Some of the most glorious and, at times, messy parts of my life have involved deep, gospel-driven friendships. Tim Keller says in The Meaning of Marriage that the point of marriage is “for helping each other to become our future glory-selves, the new creations that God is making us.” I think the same principle is true of Christian friendships. A healthy, Christ-centered friendship helps us to draw closer to Jesus and become more of the person He wants us to be someday. This has certainly been the case for me in a few key friendships (like my besties in the picture at left) over the past few decades.
But, these types of friendships don’t come cheap. They reach far beyond shared hobbies, play dates with the kids, and commenting on one another’s Facebook pictures–although those things can certainly foster relationships on one level. These deeper friendships require much more–taking initiative to love and serve your friend even when you don’t feel much like it; opening up your life to that other person—warts and all; spurring one another on to grow in godliness; and yes (gulp)…working through conflict the right way.
Today I want to tell you a bit about what I’ve been learning about dealing with conflict in my own life and about a friend who recently confronted me in the right way. First, you it may be helpful to know where I began.
My History with Dealing with Conflict
When I was in college and even when I first got married, I didn’t know much about dealing with personal conflict the right way. That was a problem, because I had roommates, good friends, a boyfriend or two along the way, co-workers, and eventually a sweet husband who all had to take the brunt of some of my “attempts” at dealing with conflict. Here was my M.O. at that time.
- I could be passive aggressive, like leaving not-so-nice notes around my apartment for my roommate when I was upset.
- I could simply avoid it, like leaving the house when I was mad, not coming back for a long time, and never bringing up the issue again. (This wasn’t a smart idea, because it usually led to the next bullet point.)
- Sometimes I avoided the issue I was upset about so long, stuffing it away, that I would boil away inside at someone. A few times this even led to erupting in anger at a friend unnecessarily.
- I would blame others for my own actions. This is our default-mode as humans, isn’t it? We like to think that the way we act and the things we say aren’t the overflow of our own hearts. It’s our parents’ fault for the way we were raised. It’s our husband’s fault because he’s been gone so much. It’s our job’s fault for making us so busy and stressed. It’s PMS. Whatever made me do it, it certainly wasn’t me.
The end result of these conflict-resolving “strategies” in my life was usually damage and distance to some valued friendships and even my budding relationship with God at the time. Thankfully, God taught me a lot through those situations, from my patient husband, and from His Word over time.
The Gospel Changes How We Deal with Conflict
Over the years, the most important conflict resolution strategy I’ve learned is simply the Gospel—what Jesus did through his life, death, and resurrection for those who believe. It’s no exaggeration to say that when we “get” the Gospel, it can radically change how we view and deal with relational difficulties. And, this belief can move us toward the intimate, life-changing, real relationships that we all long for.
If we understand the Gospel* then…
- We can be humble, forbearing of other’s sin, and open to input from others… because the gospel tells us we are sinful and no different than anyone else. We need God’s grace just as much as our friends do.
- We can forgive our friends when we are wronged…because we have been forgiven more than we can imagine through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross for us.
- We don’t need to find our ultimate worth or fulfillment in earthly friendships…because we are already loved and made much of by Jesus, our greatest Friend.
- We are freed to love and serve others despite the way we are treated…because we know that Jesus loved us so much that He died for us while we were still enemies of God. He gave his life for us when our backs were turned on him.
*Some verses that have really helped me understand the Gospel are Romans 5:8, Ephesians 2:1-10, Philippians 2:1-11, Romans 3:21-26, and John 3:16, just to name a few.
So the big picture and first step to resolving conflict is understanding the Gospel. But, you may be thinking, like I have before, “I understand the Gospel. But, I still don’t know what living it out looks like practically in a friendship…especially when it comes to resolving conflict.” Let me tell you a story that may help flesh out these Gospel principles a bit.
