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Resolving Conflict

Dale Johnson: I am thrilled to have with us today Bill Shannon, who is the pastor of discipleship and counseling at Grace Community Church in California. Bill has been certified since 1993, and he also has served as a Fellow since 2013. Bill, I’m so grateful, first of all, for your service in the local church and serving the local church so well, and also your relationship with ACBC. Thank you for your faithful service there. We’re glad that you’re here today.

Bill Shannon: Thank you. It’s good to be here.

Dale Johnson: Now, Bill, our task today is to talk about resolving conflict, and there are so many opportunities, unfortunately, in the world in which we live. All the different relationships that we have between husband and wife and parents and children and co-workers and, dare I say, even in the church, there are so many ways in which we have relationships with people. When we live in a fallen world, conflict is going to happen between people. Talk for just a second about those different dynamics that we experience and the conflict that abounds in the relationships that we have.

Bill Shannon: Well, I think what we see in the world today is just a reflection of what’s in the heart. We have conflict on all levels, even with three-year-olds. That’s probably where they’ve learned it, but the one thing they didn’t learn is the humility that’s necessary to be able to resolve that conflict. We think somebody has something against us, and we speak out against them before we even heard what they said. We have problems in the church. We have problems between pastors. We have problems between missionaries. It’s all over the place, and we need to take the attitude of Christ. He is the one who was our example of humility.

Dale Johnson: When you sit down with someone who is describing to you a conflict, and you’re listening to the conflict that’s going on, how do you discern some of the symptoms that they’re describing to be able to sort out all the details of the conflict?

Bill Shannon: First of all, I want them to look at their own heart. For me to try to make a diagnosis of their heart, they need to make that diagnosis, because I’m not going to change anyone. It’s going to be the Word of God. I want to take him to the Scriptures: Colossians 3 and Romans 12. I want them to see that and then tell me how they’re doing there. Even today, I heard 1 John 1:8, if you’re “without sin.” So often, somebody comes pointing their finger at someone else, and they’ve got these other three fingers pointing back at themselves, and they should realize that they are the issue. It’s not just the other person, but they are the issue and then begin to start to take responsibility.

Dale Johnson: When we deal with conflict, and especially as the counselor, we’re hearing all of this messy stuff. What you just described, of allowing the person to focus particularly on their own heart, starts to clear away the confusion of prioritizing. What should I deal with here? And what should I deal with there? That’s a distinctly biblical truth. Give me some critical passages that you always have in your mind and that are the backdrop that help you to listen well in moments of conflict.

Bill Shannon: Well, I think that the Romans 12 passage, which I just alluded to, is an excellent passage because it talks about being humble and not being one who is thinking more highly of himself, but to think of others as more important, and that, so far as it depends upon you, be at peace with all men. Wow, we don’t see that very often, and that needs to be at the center of peace.

There was one time I took a couple through that particular passage, and I said, “What you’ve been doing is building this brick wall between you.” Then, I gave them a little sketch of a brick, and I put a sin on there of how they’ve been sinning against each other. I said, “What you folks need to do is start taking those bricks down from that wall.” Then, I had to let them go because I was done. I had to run somewhere else, and I was afraid to let them go out the door together because they had so much animosity and so much hatred towards one another. I said, “Can I trust you to leave?” and they did.

I came back three weeks later from a trip that I was making, and they’re all smiley, they’re holding hands, and they’re sitting next to each other like they really love each other. I’m going, “Okay, guys, is something going on here? What happened?” They said, “Well, we went down to the lobby, and we sat there for another three hours, and we started to take the bricks off of our wall.” That was exciting because I had nothing to do with it. That was God implementing that and showing them that they needed to take care of these particular issues between each other.

Dale Johnson: One of the most dangerous situations that I see in marriage counseling is not the marriage where one major event has occurred in a situation of adultery or unfaithfulness, but a couple that’s been living with one another and not dealing with conflict for a period of 15 or 20 years. Their hearts get so enraged and embittered. Sometimes, it gets so difficult as you try to work with one issue, and it seems like—just like you described—there are so many bricks in the wall. Describe how you approach that situation where it seems like both are embittered, both have been sinning against the other, they’ve been sinned against, it seems like they both have points, and they both feel justified in the way that they think. You start to break down that marriage to deal with some of the bitterness and anger that’s involved. What are some helpful ideas?

