Growing up in a large family I saw my fair share of fighting. With three sisters and two brothers, we did not lack for sibling rivalry especially during our teenage years. Most of the quarrels were about our “stuff.” “She is wearing my stuff, using my stuff, has her stuff all over my stuff, etc.” Fortunately we grew out of that stage and get along quite well now. I wish I could say that my life is now conflict free. Even though I have been redeemed by Jesus, the remnant of my sinful nature still resides in me and because of this conflict arises. The good news is that Jesus has given me a remedy for conflict in His Word.
The secret to avoiding conflict is to first identity it and the reasons behind it. This task is easier than you might think.
“What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this that your passions are at war within you? 2 You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask.” James 4:1-2
When I get in an argument with someone, I immediately blame the other person for the quarrel. “We just don’t get along. We aren’t wired the same way. Our personalities clash. We have issues. They are hard to get along with.” C. J. Mahaney says, “It’s our sinful tendency to minimize the seriousness of relational conflict. Often, we have a very flattering assessment of ourselves, and we assume the other participant is primarily to blame. We’re quite comfortable describing conflict with superficial, morally neutral generalities.”
But James tells us straight up that the root of our conflict is ourselves; our own passions which are at war within us. Conflict isn’t the other person’s fault, or the result of unfortunate circumstances–as James reiterates several times: “Your passions are at war within you. You desire and do not have. You covet and cannot obtain.” Each and every conflict reveals a strong desire for something we want so much that we’re willing to quarrel and fight, to sin against others and dishonor God in order to get. Notice how the passage in James escalates; a quarrel becomes a fight which turns into war and leads to murder. This is often how our conflicts progress as well. We may not physically murder anyone but we murder them in our thoughts.
“What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you?” Sinful cravings within our hearts are the root cause of quarrels and fights. When my children would be home from school during school holidays, the state of the house often deteriorated. I would leave them a list of chores to do while I was at work. If I came home from work to find the chores not done, I would immediately get angry and the fighting would be begin.
You might be thinking; “Well of course you got angry! They did not do their chores! It’s their fault.”
But James says the root of my anger is me and the sinful cravings of my heart. So I must examine my heart to understand what I am craving. A clean house, obedient children, a hassle free evening were at the top of list. When I delved deeper into my motives, I realized that my comfort was the real craving of my heart. I wanted to come home to a clean house, relax after a hard day and not be bothered by anyone. Yes my children were disobedient but they were not the cause of my anger. The moment my feelings turned into anger I was in sin.
The root of our conflicts is cravings and our cravings can sometimes be hidden issues, even from ourselves. Over 85% of an iceberg is below the surface and cannot be seen. The same is true for the deeper issues of our soul. Proverbs 20:5 says, “The purpose in a man’s heart is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out.”
God wants us to understand ourselves first and foremost and rid our heart of sinful cravings. As followers of Jesus we sometimes think of sinful cravings as wanting material things. But sinful cravings are often more than the obvious. Cravings for affection, attention, power, vindication, control, comfort, a hassle-free life can be at the root of our conflict. The need for attention and power is often at the root of our church conflicts. We can get off track and can be more interested in building our own kingdom instead of God’s kingdom.
As the pastor’s wife at my church, women often come to me for counsel when they are in conflict. The majority of women I see are in conflict with their adult children. The issue: control. The mothers have not learned to let go of their adult children and allow them to make their own decisions. They give advice that is not wanted nor asked for and it eventually causes conflict within the family. As moms we think we know better than our children and that may be the case. But when our craving for control over the lives of our children, or spouse, or other family members come into play, conflict is inevitable. I have seen many a family shattered because of sinful cravings.
So what is the cure? First we must call conflict what it is, SIN. It hurts the heart of God and brings disgrace to his name. Second we look to James 4:10, “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.”
We humble ourselves by confessing our sin and repenting of it. Conflict with others is at the core conflict with God. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9.) When we humble ourselves before the Lord, he will forgive, and he will exalt us.
Third we humble ourselves before those we have hurt and offended by going to them, confessing our sin, and asking for forgiveness. C.J. Mahaney says “When you have contributed sinfully to a conflict, return to that individual with a confession that is sincere, specific, and–in most cases–brief. Just as specific confession is vital when repenting before God, it is also important to identify specific sinful cravings when confessing to others. We must also guard against a lengthy confession, which can sometimes be a front to excuse sin instead of requesting forgiveness. Only when your confession is sincere and specific will you be able to help your wife, child, friend, church member, or fellow employee.”
It all sounds so easy and in some ways it is. Because Jesus has done the hard work of going to the Cross to take on our sins, past, present and future, we have forgiveness now and the power to love others as He has loved us.