How to navigate conflict with a balance of truth and grace
by Daniel Darling
I was having a particularly rough day at the office, and I carelessly left a weapon lying around — my email inbox. Chafed at a colleague who publically embarrassed me in a team meeting, I composed a bitter and sarcastic email and, without hesitation, clicked Send. Then I propped up my feet on the desk and waited for the smoke cloud to rise from the office of my perceived enemy.
I didn’t have to wait long. Jim, a veteran leader, called me and said, “Dan, I can tell you’re upset. Why not come over here and let’s talk about it?” As I walked across the church campus to his office, my heart sank into my stomach. Regret washed over me in waves.
Jim didn’t deserve the treatment I gave him. As I entered his office, I spoke first: “I’m sorry.”
Thankfully, Jim’s good spirit diffused what could have been a tense situation. I know that my hasty email damaged our relationship. Following that exchange, it took months to restore the trust we’d previously shared.
That was about 13 years ago when I was a young, inexperienced leader. Though the “older me” has learned a few things about communication, like most Christians, I wrestle with how to navigate conflict.
The Bible tells us Jesus embodied two seemingly competing virtues: truth and grace (John 1:14). We tend to pit one against the other, but the New Testament speaks of them as symbiotic, as if you can’t fully experience grace without truth and you can’t fully experience truth without grace.
Peter understood this well. His first letter to the church speaks often of boldness and courage yet advocates a gentleness and grace. Peter knew this tension well. At times, he wielded the sword of truth recklessly. During other times, he lacked the courage to speak up.
So how does a Christian, in everyday relationships, embody this tension? There are seven important considerations:
Remember that love is the highest ideal of the Christian faith. In one of the most remarkable pieces of literature, Paul shares the definition of love in 1 Corinthians 13. His audience is the Corinthian church, a congregation beset by problems. They were caving into the sensual morés of the culture, they leveraged their spiritual gifts for greater prestige, and they were making a mockery of Christ’s church.
In the middle of his stinging rebuke, Paul stops and offers a vision of otherworldly love. Ministry, truth, and giftedness — none of these matter, Paul reminds us, if we don’t have love (1 Corinthians 13:2). Of the triad of essential Christian virtues — faith, hope, and love — Paul reminds us that love is the greatest. That doesn’t diminish the need for hope and faith — both are essential nutrients for a spiritual diet. But love trumps them all.
Love must inform everything we do. Every relationship. Every situation. Every conflict. Are we motivated by self-interest or love?
Recognize that sometimes relational love looks like something else. Typically, we think of love as something weak, like permissiveness. But real love, embodied by Jesus, sometimes involves tough, penetrating conversations. Love must confront sin.
As a young boy I never understood why my dad insisted on saying, after every punishment, “Dan, I’m doing this only because I love you.” Three licks to the backside doesn’t look much like love. Nor does taking away the car or banning me from the computer. But as a fully-grown man, I now look back on Dad’s parenting as acts of love.
Sometimes the most loving, selfless thing you can do is to confront someone you love to aid that person’s spiritual growth.
I’ve counseled young people who’ve experienced little or no discipline in their lives. I’m always struck by their deep desire for someone to give them some rules to live by. To them, guardrails, properly enforced, are a great sign of love. Proverbs 3:12 says that the Lord “disciplines the one He loves.” Hebrews 12 reminds us that discipline is evidence of God’s loving presence.
Parents have a unique responsibility, but the idea of tough love extends to every human relationship. Sometimes the most loving, selfless thing you can do is to confront someone you love to aid in that person’s spiritual growth. It can actually be unloving and selfish to avoid conflict to prevent personal pain.
Reflect on your own weakness before you engage conflict. Before you confront a brother or sister about a weakness, ask yourself some important questions, Am I doing this in a spirit of pride, because my own feelings have been hurt or am I doing this because I deeply care about this person?
Paul told the Galatian believers, in redemptive relationships, to watch out for themselves, reminding them of their own vulnerability to temptation (Galatians 6:1). In other words, realize that you aren’t infallible, that the very sin that plagues your brother or sister could ensnare you someday. This kind of sober, humble reflection not only keeps you from excessive anger, but it’s a sort of bridge to repentance for that person you’re trying to restore to spiritual health.
