Three Facts About Conflict

May 6th, 2018 sermon
By John Ulrich, Senior Pastor


Note: The audio recording starts around the 2nd point.

Whether it is in marriage, family, friendships, or any other human relationships, we all have to face the dynamic of conflict: either confronting or being confronted by others.  We might face this conflict in many different ways, from direct avoidance to outright hostility. Christ Himself dealt with conflict throughout His ministry and ultimately His death.  From Scripture’s teachings, how are we as Christians to deal with this issue of open rebuke in our real lives?

Three Facts About Conflict

I. God Uses Conflict

Ephesians 4:26 commands us to “Be angry and do not sin…”, and Proverbs 27:5,6 tells us: “Better is open rebuke than hidden love. Wounds from a friend can be trusted…” Although often painful, the experience of conflict can open us up in a good way… exposing us to truth that can help us grow as individuals and in relationships. Resolving conflict, with the help of the Holy Spirit, can stretch and change us as we carefully listen to others or lovingly confront them.

As we learned previously, the Hebrew word for the creation of Eve, Adam’s mate, was “etzer kenegdo”, meaning his “suitable companion” or literally his “opposite/according to” spouse. This complementary relationship in marriage creates the possibility for deep, personal, unlimited change/growth when conflicts arise…with the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

  II. Conflict Can Escalate

Conflict itself is not bad…God uses conflict. Conflict is almost always an opportunity for growth. Yet we must be aware that conflict can become intense in unhealthy ways, becoming dangerous as it escalates when we just talk about things rather than solve the problem. In Proverbs 17:14, Solomon says, “Starting a quarrel is like breaching a dam; so drop the matter before a dispute breaks out”.  To stop: you pray for the truth, acknowledge the truth to yourself and to the other, speak gently (Prov.15:1), and back off as you continue praying for the real cause of this conflict (e.g., fear, control) instead perhaps of the issue itself you are discussing.

III. Our Most Powerful Tool for Dealing with Conflict Is the Gospel

Instead of more self esteem, a bag of techniques, or even a bunch of Bible verses, we need the moment by moment experience of the transforming forgiveness of the Gospel. More than just getting us into Heaven, the Gospel IS the Christian life on earth.  Its pattern is clear: We see our sin (acknowledge it). We name our sin (own it). We turn from our sin to God (repent). God Himself lovingly exchanges our sin with His forgiveness (redeems us). We share that Grace with others (our witness).

As we know our failings & experience His continual grace, we can find healing in our conflicts with others. We will be more able to listen, see, and own our own shortcomings; bring them to God; experience His forgiveness, and extend that grace to others by ending hostilities and consequences.  All our relationships can be molded by the Gospel pattern in our lives, if we allow it. God does use conflict, and He uses it best when we respond with His Gospel pattern.

Discussion Questions

  1. In general, what is your manner of facing rebuke to or from others?
  2. Has there ever been a time when you personally learned truth from conflict?
  3. How do we build truthful relationships that can endure/thrive through conflict?
  4. What is the role of love in conflict resolution?
  5. To what extent do you live the “Gospel pattern”? How important is it to you?
  6. Do you believe, as Pastor John preached, that we receive grace for the cost of confession? Why is it so important that we see our sin first to find and give grace?


Good Morning! We are continuing today in our series on relationships called “Master Plan.”  We have covered a lot of ground in this series. We’ve looked at general principles of marriage and family. We’ve looked at putting the gospel into our relationships. Then we went to Ephesians and zoomed in on Paul’s instruction to wives. Finally last week, we looked at Paul’s instruction to husbands.

So we’ve laid a foundation that helps us look at relationships more the way that, I believe, God wants us to look at them. We have a foundation. But before we move on, there’s one more thing that we have to discuss. We have to discuss this, because it’s a part of any human relationship. Whether it’s marriage or family or extended family, whether it is a friendship or a working relationship, any human relationship, if it goes on long enough, will face the dynamic that I want to talk about today. That dynamic is conflict. If you’re going to have a human relationship, you are going to have to know how to deal with conflict.

So how do you deal with conflict? You may have heard about the husband and wife who dealt with conflict by giving each other the silent treatment. One night they were having a fight when the man suddenly realized that he would need his wife to wake him up at 5am for an early morning business flight. Not wanting to break the silence, he wrote on a piece of paper “Please wake me at 5AM” and left it where he knew for sure she would find it. The next morning, the man woke up  only to discover that it was 10am and he had missed his flight. Furious, he was about to go and see why his wife hadn’t wakened him, when he noticed a piece of paper by the bed. The paper said “It is 5am. Wake up”. I guess that’s one way!

