts.

2. Selfishness

James rebuked those in the early church who were self-centered:

“Where do wars and fights come from among you? Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war in your members? You lust and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war… You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures” (James 4:1-3).

When Isaiah summarized sinful man’s basic tendency, he testified, “All we like sheep have gone astray; We have turned, every one, to his own way…” (Isaiah 53:6). To the extent we go our own way, conflict will surely follow.

3. Ineffective communication

Ephesians 4:29 counsels us, “Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers” (Eph. 4:29). The Psalmist gave us a good example when he prayed, “Set a guard, O LORD, over my mouth; Keep watch over the door of my lips” (Psalm 141:3).

One of the battles that Canadians glory in is their victory over American forces during the War of 1812. Although the conflict was between England and the U.S., the Americans engaged the Canadian Army in battle (in what is now southern Ontario) because of Canada’s status as a member of the British Commonwealth. Ironically, this war could have been prevented if there had been better communication. On June 18, 1812, the U.S. President James Madison signed the declaration of war. Unknown to Americans, Britain had finally, two days earlier, announced that it would revoke its orders that had restricted American naval trade. If Madison had known this, he would not have declared war. [2] Similarly, much conflict could be avoided or reduces if we were, “swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath” (James 1:19).

Conflicts could be minimized if we followed some communication guidelines:

a) Try to limit written communication to neutral and positive content. It is best to speak on the phone or face to face when working through points of criticism and disagreement.

b) When you have constructive criticism, use first person pronouns (“I”, “me”), instead of the second person (“you”). The sound of “you…” in acritical tone usually prompts a defensive posture in the other person.

c) Start by describing how you perceive the situation (the facts) and invite the other person to confirm, clarify, or correct these according to their viewpoint. This may avoid the need to resolve differences which are based on inaccurate facts.

d) Then proceed to give your concerns with meekness, inviting the other person to dialog in order to offer an apology, agree to compromise, or suggest a solution.

4. Judgmentalism

Our Lord addresses this tendency with the familiar warning:

“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you. And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove the speck from your eye’; and look, a plank is in your own eye? Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (Matt. 7:1-5).

If we know this so well, why do we limit it relevance to other people?

Paul likewise admonished, “Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother’s way” (Rom. 14:13).

In his book, Love Covers, Paul Billheimer appeals to the church to protect her unity through agape (unconditional) love. He defines judgmentalism as “unfavorable judgment, criticism, or condemnation of others because of their conduct or supposedly erroneous beliefs, wrong motives, or character. It is an arbitrary evaluation of another person’s worth … It is the most frequent cause of division and fragmentation of the Body of Christ.” [3] How easy it is to be lenient with our own shortcomings, but critical of others! Rather, we are to judge ourselves (1 Cor. 11:31) and be lenient with others (Col. 3:13).

5. Narrow-mindedness

Sometimes we latch on to one aspect of a problem and overlook other aspects. This seems to have been the case with the unusual argument between Paul and Barnabas:

“Then after some days Paul said to Barnabas, ‘Let us now go back and visit our brethren in every city where we have preached the word of the Lord, and see how they are doing.’ Now Barnabas was determined to take with them John called Mark. But Paul insisted that they should not take with them the one who had departed from them in Pamphylia, and had not gone with them to the work. Then the contention became so sharp that they parted from one another. And so Barnabas took Mark and sailed to Cyprus; but Paul chose Silas and departed, being commended by the brethren to the grace of God” (Acts 15:36-40).

We can understand the concerns of both of these leaders: Barnabas focused on Mark’s potential and the opportunity for him to grow; Paul focused on Mark’s accountability for turning back during the previous missionary journey, and the need for trustworthiness. Thankfully, God overruled this conflict and the gospel continued to spread. If narrow-mindedness can trigger a dispute with mature believers like these, how diligent we should be to seek God’s perspective and understand all sides of a problem.

Paul exhorted two prominent women in Philippi, “I implore Euodia and I implore Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord” (Phil. 4:2). This admonition implies that believers can choose to cooperate even when they have differing opinions. The cause of God’s Kingdom should dwarf petty differences, right?

The National Geographic included a photo of the fossil remains of two saber-toothed cats that had been locked in combat. The article explained, “One had bitten deep into the leg bone of the other, a thrust that trapped both in a common fate. The cause of death of the two cats is as clear as the causes of extinction of their species is obvious.” [4] This reminds of the scriptural warning, “But if freedom means merely that you are free to attack and tear each other to pieces, be careful that it doesn’t mean that between you you destroy your fellowship altogether!” (Gal. 5:15, Phillips).

If the Lord convicts you regarding these “reasons for personal conflicts,” recognize them sins, but also as symptoms of your flesh–the “self-life.” If Christ — the Prince of Peace — lives in your heart, surrender and trust in His indwelling life. He will equip you to be a peace-promoter, which will bring blessing: “Blessed are the peacemakers, For they shall be called sons of God” (Matt .5:9). In part two we will continue with scriptural remedies for personal conflicts.

Part 1 of 2


[1] James A. Gross and Andre B. Collins, The Souvenir Guide to Gettysburg Military National Park, p.71.

[2] “War of 1812”, Y 2000 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia

[3] Paul Billheimer, Love Covers, (CLC, 1981), p.127.

[4] Quoted in “Leadership Journal”

Copyright 2001 by John Woodward. Permission to reprint for noncommercial use is granted if credit is given to the author and Scripture quotations (unless indicated othersie) are from The Holy Bible, New King James Version, copyright by Thomas Nelson.

Posted in