How to Handle Conflict

Matthew 5:21-25

April 19, 2009 | Brian Bill

On Monday my daughter and I did some errands together.  Our first stop was to drop off our lawnmower blade for its yearly sharpening.  When we walked in I held up the blade and Rob immediately told me that I had had it on upside down.  I asked him how he knew that and he said he could tell just by looking at it.  After feeling myself turn red I asked him if he was going to tell anyone else what I had done.  He grinned and said, “I wouldn’t think of it.”

Well, I got out of there in a hurry and when I was back in the car I told Megan that I always wondered why our lawn didn’t look very lush after I cut it last spring and summer.  Thinking I was in a safe place I began my lament, “What was I thinking?  I had it on upside down all year!  Why did I do that?”  To which Megan immediately replied, “Hello…you are from Wisconsin!”  Later that day I told Lydia what happened and she asked me if I was going to have someone else install it for me.  Funny girls.

Here’s the deal.  In order for the lawnmower to work properly, the blade must be put on correctly.  As we begin a brand new series called “Finding Hope in Hard Times,” we’re going to work hard at putting the blade of the Bible on properly so that it does what it’s designed to do.  In what is no doubt the most famous sermon ever preached, John Stott argues that the Sermon on the Mount is the least understood and certainly the least obeyed.  At its heart, this sermon is a call for Christians to be counter-cultural, to do things differently than non-Christians, or as Jesus said in Matthew 6:8: “Do not be like them.”

It’s no secret that during economic stress and distress, domestic disturbances become more prevalent, substance abuse increases, worries can wipe us out, and making our money last becomes an all-consuming concern.  According to a Reuter’s report this week, the Illinois Department of Child and Family Services reported a 5.8 percent rise in child abuse cases in 2008.  In the Chicago area, child abuse cases rose more than 9 percent last year.  During these tough times in our country and in our county, let’s allow the sharp words of Jesus to speak into our situations.  

Could I give you an assignment right at the beginning?  Between now and the end of May, read Matthew 5-7 every day.  That’s what I’m doing.  Here’s where we’re headed in the next few weeks.

  • Learning How to Pray
  • Overcoming Anxiety
  • Helping Those in Need
  • Making Your Money Last
  • Taking the Narrow Road
  • Building on a Firm Foundation

And our topic today is “How to Handle Conflict.”  I have a theory.  It goes something like this.  Most of us know what we’re supposed to do, but we don’t always do it correctly.  This is especially the case when it comes to conflict.  We’ve preached on it several times but in practice many times this particular preacher gets it all backwards and upside down.  For our purposes this morning, we’ll have some preaching but I also want you to hear from others so that we’ll be more prone to put it into practice.  The preaching time will not uncover anything new – in fact, some of what I’ll share is a repeat from several sermons over the past years; my heart is that God will use His Word to renew our desire for reconciliation.

Preparing to Preach

Please turn to Matthew 5:1-2: “Now when he saw the crowds…”  We see two concentric circles here in this passage:  The inner ring of the committed disciples, and the outer loop, composed of the curious crowd. While Jesus pulls back from the multitudes on occasion, He also loved to minister to the masses.  Matthew 9:37: “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” 

It’s clear that while this sermon is primarily addressed to the committed, the crowd was also listening in.  Mark 12:37 says that when the throngs paid attention to Jesus, they did so with “great delight.”

“…He went up on a mountainside…”  While Jesus had no permanent place to preach from like the scribes and Pharisees did, He made use of a common mountain.  Commentators have suggested that Jesus deliberately used this mountain to draw a parallel between the message given to Moses and the one coming from the Messiah.  

“…and sat down.”  It was very common for teachers back then to sit when they taught.  This is reminiscent of what Jesus did when the crowds pressed in on Him so much that He had to get into a boat in order to speak to them in Luke 5:3: “Then he sat down and taught the people from the boat.”  When Jesus spoke, people were moved because they had never heard anyone speak with such clarity and conviction.  This is evident in their response to the Sermon on the Mount in the last two verses of chapter 7:  “When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.”

“His disciples came to Him…”  The word “disciple” literally means a “student” or “learner.”  In the time of Jesus, people didn’t go to college but instead became apprentices of those they wanted to learn from.  If someone wanted to be a lawyer, they studied under an experienced lawyer.  A shepherd hung out with shepherds.  If you wanted to catch fish, you listened to fish stories from seasoned fishermen.  The basic point was to spend time with the teacher you wanted to be like.  Interestingly, they were so drawn to Jesus that they left their careers in order to study under the Savior.  For three and a half years they watched, listened, observed, and asked questions.