My Grandfather had a different method for dealing with conflict. When he was in his 80’s and had been married for 60 plus years, he pulled me aside one day and said “John, I want to tell you how your Grandmother and I have avoided conflict all these years.” He said “When we first got married,  we made an agreement that she would handle all the little decisions and I would handle all the big decisions.” He said “It’s worked beautifully for 60+ years. She has sworn to me again and again that she will let me know just as soon as we face a big decision.” Let me say “I knew my Grandmother, and he wasn’t really joking!”

But for some of us conflict is no laughing matter. For some of you, conflict is a bigger part of your marriage than you would ever have wanted. It’s not gotten better over the years. It’s gotten worse. Now you live on a relational terrain that is full of landmines: say the wrong thing and the damage ensues. Some of you have conflict with a child or a parent. You’ve discovered that family conflict is the gift that keeps on giving. It’s a constant source of pain. Some of you may have serious conflict at work. For some of us, conflict is no laughing matter. We need to know how to deal with it.

Today we are going to look at this issue of conflict, and we are going to do it in a slightly different way than I normally do. We are not going to have one central passage to guide our sermon. We’ll be looking at lots of passages. I do that about once in a millennium! I’m doing that today, because today I want us to take a big-picture look at conflict. Many passages look at one aspect of conflict or another, but today we will look at three big-picture facts, three basic realities that the Bible gives us about conflict.

As we approach this topic today, I just want you to ask yourself: Where do you have conflict in your life? Where are you experiencing it? What is your part in the conflict? If you were very honest,  what part have you had in starting it or in maintaining it? What would God have you do to resolve it? How is God using that conflict in your life? To have a relationship is to deal with conflict. Today we’ll see three truths about conflict, three facts about conflict. The first fact may seem counter-intuitive, but it’s something that we really need to understand about conflict, and it’s this:

God Uses Conflict

God uses conflict for good. He uses conflict to accomplish good. Conflict can be beneficial both to the people in a relationship, and it can be beneficial to the relationship itself. I’m not saying that conflict can’t become harmful. I’m not saying it can’t be dealt with in an unhealthy way. God can use conflict for good. Listen, there is a time for conflict in our relationships. Scripture tells us this. I don’t know if you remember several weeks ago when we were in Ephesians 4. When we were looking at that chapter, Paul made a curious statement. Look at what he says:

Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.

– Ephesians 4:26

Remember that verse? Now, in the second half of this verse, and in the following verse, Paul talks about resolving our conflict quickly. Look at the first two words of verse 26 there: “Be angry.” That’s a command in the Greek. We said that what Paul is saying there is that there actually is a time to be angry. There is a time for conflict. Let me show you another verse. The Old Testament book of Proverbs is full of verses on anger and conflict resolution. Look at what it says:

Better is open rebuke than hidden love. 6Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but the kisses of the enemy are deceitful.

– Proverbs 27:5-6

If you think about those verses, what they are saying is that sometimes open rebuke conflict as painful as that may be can be a good thing. Sometimes the wounds of a friend, a friend who confronts us and brings us into conflict, is a useful, life-giving, beneficial thing.

What I’m saying is that God uses conflict for good. Do you realize that most of the books of your New Testament came about as a result of conflict? Either there was conflict within the church or conflict between the church and the apostle or both, but there was conflict. It was hard, at times, on the Apostles. You can read the frustration that Paul felt when he wrote Galatians or 1 Corinthians. You can read the frustration in James’ letter or in Jude or in 2 Peter. God used that conflict to accomplish good and bring us the New Testament. God uses conflict for good.

You need to believe that about the conflict in your life. God can use it for good. So the goal of your marriage, the goal of your family, the goal of your relationship is not to never have conflict. If you grew up in a family that processed conflict in a healthy way, that might make perfect sense to you. You may be saying “Of course, conflict can be a good thing!”

But if you grew up in a family that didn’t deal with conflict well, if you grew up in a family where conflict was avoided, where you had to pretend like everything was OK all the time, or if you grew up in a family where conflict quickly blew up into an all out war, or where conflict was never finished and people were always hostile, it may be tough for you to see conflict as a beneficial thing.

