Conflict Resolution Among Family Members

by Cliff McManis

Mature, spirit-filled Christian families don’t have conflict. Hah! If you believe that then you are deceived and living in Wonderland. All families have conflict to one degree or another. That is clear in the Bible, in history, and in reality. Noah’s sons had conflict (Gen 9:18-27). Sarah and Abraham argued (Gen 16:5). Jacob got perturbed at his son Joseph (Gen 37:10). Job called his wife “foolish” right to her face (Job 2:10). Aaron and Miriam criticized Moses because of his wife (Num 12:1). David’s wife despised him (2 Sam 6:16). Even Jesus’ own grown siblings taunted Him publicly (John 7:2-9).

Conflict between family members is real, even in the lives of believers. We need to address it and deal with it. It isn’t just carnal, immature, ignorant Christians who have problems in this area; on the contrary, even mature believers can struggle in this area, or be challenged by it every once in a while. In this life, you are going to have conflict with people.

If you’re married, you’re going to have conflict with your spouse. If you have children, you’re going to have conflict with them. If you have siblings, you’re going to have conflict with your brothers and sisters. Conflict in the family won’t be eradicated in this life, but it can be managed in a way that honors God. Thankfully, the Bible is clear on how we should deal with confrontation and conflict. Consider some important principles of conflict resolution from God’s Word.

Get a Proper Diagnosis
As with any malady, you can’t propose a cure until you have specifically and properly diagnosed the problem. If you want to properly manage family conflict you must first ask the question, “Why do we have conflict?” Or, “Why do we fight?” The Bible actually asks this very question in James 4:1 which basically reads, “Why do you fight with each other?” The Apostle James is directing this question toward Christians. He gives them the answer in the next verse; he says they fight because they “lust” and are inherently self-centered. “Lust” here does not refer to sexual passion to more generally to a self-seeking desire—coveting what you don’t have and then insisting on gaining it by manipulation, anger or even force. In an argument with a family member this would pan out as the following: demanding you have it your way and not theirs.

“So, you are telling me that I fight with my family members because of illegitimate self-seeking desires, or lust?” Well, yes, that is what the Bible says. You might not be the problem in every fight, but someone is. And sometimes it might be you who is the problem. We are all vulnerable here.

In addition, the Bible says in Romans 7:14-25 that we all have sin living in us and as such we are all prone to doing things we know are wrong or sinful…like fighting with our family members. And to top it off, none of this should surprise us because Genesis 3 says God decreed that family conflict would result and be the norm as a result of the Fall of Adam and Eve, and in particular the marriage relationship would be subject to conflict.

So why do Christians fight and argue with their family members? The Bible says that Adam and Eve passed sin onto the whole human race, such that marriage would be subject to conflict. All people will have sin living in them, and our sin would manifest itself through lustful, self-seeking coercion of others.

Examine Yourself First
After properly diagnosing the real cause for inter-personal conflict, we can begin to implement biblical principles to usher in resolution and restoration. Step one is for you to realize and admit that you are a sinner and part of the problem. The Bible calls this self-examination. This is the mark of true humility. Without humility no progress will be made toward resolving conflict (Ps 25:9; James 4:6). Jesus commanded us to first look at the log in our own eye before trying to remove the splinter in your antagonist’s eye (Matt 7:5). After proper self-examination it may turn out that confrontation is still required in order to bring about a resolution. 

Confrontation is Inevitable
It is fairly common for most people to avoid confrontation and as a result perpetuate bad blood while circumventing and preventing complete resolution and restoration in personal relationships. Many people neglect confrontation with the excuses, “I hate confrontation” or “I hate conflict.” Those words sound pious, but they are utterly unbiblical and dangerous. Conflict needs to be addressed forthrightly and that usually entails confrontation.

If you have a problem against somebody else or you know they have a problem against you, you must take action. In giving advice on how to resolve conflict Jesus used the same imperative in both Matthew 5 and Matthew 18: “Go.” That’s what Jesus said. It doesn’t matter how big or how little an issue is, if you’re still bothered by it and you haven’t thrown a blanket of love over it to swallow it up so it doesn’t exist anymore, then you need to go directly to the person you have a problem with. In both Matthew 5 and 18 Jesus makes it clear that the ideal method of confrontation is speaking verbally to your antagonist. Biblical confrontation requires that two believers have a verbal, face-to-face interaction. This takes courage, and this is why we often avoid such confrontation.

So many problems would be put to rest if we would just talk to one another and have the courage to do so. Some of you were, no doubt, not raised in a home where you were taught to speak honestly and face-to-face with others, especially when there were problems. Some of you were maybe raised with the model of avoiding or ignoring problems, pretending like they don’t exist, or abstaining altogether from communication. Nevertheless, we have to overcome that line of thinking with Scripture and the power of God, because that’s what God expects.