As a pastor, I’ve found this principle to work powerfully. I try to say, “This could easily have been me and perhaps one day our roles will be reversed, and you’re warning me about some poor choices.” It disarms your brother and sister. Suddenly you’re not going to them as a judge, but as a fellow sinner, just as desperate for grace. In your conversations, you might even share stories of your own mistakes. This is how you love someone back to wholeness and health.
Remember to apply the “sandwich” technique. The human soul is desperately in need of encouragement. If you must confront someone you love, be sure you begin your exchange with honest affirmation of his or her good attributes and end with positive praise. Personally, I always respond well to this kind of rebuke and can leave a conversation with hope.
I think this is what’s meant by the phrase, “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). As you communicate hard truths, you should communicate them with love. It’s not enough to deeply care for others. They need to hear it from you, repeatedly. Especially in the midst of a conflict.
Sometimes I’ve been rebuked so harshly, I’ve felt as if my entire experience was an “open-faced” platter. All rebuke and no encouragement. Such actions don’t build up; they deflate. And ironically, berating and abusing rarely affects positive behavioral change.
Relinquish control to the Holy Spirit’s timing and influence. Every single time I’ve hurried into a conflict, I’ve regretted my actions. Even if I was the “right” party, rushing always caused me to handle the situation wrongly and deepen a relational divide.
Take time to pray before confronting a brother or sister. First, ask the Holy Spirit to examine your own heart for sin. Be honest with yourself, Are you the right person to speak to this issue with this person? Maybe, in this case, it’s best to keep silent or allow God to use someone else to heal the division. Secondly, ask the Holy Spirit to shape your words in a way that spiritually builds up your brother or sister. Third, request a humble and soft heart from God so that when you face the other person, you can do it with tears not clenched fists. Fourth, pray for right timing and allow the Holy Spirit to lead your heart.
Resist the temptation to be a fixer. Sometimes love must confront with the truth. But there are other times when it’s important to be quiet and not say anything. I’ve found that quite often my conflicts with others stem from my own pride in thinking I have the answers that can fix everyone else.
When we try to fix people, we usurp God. We clumsily press into people’s lives in a way that isn’t only harmful to the person, but corrosive to our own egos. Even if a brother displays an obvious weakness and need for change, it may be best to keep quiet and pray.
We don’t always need to speak up about everything that comes to our minds. James was right when he said the mature Christian is “quick to hear, slow to speak” (James 1:19). An “I call it like it is” attitude may be popular and win an audience, but it’s antithetical to Christlike love.
If you must confront someone you love, be sure you begin your exchange with honest affirmation of his or her good attributes and end with positive praise.
Realize that simply because something is true doesn’t mean it needs to be said. Proverbs 17:9 offers sage relationship advice: “Whoever conceals an offense promotes love, but whoever gossips about it separates friends.”
Before you tell that co-worker how her dress really looks, consider if that knowledge helps or hurts. Before you pass along a parishioner’s criticism to your pastor, think about how that might affect his ministry on Sunday. Before you give your son a harsh, but true, assessment of his athletic performance, ask yourself whether it will build him up or tear him down.
“But it’s true” is no excuse to hurt people. Genuine love understands the power of truth, that wielded like a hammer, can cause damage to those on the receiving end. We should carefully weigh our words, asking the Holy Spirit to imbue them with grace (Colossians 4:6). At times the most loving thing we can do is keep quiet.
When we speak the truth in love, we’re serving others by faithfully preaching the gospel into their area of need. When this tension of truth and grace guides our relationships, they have potential for an intimacy that builds the foundation for lifelong fruitfulness.
Daniel Darling is the senior pastor of Gages Lake Bible Church near Chicago and is the author of numerous books, including iFaith, Real, and his forthcoming book Activist Faith. Dan and his wife, Angela, have four children and reside in the northern suburbs of Chicago.
This article originally appeared in the November, 2013 issue of HomeLife. Subscribe