Conflict is one of those things most people try to avoid. I imagine it’s largely because few of us have experienced conflict turn out well. Everyone has a baseline response to conflict: Yield, withdrawal, win, compromise…but few of us understand how to work through conflict to a point of resolution. Much of how we approach conflict is conditioned by how we observed it and experienced it growing up – with parents, teachers, coaches, classmates. We found the best way to cope…passive-aggressive behavior, conciliatory comments, argumentativeness, violence – some worked well, many not at all!
Conflict happens in all relationships. It is inevitable. How we handle that conflict is essential for moving forward in the relationship. In the past few months I’ve come across the idea of “conflict transformation”. Conflict transformation is not a commitment to transforming the conflict into something else – though that might be a good thing – it is a commitment “for us to seek transformation in and through the conflict” (Ruth Haley Barton, Pursuing God’s Will Together, p. 104). It is all about finding ways for me to be open to the presence of Jesus in the midst of conflict. It is an attempt to seek after deeper levels of heart change in my life rather than simply slipping into habits or natural responses that may not reflect Christ’s presence in my life.
This is a big challenge. How do I enter into a conflict situation with a desire to be changed for the better? How do I enter into it with the mindset of maintaining the unity of Christ – and even seeing the situation strengthen our unity in Christ – instead of simply managing the situation or resolving it and moving on. The reality for most of us is that conflict stirs very strong emotions in us and we often respond before we can even slow down enough for a rational thought.
To experience conflict transformation, we need to affirm the truth that Jesus is with us in the midst of the conflict. He promised to never leave us nor forsake us (Hebrews 13:5) and in the context of a conflict the passage promised that were two or three are gathered, he was in their midst (Matthew 18:19). We can ask ourselves, “What does Christian love demand in this situation?” We can seek to remain open to God and the other person rather than withdrawing or attacking.
We also need to “affirm that conflict can be the catalyst for needed growth and transformation…if we are willing to engage it as such” (Barton, p. 146). We need to enter into the situation to seek resolution of the conflict, but we also want to create the space for God to use it to transform us. Practicing regular times of self-examination and learning to pay attention to what’s going on inside us can help us navigate conflict situations. As we examine ourselves, we may become aware of attitudes that have contributed to the situation that need confession; or we may realize how the conflict is affecting us and see areas God wants to refine. By slowing down and reflecting on the situation and our heart and attitudes in it, we seek to understand what it is God is doing in us and perhaps in the other person so we can grow.
Not every conflict lends itself easily to conflict transformation. But if we approach conflict with a right heart and attitude, it can be something that transforms us more into the image of Jesus. As with so much of life, things happen and it often feels like we have no control over it. But if we take the attitude that God purposes or permits everything for a purpose then we can know that each situation is a transformational growth opportunity. Instead of hiding from the challenges as potholes to be avoided, we can embrace the opportunity to learn and grow and model a different approach.
What would it mean in your life to pursue conflict transformation? What about this idea is attractive? Is there anything your heart resists? Take time to pray and ponder what God might be inviting you to experience…