“What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel.” (James 4:1–2a)
We know fighting and quarreling all too well. In reading this passage from James, we recognize that conflict caused by sin isn’t a new problem. Adam and Eve’s eating of the forbidden fruit brought quarreling and conflict into the human family and put humanity at conflict with all of creation. We can say confidently: Wherever two or more sinners are gathered, conflict will occur. So how are we to deal with conflict?
The award-winning musical Hamilton follows the life and career of American founding father Alexander Hamilton. Among other things, we learn with great historical accuracy of the “Ten Duel Commandments,” a (terrifying!) conflict-management technique among men of the time. Following the European Code Duello, the two men in conflict would follow a formal process for handling a dispute that, if still unresolved, ended in a duel. The conflict was then “resolved” by gunfire; the last man standing declared the victor. While disputes were often resolved without any shooting, we see examples of how devastating a duel leading to a shootout can be as a means for satisfaction. While a winner is named, it hardly seems that any real resolution is accomplished in this way. The person in conflict may be gone, but the entrenched emotions, unresolved sin, and now newly added guilt remain.
How often is this our approach to conflict today? Whether by acts of violence or damning words, we seek vengeance on our offenders to uphold our reputation and have the last word at all costs. But does that really resolve the situation?
While revenge may feel justified in the moment, it is not the way for Jesus’ disciples. The goal for those who follow Christ is always forgiveness. Second Corinthians 5:17–19 clearly states that every person who has been made a new creation in Baptism is called to be an ambassador of reconciliation. “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to Himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18). Seeking reconciliation is a call for all Christians. And while restoring a relationship may not always be appropriate (especially when physical, sexual, or emotional abuse is involved), forgiving the offender is.
Living a Life of Reconciliation
In this light, the only death we ought to pursue is putting to death our own sinful flesh and its desires. After all, forgiveness feels like dying. Author Donna Snow explains, “The cost of forgiveness is death. Just ask Jesus. Yet it is a death that leads to resurrection” (Pyle, Forgiveness: Received from God, Extended to Others, 25). It’s a death that leads to freedom and new life.
How do we live out the ministry of reconciliation? Jesus’ well-known words in Matthew 18 provide a practical guide. Similar to what’s described in Hamilton, the first step is to bring the offense directly to the offender, one-on-one. How often do we not even get this first step right? Rather than going directly to the offender to handle the matter privately, we seem to go just about anywhere else to gossip about the situation and slander the offender’s name. Imagine the number of relationships that would have a fighting chance toward reconciliation if we got this first step right instead of publicly airing dirty laundry.
If talking one-on-one isn’t fruitful, then Jesus instructs Christians to take one or two people along to witness the conversation. If it’s still unresolved, the conflict is taken before the church. If the offender refuses to confess his or her sin and seek forgiveness among the church, then, and only then, does Jesus say the offender should be treated as an outsider. The goal is never permanent excommunication or a broken relationship. It’s always to seek forgiveness and restoration.
So we seek the Holy Spirit, who gives us a spirit of “power and love and self-control” (2 Timothy 1:7), to help us put aside violence and in humility ask for forgiveness from one another—and receive it as well. In doing so, we witness to our Savior: “For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
Learn more about forgiveness in the latest issue of Lutheran Life.