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Our greatest enemy in conflict is not our opponents; it is our own egos. Disagreements over policies, over leadership decisions, or even over points of doctrine or practice all too quickly become personal. Far too readily, we take offense, even when no offense is given. Imagined slights lead us to impugn motives. Hurt feelings tempt us to give as good as we get, and soon, after we trade verbal blows and harbor deepening resentments, what began as a legitimate difference of opinion becomes an almost insurmountable cause of division. And the poisoned well from which all this needless strife has been drawn is the sin of pride.
In exposing this pattern, we are not suggesting the avoidance of all conflict as the solution. Sadly, disagreements are sometimes necessary. When controversy is appropriately engaged in and pursued in the service of truth, it honors God. But those most inclined to take offense ought to be last to enter the fray. Hotheads rarely prevail in conflict without leaving a trail of casualties behind them.
Let’s remember that the Lord Jesus often engaged in conflict. Throughout His public ministry, He was a public controversialist, forever opposed by the religious establishment. And it is important to see that He did not shrink from that conflict. He was not reluctant to stand up for truth. He answered questions, sometimes turning the tables on those who sought to trap Him, used humor to make His point, and was willing to take necessary stances even though He knew they would only provoke further outrage. But what is remarkable about Jesus’ approach to such controversy is how poised and self-possessed He always was throughout it all. His opponents never once managed to get under His skin. He never once flew off the handle. We never once hear in His careful responses any of the customary venom that erupts from our own bruised egos.
In Romans 12:14–21, Paul teaches us how to engage in conflict. But he could just as easily have been describing Christ the controversialist. Read each clause of Paul’s exhortation. Don’t we find in it a depiction of Jesus? What we must learn to do, He always did.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Kindness, not revenge; the pursuit of peace insofar as it depends on us; being willing to associate with the least instead of seeking plaudits and praises from others—this is humility in action. It was Jesus’ way. And it provides the Christian’s rules of engagement whenever conflict comes.
Here it’s important to note that Paul repeats a central principle of Christian conduct in the midst of conflict, though in slightly different form, three times in this passage: we are to bless those who oppose us (v. 14); we are not to repay evil for evil (v. 17); we are not to be overcome by evil but are to overcome evil with good (v. 21). That, let us frankly admit, is easier said than done. But verse 17 helps. Paul calls us to do what we rarely remember to do in the heat of conflict. Instead of repaying evil for evil, we are to “give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all.” In other words, humility in the midst of conflict requires purpose and carefulness. We need to plan ahead as we go into that difficult meeting or engage with that contrarian personality, and ask ourselves, “What is the honorable way to be and speak and think and act in this situation?” Humility never simply happens. It takes thought and work and resolve.
We are called to “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than” ourselves and to “look not only to [our] own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:3–4). This is the “mind we are to have among ourselves.” But it is ours only “in Christ Jesus” (v. 5). We get it from Him. So as we pursue humility in conflict, above all else, let us look to Christ.