Conflict – whether it’s a disagreement with a spouse, a personality clash with a co-worker, or a church split in the making – fills most of us with anxiety. Avoiding conflict preserves an uneasy peace, but it’s a stifling stillness, like a long-shut room, air heavy with mildew and dust. Unresolved conflict goes underground, where it brews and festers until it erupts like a volcano, spewing molten hatred and bitterness, ruining relationships, ministries, workplaces, families, and lives.
The Bible instructs us to “seek peace and pursue it” (Psalm 34:14b). What does that look like? Forging true peace requires working through conflict.
There are times when we can look past an offense. Someone makes an insulting remark; we notice, but silently forgive and move on. Scripture says, “A person’s wisdom yields patience; it is to one’s glory to overlook an offense” (Proverbs 19:11).
The problem comes when we think we’ve let something go but continue to stew about it two or three days later. It doesn’t mean we’re unspiritual if we can’t look past an offense. Talking to a neutral third party may help us put the conflict in perspective. But if we still can’t release it, we probably need to tell the person how we were affected and give them an opportunity to apologize (or not). It could clear the air – like opening the windows in a musty room.
Tools for growth
Telling someone we were hurt by his or her actions isn’t just for our benefit. It helps the other person grow. Recently, I heard about a pastor who confronted a senior member of his congregation. She had been in a leadership position for many years and was very effective in her ministry. But she was wreaking havoc in relationships. Disturbed by the damage she was causing, he finally mustered the courage to confront her.
She felt blindsided; no one had mentioned the problem in all those years. She ended up leaving the church. Regretfully, the pastor realized the woman’s growth had been short-circuited because he and her other Christian siblings had not levelled with her sooner. The “suffering saints” probably thought they were being nice as they tolerated her behaviour. But they missed out on true peace and real love – the kind that reconciles differences, emerging stronger and more authentic because of it.
I write for an agency that uses restorative justice to help people make peace in difficult situations. In a victim–offender reconciliation meeting, with the help of a facilitator, victims can ask offenders questions and share how they were impacted by the crime. The person who caused harm has an opportunity to feel and express remorse. Together they agree on ways the harm can be repaired. Through this simple yet transformational encounter, victims heal as they put the crime behind them and offenders learn from their mistakes. After meeting with an offender, one victim remarked, “I would not hesitate to welcome him for a cup of coffee if I ever ran into him again.”
Could you have coffee with the person who hurt you?
If victims and offenders can resolve their conflicts, couldn’t we respectfully work things out with our spouses, or talk to the church elder who made an unkind remark? Can we get past our fears of rejection, of hurting someone else, of raised voices, and of being hurt again?
The Lord told Joshua, “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9). Joshua faced physical battles but also the challenges of a complaining, unwieldy community. God was the source of his courage and his comfort in every situation. He’ll be with us too – including when we enter the heart of conflict.
In cases of serious harm like physical or sexual abuse, it’s wise to get help from a trained professional like a counsellor or a skilled mediator. For safety reasons, sometimes it isn’t possible to continue a relationship. We can still find peace within our own hearts by talking through what happened, receiving prayer, forgiving, and allowing God to heal. The destructive power of unacknowledged pain multiplies in the darkness.
Peacemaking takes great courage. Keeping feathers unruffled and maintaining a false sense of harmony at any cost is cowardly. As Mennonite Brethren, let’s aspire to be pacifists not passivists. Pursuing true peace is an active, often painful process, but the rewards are worth it.