I want to talk first about two fundamental truths that we all embrace, and then show the implications of those truths for how we deal with conflict, whether in our marriages, our families, or our places of work. These two truths are found in Psalm 51, which might surprise you, since Psalm 51 is primarily about David’s relationship to God, and not David’s relationship to people. But, as we’ll see, the only way that we can enter and confront conflict in a way that honors God and loves people is if we’re rightly oriented to God.
The first truth is this: all sin is ultimately and fundamentally against God. This is David’s confession after his adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of his faithful mighty man Uriah the Hittite. And in that story, we know that David sinned against a lot of different people. In the passage he mentions both sin (singular) and transgressions (plural). He sinned against Bathsheba. He sinned against her husband Uriah, both in his adultery and his murder. He sinned against his army by staying home when they were at war. He sinned against his army by manipulating their battle plans in order to make sure Uriah was killed. He sinned against the people of Israel as their king, bringing division and judgment on them through his transgressions. David sinned against a lot of different people. Yet when Nathan confronts him in 2 Samuel 12, he says, “Why have you despised the word of the Lord?” God says, “You have despised me and taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife.” And David responds to this by saying, “I have sinned against the Lord.” And then writes this song confessing that his sin was only against God. “Against you and you only have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (v. 4). I take this to mean that David’s sin (and our sin), even when it is against other people, is fundamentally and ultimately against God.
The second truth is this: God is the one who forgives sin and cleanses us from evil. In the psalm, David appeals to the mercy of God and to his steadfast love (v.1). If our sins are to be cleansed, it will be God who does the washing. If our sins are to be dealt with, it will be God who blots them out. Every sin is ultimately against God, and therefore only God can ultimately forgive sins and cleanse us.
But not just cleansing from sin, but every virtue in our lives is ultimately from the work of God. God desires and delights in truth in our inner being, and he is the only one who can bring that truth about. Psalm 51:10 “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit in me.” A clean heart and a right spirit are the work of God. The joy of salvation is a work of God. The only way to have a spirit willing to obey God is if God upholds it. Even praise of God is the work of God. “Open my lips and my mouth will declare your praise.” Every good trait in your life, every virtue, every noble act is ultimately owing to the mercy of God.
So then, every sin in our lives is ultimately and fundamentally against God. God is the one who forgives sin and works in us what is pleasing in his sight. Or to put it another way, it is the mercy and grace of God that defines us and everything about us. Look at 1 Corinthians 15:10. Here Paul is speaking of the fact that he is the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle because he persecuted God’s church. And then he says these amazing words: “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” Notice, Paul works, he labors, it is his virtue and goodness on display. And yet, his virtue is not his. It comes from the grace of God that is with him. By the grace of God, I am what I am. Grace defines every aspect of Paul, just as it defined every aspect of David, and just as it defines every aspect of you, including your relationships.
Implications for Conflict
Knowing this truth in our bones enables us to face conflict in a God-honoring and people-loving way. Conflict will come. It’s unavoidable. The question is not whether you will have conflict with your spouse, your children, your family, your friends, your co-workers. The question is how you will conduct yourself in those conflicts. Will you be fundamentally defined by the grace of God, or not? And the main effect of being defined by the grace of God in this way is that we are free. Let’s get concrete with six ways that these two truths free us.
Free to Confront with Genuine Love
When we know that sin is ultimately against God and grace defines us, we are free to confront someone with their sin or bring up an offense with genuine love and patience. This is especially true of the normal friction that shows up in our close relationships. The little things at home. The nuisances and annoyances. We know that love covers a multitude of sins. It’s good to overlook an offense. At the same time, if there’s a repeated pattern of offense and you find it working its way into your heart and mind, then it’s probably a good idea to bring it to your wife or your roommate or your co-worker’s attention. But, being defined by the grace of God will massively influence how you bring it to their attention, how you confront them with this issue in your relationship. When it comes to these little annoyances and little offenses, have you been stockpiling them so that you can use them as weapons? Have you been collecting wrongs and nursing small grievances? Are you letting them simmer on a low boil until they finally reach the boiling point and BOOM? It’s one thing to bring offenses to someone’s attention out of love and concern for them and for our relationship. It’s another to wield them as a weapon in conflict.
