Among other things, I’ve spent the past year wrestling through how to deal with conflict and confrontation. There were circumstances that brought dysfunction to my circle of friends and environment but weren’t personally hurtful. And then there were situations that cut to the core. I felt like I had seen it all.
So when do you confront or enter conflict with someone who you feel is in the wrong or is going down the wrong path, and when do you steer clear and just live and let live?
We know that gospel living means loving to the degree Christ loved us: While we were enemies, He took the undeserved initiative to bring light to our self-inflicted darkness. So we can’t just give up on someone because they hurt us or are doing something we don’t agree with.
On the flip side, in times of stubbornness and rebellion, even God Himself has been known to turn us over to our own destruction for a season (Israelites, Jonah, etc.). He does so not from a lack of grace but because of His grace, allowing us to see firsthand how miserably inferior our will and idols are compared to Him in order to draw us back to Himself.
So which is right? Are we meant to say something or keep quiet? Fight for a relationship or step back from it?
There isn’t really an easy answer. There are cases when either is appropriate. The end goal needs to be what’s best big picture and glorifies Christ, maximizing peace and reducing opportunities for sin. Not prioritizing our immediate emotional comfort.
But here are a few questions you can ask about your situation to get some clarity on how you may need to handle things:
Where’s Your Heart In It?
No matter what you decide, your heart needs to be the first thing examined and brought under submission to Christ. Is your heart for the other person and for the relationship? Or is your heart hardened against them—bitter, self-justifying, arrogant, seeking to destroy them, etc?
There’s a lot of support from Scripture to confront, but the motivation behind it is always based on truth, done in love and seeking restoration.
“Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness … Bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:1-2).
“Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another” (Ephesians 4:25).
“If anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” (James 5:19-20).
In his book, The Advantage, Patrick Lencioni says:
“[A]ccountability is about having the courage to confront someone about their deficiencies and then to stand in the moment and deal with their reaction, which may not be pleasant. It is a selfless act, one rooted in…love. To hold someone accountable is to care about them enough to risk having them blame you for pointing out their deficiencies… Many leaders who struggle with this…will try to convince themselves that their reluctance is a product of their kindness; they just don’t want to make [people] feel bad. But an honest reassessment of their motivation will allow them to admit that they are the ones who don’t want to feel bad… there is nothing noble about withholding information that can help [people] improve…”
Denying ourselves for each other and bearing with one another because of how we’ve been loved and forgiven in Christ is 100 percent Biblical. But staying only because we’ve idolized the relationship, it’s our identity or we can’t emotionally bring ourselves to address or step back from something sinful and destructive isn’t.
How Much Credibility Do You Have?
The closer you are (through depth of relationship or frequency of interactions) the more credibility you probably have to speak, but also the more responsibility you usually have stay to fight for the person or the relationship longer.
If you’re not very close or don’t interact much, don’t be too quick to confront. Handle talking with them cautiously because you probably aren’t a super credible source on what’s going on. If you choose not to speak though, don’t use that as an excuse for gossip or to cover for cowardice.
Where’s Their Heart In It?
Look for how God’s moving in them and work with Him in that. If you can see turmoil in them or a desire to make strides in the right direction, it might be good to confront or stand with them in the struggle if it’s already been addressed. If they’ve simply given themselves over to the dysfunction, completely indifferent to hearing about it or seeking growth, it might be time to consider stepping back.
“Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you” (Matthew 7:6).
“Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself” (Proverbs 26:4).
“When a wise man has a controversy with a foolish man, the foolish man either rages or laughs, and there is no rest” (Proverbs 29:9).
Don’t continue to offer wisdom to someone who habitually fights against it and historically hasn’t bothered implementing patterns of wisdom. You’re only setting yourself up for unproductive conflict and, in exasperation, may start acting as foolish as them.
What Will Reduce Opportunities for Sin and Has the Most Potential for Peace?
“If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:18).
Sometimes, not speaking will be more peaceful if the person isn’t in a place to hear it or if your love for them can cover it without addressing it. But sometimes, not speaking will only leave room for bitterness and distrust, promoting dissension and gossip.
Sometimes, there can be a full restoration and things can be better than ever by staying to fight for truth. Sometimes, the most potential for peace comes when you realize there won’t be restoration under the current conditions and you step back before the conflict continues to intensify and ends the relationship on ugly terms.
Living in the Tension
How do you handle yourself when you haven’t decided what to do yet? Or when you’ve decided to not be as close to someone or stop addressing things with them but still have to interact with them?
First, treat them respectfully and lovingly but remaining firm, not easily sweet-talked, flattered or manipulated into making a decision other than what’s right.
Second, forgive. With every frustrating memory or new hurtful moment, fight to forgive. Remember all you were forgiven of in Christ. Resist the urge to tell others about their deficiencies to justify or vindicate yourself.
Finally, change your expectations for them to appropriately match where the relationship is.
Do the hard work to move toward peace and minimize opportunities for sin whether confronting or letting it go, staying to fight or stepping back.
Bethany Shaeffer spent several years in ministry to college students at Liberty University and has also has done marketing/communications for the university and Liberty Christian Academy. She is passionate that her generation would experience the Gospel at work in their hearts and it would revolutionize the way they live life.