This article is written by BCC Counselor Mark Johnson as part of our new series on the family. In this series, our counselors examine various difficulties of family life and share ways to pursue healthier family dynamics.
On a trip to Israel, our tour group stopped at the baptismal site of Jesus on the southern part of the Jordan River (now called Qasr al-Yahud). It is an amazing place, as several houses of worship were built to memorialize Jesus’ baptism.
At the time we visited, we were told to take extraordinary caution because of the presence of landmines.
There were signs everywhere in multiple languages around the roped-off areas noting where you could walk and where you could not.
Some of our families’ communication styles can be like visiting Qasr al-Yahud, except without warnings and roped-off areas. We don’t know when we are venturing into the land mines of differing opinions, habits, and practices.
Some families may include the freedom to “yell and get it off your chest,” whereas my family grew up with a “sulk by yourself, and by all means, maintain the peace” motto on the family coat of arms.
Conflict and broken relationships are often how we “do family,” and these issues quickly divide. Adam and Eve resorted to blame-shifting over their dispute about where and how they sinned. Cain and Abel followed suit over such a thing as how to worship. It is no different today.
Both James’ letter and Paul’s letter to the Ephesians have some answers that help us understand family disagreements.
Why do these family disagreements divide us?
James 4:1-2 reminds us that it is the passions (hēdonōn) of our heart that war or battle within us – our desires (epithymeō) or our coveting (zēloō) – and as a result, our hearts make the poor decision to want what it wants when it wants it.
We desire something from someone else so badly that we are willing to bruise or crush anyone or anything that gets in our way.
Back in James 3:15-16, he helped the scattered believers understand that envy and selfish ambition are exemplary of truth-deniers and that the origin of the squabbles is earthly, unspiritual, and demonic.
In other words, what is in our hearts (that which defiles us) comes to the surface. We let it happen, and in doing so, we act as we did in our former life before we came to Christ.
The lifestyle that is in our hearts comes to the surface.
Overcoming conflicts by renewing the heart
The issues arise in our hearts when we forget how God has re-created us and when we don’t practice renewing our minds. As Paul says, “you did not learn Christ in this way” (Ephesians 4:20).
A good life – one in which people resolve their misunderstandings, hurts, and conflicts peaceably and gently – is an example of a heart that is changed.
“Be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:32).
Don’t miss the renewing of the heart that must happen. Paul is talking about more in this passage than just stopping one behavior and starting a different, albeit better, one.
Paul appeals for the renewed mind, the inner man, to have an intimate relationship with God. Then, as a result of being the people of God, Paul calls us to treat one another with respect and dignity by listening well, postponing speaking, and putting off anger (James 1:19-20).
James echoes the same themes of renewing the mind, the heart, and the passions by pleading with his readers to “draw near to God” (James 4:9).
So, why do family disagreements divide us? We let them. We don’t draw near to God, we don’t renew our minds, nor do we seek to serve one another. Instead, we selfishly indulge our passions and ignore the consequences.
How do you go about agreeing?
There are some long answers to how we agree, more than can be covered in our time together. For the longer answers, I recommend a few books or booklets which have been a help to me in the resource section below.
Simply put, though, we must examine our hearts to understand where the depth of our passions comes from. Use a series of questions like this:
- Is it a personal conviction or a selfish desire?
- Even if it is a Biblically driven conviction, can we reconcile how we express that conviction with God’s Word?
- Are we saying it with love, gentleness, and kindness, or with anger and malice?
- Are we humble?
- Are we getting the log out of our own eyes before we get the speck out of another’s eye?
- Are we looking to serve one another, or are we looking to win arguments?
We must seek repentance when our words no longer reflect our identity in Christ (Acts 26:20; Ephesians 4:17-32). We endeavor to learn to listen (James 1:19-20). We speak the truth (Zechariah 8:16). We need to overlook offenses (Proverbs 10:12; 19:11; James 5:20; 1 Peter 4:8). We must submit to God (James 4:6-7).
One practical application of where our conflicts can divide us is our political discussions.
In every election, my father-in-law, with a twinkle in his eye to show that he was teasing, would say to my mother-in-law, “You didn’t cancel out my vote, did you?” It was good-hearted fun, but in all seriousness, we can let politics divide our families.
When division happens, we need to be reminded that our hearts are out of alignment with God.
As families, we need to seek peace first (not appeasement) and then understand the wisdom of the Scriptures in how to repent, listen, speak the truth, and overlook offenses.
Baker, Ernie. Help! I’m in a Conflict. Wapwallopen, PA: Shepherd Press, 2015.
Jones, Robert D. Pursuing Peace: A Christian Guide to Handling Our Conflicts. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012.
Sande, Ken. The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict. Third Edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2004.
_____. “17 Ways to Respond to Explosive Politics.” Relational Wisdom 360, November 6, 2022. https://rw360.org/2022/11/06/17-ways-to-respond-to-explosive-politics/.