Whether we are getting together with people in person (perhaps an out of place thought in 2020) or interacting with people on the Internet, it's no secret that people are really good at getting into arguments. Bickering and taunting seem to be especially bad when people gain the relative anonymity that comes with the internet. If you wander too carelessly into the comments section of any corner of social media, you will likely either need to bring your own best arguments, or else a hefty supply of popcorn.
But while it may be easy to subtweet someone to turn them into a meme, we all eventually run into situations where we will actually need to do some conflict resolution. Sometimes, things go wrong and relationships are at stake. Can we learn anything from the Bible about this?
Well, before we go leaping to the Bible, there are a few important things to be aware of. First, the Bible isn't always telling you what to do, a point made nicely in this recent video by Ten Minute Bible Hour.
Often enough, you'll run into characters like Elijah, Jeremiah, and Paul, who are definitely framed by their stories as "the good guy," but also do and say things that might not necessarily be wise for us to say. Elijah encouraged the prophets of Ba'al to keep cutting themselves. Jeremiah mocked the religious practices of other nations. Paul once said that his theological opponents should cut ... well ... Galatians 5:12.
Keep in mind that these people in the Bible were dealing with often very unique and sometimes extreme circumstances. They lived in a violent and volatile time, and we shouldn't assume that we're meant to handle things they same way they did. So before you open up the Bible and decide you need to sling some stones at your rival's head, just be careful not to conclude something that Scripture isn't actually telling you to do.
Now on the other hand, Jesus actually gave a format in Matthew 18 that works as a general guideline for how to deal with interpersonal conflicts and relationship drama.
So here’s a step-by-step breakdown.
- If someone offends you or hurts you, point it out to them directly and respectfully. Say something like, “Hey, you did this thing, and I didn’t like it. It was hurtful. I value your friendship but I need you to acknowledge the hurt you caused in order for me to feel ok.” If they listen to you and take what you say seriously, then great! You can make peace and move on! (Matthew 18:15)
- If they don’t listen to you or take it seriously, get some outside help from someone who both of you respect. Maybe you can ask a mutual friend to send them a message and try to advocate for you, or meet together if that’s possible. The point is to try to find someone who can comfortably and respectfully mediate the issue between you both. (Matthew 18:16). In simple personal cases, it might be a mutual friend. In serious cases this may be a parent, a teacher, work supervisor, pastor, or someone else who has authority over you both.
- If they still won’t listen when someone is trying to mediate, you have to ask yourself how serious the issue is. If it’s a very serious issue, if the person has really hurt you - perhaps in the form of abuse, harassment, or threats, then you may need to call in people with more authority. In Jesus' context, it meant going to the broader religious community, to see if they can help. But if you get to this third step, or if the offence is so serious that you don’t feel safe doing steps 1 and 2, then any further lack of resolution is probably a sign that you need to cut this person off (Matthew 18:17)
Jesus will never altogether cut someone off. If a person repents and turns to him, he will never cast them out (John 6:37). But none of us are Jesus, and sometimes for our own health and well-being, we will have to sever ties with people who simply don’t want to make amends or change their ways. Making these kinds of choices and having these conversations can be hard. That’s why it’s important to have a circle of people you trust. When people come together to work out problems, God is there with them, and he can heal anything.
And by the way, if your interpersonal conflict is happening in the comments section on YouTube, Facebook, or Instagram ... just hit 'block.'
- Read Matthew 18:15-17. Does this seem like a process that would work in real life?
- Do you have reservations about bringing another person into one of your problems? Does that seem inappropriate to you? Why or why not? How might culture play a factor?
- Read Matthew 18:18-19. What do you think these verses have to do with what came before? What do these verses mean? Keep in mind that Jesus seems to be talking about the step when a conflict is brought before more than just two people.
- Interestingly, Jesus' conflict resolution process is followed by a conversation about forgiveness.
- Read Matthew 18:21-35. What seems to be the main point of the parable Jesus tells?
- How does this line up with the ethics presented in the famous Lord's Prayer in Matthew 6? Why do you think forgiving and being forgiven are linked?
- Does Jesus' teaching on forgiveness mean that we must always restore our relationship "back to normal" with abusive people? Or does Matthew 18:17 imply that you can forgive someone for what they did but still choose to keep your distance?
- Why do you think it's difficult sometimes to directly confront someone about what they did wrong? Have you ever experienced that?
- Have you ever been confronted by someone who had been offended or hurt by you? Based on the advice Jesus gives in Matthew 18, what is the best way to handle things when you are the one who did something wrong?