Just as the disciples “came to Him” back then, let’s come to Him now and see what the Savior has to say about handling conflict.  That reminds me of what one person said about Christians who quarrel: “Where two or three come together in Jesus’ name…there will eventually be conflict.”

The fact that the lack of peace is so pervasive is really nothing new.  We can trace it all the way back to the book of Genesis.  Humans have been at war with God ever since Adam and Eve sinned.  And, beginning with the conflict between Cain and Abel, which eventually led to one brother killing the other, we have been in a bombastic battle with our brothers and sisters up till now.  In the midst of this continuous conflict and incessant strife, Jesus speaks some stunning words in Matthew 5:9: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.”  

Biblical Peacemaking

In Matthew 5:23-24 we read some words that are simple to understand and yet so sharp that they’re bound to cut us: “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar.  First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.”  What Jesus is saying is this: Being reconciled is more important than being religious. 

Let’s notice a few things before we dive in.

We must be watchful of our words or else wrath will decimate us and destroy others
  • Anger can wipe out our worship.  The context of this passage has to do with anger: “But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment.”  We must be watchful of our words or else wrath will decimate us and destroy others.  When we bring anger to the altar we can’t adore God.  Isaiah 58:4: “Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists.  You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high.”  
  • Peacemaking is very personal.  The pronouns change in this passage from the plural “you all” (or ‘y’all’ if you’re from the south or ‘youse guys’ if you’re from Wisconsin) to “you” singular: “You have heard it said…but I tell you.”  This message is not for the masses but for me.
  • Friction in the family must be dealt with.  The word “brother” is used four times in verses 22-24.  As sons and daughters of the Father He desires holy harmony in His family.  
  • Make it right when God reminds you.  It’s no accident that you are thinking about someone you are out of sorts with right now.  Don’t dismiss the convicting ministry of the Holy Spirit at work in your memory.  Remembering is the first step to reconciliation.  It’s God’s way of prompting you to be a peacemaker.  
  • Initiate reconciliation whether it’s your fault or not.  It could be a legitimate gripe, or maybe it’s unfounded.  It doesn’t really matter.  If someone has a grudge against you, follow God’s nudge and do what you can to make it right.\

Steps to Peace

Peacemaking is messy business, isn’t it?   I know of someone who has worked hard at reconciling relationships and has done the exact same thing with two different people.  One individual responded and reconciliation has happened and the other one rejected her peacemaking efforts.  Even when it doesn’t work, it’s always worthwhile to do what God says.  Romans 12:18: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”

Verse 24 lays out four steps for us to take when we have tension in a relationship: “Leave your gift there in front of the altar.  First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.”    These steps can by summarized by four words from this verse – Leave, Go, Be, and Come.

1. Leave abruptly.  “…leave your gift there in front of the altar…” 

We need to pause in our praise until we’re at peace.  David figured this out in Psalm 51:16-17: “You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.  The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”  God would rather have a broken life than a beautiful lamb.  He would rather have a surrendered man or a woman than scads of money.  He would rather have us leave and make peace than lift our hands in praise when we’re in conflict with someone.  Check this out.  God is more into correct relationships than He is with correct ritual.  Or we could say it this way: Worship must wait when we’re out of whack with someone.

2. Go quickly.  “…First go…”

We’re to leave the place of reverence and go find the place of reconciliation with the one we’ve wronged.  The verb tense here suggests an intense effort.  It’s so easy to think that the other person should take the first step.  Notice the word “first” before the word “go.”  This means first in order of importance.  The priority in peacemaking is to resolve everything right away.  

Matthew 18:15 says the same thing, only this time we’re told to go if we’ve been the one sinned against: “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you.  If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.”  Whether you have been wronged, or you’re in the wrong, it’s always right to go.  Ideally, we should run into the person we’re in conflict with, because if they’re doing it right, they’ll be coming to us.  But even when they don’t show, we are still required to go.  

the pursuit of reconciliation is always my responsibility

In this passage, Jesus does not mention the responsibility of the other person to restore the relationship.  He puts it squarely on you and on me.  Why?  Because our relationships test our righteousness and He’s not asking us to do anything He’s not already modeled for us.  Let’s personalize the priority of peacemaking by saying this phrase together: the pursuit of reconciliation is always my responsibility.

