"If you marry him, I know you're just gonna take him for everything he's got and then drop him on one of our doorsteps!" My future husband's daughter-in-law Annie (not her real name) raised her voice in anger.
Seated by a window in a charming Greek restaurant, I felt the heat rise to the top of my head. I glanced around, grateful the restaurant hadn't yet filled. I was completely surprised by Annie's spiteful words, so I quickly prayed for guidance.
Remain quiet, God encouraged me. So I didn't say anything in response to Annie's accusation.
Annie's eyes flashed fire. "Your reaction isn't normal. I'm attacking you and you're not even fighting back."
"How would it help if I did?" I asked, as I thought of Jesus' example. Scripture tells us that Jesus "did not retaliate when he was insulted, nor threaten revenge when he suffered" (1 Peter 2:23).
Annie was right. Refusing to respond to hostility in kind is not a normal response. But it is Christlike. I swallowed hard and prayed for grace. How could I glorify God in this situation where the hostility was thick enough to slice?
Conflict Is Unavoidable
In our fallen world, we all face conflict. It simmers between spouses and erupts in family relationships. It festers in long-term friendships. It seethes in the workplace.
I'd grown to love Annie's father-in-law who, like me, was widowed. Richard and I began seeing each other about nine months after his wife's passing. Now two years after her mother-in-law's death, Annie was still hostile.
For days after her attack, I was angry. Over lunch with a few friends, I shared the experience and described my anger over Richard's kids.
My friend Sara challenged me, saying, "I won't feel good about your relationship until you love Richard's kids."
That was a stretch. My mind was so filled with conflict, it was difficult to imagine. I asked God, Is that what you want, Lord? How can I love someone who treats me with such contempt?
"Even thought it's hard, I think you're right where God wants you," my friend Cathy told me. "You've always wanted to please everyone. Now you can't, and this situation will stretch you to understand where your worth really lies. You need to recognize—but not own—their feelings."
Conflict. I hate it! And too many times I've responded poorly when faced with it. I'd much rather avoid it, but in life there are times when we simply can't.
So what do we do when we have to face conflict? How do we handle it with courage and a God-honoring attitude? The apostle Paul challenges us this way: "Never pay back evil with more evil. Do things in such a way that everyone can see you are honorable. Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone" (Romans 12:17-18, emphasis added).
There will be times when we need to confront conflict head-on. For example, if my child is being bullied or a friend is being abused, I need to act. A direct confrontation could involve talking to school authorities or calling the police. Jesus was no stranger to direct confrontation; we can see his willingness to address conflict head-on when he turned over the money changers' tables in the temple (Matthew 21:12-13). Jesus also directly confronted the hypocrisy of religious leaders who spoke against Jesus for healing on the Sabbath (Mark 3:1-6; Luke 13:10-17). But in contrast to these direct confrontations, when Jesus was personally attacked he remained silent.
Be Christlike Even in Conflict
So what should we do when we find ourselves in the middle of a painful or heated conflict? Here are some principles I'm learning along the way.
1. Don't allow bitterness to take root in my heart. "Watch out that no poisonous root of bitterness grows up to trouble you" (Hebrews 12:15). If I don't actively eradicate it, bitterness will damage both me and those around me. Letting go of resentment is an ongoing prayer of mine. I've found I need to eradicate bitterness repeatedly.
Occasionally something will trigger my discouragement, hurt, and anger. At times I've been blatantly ignored by Richard's family. Each time I have to deal with my feelings all over again, confessing my anger and asking God for new grace—but especially asking God to keep my heart from hardening toward those who've hurt me.
2. Examine my own heart before addressing another's faults. Jesus challenges us: "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 7:5). Before focusing on another's faults, I need to perform a "logectomy" on myself. I know that while God is working in their lives, he's just as concerned about my responsibility and responses to situations. I need to own those before God so that he can continue to shape me to be more like Jesus—that means praying even the most difficult prayers about my resentment toward Richard's children.
3. Look at this conflict from my antagonist's point of view. Their animosity toward me, no matter how painful, really wasn't personal. This once-close family was fractured following the death of their mother who'd worked hard to keep the family close with frequent get-togethers, family work parties, and birthday celebrations. The children weren't ready to have a newcomer change the family dynamic or to see their dad love someone else. As I tried to understand their point of view, my attitude toward his children became more open and it's become easier to respond to them with kindness and love.
4. Recognize what is mine to change. I am not responsible for others' reactions to me, but I do own my attitude and behavior. So I've begun to ask myself, Where do I need to take responsibility for my contribution to this conflict? Have I done all I can to achieve reconciliation?
This is about being brutally honest with myself. Let's face it, we look at ourselves subjectively—so it's easy for us to believe, I'm completely innocent in this situation. I'm simply reacting to them. They're the ones who have the problem! But when we become vulnerable before God and ask him to hold up the mirror to us, we see that rarely do we handle situations perfectly. We can always learn something about our behavior to help us grow.
I began to pray for Richard's children and their spouses. At first I asked God to move them to give me a chance and to learn to appreciate me. As I continued to pray, my request changed from asking for their affirmation to appealing for God's enabling grace to help me respond to every situation in a way that would honor him.
5. Pray that my response to conflict reflects God's grace. When I asked God to keep me calm during that heated scene with Annie, his faithfulness was amazing. Despite her aggressive accusations, I was able to respond to each question with honesty, directness, and a gentle spirit that I knew was an answer to my prayer for grace.
When we honestly ask for God's guidance, he will always give it. Our job—and our success—comes after he gives it. Do we listen to God's guidance or do we ignore it? When the Holy Spirit prompts us, we can be obedient, trusting that God has everyone's best interest in mind.
6. Find common ground. Can I discover anything in common with the person with whom I'm in conflict? What values do we share (family, friendships, pets, hobbies)?
Annie adores her daughters—and I adore them too. Richard and I have enjoyed attending a number of their school events and they visit us regularly. The girls help him plant flowers, love to swim in the pool, and enjoy playing games with us. I prayed that Annie would eventually see my genuine interest in her children.
Several years now after Richard's and my marriage, Annie has begun to recognize that I love her girls. Recently she started acting more kindly toward me. While I know the situation is not yet resolved, I do see God's hand at work and trust that he will continue his work in me and, as a result, in those around me.
7. Love and pray for my "enemies." Even if Annie never changes her attitude toward me, I'm only responsible for how I respond to her—and God calls me to continue praying for her, praying about the situation, and praying that I would constantly yearn to grow to be like Jesus in the midst of the most difficult adversity.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, "[L]ove your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven" (Matthew 5:44-45). Understanding God's love better helps me learn to really love others. When I look at another individual as someone who's figuratively at the foot of the Cross right beside me, needing God's grace just as much as I do, then I'm better able to pray for that person. Sometimes we don't want to think that God loves that person as much as he loves us, but he does! God delights in all of his creation. It helps me pray for my enemy when I recognize that Jesus died for them too.
God's Grace in Adversity
Because I'm called to obey, I pray that God will soften my sometimes crusted-over heart. I also pray for God's blessing and guidance in the lives of those with whom I have unresolved conflict. Does it still crush me when others don't respond to my efforts? Yes, sometimes deeply.
So when I face adversity, I wrestle with my anger until I confess and allow God to provide grace to reflect his love, regardless of my circumstances. He is faithful to grant the grace I need for each situation. I need only to humble myself and pray, Yes, Lord, here we are again. Change my heart. And with God's help I can choose to behave with grace in any situation.
Ruth Kroeker is a pseudonym for a writer living in California. All names in this article have been changed.