Gospel Application: My Friend’s Phone Call
A few months ago, one of my best friends felt herself growing irritated with me about an issue that kept coming up in our conversations. I had no idea this was going on when I received her phone call. I could have responded in anger, felt defensive, or avoided it all together. But, her way of dealing with the conflict (coupled with God’s work in my own life) helped to diffuse any of those reactions. Here are few ways I noticed her resolving conflict the right way with me in our conversation:
- She called me quickly, as soon as she began to feel upset with me about the issue, so it didn’t fester and blow up into something bigger than it needed to be.
- She didn’t talk to anyone else about what she was upset about, except her husband. The only reason she spoke to him was to sort through her feelings and ask him if it was even something to talk to me about. He was a good choice to discuss it with because she knew he would give her solid, godly advice and not talk to anyone else about it. As a side note, talking to a lot of other people about conflict with another person is not only unbiblical, but it can be very hurtful to your relationship with the person you are talking about. Plus, everyone you talk to about it is thinking, “I bet he/she is complaining about me to other people.” Gossip can put distance between you and others and God quickly and cause even more conflict.
- She prayed for God’s wisdom and perspective before calling me.
- She told me upfront that she values our friendship and was bringing up the issue because she didn’t want anything to get between us. What a great way to say, “Hey, we’re on the same team here. I care about you and want only the best for our friendship. So, it’s important that I get perspective on this issue and we resolve it quickly.”
- She assumed the best in me and told me that. “I know you probably didn’t have any malintent when you….” She reiterated that several times. This completely diffused any anger or feelings of being attacked, because I knew immediately that she assumed that my heart wasn’t to hurt her. Now, perhaps that isn’t the case with someone you’re confronting, but it’s always best to assume the best.
- She explained a few key conversations and/or actions by me that had hurt her feelings and why. She was not attacking me or my character but instead explaining the concrete facts of the situation and how they made her feel.
- She asked me if she was understanding the situation correctly. She wanted to know my perspective on the situation. In essence, my dear friend was admitting that she could be wrong about the situation and she wanted to get it right. She was being humble and teachable. To me, this is the attitude that is most important when resolving conflict! If someone approaches me with a humble heart, a Christ-like attitude, it is so much easier for me to admit my wrong-doing and ask for forgiveness. My husband taught me this very early on in our marriage.
- My friend hasn’t brought up the conflict since we resolved it. It’s done and over. She’s moved on and doesn’t hang it over my head. This is the meaning of forgiveness. This is what grace looks like.
The End Result of Resolving Conflict the Right Way
Ultimately, because of the way my friend dealt with our conflict, our friendship can grow and continue to flourish. My respect for her has grown even more for the way she handled the situation, and I know I can do the same with her if I ever have conflict to resolve. It’s a very freeing thing to have a relationship that shows love to one another on this level.
Resolving conflict the right way has taken a long time to learn in my life…and I certainly haven’t “arrived” yet. It takes remembering the big picture implications of the Gospel in this area. It takes going to God and asking him to help me through these individually messy relational situations. It takes stepping out of my comfort zone and sometimes looking like a fool. I won’t lie. I still get that sick feeling in the pit of my stomach when I think about confronting someone. But, I’ve seen that taking baby steps to resolve conflict the right way reaps great benefits in my life, my relationships, and even in the lives of the “little eyes” who are watching in my house.
Resources for Conflict Resolution
Here are two books that can help you grow in the area of conflict resolution and building godly relationships.
War of Words: Getting to the Heart of Your Communication Struggles by Paul Tripp – This is a go-to book for all Christians when it comes to considering the power of our words in others’ lives and as it relates to our relationship with God.
The Purpose Driven Life – In particular, the short chapter entitled “Day 20: Restoring Broken Fellowship” was life-changing for me in this area. In college, a friend and I who were growing distant because of unresolved conflict both read this chapter at the same time. God convicted both of our hearts and gave us the tools to have a healthy conversation because of what we learned in this chapter! Not only that, but this book had a huge impact in my life very early on as a new Christian.