3. Be reconciled.  “…and be reconciled to your brother…” 

First, leave abruptly.  Second, go quickly.  Third, be reconciled.  The verb tense changes here, suggesting an intense effort.  Remember, the goal is reconciliation, not revenge.

This information called “The Seven A’s” from the Peacemaker website is very helpful

  • Address everyone involved (All those whom you affected) 
  • Avoid if, but, and maybe (Do not try to excuse your wrongs) 
  • Admit specifically (Both attitudes and actions) 
  • Acknowledge the hurt (Express sorrow for hurting someone) 
  • Accept the consequences (Such as making restitution) 
  • Alter your behavior (Change your attitudes and actions) 
  • Ask for forgiveness (Request release from the debt)

I’ve also found great help from these “Four Promises of Forgiveness” from Matthew 6:12; 1 Corinthians 13:5 and Ephesians 4:32.

  • I will not dwell on this incident.
  • I will not bring this incident up and use it against you.
  • I will not talk to others about this incident.
  • I will not allow this incident to stand between us or hinder our personal relationship.

4. Come worship.  “…then come and offer your gift.”

Leave.  Go.  Be.  Come.  Reconciliation is important enough to interrupt our worship of God because unresolved conflict has already interrupted our worship.  A right relationship with God depends on our willingness to maintain a right relationship with one another.  

The Peacemaker’s Pledge

One of the most enjoyable things for me to do is to help couples renew their marriage vows.  Over the past several years, we’ve made pledges to biblical peacemaking and I thought it would be good for us as a church to renew our vows to biblical conflict resolution. 

As people reconciled to God by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we believe that we are called to respond to conflict in a way that is remarkably different from the way the world deals with conflict (Matthew 5:9; Luke 6:27-36; Galatians 5:19-26).  We also believe that conflict provides opportunities to glorify God, serve other people, and grow to be like Christ (Romans 8:28-29; 1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1; James 1:2-4).  Therefore, in response to God’s love and in reliance on his grace, we commit ourselves to respond to conflict according to the following principles:

Glorify God —

Instead of focusing on our own desires or dwelling on what others may do, we will rejoice in the Lord and bring him praise by depending on his forgiveness, wisdom, power, and love, as we seek to faithfully obey his commands and maintain a loving, merciful, and forgiving attitude (Psalm 37:1-6; Mark 11:25; John 14:15; Romans 12:17-21; 1 Corinthians 10:31; Philippians 4:2-9; Colossians 3:1-4; James 3:17-18, 4:1-3; 1 Peter 2:12).

Get the Log out of Your Own Eye —

Instead of blaming others for a conflict or resisting correction, we will trust in God’s mercy and take responsibility for our own contribution to conflicts—confessing our sins to those we have wronged, asking God to help us change any attitudes and habits that lead to conflict, and seeking to repair any harm we have caused (Proverbs 28:13; Matthew 7:3-5; Luke 19:8; Colossians 3:5-14; 1 John 1:8-9).

Gently Restore —

Instead of pretending that conflict doesn’t exist or talking about others behind their backs, we will overlook minor offenses or we will talk personally and graciously with those whose offenses seem too serious to overlook, seeking to restore them rather than condemn them.  When a conflict with a Christian brother or sister cannot be resolved in private, we will ask others in the body of Christ to help us settle the matter in a biblical manner (Proverbs 19:11; Matthew 18:15-20; 1 Corinthians 6:1-8; Galatians 6:1-2; Ephesians 4:29; 2 Timothy 2:24-26; James 5:9).

Go and be reconciled —

Instead of accepting premature compromise or allowing relationships to wither, we will actively pursue genuine peace and reconciliation—forgiving others as God, for Christ’s sake, has forgiven us, and seeking just and mutually beneficial solutions to our differences (Matthew 5:23-24, 6:12, 7:12; Ephesians 4:1-3, 32; Philippians 2:3-4)

By God’s grace, we will apply these principles as a matter of stewardship, realizing that conflict is an assignment, not an accident.  We will remember that success in God’s eyes is not a matter of specific results, but of faithful, dependent obedience.  And we will pray that our service as peacemakers will bring praise to our Lord and lead others to know His infinite love (Matthew 25:14-21; John 13:34-35; Romans 12:18; 1 Peter 2:19, 4:19).

When the blade of the Bible is put on correctly it’s always sharp.  But it can also be painful.  Hebrews 4:12: “For the word of God is living and active.  Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”

Does the Lord have your heart right now?  Is there anything you need to confess?  Anyone you need to talk to?  Take some time right now and do some business with God.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?