Confrontation is never easy. It always comes at a cost. We are humans who live on a created planet full of other humans, and when we encounter each other, there will be opportunity for confrontation.
Relational heartaches come in varying degrees. Some heartaches are low-level tension and can be tolerated for some time because they aren’t that big of a deal. For example, your highly priced coffee may come out with whipped cream when you specifically asked for it to be left off. So you must confront the barista with her mistake and ask for a new drink. Low-level tension like this is no big deal.
But people can and will sin against you, and that’s where high-level tension and confrontation come into play. Anger, slander, and gossip are real sins that can surface at any time. Even differences in preference or personality can cause tension. Experiences that occur because of these are difficult and heavy to bear. So how do you know if you should confront someone? And what should you do?
Four Steps to Consider in Confrontation
Step #1: Consider the nature of who you are confronting.
If the depravity mentioned in Romans 3:23 (“for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”) is true about our nature, don’t be surprised that someone who hasn’t trusted Christ acts in ways that are hurtful. Those outside the faith shouldn’t be seen as standard-bearers for Christian conduct, nor do they possess ultimate hope.
Having this mindset helps us enter into relationships with gospel-ambition. Be prayerful about tense situations with outsiders. Sometimes it’s best to wait before entering into confrontation; Jesus was patient with people who sinned against him. Having a godly response when things get hard is a gospel witness in itself.
Don’t lose sight of the mercy you were shown in Jesus. Don’t forget the moment you experienced the grace of God, and know that he is using you to be that bearer of grace in someone’s life.
Step #2: Go to the offender first.
Matthew 18 is our guide for restoration in the church, and its principles can be used in conflicts. The scripture reads in verse 15, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone.”
First, go to the other person one-on-one and in private. If someone sins against you, you need to address them first—not another person, your spouse, or your small group. The offense didn’t occur to them, it occurred to you, and the problem is between you and the offender.
We go in private to respect our brothers and sisters in Christ. It’s easy to head straight to social media and address offenses with no responsibility. But it takes courage to address that person face-to-face. It costs us something to reconcile conflict when we follow the Bible’s instructions; we may lose personal comfort, or the bolstering of our pride in sharing another’s offense, but we gain restored fellowship and uphold truthfulness when we go to them first.
Step #3: Take others with you.
If the offender is a Christian, the stakes are higher: The reputation of Jesus is at stake. In Matthew 18:16-17, Jesus says that when private, one-on-one conflict resolution fails, we need to expand the circle:
But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that “every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.” If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
Jesus calls his disciples to increase those involved in the confrontation. Not because we want to pit pockets of people against each other, but because the church is where sin should be confronted with great care.
God uses the horizontal relationships of those committed to the local church to keep holiness a priority. As a pastor, I’ve seen hurt people enlisting others to their cause, rather than bringing gospel-minded people together (who are operating with evidences of the fruit of the Spirit).
In this step, communication and clarity are key. No one likes to step into a room and find an intervention waiting for them. That doesn’t show respect to someone, even if they have offended. For forgiveness to happen, a humble heart and biblical mind needs to be present among all believers.
Step #4: Remember you display Jesus.
More people are watching your life than you think—especially if you claim to trust Jesus. People will reject him sometimes, and not all confrontation (even if done right) will end with people hugging and reconciling. Jesus still loved those who rejected him and refused to listen to his words. What an example for us!
In my opinion, Christians should be the best at handling confrontation. We have the greatest power living in us. To think that the Holy Spirit can’t guide us in times of trial means we have forgotten how powerful God is. The Holy Spirit is the source of our strength, God dwelling in us. This is good news for you and me.
But what if we fail? We share the mess. We own our failure. We display the renewal God is doing in us by his grace. We aren’t perfect and never will be this side of heaven; God keeps working in us. Some of the most profound gospel-moments happen when I seek reconciliation with my children after I’ve wronged them, when they see their daddy embracing his sin, seeking forgiveness, and sharing the gospel in it..
When Someone Won’t Reconcile
At this point, you might be asking, “What do I do when someone won’t reconcile?” This is difficult and exhausting. There isn’t a clear equation I can give you to help every situation. The best I have found is in Romans 12:18: “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” You do your part, and the relationship stops there. We trust that God is working behind the scenes in 10,000 ways we can’t see. We pray for grace to abound.
Our job is to go as far as God gives us opportunity. When this is hard, we can rest in the finished work of Christ, be responsible in the power of the Holy Spirit, and faithfully long for what God is bringing in the new heaven and new earth.
Jesus never promised us that all of our relationships would be easy and governed by peace. He does, however, declare to be the peace that makes relationships right again. As we trust in him, we yield to Christ’s reign over every relationship his providence brings our way. We also remember that he first confronted us in our sin, so that we would know the fullness of his mercy and grace toward us.