This applies to children as well. If you have a problem with a sibling at home, your first option should not be to go tattle to mommy and daddy. Your first resort in a Christian home should be to try to deal with it yourself and resolve it with your brother or sister somehow. In order to do this, you need to address the problem honestly. If your sibling did something wrong, speak honestly and tell them how they hurt your feelings; tell them what you thought was wrong and try to work it out. If it doesn’t work out, then you go to mommy and daddy!

Be Like Jesus
When we go to confront someone, we need to be guided by truth and biblical principles. The model of truth is Jesus Christ, and we can look at how He confronted people in Scripture. Those are the boundaries, and we need to be sure not to go outside these boundaries of confrontation. If you confront someone for the purpose of belittling them, shaming them, embarrassing them, retaliation, revenge, insulting them, or exonerating yourself, you are going outside the margins of biblical truth, which leads us to the motive.

Jesus maintained a perfect balance in confronting sinners; He pursued truth in the context of love. Jesus healed a man who was lame for thirty-eight years (John 5:9). That was sheer love. Jesus also told him after the healing, “Do not sin anymore” (5:14). That was undiluted truth. That is difficult for us to do, because we are usually on one end of the spectrum—pursuing only truth, thus coming across as harsh, or interested only in love thus letting the issue slide with no justice. Jesus struck the perfect balance, right in the middle of these two extremes—confrontation when necessary, with truth, love, forgiveness, and patience. His perfect example is modeled to us all throughout the four Gospels.

Maintain the Right Priorities
What is the goal of confrontation from a biblical point of view? There are many goals, but the ultimate goal is to get to the truth in harmony for God’s glory. God is glorified and pleased and put on display when believers get along in harmony and unity. When believers are not getting along, that takes away from God’s glory. That messes up the testimony of the body of Christ in the world as unbelievers are looking on.

Seeking Clarity
One of the goals of confronting someone is to seek clarity. In other words, confrontation can expose truth by bringing everything to the surface. Many times, we may be harboring something against somebody else or know somebody has something against us, and it is all due to miscommunication. Bad communication or a lack of communication is a common cause of disunity between believers. One of our primary goals in confrontation should be to seek clarity, get everything out on the table, expose truth, and see the big picture. This is absolutely essential in squabbles and disputes.

Seeking Repentance
The next goal should be seeking repentance from the one in the wrong if they have been in sin. If both parties were in sin, they both need to repent. In this case, they both need to repent. If your brother repents, forgive him. That is the goal as laid out by Christ in Luke 17.

Seeking Reconciliation and Restoration
After repentance, the next goal should be reconciliation and restoration. Reconciliation refers to peace between two former enemies, while restoration refers to healing. God is seeking reconciliation and restoration in confrontation. If there is a fracture in a relationship, it is possible to not only be reconciled, but also to restore that relationship so that it is stronger than it ever was before. This is illustrated in Galatians 6:1 (“Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness”). The word for “restore” in the Greek text is also used to refer to “mending nets” along with setting bones back in place. Reconciliation is making peace with one another. Restoration means to return to full functioning capacity—many times, even better than before.

Maintain a Godly Attitude
How do we prepare for confronting someone and what does it take? Before you go confront someone, you need spiritual maturity. How do you exhibit spiritual maturity? There are at least three critical steps.

Step One: Have the Right Mindset
Spiritual maturity, as it applies to biblical confrontation, implies that you have reigned in your emotions, you have clarity of thought, and you know what the truth is. Spiritually mature Christians are not driven by their emotions or circumstances; rather, they are driven by the truth, the Spirit of God, and prayer. They possess a humble attitude and the right motives. These are all components of spiritual maturity. Paul addresses the mindset that believers should have before they confront someone in Galatians 6:1: “Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness.”

Step Two: Have the Right Spirit
Notice that one of the qualities of spiritual maturity in confrontation is a “spirit of gentleness.” This refers to an attitude of gentleness, grace, humility, forgiveness, patience, and generosity, as well as an action of humility. This can be displayed even in your methodology in the way you talk and the tone of your voice. Proverbs 15:1 is another great reminder how powerful a spirit of gentleness can be: “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”

Step Three: Have a Forgiving Heart
The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord. Another huge reason why people avoid confrontation is because they fear man. We have to overcome our fear, and love casts out fear. This also means that we need to have forgiving hearts. If you are thinking about confronting another believer, including a family member, you need to be resolute in your mind before you go to that fellow brother or sister that you are willing to forgive them if they respond the right way. This is clear from Luke 17:3-4, in which Jesus commands, “If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.”

Someone has said that we are most like Christ when we forgive another sinner. Forgiving others in an ongoing manner is being a peacemaker. Jesus said peacemakers are “sons of God” and are the ones who are truly “blessed” (Matt 5:9). Do you want to be a truly blessed child of God? Then continue the pursuit of being a peacemaker by asking God through fervent prayer to help you abide by biblical principles of conflict resolution.

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