But it is beneficial if it’s done right. One of the main reasons that conflict is beneficial is that conflict exposes us to truth that can help us grow. Think about it. Most conflict, when you get to the bottom of it, is about truth: Who said what? Who did what? What belongs to you? What you are responsible for where you need to change? What is right and wrong? That’s the root of most conflict. Conflict exposes us to different perspectives on truth, and that can help us grow.

That’s why Proverbs says: “Faithful are the wounds of a friend.” When does a friend wound you? When they speak uncomfortable truth into your life. When they suggest a painful, but necessary,  course correction. I think of friends in my life, who at times have spoken words that hurt, words that brought us into conflict, words I didn’t want to hear, but words that were life-giving, because they exposed me to truth. Conflict exposes us to truth that can help us grow.

OK, now married people: Let me tell you who that plugs into your marriage, because it plays out for you in a special way. Do you remember when we talked about treasuring your spouse with their similarities and differences? We said that husbands and wives are “opposite according to.” Remember that? We said that the Hebrew word for the Creation of Eve Adam’s wife is that she was Adam’s “etzer kenegdo” – his “suitable companion.” Literally, in Hebrew his opposite/according to. We said we see that in marriages God gives us complementary spouses:. Not only are our bodies (men and women) different, but complementary, but our personalities, our gifting, even the wounds of our past, tend to be different but complementary. We said often one partner is more adventurous. The other is a homebody. One partner is a saver, the other likes to spend a little more. One partner dives into conflict. The other likes to avoid it. A little more extrovert/introvert, night owl/morning person, State Fan/UNC fan. Just kidding (there are limits). But in many ways, we tend to be opposite/according to!

Now here’s the thing: That has the potential to be beneficial, to be life-giving in deep, meaningful, almost limitless ways. The adventurer needs to be a little more grounded. The spender needs to save. The saver needs to live a little. The introvert needs people. The State fan needs to repent.  Just kidding. But seriously, our opposite/according to differences can be life-giving. I had one seminary professor who used to always say “If two people agree on everything, one of them isn’t necessary.” So there’s this potential for deep, meaningful, limitless growth.

The problem is, just like that verse in Proverbs says, the path to that deep, meaningful, limitless growth often involves conflict. It involves the faithful wounds of a friend. It can be hard. There’s usually some level of conflict, because it involves change. If the change was easy and if you could always see the change as good, you would have done it on your own a long time ago. But you didn’t! Instead, you married someone that could stretch you! Now if that stretching is done well, if the Holy Spirit has free reign in your marriage, and if we’re cheering our partner on, and if we’re open to change, and we’re trying to be sensitive as we stretch each other. If we really want to know why change is scary for our partner, then those opposite/according to’s can bring us to gentle conflict. We can experience that deep, meaningful, limitless growth.

But if it’s not done well, if it’s done poorly, those opposite/according to’s can be a source of deep, meaningful, and limitless big conflict. Capital “C” Conflict. Painful conflict. Entrenched conflict. Damaging conflict. Trust me, no one on earth knows how to wound you like someone whose strengths are your weaknesses. That opposite/according to lets your spouse know right where to camp out if they want to hurt you.

But here’s my point: Those differences those opposite/according to’s and even the conflict that comes about as a result of them is not a bad thing. Conflict exposes us to truth that can help us grow. While this is especially true in marriage, it’s true in almost any relationship, whether it’s a family relationship or a friendship or even a work relationship. This is also especially true in the Body of Christ. As members of the body of Christ, we are supposed to different. We have different roles to play, and we come from different places. That’s by design. God made it that way on purpose, so that we can stretch each other in good ways.

Conflict is almost always an opportunity for growth, no matter how unfair it seems at first. Even if you’re entirely right on an issue and the other person is entirely wrong, which almost never happens, you can still almost always grow in the way you handle the issue in your treatment of the other person. Conflict is not all bad. The goal is not to have zero conflict in your relationships. Conflict exposes us to truth that can help us grow. God uses conflict. So (1) God uses conflict in good ways. Now the second truth about conflict is this:

Conflict Can Escalate

We alluded to this in our last point, but let me just re-state that conflict itself isn’t bad. God uses conflict. But conflict can escalate. It can become intense in unhealthy ways, so that it becomes dangerous. On the one hand, we are meant to talk things out with one another. The Bible makes that clear. In fact, Jesus says that when you wrong someone, you are supposed to go to them and talk it out. Jesus says that when they wrong you, you’re supposed to do the same thing. Whether you are the offender or the offendee, you are supposed to make the first move and try and reconcile with your brother or sister. We are meant to talk our conflict out. That’s when it becomes really profitable.

