the shape of leadership

The Spiritual Side of Resolving Relational Conflict

Four steps to restoring unity

Every ministry leader deals with relational conflict in some form, whether it’s a family issue, a church disagreement, or a community struggle. Conflict is part of life, and our world has no shortage of it right now.

We often view conflict only through the lens of how it’s impacting us right now. We feel the emotions, tensions, and frustrations, and in a matter of seconds, we think of every imaginable reason why we’re right and someone else is wrong.

But there’s often more going on than we may realize. In James 4, we get a snapshot of external conflict (with others), internal conflict (within ourselves), and upward conflict (with God). The opening verses make it clear that upward peace (with God) creates inward peace (in ourselves) that produces outward peace (with others). Simply put, there’s a spiritual side to resolving relational conflict.

James starts with a question: “What causes fights and quarrels among you?” (James 4:1). And in verses 11-12, James offers a warning about judging others: “Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you — who are you to judge your neighbor?”

Like us, the Early Church struggled with real-life relational tension. Interestingly, wedged between these verses is a common passage of Scripture we rarely apply to relational conflict. James writes, “Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded” (James 4:7-8).

What would happen if we applied these words to our everyday conflicts? What if we approached the unrest in our culture — from debates related to the pandemic to concerns over racial injustice — through the lens of these wisdom-filled words from James?

Doing so would help us apply four powerful truths for dealing with the spiritual side of relational tension.

1. Humble Yourself

Many crises have a unifying effect. For example, immediately following the 9/11 terror attacks, our country came together like I had never seen before. That crisis unified our country.

But the crises we are facing now are doing quite the opposite. The pandemic and the horrific racial injustices in our country are highlighting — and in some cases, deepening — divisions. For these conflicts to be resolved, we must begin by humbling ourselves.

That’s where James starts. He says, “Submit yourselves, then, to God” (verse 7). Then, in verse 10, he says, “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.” Unity always begins with humility. Unity always requires us to lay down our weaponized words and adopt a humble heart.

Think about it. What does humility do in the context of relationships? Humility turns you into a listener and a learner. But as long as you always have a point to prove, you’ll never fully listen and never fully learn.

Racial reconciliation could begin if some of us would do less talking and more listening to the diverse voices of those who have been silenced and marginalized. Again, it starts with a posture of humility.

Unity always requires us to lay down our weaponized words and adopt a humble heart.

No matter the nature of the divide, pride will only amplify and multiply the conflict and crisis. To restore relational health, you have to deal with the root of pride by humbling yourself before God and others.

2. Resist the Devil

As followers of Jesus, we have one enemy. Your enemy is not the person with a different skin color than you. Your enemy is not the person who voted differently than you or who posted a viewpoint you disagree with. People with a different background, language or culture are not your enemy.

We have one enemy: the devil, Satan. He alone is our enemy, and he has one agenda: to steal, kill and destroy.

That’s who Satan is, and that’s what Satan is trying to do right now. He’s trying to keep us from coming together in unity and pointing people to Christ. But James says, “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.”

Notice James doesn’t say to resist your neighbor who doesn’t mow his lawn, your argumentative family member, or the troublemaker in your congregation. These are people, not your enemy. Our job is to resist the devil, our one true enemy.

The apostle Paul reminds us of our battle with our single enemy: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12).

When we fight Satan, and him alone, it helps us stay on mission with what matters most, and to love people unconditionally.

3. Come Near to God

James continues: “Come near to God and he will come near to you” (James 4:8). Why would we not come near to God when we experience relational tension? Perhaps we’re afraid of what God might say to us.

Maybe we’re afraid God will ask us to start praying for the person who unsettles us. Maybe we’re worried God will call us to love the person we disagree with so deeply. Perhaps we’re afraid God will actually push us out of our comfort zones to build a bridge rather than hiding behind the safety of our self-justified barriers.

Come near to God. Not only will you find in Him the comfort and strength you need in a deeply difficult time, but you will also receive wisdom for moving forward. After all, isn’t that what we all want when we experience relational conflict — a path forward?

4. Repent of Your Sin

Finally, James says, “Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded” (James 4:8). In other words, repent of your sin. Repent of your external behaviors and your internal attitudes.

To drive his point deeper, James says, “Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up” (verses 9-10).

True repentance means deep remorse for sin, and a willingness to humble ourselves before God. At its core, repenting of sin is owning the problem. It’s confession (admitting you’ve sinned) and repentance (going a new direction).

What would happen if the next time you experienced relational conflict, you didn’t just deal with the practical sides of the conflict — which, by the way, are extraordinarily important — but you also dealt with the spiritual root?

Take a moment to overlay these four spiritual insights on whatever relational conflict you may be dealing with right now. Humble yourself so you can truly listen and learn. Stop resisting people, and instead resist the devil who comes to divide and destroy.

Then, come near to God. Seek His grace, mercy and wisdom as you deliberately own your part of the conflict. As you deal with the spiritual issue, I believe the Holy Spirit will guide you toward reconciliation and unity in every area of your life and ministry.

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