The Destructive Cycle of Conflict (And How to Break Free)


It's everywhere we look these days. Nations fighting wars over territory and resources. Politicians attacking each other's character and beliefs. Angry protesters clashing in the streets. Spouses screaming hurtful words they can never take back.

Even in our entertainment, conflict takes center stage. A few weeks ago, I was watching an old rerun of the classic sitcom "I Love Lucy." In the episode, Lucy and Ricky get into a huge argument with their best friends and business partners, Fred and Ethel. Tension escalates throughout the 30-minute show until finally, in typical comic fashion, it culminates in a big pie fight.

Hilarious, right? Maybe on screen. But in real life, conflict is no laughing matter.

More often than not, what starts as a minor disagreement or misunderstanding can quickly spiral into an all-out battle, leaving devastation and broken relationships in its wake.

As a pastor, I see the fallout of conflict all the time - even within the church. Christians who are supposed to be unified in love instead tear each other down with gossip, quarrels, and judgmental attitudes. Congregations split over petty differences like music styles or carpet colors. Pastors burn out from trying to manage the drama.

It begs the question: Why? What causes all this conflict among people, especially those who claim to follow Jesus? And, more importantly, how do we find our way out of this vicious cycle?

The book of James in the Bible provides some much-needed wisdom on this topic. In chapter 4, James gets to the heart of the matter. He asks, "What causes fights and quarrels among you?" Then, he proceeds to peel back the layers and uncover the root issues that lead to interpersonal strife.

The Conflict Onion

Getting to the core of what James wants us to see is like peeling back the layers of an onion.

The Surface Layer: Fights and Quarrels

James starts with the visible layer everyone can see: fights and quarrels. Whether it's a full-blown screaming match or a cold war of silent treatment, outward anger and division are the telltale signs of conflict.

James doesn't mince words here. He assumes his readers are well acquainted with this surface layer of conflict and considers it a serious problem. Right off the bat, he wants to know why it's happening so frequently among believers.

Layer 2: Coveting and Desire

Going deeper, James identifies the next layer of the conflict onion: coveting and desire. "You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight" (James 4:2).

In other words, we lash out at others because we're not getting what we want. We covet their position, possessions, relationships, and success. Our unchecked desires and expectations breed resentment, envy, and bitterness.

Layer 3: Prayerlessness and Self-Reliance

How often do we take our needs and desires to God? How quickly do we get frustrated and take matters into our own hands? When we rely on ourselves instead of God, we inevitably fall short. Then, we look for someone else to blame, and conflict ensues.

Layer 4: Wrong Motives

James suggests that our motives are often selfishly misaligned even when we do pray. "When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures" (4:3).

If we're honest, many of our prayers revolve around our comfort, convenience, and ego. We treat God like a cosmic vending machine, expecting him to give us what we want, when we want, how we want. And when he doesn't, we throw a tantrum and turn on each other.

Layer 5: Misplaced Allegiance

Why are our motives so mixed up? James asserts that it stems from divided loyalty. "You adulterous people, don't you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God" (4:4).

In Bible terms, spiritual "adultery" means pledging our hearts to someone or something else besides God. We betray our first love when we cozy up to worldly attitudes and values. We can't pursue selfish ambition and humble submission at the same time. Conflict with each other is an outward sign of inward conflict with God.

The Core Problem: Pride

Finally, James exposes the rotten core at the center of it all: pride. "God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble" (4:6). Underneath every layer of the conflict onion lies the poisonous root of arrogance, ego, and self-will.

Pride says, "I'm right, and you're wrong, end of story." Pride seeks to save face rather than admit fault. Pride values reputation over relationship and personal victory over mutual understanding. Pride fuels conflict by focusing on "me" instead of "we."

By peeling back each layer, James shows how even the most seemingly insignificant conflict can be traced back to the pervasive sin of pride. But he doesn't stop there. James also gives us the antidote to all this relational poison: Humility.

The Way Out: Humility

"Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up" (4:10). This powerful promise is the key to breaking free from destructive cycles of conflict.
By taking the low position, we disarm our pride and make room for God's grace. This involves:
  • Submitting to God
  • Resisting the devil
  • Drawing near to God
  • Cleansing our hands
  • Purifying our divided hearts
  • Grieving over our sin
  • Speaking well of each other
  • Leaving the judgment to God

Instead of blaming, criticizing, and attacking others, James urges us to look in the mirror and deal with the pride in our hearts. He tells us to go to God in repentance and trust him to convict, correct, and guide us into right relationships with himself and others.

Only through this posture of humility can we experience the healing and restoration our fractured minds, homes, and communities so desperately need.

A Cautionary Tale

James sternly warns to drive home his point: "Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another" (4:11). Conflict among the family of God has serious consequences.

I am reminded of an example from history that bears the tragic marks of unresolved conflict: the Goingsnake Massacre.

In late 1800s Oklahoma, there were two prominent Cherokee families: the Proctors and the Becks. Both clans were from the same tribe but were bitter enemies.  They should have been fighting on the same side but were divided instead.

Friends, we cannot afford to go down the same path. In an already divided and hurting world, the church should be a haven of healing, a beacon of hope. How can we expect to minister to others if we're shooting our own wounded?

James 4:1 says that conflict among believers is "friendship with the world." It aligns us with the realm of darkness and destruction. But we are children of light, called to a higher standard.

True, we will not always agree on everything, and reconciliation is not always possible in every situation. But with God's help, we can learn to navigate conflict in a way that honors him and preserves the bond of peace.

It starts with me, it starts with you. It starts with removing the log from our own eyes before pointing out the speck in someone else's. It starts with humbling ourselves before the Lord and trusting him to lift us up.

When was the last time you swallowed your pride and went to someone you had offended to make things right? When did you last resist the urge to get in a verbal jab or sarcastic comeback? When did you last pray for that person who hurt you instead of retaliating?

If you're tired of getting caught in the same destructive cycles of conflict, try a different approach. Invite the Holy Spirit to search your heart and convict you of unhealthy thought patterns or behaviors. Confess your need for God's wisdom and grace. Look for ways to extend empathy, even those who disagree with you.

Little by little, you'll notice the layers of that stinky conflict onion start to peel away, replaced by the sweet fragrance of humility and love. As you model this courageous posture for others, you may see a ripple effect of repentance and reconciliation spread throughout your circles.  Who knows?

It won't be easy. It may feel counter-cultural and counter-intuitive at times. But we have a Savior who humbled himself unto death, even death on a cross. He broke the ultimate cycle of conflict between God and man. And he will empower us to be peacemakers who shine his light in the darkness.

So don't lose heart, brothers and sisters. Press on in the fight for unity. Pray for those who persecute you. Forgive as you have been forgiven. And never underestimate the power of a soft answer to turn away wrath.

Let's show the world a better way. Let's be the church.

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