Redeeming Conflict: Overlooking & Confronting
Paul’s appeal to Euodia and Syntyche to “agree in the Lord” and his request to the church at Philippi to “help these women” reminds us that conflict happens even between faithful and mature members of fruitful gospel communities (Philippians 4:2-3). When conflict arises, we must choose between responding in unbiblical ways—like avoiding (“peace-faking”) or attacking (“peace-breaking”)—and responding in biblical ways—like overlooking the offense or graciously confronting the one who has wronged us. When we trust God and respond to conflict the way he has revealed in Scripture, we can pursue peace and redemptive reconciliation.
“Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense” (Proverbs 19:11; cf. Proverbs 10:12; 15:18). It is a glorious thing to overlook offense because the very glory of God is that he is “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6; cf. Exodus 34:18-19).
The reason Jesus called his people to love enemies and pray for persecutors is so that we may be sons and daughters of our heavenly Father. When we overlook offenses and do good to those who hate us, we are imitating our Father in heaven, who “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45).
We act like our glorious God when we overlook offenses, and we fill our homes and neighborhoods and gatherings with the sweetness of God’s mercy when we cover a multitude of sins with the love of God (1 Peter 4:8). “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7).
But sometimes it’s necessary to confront someone about sin in his or her life. How do you know when to overlook an offense and when to graciously confront it? Here are a few questions that can help you discern. (I owe credit to Jonathan Leeman and his article entitled "A Church Discipline Primer" for helping me think through some of these categories.)
1. Have I taken the log out of my own eye first?
Jesus tells us that the prerequisite to confronting someone else about his or her sin is checking your own vision to make sure you are actually seeing clearly enough to perform such a delicate task. “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye” (Matthew 7:3–5).
According to Jesus, plank-eye is a condition that leaves you unable to help your brother. Apparently, it’s hard to peer through a microscope when you have a two-by-four protruding from your eye. So for your own sake and for the sake of those around you, the first step is always to deal with your own sin. When you are seeing clearly, you may find that you weren’t seeing your brother’s sin accurately. Or you may see that gracious confrontation is still necessary. Either way, you will enjoy your new vision.
2. Is this actually sin against God (as defined by Scripture), or is it a violation of my personal preferences?
Jesus said, ”If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault” (Matthew 18:15). Anything that is actually sin may be confronted. But if we’re honest, a lot of our annoyances and irritations come from the fact that people break the rules of our personal kingdoms, not the rules of God's Kingdom. If someone has violated God’s law, as revealed in God’s word, then we have biblical grounds to either overlook that offense (see above) or “go and tell him his fault between you and him alone” (Matthew 18:15).
3. Is this sin externally observable, or am I speculating about hidden motives of the heart?
It’s true that Jesus knew the sinful thoughts of those in his audience (Matthew 9:4; cf. Luke 5:22, 6:8; Mark 12:25; John 2:25). But no matter how highly we may esteem our own powers of discernment, it is only the word of God that “is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).
It’s easy to attribute behavior we find inconvenient to sinful motives. For example, if a driver cuts you off, it’s easy to assume that his heart must be among those described in Romans 1:30–31: “slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.” But it could be that he simply didn’t see you and really didn’t mean to.
Part of “bearing all things” and “believing all things” in love is believing the best about others, rather assuming the worst about their motives. When in doubt, trust God to be with you and have that awkward conversation where you ask. This is a kind of confrontation, but rather than approaching the other person with a charge against him, you are coming humbly with a question.
4. Is this a pattern or habit of sin, or an isolated instance?
All sin is serious, but if we are going to be the kind of people who display the glory of God by overlooking offenses (Proverbs 19:11), we will not feel the need to confront everyone about every sin that we observe. If God is kind, forbearing, and patient with us (Romans 2:4), so must we be with each other. Imagine belonging to a community where everyone felt the need to point out every fault of yours! Mercy and patience will sweeten gospel community and build trust and security for the times when confrontation is necessary. But if there are observable patterns of unaddressed sin in a person’s life, you may be seeing a blind spot that God will use you to lovingly reveal.
5. Is this sin scandalous and/or dangerous?
Again, all sin is serious. But some sin really is more serious. Jesus told Pilate, “He who delivered me over to you has the greater sin” (John 19:11).
One way that sin varies from sin is in the degree of damage done. While being vile and wicked, a single lustful thought does not afflict dozens of lives with pain and misery the way that adultery does.
When people sin outwardly, they sin against God and against others. So we can ask two questions: 1) Does this sin dishonor the name of Christ and his Church? 2) Is this sin hurting or harming someone else (including the person living in sin)?
Doing justice involves rescuing the weak and needy from the wicked (Psalm 82:4) and “hold[ing] back those who are stumbling to the slaughter” (Proverbs 24:11). It’s one thing to turn the other cheek when we are personally insulted (Matthew 5:39); it’s another thing to turn a blind eye when someone else is being harmed.