How Leaders Should Handle Conflict

Everybody handles conflicts from a variety of perspectives. Some people try to win conflicts at all costs. Others pretend they don’t exist or simply whine about them, hoping they will magically disappear. Still, others leverage their leadership position or power to get their way. Some even quit without trying. The responses are diverse, but James offers an entirely different perspective on conflict.

James begins this section of his letter by introducing three types of conflict:

1.  External Conflict

He begins with a question: “What causes fights and quarrels among you?…” (James 4:1). When James speaks of fights and quarrels, he’s referring to relational conflict among other followers of Christ. This is one of the themes we see throughout James’ letter where he references conflict between the rich and poor, personal conflict, judging others, and employer/employee conflicts.

While everybody experiences external conflict, some people perpetuate conflict. Take Billy Martin for example. On June 23, 1988, Billy Martin was fired for the fifth time as manager of the New York Yankees. His entire career was laced with fist fights, disagreements, and constant conflict. He jumped from one team to another before becoming a coach. But even as a coach, Martin’s pattern of conflict continued.

Whether fighting with Reggie Jackson, hitting a 64-year old traveling secretary with the Texas Rangers, or clobbering a marshmallow salesman, Billy Martin made conflict his closest ally. Jim Murray, a Pulitzer Prize winning sports columnist, once said, “Some people have a chip on their shoulder. Billy has a whole lumberyard.” And when asked why he was fired so often, Martin said, “I get fired because I’m not a yes-man. The world’s full of yes-men.”

The only point Martin proves is this: the biggest issue in any conflict is a person’s own health. Conflict shouldn’t be viewed through the lens of agreement or disagreement or right or wrong. It should be viewed through the lens of your own health. Healthy people successfully navigate conflict. Unhealthy people produce and perpetuate conflict—like Billy Martin did. As the old saying goes, “Hurting people hurt people.” And that brings us to the second observation made by James.

2.  Internal Conflict

James does more than simply identify conflicts in the church. He goes to the root of the problem observing that external conflict is the result of internal conflict. James 4:1 says:

What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?

The desires James refers to are sensual desires. And where do these desires come from: selfish wants. Then James shows a progression—an escalation—in conflict because these selfish wants go unsatisfied. He says:

…You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight… (James 4:2a)

Notice the connection between wants and wars. James says “…You want something but don’t get it.” That’s the internal want. But then he says, “You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight…” That’s the external war. The point is clear:

Our unfulfilled internal wants produce our uncontrolled external wars.

Take a moment and think about a relationship where you’re having the most conflict. Maybe it’s a relationship with your spouse. Maybe it’s a relationship with your boyfriend or girlfriend. Perhaps it’s a relationship with a co-worker, boss, or another follower of Christ. Maybe it’s with one of your kids.

At the core of the external conflict, an internal want is not being satisfied. So my question to you is this: Who do you want to satisfy your want? If your expectation is for somebody else to satisfy your want, then you will always be at war with that person. Why? Because people cannot make you happy. As long as you rely on others to make you happy, you will always experience internal conflict that results in external conflict. Does that mean people should be allowed to treat you anyway they want to? Of course not. But here’s the truth I want you to understand:

If you always expect their will to match your wants, you’ll always be at war.

Everybody has a will (the ability to choose). But when we expect people to choose to satisfy our wants and desires, war often erupts. So where do these unfulfilled internal wants come from? In other words, where do they originate? According to James, they come from upward conflict.

3.  Upward Conflict

Upward conflict is the tension we have with God. And what causes this upward conflict? James answers that question in verses 2-6:

  • Our prayers are born out of impure motives – James 4:2b-3 says “You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.”
  • Our relationship with God is adulterous – Now what on earth does that mean? James 4:4-5 says, “You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. Or do you think Scripture says without reason that the spirit he caused to live in us envies intensely?” In the Old Testament, God is the husband and Israel is His bride. In the New Testament, Jesus is the bridegroom and we, the church, are His bride. So when James says, “You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God?” he’s referring to spiritual infidelity.
  • Our lives are filled with pride…which God opposes – James 4:6 says, “But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says: “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”

Here’s James Point: God’s not your sugar daddy. God’s not the spouse you get to cheat on. And God’s not in submission to your ego. God is God. And until we’re at peace with Him we won’t be at peace in ourselves or at peace with others. Here’s the big idea of this passage:

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Stephen Blandino
Stephen Blandino is the Lead Pastor of 7 City Church near the downtown/cultural arts district of Fort Worth, Texas. He holds a Master's in Organizational Leadership and is the author of "GO! Starting a Personal Growth Revolution." He lives in the Fort Worth area with his wife Karen and their daughter Ashley. Stephen blogs regularly at on leadership, personal growth, church, and culture. You can also connect with Stephen on twitter @stephenblandino.

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