Conflict—What Was God Thinking?

What do the following Biblical relationships all have in common - Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Rachel and Leah, Jacob and Laban, Joseph and his older brothers?  Yes, they were all strained relationships because of differences that were dealt with in an unhealthy manner.  We would label all of them as conflicted relationships.

When you hear the word “conflict” what is your first reaction – memories of strained relationships or a feeling of dread?  I have studied conflict for many years and the most common reaction to the mention of conflict is always negative.  Why do we experience so much conflict or anticipated conflict?  Why do so many of us choose to avoid situations where we anticipate conflict or avoid running into individuals we have had difficult interactions with?  Have you ever been in a store and turn down an aisle to realize there is someone you don’t want to see and find yourself turning around to avoid the uncomfortable exchange?

The academic literature on conflict begins in the early 1950s and today still addresses conflict in much the same way it did 65 years ago.  The general conclusion of the conflict literature is:

1.  Conflict is a difference of ideas or perspectives and results from our natural differences by birth and experiences

2.  It is very common for us to hear the other person’s different idea as a personal attack on our idea and therefore on us

3.  The natural response is for us to counterattack and the negative spiral is underway (this natural tendency for conflict to deteriorate relationships is the basis for our negative thoughts and feelings about conflict)

4.  Conflict that has such negative effects on relationships is called Affective Conflict

5.  Conflict (the difference of ideas) does not need to go down this destructive road and can actually be constructive, which is called Cognitive Conflict. 

Other terms have been developed over the years to better convey the essence of these two types of conflict but the main thrust of the literature has not changed – avoid Affective Conflict and strive for Cognitive Conflict – the result can be healthier and more productive relationships.  Sounds so straightforward and easy!  There is probably no better example of the trite statement, “easier said than done!”

What does it take as believers to keep our differences from becoming a strain on our relationships and robbing us of our joy?  There are three key factors to living in harmony and benefitting from our differences.

1. Recognize that our differences are real and a part of God’s unique design in our lives. (Ephesians 2:10) Every parent of multiple children has lived the reality of this truth. 

2.  Listen to genuinely understand rather than listen enough to counter argue (Proverbs 18:2, 13, 15)

3.  Exercise the humility exhibited by Christ that shifts our focus to the needs of others (Philippians 2: 3, 8)

I love the story towards the end of Moses’ life when the tribes of Reuben and Gad come to Moses and request that they be given the land east of the Jordan since it was so well suited for their large flocks. (Numbers 32) Moses apparently assumed that they were wanting to take the easy way out and not cross the Jordan to fight the battles to come with the other tribes.  He gives them a history lesson and calls them a “brood of sinners” who are making God even angrier.  But Moses is willing to listen!  The leaders of the tribes of Reuben and Gad provide their rationale and make a full commitment to not just supporting the other tribes, but promise to lead the other tribes into battle.  Moses not only listens but agrees to their proposal.  When the time comes, Joshua reminds them of their promise and they lead the other tribes across the Jordan and into battle.

When the mission has been accomplished, Joshua commends the tribes of Reuben and Gad for their faithful fulfillment of their promise, blesses them and sends them back across the Jordan. (Joshua 22) On their way home, they build an imposing memorial that the other tribes immediately assume is a sign of their rebellion against God and they “prepare to go to war” against Reuben and Gad. But they pause and send a delegation ahead to see if war is necessary.  In other words, they are willing to listen!  Reuben and Gad declare their loyalty and commitment to God and explain that they built the replica of an altar as a reminder to the descendants on both sides of the Jordan that they are still one people of God.  The delegation is satisfied and war is averted.

What a difference it makes to be willing to listen and not assume the worst of the other side.  Only God’s transformative work in our hearts can lead us to consistently love others and understand their perspective when it is so different from our own.  In each of the relationships from Genesis listed at the outset, legitimate differences were allowed to cause lifelong negative consequences. The challenge before us is not just to avoid these long-term strained relationships, but to learn how to take advantage of our differences to more effectively do the work God has called us to do.  Can we even get to the point where we rejoice in our differences?  Our differences are His design!

Dr. Jack Wheeler, Assistant Professor of Business Administration, Indiana Wesleyan University