“How could she?”
The email from my friend “Miriam” splintered my peace in an instant. Seemingly out of the blue, she confronted me about a Facebook post. It’s understating things to say I was deeply upset and unnerved.
Miriam and I met years ago through a mutual friend; she was one of my first friends in my new city. Even though we had significant differences in our political and theological worldviews, it didn’t matter. She was a devoted friend who was always there for me, and I for her. Our bond deepened when we both lost our dads before they turned 70, and we hung on to each other through a quarter century of changes, including her moving half an hour away. We set up a date once a year when we would meet downtown and talk for four hours straight. Our time together was one of the highlights of my year as we laughed, cried, and fused together in the way known only to kindred spirits.
Fast-forward to the COVID-19 pandemic and the racial tensions that blew up in the wake of George Floyd’s death. By the time winter of 2021 came, I hadn’t seen Miriam in two years. When I received no reply to several emails and calls, I worried that she had COVID, and there was no way for me to find out short of driving to her house and knocking on her door.
I was on the verge of doing just that when The Email came. Miriam, who isn’t even on social media, had somehow seen my post on a hot-button issue. She strenuously disagreed with me and didn’t know if she could meet with me again.
Abruptly, a friendship I viewed as being unbreakable—a mighty oak tree—had been hit by lightning. Could Miriam and I come back from this terrible fissure? Had the bridge between us burned to the ground?
Rocket Fuel for Conflict
Miriam and I were not alone in experiencing rancor in our relationship. Especially since the onset of COVID-19, interpersonal conflict seems to be at an all-time high. Friendships and family bonds are being severely tested by sharp divisions over polarizing issues such as masks, vaccines, Black Lives Matter, and LGBTQ concerns. “Relationships are falling apart,” a therapist friend said. “People used to tolerate differences of opinion, but these issues have become so loaded that it is no longer possible to keep them out of our relationships.”
Unfortunately, we have put ideals over people and tend to sort, “other,” and silo those with whom we do not agree. Social media makes things worse—we bicker with one another as disembodied avatars in forums that are actually the worst places to have any kind of delicate conversation.
Where does that leave us as Christians, who are charged by Scripture to “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3)?
According to Rich Villodas, a pastor and author of Good and Beautiful and Kind: Becoming Whole in a Fractured World, “The problem isn’t conflict; the problem is how the conflict is addressed.”
To be human is to clash with others. Many of us were taught to avoid conflict at all costs, while others are spring-loaded to come out swinging. Neither option reflects the way of Jesus. Both cause their own brand of damage.
Because we as a society are so poor at handling conflict, we have shallow friendships where we avoid getting too close or quietly move on when things get uncomfortable or tense. Worse, families, churches, and friendships disintegrate, causing intense division and profound pain.
As we navigate tumultuous times, it’s more crucial than ever for our most important relationships that we learn how to work through conflicts together. The good news is that, yes, even though conflict is awkward, distressing, and downright scary, it is possible to come out stronger and more unified when it’s handled properly.
Our God’s speciality is repairing, restoring, and redeeming that which is broken. As I learned through my near-split with Miriam, on the other side of strife can be renewed connection, support, closeness, and unity. I came to understand in a new way that conflict can be a bridge to love.
Conflict Avoidant Much?
Real talk: Most of us come from families that never learned how to handle conflict. Some of us come from cultures and ethnic groups that avoid directness at all costs, and others have personalities that are wired to avoid confrontation. We might think it’s more important to be nice than to be truthful.
The “nice'' or conflict avoidant among us like to jump straight to forgiveness or “keeping the peace” without wrestling with all the messy hurt and anger. It’s like when you know company is on their way, and you shove all the junk in your living room into a closet. The mess is still there, needing to be dealt with, but it’s hidden—for the time being.
“People who suffer from ‘nice disorder’ aren’t less angry or assertive or needy than other people,” writes Nicole Unice, author of The Miracle Moment: How Tough Conversations Can Actually Transform Your Most Important Relationships. “They are just less willing to acknowledge it, which means their needs often come out sideways. … Real relationships require vulnerability, good fights, and a much more powerful kind of love than ‘nice.’”
When Miriam sent me that email, it felt so unfair. I accepted things about her that I didn’t agree with; why couldn’t she do the same? It wasn’t until I allowed myself to feel angry about it, praying that I could be “angry but not sin,” that the fire burned itself out. I was able to process and move through it.
Had I pretended that Miriam’s email didn’t bother me, the hurt and anger would have simmered, bubbling to the surface in unhealthy ways. “This never works,” writes Unice. “Unreconciled hurts just stay unreconciled. Over time they create resentment, mistrust, and distance.”
Face Time Is Grace Time
How did people in Scripture handle conflict? “The Bible,” writes Villodas, “is a collection of severely broken, sinful people poorly navigating through life and consistently encountering a gracious God.”
The author highlights the clash between Peter and Paul, two pillars of the church, as described in Galatians 2:11-13:
Peter was hanging out with Gentiles, eating Gentile food (baby back ribs, maybe?). But then a bunch of legalistic church guys showed up, and Peter suddenly pretended he wasn’t with the Gentiles or eating their food after all. In fact, he was against them now. “Ironically (and hypocritically), Peter made this judgment with greasy hands and food stuck between his teeth,” Villodas writes.