Another example: Let’s say I’m in a discussion with my wife and I’m trying to let her know how her words or actions have affected me. I find myself getting heated. Not angry, just a little more intense, harsh, pointed. My eyebrows furrow, and there’s an intensity and impatience in my voice. Then the phone rings, or one of my boys comes in the room asking for something. Often, I’m immediately able to shift gears. “Hey man! How’s it going?” or “What do you need, pal?” Completely different tone of voice, completely different orientation to the person. What does this reveal? It reveals that I am fully capable in that moment of speaking with kindness, patience, and forbearance. Those virtues are available to me. So why am I not doing it? Because I’ve forgotten the fundamental truths. I’m speaking harshly to her because I’m acting on the belief that her sin is fundamentally against me, and not God. I’m speaking impatiently because I’m trying to force her to be virtuous, as though I can make her who she is, as though my intense words can define her and not the grace of God. On the other hand, if I know that her sin (even the little ones) are ultimately about God and that grace defines me, I’m free to entrust her to God. I can bring things to her attention with calmness and patience and then leave her in the hands of God. I don’t have to be the deputy Holy Spirit.
This is especially true for husbands who take seriously the responsibility of shepherding their families. You want to be faithful in leading your home. Unfortunately, this often means that we can be patronizing. We can put on airs. We can treat our spouse the way that we treat our children. Because we feel the responsibility before God, we can push in ways that are counterproductive. I’ll come back to that in a moment.
Free to Fight Fair
I know for myself that when I’m in the midst of conflict (and I’m not remembering the fundamental truths), it’s easy to cheat. It’s easy to exaggerate. It’s easy to be angry about one thing when I’m really angry about another, especially when the real source of anger is less presentable, less serious. It’s easy to pretend to be hurt, to try and manipulate the situation. It’s easy to impute the worst motives to them, while giving ourselves a pass. When they sin, it’s because they’re wicked. When I sin, there were extenuating circumstances. Their sin reveals their true character; mine is a momentary lapse, a mistake; it doesn’t show who I really am.
One of the telltale signs that we’re not fighting fair is when we use language like “You always do this” or “You never do that.” Always and never are defining words. We’re seeking to define them by their sin. Often we’re exaggerating because we think it’s on us to help them to see the gravity and seriousness of the issue. And even if it happens to be true, it’s still unkind and unhelpful, since it puts us in the place of God (since we are speaking as though we see everything that they do). Being defined by the grace of God means that we acknowledge that our perspective might be wrong, that we don’t see everything.
Free to Pray “Change Me First”
The proper attitude in all conflict is “Change me first.” That’s a simple paraphrase of Jesus’s words about taking the log out of our own eye before we take the speck out of our brother’s (Matt. 7:3-5). We are prone to notice the small sins of others and to be blind to our big sins. It’s hard to know yourself and to face your own sins. But actually, conflict provides a great opportunity for us. Other people can become a mirror to help us see ourselves and deal with our sins. When we’re in conflict, invariably the other person will do or say something that really gets under our skin. Our first impulse is to get angry and push back or hit back. But if we are defined by the grace of God, we can pause, step back, and get perspective. We can ask ourselves, “Do I ever do anything like that to other people?” If we do, we ought to repent of it to God and then go make it right with them. We say, “God, change me first. If I have sin, deal with that first.” When your kids are fighting, they run into tell you what happened. Kid A wants to tell you what Kid B did, and Kid B wants to tell you what Kid A did, and good parenting means pausing and teaching each of them to confess their own sin first. We ought to be merciless with our own sin, and merciful toward others, and we are so often the opposite. We treat our log like a speck, and their speck like a log.
Free to Confess and Repent
When we sin, because God is the ultimate offended party, we must put it right with him first. We must confess our sins to him first. And then when we’ve done Psalm 51, when we’ve sincerely repented to God and received his mercy and forgiveness, then we must bear fruit in keeping with that repentance, and put things right with other people. This often means that we have to confess the same sin to them. And this is actually more difficult than repenting to God. We don’t want to admit that we’re “that kind” of person. We know that God will be merciful; we know that they might not be (at least initially). We don’t want them to be angry with us. In those moments, they loom large in our vision, and God is small. So we imagine confessing and we try to look for any way out. We choose words that are defensive and that justify our actions. We make excuses. What we need to remember is that the sin was ultimately against God and that, having confessed it, his grace now defines me, and so I am free to enter into this hard conversation with the stability and security that grace provides and just own it. To not think about myself and try to manipulate, but, confident in the grace of God, I can confess and repent sincerely to them.
