Family conflict is especially hurtful. We know the world at large will hurt us, but expect our family to be a safe place. We hope our family loves, respects, values, treasures us. So when family conflict surfaces, we are often surprised and find ourselves deeply wounded.
But when we are hurt, we usually don’t respond well. Our first instinct is to get defensive. Our second is to wound back or withdraw. Neither response strikes at the heart of the conflict or reflects Christ.
And families often gather at already stressful times: weddings, funerals, holidays. Emotions are already running high. One careless word can ignite a firestorm if we don’t focus on solving our family conflict in a way that pleases Christ first.
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I can’t speak for you, but my selfishness is something I battle minute to minute. I really prefer to have things my way and struggle to relinquish the illusion of control. In the heat of the moment, selfish behaviors I believed long dead can still rise to the surface.
I see the world through only my flawed, human perspective. And when I let my hurt feelings take over, I think the worst of everyone and function from fear.
So handling conflict takes focusing on my new nature as a Christian (Romans 12:2).
I need to seek God’s perspective on the situation over my own.
So what is God’s perspective on family conflict?
First, He loves all the people in the conflict equally. God’s desire is for all to come to the life-giving-salvation Jesus provided on the cross. PERIOD.
Even if you’re the only believer in your family or the only one who seems to be walking by faith right now, God doesn’t love you more or better or think you should get your way because you’re a Christian.
Plus, how we handle the conflict might be more important than the actual resolution.
Is the issue at hand more important than anyone’s salvation?
My petty bickering with my husband really pales in comparison to thinking about his salvation being on the line with how I conduct myself.
While some conflicts are very serious and might require setting boundaries or seeking professional help, using the standard of the other person’s walk/salvation keeps us from elevating even the most difficult issues above our witness as a disciple of Christ.
When we focus on our witness over our way, God is glorified.Is this family conflict more important than their salvation? When I focus on my witness over my way, God is glorified. Click To Tweet
If you have unsaved family, how you deal with hurts and conflict might be the best witness you ever have because how God asks us to live humbly and gently is so counter-cultural.
It takes a deep change in our hearts to give up taking offense, but I’ve never taken a hurt to Him and not received a verse or perspective shift that has allowed me to begin the process of forgiveness.
But we have to be willing to let go of our anger, which is easier said than done. Sometimes being angry feels like a right. Someone has mistreated us and we feel we deserve to be hurt, angry, indignant. We let that anger blossom in our chests like fire unfurling.
We let it roll around and grow into huge hurts, grudges, bitterness because we are so focused on ourselves. But that only hurts us and damages our relationships which doesn’t please Christ at all.
Secondly, God asks us to think less of ourselves and more highly of others.
Philippians 2:3 ESV Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.
To handle conflict, I have to be in right relationship with God first.
The more like Christ I become, the more I realize how far from Him I truly am. But seeing myself accurately is a gift from God. When I can see how desperately I need God’s grace, I have the humility of heart to offer grace and forgiveness to those around me.
I learned a lot about focusing on my own relationship with God in marriage (and all relationships) in the book I just finished using to lead a small group.
Before my emotions take over, I try to pray. Then I seek to understand the heart of the other person.
For example, my husband walked through the door, grumbling. His tone was sharp and he had a stompy attitude (You know, stomping around the house, slamming drawers while bitterly mumbling).
Deep breath – honey, you seem upset. Is something bothering you?
The wonderful bureaucracy that is the army had thrown a curveball into his day. It had nothing to do with me. While I didn’t appreciate his stompiness, I didn’t have to be hurt by his inability to cope with frustration. I could love him instead. I asked what he needed and let him have some space.
Even when the other person’s behavior is wrong, unkind, even abusive, we need to recognize their need for Christ. Letting their sin surprise us is where we go wrong.
I’ve learned to expect sinners to act like sinners. Even wise, obedient, mature Christians sin. Taking offenses to God in prayer before reacting from hurt is always the best answer.
I’ve found the closer I draw to God, the more sin grieves me for others than for how it affects me.
