One particular argument will figure in our family lore for generations: the adults upstairs, lancing one another with loud accusations, while the children downstairs slowly realized the holiday movie, planned for the afternoon, would not be.
Years later, I can’t remember the reasons for our conflict among extended family members. I only know the conditions were right. The “most wonderful time of the year” was upon us, and expectations were at a fever pitch.
It’s a risky business, this thing we call love. Unfortunately, in our cultural environment today—when personal safety is prized so highly—I fear we grow less and less tolerant for the normal bruising that happens in the contact sport of human relationships. We will love insofar as we are never hurt.
A quick swipe through social media reveals a lot of relationship advice centered on self-protection. We are taught to be vigilant against injustice, to repudiate toxicity, and to avoid situations that make us feel unsafe. The law of no trespass has become inviolable.
To be clear, I celebrate the growing emphasis on accountability. It is good and right to protect victims from abusers, and I welcome the more precise ways we’ve come to name the violations of human trust. Importantly, the Christian gospel never diminishes the trauma of sin and the necessity of repair. With a crucified Messiah at its very center—a scapegoat made to suffer for the sins of the world—it is a story that upholds the necessity of justice.
Still, I worry we are growing unrealistic in our expectations for human relationships. We seek safety, by which we often mean invulnerability. We imagine that incurring wounds in a relationship signals reasons to quit, not hazards of very good work.
In recent years, relational fracturing, especially in the United States, has become pandemic, and it grows harder and harder to work toward relational repair in our friendships, families, and churches. With growing mistrust of institutions, we have fewer authorities to arbitrate conflict. In a digital age that promotes the self-selection of “truth,” we confirm different ways of seeing the world, even different worlds altogether.
This is to say nothing of the reigning spirit of malaise, which the desert fathers and mothers called acedia. We are put out by the effort conflict resolution will require of us—resistant to love’s demands, as Rebecca DeYoung has defined it.
As seems clear from the Bible, conflict is both an inevitable aspect of human relationships and a reality that demands wisdom. If conflict were more rare than common, it would seem Paul overstated the need to put off sins like “hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions, and envy” and put on instead “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gal. 5:20–23).
If conflict were the exception and not the rule, perhaps Jesus himself was given to exaggeration when he said that forgiveness in human relationships would be a persevering decision of “seventy-seven times” (Matt. 18:22).
But no, these persistent injunctions to get along (see Paul’s plea to Syntyche and Euodia in Philippians 4:2) reveal that we must expect conflict. Conflict is the spark—and sometimes the powder keg—of human connection. To love (or try to love) is to fail, sometimes even to intentionally wound. God’s love is patient and kind, and we are not God.
As we learn to expect conflict in our relationships, we can commit ourselves to growing in the wisdom conflict will require. To be clear, wisdom, as a biblical category, is not the product of relationship hacks. You can’t learn it by watching YouTube videos, by reading self-help books, or even by following mindfulness routines. Wonderfully, wisdom is practical—but its practical expertise is not simply about know-how. Wisdom grows first from a Godward orientation of the heart. The first principle of wisdom is the fear of the Lord (Prov. 9:10).
Being rightly related to God is a first step toward being rightly related to our fellow humans. The Lord’s Prayer highlights this dynamic when it teaches us to pray first for forgiveness for our own sins, then for capacity to grant forgiveness to others. This forgiveness we seek and grant isn’t merely therapeutic, as Tim Keller explains in his most recent book, Forgive. We hope and work for repair and restoration.
I grew up in a home where the absence of conflict was cited as relational health. And while I matured to better understand that conflict, handled lovingly, suggests the risk and reward of intimacy, this isn’t to say I knew how to handle it. I had to do what wisdom asks of any of its students: Find teachers and learn. Practice and admit mistakes.
My husband and I tried teaching our children the skills for addressing personal hurts incurred in relationship. They would sin and be sinned against, and this was never a surprise. We taught them a simple framework for dealing with relational breakdown: Say you’re sorry. Name your fault. Ask for forgiveness. No one step could be omitted, and it was best to say them in that order.
Yes, too many times to count, the apologies were perfunctory—“I’m sorry,” exacted with a huff. And no, this teaching alone did not cover all the bases of appropriate conflict resolution. But the receiver of the apology also had an important role to play. He or she was encouraged to never diminish the fault (with “It doesn’t matter” or “No big deal”) but to simply say, “I forgive you.”
Together, my husband and I practiced those skills during the pandemic, when we finally signed up for four sessions of marriage counseling. Twenty-six years of marriage had still not taught us the inherent dangers of conflict—into which I was too hasty to run and my husband hasty to flee. We needed better skills, and we also needed to shore up the steadfastness that all relationships require. Gratefully, it’s our vows that keeps us bearing and believing, hoping and enduring; it’s our faith that sobers us to think of ourselves rightly.
Not all relationships are safeguarded with a binding commitment, of course, and sometimes patterns of conflict can indeed suggest that a friendship should end. But perhaps Christian discipleship must now emphasize (against the cultural Zeitgeist of fragile self-protection) the patience and perseverance that love demands, the work that all relationships engender. I am not safe to love others if by this I mean that I will never experience pain. But I can learn to live with less defensiveness, less fear, admitting my sin and taking the steps toward repair.
“I’m sorry. I was wrong to hurt you. Will you please forgive me?”
I’m sure that’s how the scene all those years ago ended, children and adults alike relieved. We missed the movie but managed the holiday celebration. It was one more occasion for learning that love is far riskier than we think—and far more resilient.
Jen Pollock Michel is the author of five books, including In Good Time: 8 Habits for Reimagining Productivity, Resisting Hurry, and Practicing Peace (Baker Books, December 2022).
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