Being a peacemaker: practical tips from the Bible on how to resolve conflict

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Many Bible verses encourage us to resolve conflict within our families, churches and communities. Here are just a few examples:

"Live in harmony with each other... do all that you can to live in peace with everyone." (Romans 12:16-18, NLT)

"God blesses those who work for peace, for they will be called the children of God" (Matthew 5:9)

"So if you are presenting a sacrifice at the altar in the Temple and you suddenly remember that someone has something against you, leave your sacrifice there at the altar. Go and be reconciled to that person. Then come and offer your sacrifice to God." (Matthew 5:23-24)

Yet making peace is often easier said than done. To get more inspiration and guidance for the challenge, it's important to delve deeper into the Bible to learn how to resolve conflict and improve our relationships.

Consider our own faults

It's a natural human tendency to blame others for problems and ignore the contribution that we ourselves have made to a conflict. Jesus said that examining ourselves and finding peace is necessary, which will help us to judge the problem more accurately: "Why worry about a speck in your friend's eye when you have a log in your own? How can you think of saying to your friend, 'Let me help you get rid of that speck in your eye,' when you can't see past the log in your own eye? Hypocrite! First get rid of the log in your own eye; then you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend's eye." (Matthew 7:3-5, NLT)

Even if the other person has done something that is clearly wrong, we can still consider how well we responded to it and if we did anything to worsen the situation. "After many years of marriage, I can think of only one time I may have been entirely innocent of wrongdoing when Corlette and I had an argument (and I am probably mistaken about that incident)," writes Christian speaker Ken Sande about his wife, in his book, The Peacemaker (Baker Publishing). "Every other time we have experienced a conflict, I either caused it or made it worse through sinful words or actions."

In the heat of an argument or when brooding over someone else's obvious faults, we can easily miss our own wrongs. Going somewhere quiet to pray honestly and examine our motives is helpful, and writing it down. Have I been selfish? Irritable? Greedy? What expectations am I imposing on others in a self-centred way? Am I wanting to be right and/or wanting to show myself better than someone else? Have I misinterpreted the other person's motives or thought the worst of them? Am I enjoying being angry for some reason?

Unless we are honest with ourselves, our own bad motives and drives can ruin any further action we take to resolve a conflict.

Can the offence be overlooked?

Calming down can often bring light and perspective into a situation, and make it seem less important or highlight contributing factors. Does it really matter? Is the person who offended you having a difficult time, that I can offer help with? Am I expecting perfect behaviour that I don't demonstrate myself? Is the row a one-off or unlikely to be repeated?

Proverbs 19:11 says: "Sensible people control their temper; they earn respect by overlooking wrongs." If it's possible to let it go, it's good to do so. But if you believe that someone – including yourself – is being harmed, it is best to take action.

Talking to the offender

In Matthew 18:13-15 Jesus offers a clear set of steps to take if someone has hurt you. First, go to the person to discuss it. If there is no progress, then take one or two people with you. If this doesn't work, then ask the church to intervene, and then "treat them as a tax collector," which Sande interprets as imposing church discipline.

If the problem is damaging your relationship and you can't let go of it, then it's wise to talk. So long as you are safe, the first step is to approach the person concerned. Sande suggests having a humble attitude and asking for forgiveness for our own part in the problem. He also advises to prepare well and consider the problem from the other person's side: what are their interests? Why might they be seeing this differently from you?

Approaching someone angrily with judgement or blame is unlikely to work, however. Pray for compassion and guidance. But if discussing it calmly hasn't worked, then you might need someone else to assist.

Getting outside help

Sande advises trying to agree with the other person on who would be best to help you discuss the problem together. If it is a personal matter, a church minister might be appropriate, or a mutual friend who has understanding in the area, or who you think has wisdom or experience that will help. If they are skilled, they can help you to discuss the problem together and see if you can find a solution yourselves, or they could offer suggestions for a way forward themselves.

Seeking consequences

If someone has harmed another, it can help them to face consequences for their actions, even if they apologise and see that they have done something wrong. This can be as simple as paying for damage, depending what the conflict is about.

The church discipline that Jesus advises in Matthew 18 isn't fashionable, and is hard for people who prefer to avoid conflict. But it might be helpful. For example, Sande gives an example of a man who was leaving his wife for another woman, but started to rethink when his pastor took a stand and said that in this particular situation, he would exclude the man from the church.

Of course, if someone has done something illegal, you may have a legal as well as a moral obligation to talk to the relevant authorities. This is for your own protection as well as the wellbeing of the offender and of other people who they could potentially harm.

Being reconciled

Forgiveness and reconciliation can be hard, but Sande cites a number of examples where it has helped someone to grow in faith, or even to find it. The potential blessings make the challenge make it worthwhile to pursue peace: within our own hearts, with others, and with God.

Conflict isn't easy, so it's understandable that many people avoid dealing with it or can't find ways to resolve difficulties.

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