As Proverbs 18:17b says, “The first to speak seems right, until someone comes forward and cross-examines.”
Or as my friend Daniel likes to say, “There’s no pancake so thin that it doesn’t have two sides.”
For example, you’ve probably counseled:
- A parent whose teenage son refuses to come in to meet with you
- A church member who has conflict with out-of-state family members
- A wife dealing with marital conflict whose husband isn’t a Christian and wants nothing to do with the church
- Someone in conflict with non-believers at his office
Counseling one party in the conflict
Without knowing the full story, it’s difficult, and you might say unwise, to fully embrace the perspective of the one you’re counseling. So how can you help? Can you do more than offer a compassionate ear?
Help people renew their minds about conflict
While we may not have the full picture, we can help people embrace the Father’s perspective on conflict. Here are five questions you can ask the person in conflict to begin conversations that will help him renew his mind about the situation and his responses to it in light of biblical truth.
On a scale of 1 to 10, how certain are you that you’re the one who is in the right in this situation?
Why this question? Asking this question helps you get a sense of how open the person is to the understanding perspective and concerns of the one he is in conflict with. If he’s not open to seeing the other person’s perspective he may need to be reminded that:
Humility is a key to resolving conflict. God resolved His conflict with us by humbling Himself (Eph. 2:1–4; Phil. 2:5–11). So He’s modeled that for us. It’s also arrogant to assume that one knows, with absolute certainty, what the other person’s motives are.
The humble person also recognizes that we all stumble in many ways, in particularly with our speech (James 3:2). He should be open to the possibility that he has agitated or offended the other person. So he may need to seek forgiveness for his contribution to the conflict.
- He wouldn’t enjoy trying to settle a dispute with someone who assumed that he was right about everything. Ask the person you’re counseling how it would feel to argue with someone who had no intention of changing his mind or listening to you (Matt. 7:12)? How frustrating would that be? Remind him that listening and being open to other perspectives is a way to show love and compassion and to demonstrate respect and humility.
- Being right is dangerous. Counselor and author Brad Hambrick says, “When we are right, we stop thinking, we stop evaluating.” That’s why being right can blind your church member to his sinful responses to legitimate offenses. Plus, when someone accurately identifies another person’s sin, it’s easy for him to assume that his ideas for resolving the conflict are ideal—when in fact they may be only part of the solution or perhaps even unhelpful.
Christ loved us when we were completely in the wrong. Even if the person is right about the other person’s poor attitude, lying, stealing, etc., it helps to remind him that Christ moved toward us when we were still sinners to reconcile us to Himself (Rom. 5:8).
That’s why even if he is right about the other person’s fault in the matter, he can’t sit self-righteously upon his throne of condemnation until the other person grovels back seeking forgiveness. Instead, God’s kindness is meant to lead people to repentance (Rom. 2:4). Challenge the person to think of ways that he can move toward his enemy in love (Luke 6:27).
When do you think you’ll be able to forgive him for what he did?
Why this question? It helps you begin a discussion about forgiveness. You’ll learn whether the person thinks he’s struggling to forgive, he’s already done it, or it isn’t an option for him. The discussion could also reveal whether you’re dealing with someone who hasn’t been transformed by the forgiving (and life giving) grace of God.
If the person says that he struggles to forgive, ask him to tell you what forgiving the other person would signify. Another question that gets at the same response is “What will you be admitting about yourself, the other person, and his offense if you forgive?” (Okay, that was three questions, but you get the point …) The goal is to discover the personal significance and meaning he places upon forgiving the other person. His answer will let you know whether he has any misconceptions about what forgiveness means or entails.
Depending upon how the person responds to this question, he may need to hear some of the following ideas, or complete homework assignments based upon the verses below:
- Christ is our example. Our forgiveness should be modeled after the manner in which Christ has forgiven us (Eph. 4:32).
- God expects us to forgive. While it may take someone time to actually forgive, and we want to be careful about rushing individuals to forgive, some people need to be reminded that forgiveness isn’t optional for those who follow Christ (Matt. 18:21–35).
- Forgiveness is not … A lot of people have misconceptions about what it means to forgive. Some people think that it means you’re saying that what the person did wasn’t a big deal, or that it means you trust the other person again, or you won’t feel any pain anymore, etc. Clearing up those misconceptions can help a person get more comfortable with forgiving his offender.
