How long has it been since your last conflict? Many of us could count the hours—maybe even minutes. We are sandpaper people in a sandpaper world. Friction is a part of life.
A needy child interrupts your morning devotions. A co-worker unjustly blames you for a failed project. The church critic wants to speak with you about yesterday’s sermon. Your spouse makes plans without consulting the calendar. There are innumerable scenarios in life and ministry where conflict erupts.
Though Eliphaz wasn’t right about much, he was right about man when he said, “Man is born for trouble as sparks fly upward” (Job 5:7). This saying is trustworthy: whenever two sinners interact, there is a high likelihood of sparks.
In order to handle conflict in a way that glorifies God and promotes reconciliation with others, we must first understand the heart of the issue.
The Source of All Things: A Biblical View of the Heart
Conflict is not primarily the result of personality differences, miscommunication, nor unfortunate circumstances. Those may play a role in escalating or complicating a conflict, but they are not the source. The true source of conflict is the same as the source of all things in life—the heart.
In Scripture, God has revealed the nature of humanity. That is a more significant reality than most people realize. The corollary reality is that the nature of humanity—who we really are—cannot be discovered through secular anthropology, philosophy, medicine, or psychology. In other words, it is impossible for mankind to discover his nature through natural means.
God has given us truth in Scripture that cannot be known by any other means
What has God revealed? All of life—thoughts, desires, intentions, words, actions—arises from the heart (Prov. 4:23). The heart has intentions and purposes (Gen. 6:5; Heb. 4:12). The heart makes plans (Prov. 20:5), offers thanksgiving (Ps. 111:1), speaks (Luke 6:46), hates (Lev. 19:17), forgives (Matt. 18:35), and loves God and others (Matt. 22:34–40). All of life—sin and righteousness—flows from the heart (Prov. 15:28; Mark 7:20–23).
In this context, the heart is not the blood-pumping organ. The heart is the immaterial part of a man or woman synonymous with their spirit or soul (Prov. 2:10; 17:22). It is the inner man (Rom. 7:22; 2 Cor. 4:16) which is either being renewed by the Spirit or corrupted by sin (Eph. 4:22–23). The heart is the deepest part of man, the very control center of life. A person is no more or less than the nature of his heart (Prov. 23:7).
This is why God is concerned first and foremost with the heart (Jer. 17:9–10), and why a new heart is a critical component of the New Covenant (Ezek. 36:26). When God looks for worshippers, He looks for those who worship from the heart, because the heart alone manifests one’s true devotion (Isa. 29:13; John 4:23).
The Primary Occupation of the Heart
As the control center of life, the heart is busy doing a lot of things. But there is one occupation that rises above the rest by design—the heart worships.
Worship is what happens when we ascribe to a person or object the ability to control the world, meet needs, provide protection, bring happiness, and satisfy desires. This is why the world is full of function-specific gods and idols—gods of fertility, war, love, weather, and so on. Humans worship and serve the particular god they truly believe can meet their needs.
No wonder the first and second commandments are at the top of the list (Exod. 20:1–6). We are to have no other gods than the Lord our God, and we are not to look to any created thing as representative of God. We are not to worship or serve anything other than God because there is no other god like our God who can do what God alone can do. Indeed, all other gods are nothing and can do nothing (Deut. 4:28; Ps. 115:4–8).
As the One who searches men’s hearts, the Lord knows when our worship is genuine or false—when it is from the heart or merely on the lips (Isa. 29:13). No matter what we profess, we worship false gods when our heart turns away from the Lord (Deut. 11:16). Those who serve false gods and worship them refuse to listen to truth because they are committed to following their own heart (Jer. 13:10).
Idols are made in the heart long before the hand carves the wood. (Ezek. 14:4)
Modern western culture is not unlike Athens where Paul was provoked by the multitude of idols (Acts 17). What the world—and, unfortunately, many Christians—calls felt needs are really desires of the heart. There are many legitimate needs and desires—food, shelter, protection, rest, and pleasure—which in their proper context and measure can be satisfied by God-honoring means. But whether legitimate or illegitimate, desires that are disordered or unmeasured lead to idolatry.
