Fellowship, with God and each other is our goal. However, conflict and hostility in relationships can destroy our fellowship and result in alienation.
Let’s start with a definition from Webster for conflict:
“Conflict: mental struggle resulting from incompatible or opposing needs, drives, wishes, or external or internal demands”
A synonym for conflict is “Hostility”, again from Webster:
“Hostility: conflict, opposition, or resistance in thought or principle”
So our search for an answer to our question, “what causes Christian conflict?” might be rephrased as “what leads to a mental struggle which results from opposing wishes or internal demands?”. I think the answer could simply be: unmet expectations.
An expectation we have of others is, in essence, an “internal demand” or sometimes even a “need” or “wish” (see conflict definition above). Hostility and conflict inevitably arise when our “internal demands” are not met by others.
For this post, we’ll look at interpersonal conflict resulting from unmet expectations and how we might avoid them; and use God’s word to guide us in our conclusions.
Let’s start with some principles:
- Unmet expectations can lead to conflict and hostility
- Unmet expectations might result in a debt from one party to the other. Forgiveness of that debt is healing; but doesn’t always eliminate the conflict and hostility.
- Expectations must be clearly communicated and agreed to or the conflict will be one-sided.
- There are only two solutions to respond to interpersonal expectations to avoid conflict: 1) either the expectation creator can change or remove his expectations; or 2) or the other person can meet those expectations.
Change/remove Expectations to Avoid Conflict
Remember our goal: fellowship. Conflict and hostility ruin fellowship. Conflict and hostility come from unmet expectations. So one way to reduce the conflict and hostility and restore fellowship is to remove the expectation.
Let’s look at God’s expectations for us and examine how our failure to meet His expectations has resulted in a disintegration of fellowship with Him.
In the Beginning
Let’s go back to the beginning. God placed Adam & Eve in the Garden of Eden where he enjoyed an intimate personal fellowship with them. Life was simple and wonderful. God had only one expectation: that Adam & Eve would refrain from eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. However, when Adam & Eve violated God’s single expectation, sin showed up for the first time. Fellowship with God was broken. Man was evicted from the garden and the physical presence of God.
The Big Ten
Later on, in the “Old Testament” (Ex 20:3-17) God gave Moses the Big Ten, the Ten Expectations (“Commandments”). They even made a movie about it.
The first four expectations relate directly to our relationship with God
- No other Gods
- No idols
- Don’t trivialize God’s holy name
- Keep one day a week as set apart for God
The fifth is transitional: “honor your parents” since it affects our relationships here on earth with our parents, and also our relationship with God; that is, we respect and honor our parents as a model of our respect and honor for God
The final five all relate to our relationships with each other:
- Don’t murder
- Don’t fool around (commit adultery)
- Don’t steal
- Don’t “bear false witness” (notice this doesn’t say “lie” as is often described; folks can tell the truth and still misrepresent the facts.i.e., “bear false witness”)
- Don’t desire your neighbor’s stuff
New Testament Expectations – Simpler is Better
OK, as Christians we are under grace and are no longer under the old law. Even so, Jesus applies the same two-part formula with his simpler list in Matthew 22:37-40:
“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the great and foremost commandment. 39 The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.”
Again we see the first expectation focused on our relationship with God, and the second our relationship with others. Obviously, God cares deeply about BOTH!
God’s Expectations: Hostility, Conflict, or Grace?
Since we have concluded that hostility and conflict can result from unmet expectations unless one of two things is true: 1) we meet the expectations or 2) God changes the expectations; what did God do to restore our fellowship with him? I believe he chose the second option.
As it says in Ephesians, we were all “dead” and without hope because of our sin (failure to meet God’s expectations). However, Christ, broke down the “dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances…so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility”. Note that this “dividing wall of hostility” referred to both interpersonal conflict (between Jews and gentiles); and mankind and God.
One more example from Colossians. “And you yourselves, who were strangers to God, and, in fact, through the evil things you had done, his spiritual enemies, he has now reconciled through the death of his body on the cross, so that he might welcome you to his presence clean and pure, without blame or reproach”
If our creator and God can remove the “dividing wall of hostility” and reconcile us to him by “abolishing” his commandments, shouldn’t we follow that example when people fail to meet our expectations or rules?
- Although God abolished the commandments, his desire for us to be righteous and holy. If we love him, then we will want to seek his righteousness. Perhaps I can safely state it this way: God desires that we follow his commandments; but he no longer expects us to. He has eliminated the expectation but not the desire.
- We may find ourselves unable to abolish our expectations and feel anger, resentment, and hostility to someone. The first question we must ask ourselves is: “Did I explain my expectation(s) to the other person clearly and did they agree to them?” We have no basis of hostility and the source of the conflict lies solely in our court if: we are angry over someone’s failure to meet our expectation that was never communicated; or, the expectation was never agreed to by the other person.
- Expectations are closely related to debts. For example, you might feel that someone has a “debt of gratitude” to you based on your expectation that the sacrifice you made to buy them a Christmas gift should be acknowledged by a thank you card or by a reciprocal gift. If they don’t pay that debt, you might become hostile and your fellowship is injured.
- Forgiveness (which we will explore in a future post) does not always remove the conflict or hostility. For example, if your buddy borrows a hundred dollars from you and doesn’t pay you back, you might forgive the debt but still be angry that he didn’t meet your expectation to pay his debt.
Call to Action
- We have expectations of others. However, to maintain or restore fellowship, we should minimize our expectations; or, respond with tolerance and grace when our expectations are unmet.
- We should never allow anger and hostility to arise when the other person has not “bought in” to our expectations.
- We can reduce conflict if we seek to understand the other person’s expectations. In other words, we cannot always depend on them to drop or change their expectations; but we can attempt to understand them so we can meet them. I stand forgiven and loved by my Lord. Although I am not condemned because he has remove hostility and anger due to my lack of compliance with his expectations for me (his Righteousness), I desire to understand those expectations and to do the best I can to meet them.