The headline read: “Stunner Down Under: Holly Holm Shocks the World, KO’s Ronda Rousey at UFC 193.” The ultimate fighting world erupted at news of the bout that left the previously undefeated Rousey unconscious and hospitalized. Around the world, sports greats, movie stars, and seemingly everyone with a social media account commented on the fall of the champion. The wild popularity of UFC confirms one truth about our culture: We are a people who love to fight.
Few people fight the way Rousey and Holm do, but we all mix it up from time to time. Relational squabbles, hurt feelings, broken relationships are common, both inside and outside the church. The uniqueness of God’s church doesn’t lie in the absence of fighting, but in our God-given ability fight well.
The friction of our world exposes the inevitable conflict of life after that Fall. From Cain and Able to today, life in a fallen world is infused with conflict. We all find all sorts of things that draw our ire or tick us off. Lurking within our hearts is a frustrating array of experiences, ideas, and people that make us mad, offend our sensitivities, or hurt us deeply. How should God’s people respond to this tension?
The Common Approach
Since we cannot escape conflict, we are all forced to consider how to fight. Christians are prone to assume that conflict should be avoided. So, we plaster smiles on our faces and go about our public interactions in an attempt to avoid the perception of tension.
But conflict is unavoidable. Because of this, we devise ways to fight from a safe, sterile distance. We might take jabs over social media, where passive-aggressive attacks fill our news feeds on a daily basis. There we can lob verbal hand grenades from a safe distance, then run back into obscurity. A stay-at-home mom may gossip her frustrations because she’s just a person who “has to speak her mind” or a church leader may lash out in anger behind closed doors because “ole’ such and such just don’t get it”. A church member may sit in our Sunday services and mask his seething anger behind gritted teeth, until one Sunday when he just doesn’t return because, well, you know, “God was calling him to head down the street to another church.”
Learning to Love Real People
Jesus, when asked about the greatest commandment, summarized all of the law and the prophets with the call to love God and love people (Matt 22:36–40). Loving God and others are two sides to the same coin. Love for God empowers and motivates our love for one another, and love for one another validates our love for God. For every sinner (and that’s all of us), the path towards loving real people will be painful, hard, and filled with conflict. There is simply no way around it.
Love is an easy virtue to embrace in theory, but loving the idea of love is not the same thing as loving a real person. Sure, I know that I am supposed to love others, but when the object of that love puts on a name, like Bill or Carlos, Bethany or Caroline, I struggle. This is particularly true if “those people” are not like me and have the unique ability to get under my skin.
The gospel doesn’t allow us to choose the objects of our love. Like Jesus, we are called to love all people, even those who have wounded us deeply or with whom we disagree sharply (Matt 5:44).
The Gift of Conflict
Paul exhorts the church in Ephesus to “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph 4:31–32). Relationships with others, particularly other Christians, allow believers the opportunity to model God’s love – a love that pursued his enemies and died on their behalf.
Twice in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus provides a paradigm for handling conflict. In Matthew 18 he says, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother” (Matt 18:15). In this case, the offended party–the one who is wronged, hurt, frustrated or angry–proactively seeks out others and pursues restoration. In Matthew 5, the introduction to the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus provides another challenge for his people: “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matt 5:23–24). In this case, the person knows that conflict is brewing in the heart of another person. Rather than waiting in silence, the person is to go and make things right. This act is so vital that Jesus argues it should precede even our acts of worship.
Harboring anger and resentment does not simply lead to sin, it is sin. We do not simply sin when we give vent to our anger in unhelpful or ungodly ways, but we also sin when we refuse to deal with conflict in the first place. Relational friction forces us to do the really hard things like saying, “I’m sorry. Will you forgive me?” At other times, we may need to ask, “It seems like everything is not good between us. Have I done something to hurt you?” These actions do not come naturally for most of us. This should not be surprising. They are not natural–they are gifts of God’s grace. Conflict is a gift of God that allows us to give this gift of grace to others.
Every time we respond poorly to conflict, we waste a God-given opportunity for growth. Petty gossip, passive-aggressive squabbles, and distant relationships not only fail to model the grace of God, but they also waste the opportunity God gives his people to grow in Christlikeness. Conflict matures us in ways we’d likely not choose on our own. In God-glorifying conflict, we learn both where we are in the wrong and how to love and forgive even if the other person is wrong.
Those who learn to work through conflict as an act of worship to God will find an increasing awareness of their own prideful heart and need for others to show them grace as well. Those who grow in giving grace will be reminded of their need for grace. By saying we’re sorry, seeking forgiveness, and modeling reconciliation, we train our hearts to seek the same things from God. And, we show the world that the church is the one place on earth where people know how to fight.