I’ve recently been thinking about conflict, how we Christians usually handle it, and what might be lacking in our approach. These musings were stimulated by a conflict that I had recently with a Japanese person. The conclusions I’ve come to have been so revolutionary to my way of thinking that I wanted to share them with you, too.

In my North American mindset, I have a clear sense of boundaries: what’s mine, and what’s not. My feelings are my own. Yours are not mine. I am responsible for my feelings and the actions that stem out of them. I’m not responsible for your actions or feelings.

If I try to take responsibility for your feelings and actions, I diminish you as a person. I essentially say that somehow I am better than you because I am responsible not only for myself but also for you. (e.g., “You can’t handle your own emotions/actions, so let me take them from you. I’ve got it.”) I make you into a lesser being than myself. By contrast, the healthy attitude says, “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours.” When we both take responsibility for ourselves, we can have an emotionally-healthy relationship.

And this is true.

However, I’m starting to realize that in our highly-individualistic culture, we sometimes take these concepts too far. We may not be responsible for each other, but we are responsible to each other [1]. We are responsible to each other for the hurts we cause. We are responsible to each other to “bear one another’s burdens” [2], as Paul says. This includes helping one another in our spiritual struggles.

We might be able to agree with the idea that we’re responsible to our fellow human beings—if we’ve caused hurt. But what about a Christian brother or sister who is jealous of us, through no fault of our own? Jealousy is a feeling, so this issue is the jealous person’s responsibility, right? We cannot be held responsible for another person’s feelings, right?

Our typical solution, when confronted with conflict that is one-sided like this, is to shrug; say, “That’s your problem”; and walk away.

But one night, in the dark before the dawn, I realized that even in this one-sided case I can’t just walk away. Even then, I’m responsible to my Christian brother or sister.

When that thought first crossed my mind, my psyche reared back in indignation.

“Am I my brother’s keeper?” I said along with Cain, who (incidentally) killed his brother. [3]

“Yes,” God said to both of us.

I remembered that Jesus once said:

“But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”

(Luke 6:27-28)

That night I realized the principle behind the words. The principle is that when our enemies—and how much more this is true for our Christian brothers and sisters!—have a problem with us, whether or not it’s our fault we still have a responsibility to them.

We have a responsibility to help them resolve their antagonistic feelings so that we can live in peace with them. We have a responsibility to bear this burden with them [4].

That’s why Jesus said:

“Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering.”

(Matthew 5:23)

Christians often misquote or misunderstand this scripture. But please notice that it says “if your brother has something against you”, not “if you have something against your brother”. If there is trouble in our brothers’ or sisters’ hearts, we have a responsibility.

Notice, also, that this passage doesn’t specify whether there has been any wrongdoing. It doesn’t matter whether the offense is in our brother’s mind, or in something we have actually done. Either way, we are responsible to our brother, to go and be reconciled.

Let me give an example from my own life. I recently experienced a big social snub at the hands of a fellow Christian (we’ll call her Sherry). She is Japanese. I thought for awhile that I would just absorb the hurt, forgive, and move on—hoping that my perception of the harshness was unintended. If the problem cropped up again, I would deal with it then.

It was shortly after this that I had my epiphany about being responsible to our brothers and sisters in times of conflict, even if we have done nothing wrong. In my case, I had no idea if I had done something wrong, or if Sherry’s actions stemmed from something internal. But after that epiphany, I recognized that it was my responsibility to either make amends for my own wrongdoing or help her move past her internal struggle by doing things to soften her heart towards me.

At first, I thought I would approach the conflict head-on, begging forgiveness for my method. However, when I went to talk with her, I felt as though I were muzzled. I opened my mouth but somehow couldn’t start the conversation. Since even Canadians cringe at direct conflict resolution methods, I wondered if my hesitance stemmed from this. But then I thought that perhaps God was preventing me from making a mistake. So I started to consider how I might take a more circuitous route.

First, I went out of my way to spend time with Sherry. Perhaps, if I was really loving towards her, this would soften her heart. I sought her out and sat with her family during a social situation. Perhaps, if I spent time with her, some hitherto-unforeseen opportunity would present itself.

It did.

At one point, she started playing a rhythmic game with her young daughter.

“Wow! I couldn’t do that!” Time for a big dose of vulnerability. I went on to relate several comical tales of my own incompetence at rhythmic pursuits. By the end, she was in stitches. “So, you see, I am always so impressed whenever someone does what you just did. I want to be like you, but I don’t think that’s possible.”

I continued to spend time with Sherry and her family. Less than five minutes later, she sidled up to me and told me a secret she’d been keeping. It turned out that this secret fully explained her previous behaviour, and the conflict I’d perceived evaporated. I was able to react to her in affirmation, and tell her (in a socially-acceptable indirect way, of course!) how much I loved her. The relationship was restored—or rather, improved. I was now one of the trusted few who had been entrusted with her secret.

There are several principles we can take from the thoughts I’ve shared above—particularly when dealing with possible one-sided conflicts. I will summarize them here:

  1. We are our brothers’ keepers. Though we are not responsible for each other’s feelings, we are responsible to our fellow Christians.
  2. We should share each other’s burdens, particularly when they are dealing with spiritual struggles.
  3. We should walk toward, rather than away from, fellow Christians when they encounter internal or one-sided conflict. We have a responsibility to love and spend time with them. We cannot afford to leave them alone when they are struggling, even if we’ve not done anything wrong.
  4. Here are some principles for helping our Christian brothers and sisters be victorious over inner conflict:
  • Pray for them. Ask God to guide you. He knows their hearts better than you do, and even better than they do.
  • Spend time with them. Find ways to show them love—not on your terms, but on theirs. Sometimes the things we think are loving are not perceived as loving by others. As long as it’s not sinful, adapt to what they consider loving.
  • Don’t indulge your pride. Don’t brag. Don’t allow yourself to feel superior because you’re not struggling. Your turn will come!
  • Be vulnerable. Share about your own inadequacies.
  • Find something to like and admire about the person. Tell them what you admire. Make sure you’re genuine. If you can’t think of something right away, be patient, keep your eyes open, and pray for enlightenment. Don’t just make something up; people can smell a fake. Tell them that you want to be like them. If they know this, it helps bring balance to your relationship, because perhaps they’ve been wanting to be like you!

Let’s be brutally honest: sometimes it can feel nice to have someone jealous of us. It makes us feel good about ourselves. We have something that someone else wants. We’re superior. Their jealousy feeds our pride.

But the truth is that there is no room for competition in the Christian life. When the apostle Paul talks about running the race [5], he doesn’t have competition in mind. Running the race isn’t supposed to be about coming in first place. We are supposed to help each other across the finish line. Maybe today it’s our job to help someone else. But maybe tomorrow that same person will help us!

“Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather determine this—not to put an obstacle or a stumbling block in a brother’s way.”

(Romans 14:13)


[1] Henry Cloud and John Townsend, Boundaries. Grand Rapids: Zondervan,1992), 46-49 of 225 (Title Page section) in ebook.

[2] Galatians 6:2, ESV.

[3] Genesis 4:9

[4] Galatians 6:2.

[5] 2 Timothy 4:7.

(Picture Source)