But there’s a problem with that. Much of the time when we try to talk about things rather than solving the problem, we just escalate. We up the ante, right? There is a lot I wanted to say about that, but let me just show you a couple of verses. Look at what the Bible says:

Starting a quarrel is like breaching a dam; so drop the matter before a dispute breaks out

– Proverbs 17:14

Let me read that again. Now this is Solomon writing again. The same guy that said “Faithful are the wounds of a friend,” so he’s not against conflict altogether. He recognizes that there’s good conflict, but he is pointing something out about the nature of conflict. It tends to escalate! It’s the nature of conflict to grow, to blow up, to get bigger. Solomon says it’s “like breaching a dam.” I don’t know if you’ve ever seen footage of a dam breaking, but it’s the perfect picture of conflict. Because it starts with a small little leak that starts to drip, and then that water with all that pressure finds that weakness and begins to shoot out. The leak gets bigger and bigger until it reaches a point where no one can control it any more. It just does whatever it’s going to do.

Solomon is saying that’s the way conflict is. It starts out as a little leak in your relationship. If it goes unchecked, it gets bigger and bigger until it’s out of control. It is the nature of conflict to escalate. There are different ways that conflict does this, but one of the main ways is what Kelley and I call a “spinout.”

A spinout is when you get stuck in an argument. You just feed off each other, and it escalates. Let me give you just a random example: Say you go to a get-together, and your wife feels like you kind of ignored her at the party. So you get home, and your wife says “Hey, I didn’t appreciate you completely ignoring me at the party” which is maybe an exaggeration. The husband responds by overstating his case “I wasn’t ignoring you I paid more attention to you than anyone else did to their wife.”

Her: Yeah and you paid even more attention to the blonde across the table!

Him: Oh well maybe, that’s because you treated me like garbage on the way there.

Her: Well, that’s because you can never say “no” to your mother!

Him: Oh great! Bring my mother into this!

In the end, you’re saying things that you don’t even think are true. You’re blaming your spouse for global warming, and that your team lost in the playoffs. And you’re spinning out!

To make your point, you’re getting more and more extreme more and more entrenched in your position. So even though your actual positions on the issue aren’t that far apart (like “Hey, I would have felt better if you had paid a little more attention to me” and he is like “OK I really didn’t mean to make you feel bad”), it has escalated and now you are way over here, arguing about the argument.

Your natural inclination in that moment is to push harder! To escalate! But that only makes it worse! It’s like those things we used to call Chinese handcuffs (fingertraps) – the more you do what you feel like you should do, the worse it gets! Conflict can be like that! It can escalate, both in the short-term with little stuff and in the long-term with big stuff. We decide our partner isn’t being fair so we dig a deeper trench. So how do you stop that? Let me show you another verse:

A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.

– Proverbs 15:1

“A gentle answer turns away wrath.” So what do you have to do? You’ve got to back it off. You’ve got to go the other way. It’s like a car that’s spinning out in the sand. The worst thing you can do is accelerate. You need to stop things and reverse.

So you stop you pray. Because it’s usually about truth, you ask God to open your eyes to your partners piece of the truth. I know that you have a piece of the truth. You can worry about that later. But what are they right about? Were you a little over the line? Can you just acknowledge that without asking for anything in return? Maybe that will get you totally unstuck. Maybe it won’t,  but it’s a start. It’s a move in the right direction, because whether it helps you win or not. It’s still true, right? You say “You were right about this.” Maybe they’ll say “You were right about this.”

A lot of times you back off all that pressure and you find out the thing you were arguing about isn’t the real issue at all. A lot of times for me maybe I get right down to it and it’s about something like fear. I get to the point where I say “Kelley, I’m actually afraid of this.” That frees Kelley up to say “Well, nobody like to be afraid. I can help with that.” It’s a more vulnerable place, a real place for your relationship.

So conflict can escalate in unhealthy ways, and we don’t want it to do that. I have some friends who used to escalate a lot in their conflict, and eventually they developed a phrase. When they felt it happening, one would just say to the other “Let’s just meet on the first floor.” They would tone it down. So (1) God uses conflict, (2) Conflict can escalate. Now the last thing about conflict is this:

Our Most Powerful Tool for Dealing with Conflict is the Gospel

Church if I could give you one gift one tool, if I could put just one arrow in your quiver to help you overcome conflict in your marriage or in your family or with your friends or at your job, if I could just give you one, do you know what it would be? It wouldn’t be high self-esteem or a bag of techniques or even a bunch of Bible verses. If I could do one thing to help you with conflict, it would be to help you drink deeply of the gospel, to live moment by moment in the transforming forgiveness of the gospel. If you could do that, it would change everything about the way you deal with conflict.