But I still struggle with entitlement: I think, I deserve to be treated better!
But that isn’t really how Christ handled it. He expected to be rejected and abused, but responded rightly every time. Some instances, He exhibited righteous anger. While at others, He suffered quietly, allowing the silence to convict more loudly than words ever could.Righteous, loving silence and the Holy Spirit can convict more loudly than any words. Don't react in surprise to the sin of others, but respond in peace. Click To Tweet
And he never told us to stand up for ourselves . . .
Matthew 16:24 ESV Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.
Ok, so that is super hard. Painfully so. But when I hold up my fist and demand my rights, I end up more angry and do more damage to my relationships.
Sometimes, I still struggle with getting sucked into this vicious cycle. I’ll start having a conversation, but if the other person responds poorly, I begin to feel unheard or disrespected. If I don’t step back to let God work in both of us those emotions run roughshod over reason. I’ll talk myself into a tizzy trying to fix something that needs me to be quiet.
Being quiet invites. We can gently ask questions and listen.
- Your reaction surprised me. What hurt your feelings? I didn’t mean to hurt you.
- That sounds like it might be a painful topic for you. Want to talk about it?
- That hurt my feelings. I’m sure you didn’t intend to, but I’m sensitive about that.
- I’m not sure I understand. Can you tell me what you wanted to communicate?
That gentle heart assumes the best of the other person’s intentions and heart.
We hear the words people use, but don’t take the time to really understand what they were saying. People are messy – especially family members with whom we have so much history.
Proverbs 15:1 ESV A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.
We make judgments and decisions based on twenty years of knowledge not just a single conversation. That’s not really fair, but it’s human nature. Assume the best and answer softly.
Try to see from their perspective.
Maybe your mother criticizes your husband because she worries about your happiness. She might be showing it in a terribly destructive way, but maybe that’s her reason for saying the things she does.
It’s so much easier to keep from getting angry when we recognize the humanity behind hurtful actions or comments. Maybe she misses the closeness you had before you were married or resents how far you have moved away from her.
Hurtful actions come from hurting people. When we love them, we can start to heal their hurts and our relationships.
The aunt or cousin who offers unsolicited parenting, marriage, housekeeping advice might be feeling unappreciated, unnoticed, or might simply be concerned about you.
The mother-in-law whose offers to help feel like backhanded attacks might be worried about how you are loving her child. She wants to see him happy.Hurtful actions come from hurting people. When we embrace them, we can start to heal their hurts and our relationships. Click To Tweet
Don’t react, respond. Put yourself second and love the person whose comment or action hurt you. Why did they do that? What made them say that? How can you respond in a way that puts their needs and feelings above your own?
- I know you worry about me. Thank you for your concern, but I prefer to talk about all the ways my husband cares for me instead of his mistakes. I sure make enough of my own.
- Oh, I do hate mopping. What have you found that works?
- Homeschooling isn’t the only option, and I your concerns are ones we’ve really thought and prayed over. I love that you love my kids and want what’s best for them!
- It’s really frustrating that this recipe didn’t turn out like Grandma’s. How do you make it?
- The way our marriage works is different, isn’t it? But your son is such a blessing to me. He is a good provider and father.
In those hurtful moments, if we speak to their hurting places, we can better offer grace and work through the conflict.
What if you caused the conflict?
What if you thought light-heartedly teasing your cousin about being a terrible cook was no big deal, but touched a soft spot for struggling young wife. Or something you did years ago has become a bitter sticking point for a sibling.
Don’t let it go. Own up to it immediately. Apologize as if you had offended Christ. Because when we don’t love each other the way He commanded, we have.
John 13:35 ESV By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
We won’t always get it all perfect. Expect to fail. Expect to need to apologize. We hope to get along with our families, but navigating personalities, emotions, and sensitive topics is a minefield.
As we demonstrate Christ’s love in our witness, people will see our faith.
My prayer for your family is the same as for mine, may the unity of Christ govern all we say and do because His love solves conflicts where our human nature would leave chaos.