- He may have to forgive the same offense multiple times. Sometimes it’s not apparent how one person’s sin will affect your church member in the future. So he might forgive now, but be hit head-on by additional ramifications of the offense later in life. Prepare your church member to understand that this can cause him to question whether he truly forgave the person who sinned against him. Let him know there was no way for him to anticipate all the ways in which that person’s sin would affect him. So the wisest move is to simply forgive the offender again for the hurt his actions caused.
What has to happen in order for you to be at peace?
Why this question? Notice the way it’s worded. It’s not, What has to happen in order for there to be peace (i.e, between you and the other person)? It’s, What has to happen in order for you to be at peace?
Many people don’t realize they can be at peace in the midst of conflict. Granted, they may have to learn how to do that. But this question will help you discern whether the person even thinks it’s possible. Depending upon how he responds, you may need to make the person aware that:
We can be at peace without getting our way. While we don’t want to give the impression that the Spirit-filled life is free from concern or anxiety (2 Cor. 11:28), people sometimes need to be reminded that they can have a significant amount of peace without having their way. How so?
Scripture links our experience of peace to our willingness/ability to focus our thinking upon God and His character (Isa. 26:3–4; Ps. 85:8), pray about our problems (Phil. 4:6–7), obey God (Ps.119:165), and think about things that should be highly esteemed (Phil. 4:8–9). In fact, if your member’s adversary has to behave a certain way for your counselee to be at peace, his adversary in effect controls him.
- He’s acting as if God isn’t enough. The person you’re caring for may need to be reminded that if he needs something other than what God has given or promised to be at peace then he also believes that God and His provisions are not enough to satisfy him. This makes a liar out of God and idols of anything the person craves (including the desired resolution to the conflict).
- His expectations are unrealistic. Asking this question also helps you see whether the person’s expectations are realistic–he is demanding too much (expecting the other person to be perfect, not giving the other enough time to process his accusations or concerns, demanding a face-to-face apology when the other person has already apologized over the phone, etc.)
Why did you feel like you had to respond to that insult/action?
Why this question? Asking this question helps you to understand what motivates the person you’re counseling. It helps you to understand what he thought was at stake that necessitated a particular response. It may also reveal specific things that he needs to see forgiveness for. Depending upon the way the person answers the question you may want to help him renew his mind by explaining that:
- It’s not wise to respond to fools: Counselor and author Sue Lutz says, “Just because somebody throws something at you does not mean you have to catch it. You can let it fall to the ground and say, ‘I’m not picking that up. I’m not going to [argue/fight].’” That advice is consistent with Proverbs when it tells us that in some situations it’s not wise to respond to a fool (Prov. 26:4). Some people don’t realize that ignoring someone is sometimes a wise option.
- God calls us to overlook the shortcomings of others: Even if your church member isn’t at odds with a fool, the Bible still says that it’s normal for us to have to overlook the flaws of others (Eph. 4:2; Col. 3:13). If the conflict isn’t too severe, perhaps your church member could consider whether he could simply overlook the irritating or offending behavior of the person he’s in conflict with. This is another option that many people don’t consider for dealing with conflict. They are typically focused on getting what they want.
- There are other ways of responding to insults: Some people in your church grew up in homes in which conflict was the norm. For them, the silent treatment or angry outbursts would be a typical response to offense. If that’s the case, they may need to be made aware of what it looks like to actually love one’s enemy. You may want to ask your church member to think about specific things that he could pray for for his enemy. Or give him an assignment to do something kind for the person he is in conflict with.
How do you see God at work in this situation?
Why this question? This helps you see whether the person is aware that God is in control of what is happening and whether he has any hope that God will use the conflict for his good. Depending upon how a person responds, you may need to help him understand that:
- This conflict is not an accident. If God works everything in accordance with his will (Eph. 1:11), it means all conflict is a part of God’s plan. Embracing this idea helps a person to begin to accept that …
- God uses difficulty for our good. Accepting this truth helps people to take their focus off of the immediate conflict and consider what character changes God might be using the conflict to produce (James 1:3–4). Is He trying to make the person more patient, a better listener, more merciful, less judgmental, etc.?
- If God isn’t in control, we don’t have much hope. Realizing that God uses conflict for His purposes can be frustrating and even discouraging to the person who is embroiled in a deep, painful dispute. But this truth is also the basis of hope. Why?
If God is not in control over all, then we have no reason to hope that God can bring any good out of our conflict or that He can answer our prayers regarding the situation.
This article lists a lot of truths that can help people renew their minds regarding conflict. But how do we help people move from being aware of helpful truths to embracing them, allowing them to reframe the way we see God, ourselves, others, and our circumstances? For the answer to that question, check out Jeff Forrey’s article on how to help people renew their minds.