Let me explain. Many of us think of the gospel as the thing that sort of “gets us to heaven.” It is that. But it’s much more, because the gospel is a pattern a pattern that we live in week in and week out. The pattern is this:

  1. I see my sin.
  2. I name my sin.
  3. I find grace for my sin.
  4. If I want to complete the circle, I share grace with others.

That is what gets us to heaven, right? We recognize that we are sinners that need a savior. We see our sin. Secondly, we name our sin. We say “Jesus, you are the rightful Lord, and I’ve lived in disobedience to your Lordship. Will you forgive me? Based on your sacrifice, will you give me grace and let me spend eternity in heaven with you?” Then Scripture says if we do that we find grace for our sin. So that gospel pattern is what gets us to heaven, but it’s so much more than that. The gospel isn’t just the thing that gets us to the Christian life. The gospel is the Christian life.

That’s why we celebrate this table again and again! Did you ever think about that? We celebrate this table not just one time when we first come to Christ. We celebrate it again and again and again. We do that, because we see our sin again and again and again. So we come to this table as a visible, physical reminder that we live in that gospel pattern:

  1. I see my sin.
  2. I name my sin.
  3. I find grace for my sin.
  4. If I want to complete the circle, I share grace with others.

Now listen to me. If you live in that pattern, it will affect the relationships in your life whether it’s friendships or work relationships or family or marriage. It will affect the relationships in your life in two ways:

The gospel pattern enables us to start relationships well. That pattern will put you in the right starting point for any relationship you have. If you want a healthy, growing, authentic relationship that involves true love for others whether it’s a marriage, or a friendship, or a family relationship,   you have to go into it knowing that you are a person who needs grace, knowing that you are not some person who has arrived, some person without faults, knowing that you are not basically a good guy. You’ve got to know that you need forgiveness for your sins and help with your weaknesses every single day. That realization, which is rehearsed in the gospel pattern and depicted at this table, enables you to listen well when someone shares truth that makes you uncomfortable. It enables you to share humbly, kindly, winsomely when you have to give a friend a faithful wound. The gospel enables us to start a relationship well.

The gospel enables us to heal relationships. Listen, conflict hurts! Even if it’s beneficial, it always hurts at least a little. If it’s done right, it doesn’t hurt like a burn or a break. It hurts more like a hard workout, but it always hurts on some level. Do you know how you heal the hurt? By embracing that gospel pattern:

  1. I see my sin. That’s the faithful wound that’s the opposite/according to. I live in relationship with someone, and they point out in one way or another my shortcomings. I have to SEE those shortcomings. I have to listen to them humbly and weigh what they say. I have to decide “Is this uncomfortable truth that can help me grow? Or is it just uncomfortable?” I have to be willing to see my own sin, and I may have to humbly point out theirs as well. I have to see my sin.
  1. I have to SAY my sin. I have to name it. I have to own my stuff. When it really works best is when I’m able to see not just the symptoms but the cause, when we get all the way down to the fear or the need to control or the mistaken belief that is driving me, I confess my sin. My partner helps me see “Yes, that part honestly belongs to you. No, that part doesn’t.” I name my sin.
  1. I find grace for my sin. Listen, conflict needs to have an end. Right? There needs to be a point at which it’s done. You’ve got to get down to the real issue first, but there needs to be a point at which hostilities cease, forgiveness is extended, and consequences are done. That’s the way God treats us. We receive reconciliation for the simple price of confession. Because we receive grace from him, we are obligated to share it with one another. I find grace for my sin.
  1. I share that grace with others. Listen, this is the gospel pattern. This is a part of the Master Plan for relationships. It’s how God made them to operate and to heal. If you are a Christian, God calls you to live in this pattern day in, day out. It’s the starting point for your relationships. It’s the attitude you bring to them in the first place. It’s the way your relationships can heal from the wounds of conflict. This is the pattern for your marriage, for your friendships, for your relationships. Conflict can be beneficial. God can use it. He uses it best when we respond with the gospel pattern.