Husbands, this is a place where you must lead. Being the head of your home means you have the privilege of saying, “I’m sorry. Please forgive me,” first. No matter who started it, no matter who bears most of the blame—to be the head means you apologize first. And this helps us with the problem we ran into earlier. As a Christian, you feel the weight of your responsibility to lead your family. So when you see sin in your wife, you want to step up and address it. But the first way that you step up and address it is by dealing with yourself first. “She’s a mirror; her sin can help me see my sin. Change me first.” But let’s say that, in your judgment, she has sin that she needs to repent of. Then show her how. Don’t withhold your repentance until she repents. Repent of your sin (first before God, then to her), be defined by grace so that you can patiently bring the offense to her attention, and then entrust her to God.
Wives, don’t use your husband’s failure in these matters as an excuse. We are all responsible to God for ourselves.
Free to Not Confess
The only way that this point is of any benefit to anyone here is if the previous exhortation is true. But this application is actually the flip side of that one. The overarching principle is: all sin is ultimately against God. Which means that if you’ve sinned, you must repent all the way down. But if you haven’t sinned, you must not repent. You must not apologize simply to smooth things over. You ought to be humble; you ought to recognize the danger of self-deception. You ought to seek wise counsel. But if, at the end of the day, you have not sinned, you must not apologize to a human being as though you had. You must not lie. You must not pretend that sin is defined by a human being. And the only way that you will have the stability and security and courage to resist the impulse to apologize when you don’t believe that you were wrong is if you know that sin is ultimately against God and his grace defines you.
Free to Forgive
Forgiveness is hard. Let’s say you’ve really been wronged. Someone close to you deeply hurts you, through their words or actions. What do you do with the pain? Often we let the pain define us. We’re the victim, and we own being the victim. By the injustice done to me, I am what I am. That’s what defines me. What begins as righteous anger and pain gradually becomes bitterness and resentment. We sink into the pain; it takes over more and more of who we are. It plays on an endless tape in our head. Why? Because we think that ultimately and fundamentally that sin was against us, and not God.
Being defined by the grace of God frees us to do the hard work of forgiving. “I worked harder than any of them, because forgiveness is hard, yet it was not I but the grace of God that was with me.” It frees us to forgive, and to keep on forgiving. Sometimes the initial forgiveness comes easily. But then a few days pass and the offense comes back, and we have the choice whether to relive the pain and anger, or to forgive again. When Jesus says that we must forgive 70 X 7, he seems to have in mind 490 different offenses. But the same principle applies even if it’s only one offense that must be forgiven 490 different times.
Being defined by the grace of God frees us to actually want the relationship to be restored. When I’m wronged, there are times when I don’t want the relationship restored right away. I want the other person to live in the doghouse for a while. I want them to really feel the consequences of what they’ve done. Often I’m driven by the fear that if I accept them back too quickly, they won’t learn their lesson. They’ll do it again. They’ll hurt me. So I withhold forgiveness (at least in my heart), and I’m doing it because I’m acting as though their sin is ultimately against me, and I’m refusing to be defined by the grace of God. Grace isn’t making me who I am; fear of being hurt is. Anger is. Frustration is. One of the marks of whether these truths are sinking down into your bones is when you find, in the midst of conflict, that what you really want, more than anything, is restored relationship with the person you’re fighting. You really want them to repent, not because you want to put them in the doghouse, but because you want them back. And so you own your sin, you repent of it to God and then to them, in hopes that grace can reign in your life and their life and bind the two of you together.
In all of these scenarios, my main goal is to build up in your mind a vision of a certain kind of person. A person who has a deep awareness of their responsibility before God, who knows that sin is ultimately against God, who is quick to seek his forgiveness, who is defined by his grace, and therefore is secure and stable and free. They don’t need to defend themselves when they’re wrong because they have an Advocate in the only court that ultimately matters. They don’t need to manipulate because they can entrust themselves and their relationships to a sovereign and merciful God. They can keep short accounts with others. They are merciless with their own sin and yet quick to forgive and to desire restored relationship.
This Table is a visible reminder of these three truths. Sin is ultimately against God. God must forgive sins. All virtue in our lives comes from grace. This is the Table of Grace, where harmony and communion and fellowship is restored between us and God, and therefore with each other. Jesus died, so that our conflicts could die. We eat and drink in faith that he is making us into the kind of people who are planted on the rock of his grace and therefore free to love and forgive, as God in Christ has forgiven us.