Paul, angry that Peter was leading people astray, confronted him “to his face” (v. 11). Confrontation, a terrifying prospect for many of us, doesn’t have to mean shouting or spewing wrath, Villodas notes. It simply requires face time. “Too much of ourselves goes missing through texting and emails,” he writes—not to mention social media. It can be so easy to become ensnared in arguments online, triggered by someone’s meme or post.
Yet arguing online is futile, writes Mónica Guzmán, author of I Never Thought of It That Way: How to Have Fearlessly Curious Conversations in Dangerously Divided Times. An online exchange, says Guzmán, lacks the elements of a quality conversation: time, attention, parity (it’s not level ground if the person whose post you are commenting on can block you at any moment), containment (everyone and their uncles are listening in) and embodiment (unless you are face to face, you are not expressing yourself fully).
So how can we have those bridging conversations vital to resolving conflict?
First, we must get our hearts in “fighting shape.”
Like-hearted Is Better Than Like-minded
I felt defensive and offended after Miriam’s email and spent way too much time arguing with her in my head about all the ways she was wrong and I was right.
I didn’t even realize I was sinking into a victim mentality. Every time I rehearsed how she had hurt me, that miry pit got swampier. However, in the midst of my angst, I did fire off a few pop-up prayers for grace, mercy, forgiveness, and love. The Holy Spirit began to whisper love into my spirit—for me, for Miriam.
With God’s help, I began to lean the other way, in the direction of love and the possibility of repair. I started to realize that it was more important to reinforce the relationship than defend my position, to surrender my need to be right and focus on my wish to stay connected.
Organizational psychologist Adam Grant said in a social media post, it’s “easier to accept that you’re not like-minded if you are like-hearted.” Miriam and I were like-hearted, I knew. So why did we feel so differently about the same issues? My curiosity began to spark, which, for the purposes of crossing the breach between us, was a very good thing.
Curious, Not Condemning
I had been coming at this schism with Miriam from the wrong angle. After I processed my hurt and anger, it was time to stop mentally defending my position. What if I could see her different opinions as invitations to learn instead of direct threats to my beliefs? It was time to get curious, not condemning, and to try to understand where she was coming from.
Miriam had to have good reasons for her opinions. She would never have risked our friendship by confronting me otherwise. But why? I had to replace my (intense) desire to be right and replace it with a desire to seek understanding. That shift in posture would be the game changer. I became curious. I could start to see Miriam (or anyone who made me mad) as a human being who was more than just an opinion or belief.
I thought of the verse painted in graffiti art on the outside of our church’s youth building: “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” (Eph. 2:14).
I leaned into that truth. I couldn’t tear down the “dividing wall of hostility'' on my own strength, but in God’s strength, maybe I could. Slowly but surely, the wall began to come down. I crept toward Miriam in reconciliation, just as God had moved toward me.
In relationship fixes, like house renovation, repairs happen one step at a time. You can’t skip steps; otherwise you will have cracks in your foundation. You also can’t wait too long, as I did, because that allows negative emotions to fester—a perfect breeding ground for a victim mentality. That’s not a good look on anyone. It might be time to have “the talk.”
Making the first move is a good idea, even if the other person is possibly wrong. We serve a merciful, grace-filled God who made us in his image and who loves to answer prayers for mercy and grace. Don’t go into a tough conversation on an empty spiritual tank. Fumes won’t get you where you need to go: crossing the bridge to love.
- Assume positive intent. As much as possible, reframe the situation positively. What positive motives could your friend or family member have for saying what they said or acting how they acted?
- Seek understanding with questions or statements such as “Help me understand why this is so important to you” and “Tell me more.” “If there’s one question I want to persuade you to ask more often,” Guzmán writes, “it’s ‘What am I missing?’”
- Remember to stay curious. “When you want to explore why they’re wrong, explore what you’re missing. When you want to know what their problem is, try to know what their concerns are,” Guzmán writes.
A Bridge to Love
Resolving conflict is really tough. It requires maturity, humility, and courage. But goodness can be on the other side of the chasm. When the air is cleared, you have deeper understanding and a stronger commitment, a new richness and closeness—beauty for ashes. The process might not be pretty, but neither are ashes. “That’s the incredible thing about being human,” Villodas writes. “We are flawed, but we are never finished.”
“If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone,” the apostle Paul urges in Romans 12:18. Again, this doesn’t mean pretending nothing happened. Process your emotions thoroughly. Do what you can do, and surrender the rest.
Four months after Miriam’s email, I emailed her (it was still pandemic times). “We come at these issues from a very different place, and we will never persuade each other to think differently,” I wrote. “But our friendship has never been about debating issues, and I don’t want it to be about that now.”
That winter, I drove home from our annual dinner downtown with the biggest smile on my face. I had my beloved Miriam back. Yes, it had been wretched, but God’s healing power had proved stronger than the divide. Satan wanted me to burn that bridge, but God had other plans. In his hands, my conflict with Miriam became a thing of beauty, a bridge to love.
- Have we, in general, elevated ideals over people lately? Why or why not?
- Have you experienced or witnessed a case where conflict was handled well and reconciliation occurred? What were the main insights or lessons from that?
- Reflect on the need to have a more powerful kind of love than “nice.” What does it mean and what doesn’t it mean?
- What suggestions from the article will you choose to practice or implement in your life?