This side of Eden, the natural propensity of the human heart is to seek the fulfillment of its desires by any means necessary. Today’s world economy is no less dependent on idols than was Ephesus (Acts 19:24–26). The temple prostitutes of old have been replaced by the endless stream of technology, activities, relationships, and lifestyles. They tempt you to think that your life will be exponentially improved by fractional changes to your possessions or circumstances.
How does any of this relate to conflict? James writes, “What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you? Is not the source your pleasures that wage war in your members? You lust and do not have; so you commit murder. You are envious and cannot obtain; so you fight and quarrel” (4:1–2, emphasis added).
The answer to James’ simple and direct question—what causes conflict?—is equally simple and direct.
We have conflict because our desires conflict with God’s and others’
When a driver pulls in front of you, you get angry because you wanted to be in front of them. When your spouse arrives late to dinner, you get agitated because you wanted to eat already. When your child acts up at the grocery store, you get irritated because you just wanted a short, simple grocery trip so you could have time for a nap.
Each and every conflict you have within yourself and with others rises out of a conflict of desires—desires which might even be inherently good, but which are disordered or unmeasured. These desires rule over you as manifested by how they control your thoughts, words, and actions. They have truly become—even if only temporarily—idols of the heart.
Three ways to evaluate your desires
How do you know if your desires are disordered or unmeasured? There are a number of ways one could evaluate desires, but here are three simple questions:
Am I wanting something that violates God’s revealed will?
Scripture contains truths and principles that enable us to determine whether God has commanded, forbidden, or allowed what we desire. If our desires conflict with God’s desires, they are disordered.
Am I willing to sin in order to obtain my desires?
We can want a good thing, but sin in our pursuit of it. If we do, our desire has become unmeasured. We want it too much—even more than we want to honor the Lord.
Do I sin when I don’t obtain my desires?
This is perhaps the most common manifestation of disordered and unmeasured desires for Christians. In many situations our desires are good, and we don’t sin to obtain them, but we sin when we can’t have them. We want our children to obey, but they don’t, so we get angry. We want our spouse to love us in certain ways, but they don’t, so we make them feel our displeasure. We want our church to follow our leadership, but they don’t so we become bitter toward them. We desire a spouse or a certain career or educational opportunity, but God’s providence has not brought it to pass, so we become bitter toward the Lord.
When we want what God doesn’t want, or we sin to obtain what we want, or we sin when we can’t have what we want, we manifest that our heart has promoted those desires to rule over us. We have set up a god above the Lord.
The Only Remedy
Dr. Ernie Baker often says, “If false worship is the problem, true worship is the solution.”
If the true source of our conflicts with each other are disordered and unmeasured desires within us—sin—then we have failed to keep the first and greatest commandment to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength (Mark 12:30).
Some conflicts may represent a momentary lapse of judgment. Others may reveal long-standing and deep-seated desires that have captured the heart. Whatever the case, as you examine your heart and consider the desires at work in your conflict, the starting point in pursuing reconciliation is confessing your disordered or unmeasured desires to the Lord, seeking His forgiveness, and putting your desires in their rightful place—under the lordship and care of Christ.
Making peace with the person on the other end of the conflict will have temporal benefits, but the soul will not be settled until we make peace with God by confessing and repenting of our sinful desires and adopting His desires for our situation and life. What’s more, it is remarkable how putting our desires in their place and adopting Christ’s desires for our situation often—not always—clears the path toward reconciliation with others.
Conflict is inevitable. Until our desires are perfectly aligned to Christ’s in glory, we cannot escape the friction that often happens when two sinners rub shoulders. But if you find that you are involved in frequent and intense conflict, perhaps it is time to examine your heart, asking the Lord to reveal your hidden faults and desires (Ps. 139:23–24).
This is just the start—we haven’t begun to discuss what steps need to be taken with the other person. For that and more in-depth consideration of the principles presented here, see the recommended resources below.
Settling for superficial peace and the ceasing of hostilities is tempting. But the goal of the believer is to glorify God by being conformed to the image of Christ. That can only happen when we deal with the heart first and foremost.
[Editor's Note: This article was originally published in August 2018 and has been updated.]
The substance and ideas in this post are largely taken from a seminar I taught using material produced by Dr. John Street. Most of what I’ve learned in this arena has come from Dr. Street and Dr. Ernie Baker. I am grateful for their faithful teaching and influence in my life.