I grew up in a family where we avoided conflicts. If we were unhappy, we would keep it to ourselves. If we were to bring anything up, it would be done in an indirect way. If the conflict reached a crisis point, either people would walk away and not let anyone know or burst out like a dam breaking and all the stored hurts, resentments and bitterness would erupt out. These options didn’t usually end well.
Conflicts are unavoidable. Perhaps we have become aware of a rise in the number of arguments in this COVID season due to changing circumstances, having increasing responsibilities like managing online work, or keeping abreast of the latest health directives, perhaps anxiety about loved ones and their health, or our own health, home-schooling, worry about income, restrictions on our normal daily activities and on top of that, being confined and for those who live with others, rubbing up against each other more. In some places, there has been an explosion of divorce requests and increase in domestic violence . The weaknesses were already festering but these conditions and extra stresses have added to the pressure. Even though COVID restrictions may be eased, sadly, conflicts with others may not. What are we to do?
I am guessing that most people will say that conflicts are bad and would want to avoid or minimise them. This is in line with how we define the word ‘conflict’ which in the Cambridge Dictionary is “to fight or disagree actively”. Even the examples given frame conflict as something to avoid, so for example, “[T]ry to keep any conflict between you and your ex-partner to a minimum.” This is also in line with how the Bible generally views conflict. There are at least 11 words which have been translated as ‘conflict’ or its synonym. In many cases, these conflicts are considered negative because they arise out of sin (Prov 6:14, 19; 10:12); they come from selfish ambition (James 4:1); they are described as worthless and unprofitable (Titus 3:9); we are told that the less strife there is and the further away it is, the better (Prov 17:14, 21:19); conflict is contrasted with the person who trusts in God (Prov 28:25); and living in conflict is how the unrighteous are described (Rom 1:29, 1 Cor 3:3). What we see is that conflicts can be negative especially when they are caused by sin and sinners.
However, when we explore the topic of conflict in the Bible more deeply, we get a more nuanced, neutral and even positive understanding. Paul tells Timothy to fight the good fight where leading involves having conflict with falsehood and ungodliness (1 Tim 6:12). Paul reasons and argues with the Jews about who Jesus is (Acts 17:2, 17; 18:4). Paul opposes Peter for siding with the circumcised Jews over what is necessary for salvation (Gal 2:11). We are to plead the cause of those being mistreated and seek for justice (Isa 1:17, Exod 23:2-3). This is something that God himself does and is praised for as he judges sin (Psa 74:22, Jer 25:31, 50:34, Isa 3:13, Prov 23:11). God’s children are to contend against their mother for her spiritual adultery (Hos 2:2). We are commanded to stir each other to love (Heb 10:24). This is the same word used to describe the disagreement between Paul and Barnabas over Mark (Acts 15:39). As we take into account other instances in the Bible when conflicts happen, we see that they can be positive, constructive and godly when done rightly and for the right reason.
In light of this, I have found Ken Sande’s definition of conflict helpful. Conflict is a “difference in opinion or purpose that frustrates someone’s goals or desires.” It involves both difference and frustration. Differences in themselves do not automatically lead to conflict and can in fact be beneficial (1 Cor 12:4ff). Frustrations are not bad in themselves. We can be frustrated about the things God is frustrated with and may even lead to growth in our character and relationships with God and others. The key is knowing what our differences and frustrations are and then how we deal with them. If handled well, conflicts can be used “as an opportunity to demonstrate the love and power of God in our lives” and to glorify God where we “depend on and draw attention to his grace, that is, the undeserved love, mercy, forgiveness, strength, and wisdom he gives to us through Jesus Christ.”
With this understanding, there are at least three implications:
- We need to avoid conflicts which arise from sin. Even though some conflicts can be neutral and can even be encouraged, we must remember that many of our conflicts come from sin and our own selfish desires.
- We don’t need to avoid all conflicts. We live in a conflict-filled world. As we wait for the new creation, we can see conflicts as opportunities to grow in our trust and love. This will present a different narrative to the world which seeks to avoid conflict by ignoring it, or by not allowing dissent, or engaging in conflict purely for self-gain. We on the other hand can engage in conflict to listen, learn, complement each other, love and grow.
- We all need to grow. As I look back, there are so many conflicts that I should not have had, many I should have had and many where the conflict could have been handled better. Yet we can take heart that we all need to – and can – grow with the help of the Spirit. Praise God for delivering us from this body of death so that we can serve God and others (Rom 7:25ff).
 Sorry to mislead you with the title.
 See for example https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1181829.shtml and https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200601-how-is-covid-19-is-affecting-relationships (accessed 2 Dec 2021).
 There are the exceptional cases where some will never miss an opportunity to have conflict with others and create some where there are none. Yet in general, we would rather not have conflict.
 Collins Dictionary.
 There are at least 4 Hebrew words (medān, mādôn, ryb, ṣbʾ)
and 7 Greek words (agōn, anthistēmi, dialegomai, polemos, eris, machē and paroxusmos).
 Ken Sande, The Peacemaker, Baker Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, p 29.
 Ibid. p 31.
 Ibid. p 31.