Bill Shannon: Sometimes they can be justified, but they’re justified in their own eyes. You have to take them to Scripture. A lot of times, I’ll have them read Matthew 5, 6, and 7. I say, “Okay, give me three points out of those Scriptures that you see apply to your marriage and what you could do better.” That’s one of those homework assignments. I take them to Luke, and I say, “Okay, here’s the tax-gatherer, and here’s the man beating his breast and he can’t even lift his eyes to look up, and he sees himself as a sinner. Which one are you? Help me out. Tell me which one you see yourself as.” This is so that they can realize that they too are a sinner because they think they’re coming in innocent.

Another homework assignment is to give them is to write down fifty ways they’ve sinned over the years against their spouse. I want them to write it down on a piece of paper, bring it back next week, and tell me the fifty ways. They’ll write it out, and the lady will always have fifteen, the guy has three. Now, we’re going to switch them so that they can fill it in a little bit, but let’s start confessing that sin because they don’t know how to do that. They’ve never taken the opportunity to say, “Would you please forgive me for doing this, and this, and this, and this, and this, and this?” They always try to defend themselves.

Dale Johnson: You just brought up the idea of forgiveness. We all cringe when we hear that word and think about us having to forgive someone else. What a difficult task, but the Scriptures demand from us that we seek peace as far as it depends on us, and we know that peace can only be found through the means of forgiveness. Even the peace that we have with God is because we’ve been justified by our faith in Christ, and He’s forgiven us. When we think of peace and us seeking peace in conflict, we have to seek forgiveness, and we have to grant forgiveness. Talk about the beauty of forgiveness.

Bill Shannon: First of all, you bring up a very good point there about forgiveness. Jesus said in Luke 17 that if you see a brother in sin, go and confront him and if he repents, you’ve won your brother. It’s wonderful. Then, in verse 4, the apostles are wondering, “How often do we have to do this?” Jesus said, “Seventy times seven.” And they said, “Oh, we need faith. We need more faith because this is impossible.” In verse 5, Jesus says, “If you had the faith of a mustard seed, you’d be able to accomplish that.” In the pursuit of peace, if we don’t do that, then we are going to find ourselves in even more critical problems.

Hebrews 12:14 says to pursue peace. It means to run after it and hunt it down. To pursue peace with all men and the sanctification that without it no one will see the Lord. Verse 15 says, “See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God.” That’s what will take you to the point of not having the grace of God. When you’re unwilling to pursue peace and unwilling to give forgiveness, you’re going to find yourself in deep trouble.

Ephesians 4:32 says that forgiveness is that we’re supposed to forgive others as God in Christ Jesus has forgiven us. How did He forgive us? How did God forgive us? Isaiah 43:25, “I, even I,” this is God speaking, “am the one who wipes out your transgressions for my own sake.” God receives glory every time we seek forgiveness, and we receive forgiveness. He says, “I will not remember your sins anymore,” which is a great promise for us as believers. He’s not going to hold it against us, and we shouldn’t hold sin against our spouse, our friend, or some person that we have conflict with.

Dale Johnson: One of my favorite things to see in counseling is when people have deep conflict in relationships and, just as you’ve been describing, we work through the Scriptures and help them understand some of those principles. We see them begin to have success, and we see them begin to move in the direction of being sanctified in the way that they love each other. What are some of the things that you look for to know when couples have learned to handle conflict appropriately? When they come to the end of their counseling, and you see some of the fruit of them learning how to handle conflict well.

Bill Shannon: We see the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5 of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, and so on. It’s having patience with the other person, it’s being gentle towards the other person, and it’s being other-oriented rather than self-oriented. We are so selfish, and we don’t see what the other person is doing for us. We don’t see how they’re helping us out, but in counseling, you help that couple see the ways that they’re trying to serve one another. When you start to see that, then you see that they have come to an understanding that Christ did not come to be served but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many. This is what they’re doing for one another. That’s a relationship that’s wholesome when you start seeing them serve one another and care for one another.