Nobody likes conflict. Especially in ministry/church settings. (If you do, I suggest taking some time to pray!) But conflict is an unavoidable part of life, and when it comes, it can provide an opportunity to experience God’s sanctifying work in our hearts—depending on how we walk through it.
How can we harness situations of conflict to make the most of them? These prayers do not completely answer that question, and of course some kinds of conflict are so severe, or provoked by such blatant sin, that they really call for a more decisive response. But even in extreme situations, prayers like these may prove a good starting point. And in the milder conflict we experience in the body of Christ on a regular basis, meditating on prayers like these could defuse much conflict before it even starts.
1. Lord, give me a heart of mercy.
In Ephesians 4:32, Paul links his call to forgiveness with a call to tender-heartedness and kindness (“be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another”). God doesn’t merely call us to practice forgiveness—he calls us to practice a particular quality of forgiveness marked by warmth, joy, and the aroma of the gospel (“as in Christ God forgave you”).
Praying for a heart of mercy does not mean we lay aside legal redress or accountability for future wrongdoing. But it does mean we desire reconciliation and fellowship more than than winning; that we seek to redirect evil and look for pathways by which to turn it to good; that we absorb pain in order to aim at restoration and peace. “A harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace” (James 3:18).
To pray for a heart of mercy amid conflict can be excruciatingly difficult, especially if you’ve been deeply sinned against. It feels a little bit like dying. It may require us to persevere in prayer for those who have wronged us, and “pray until we’ve prayed,” as the Puritans used to say. Above all, it will require a heart full of Christ’s own kindness, tenderheartedness, and forgiveness for us, from which we draw strength to practice the same.
2. Lord, help me to stay positive amid negativity.
It’s easy to get sucked into negativity. Nietzsche said, “Those who fight monsters should be careful lest they become monsters.” It’s easy to react against a real problem, but in the process become tainted by what we react against. For example, you rebuke the hot-headed and the aggressive, and find yourself getting a little heated. In observing the Pharisee, you notice judgments in your own heart against them. In sensing the pride of your neighbor, you find your own ego provoked (remember pride is essentially competitive). Perhaps that is why Paul, after calling for the restoration of the sinner, immediately adds, “Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted” (Gal. 6:1).
In order to keep unstained by the negativity and backbiting that conflict often engenders, we need to keep our eyes on Jesus. Stephen, the church’s first martyr, provides us with a wonderful example. When others gnash their teeth at him and stone him to death, he directs his eyes upward to heaven, where he sees the risen Christ in his glory (Acts 7:54-58). With his eyes fixed on Jesus, he is liberated to pray for the forgiveness of his enemies (Acts 7:60).
In order to “overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:21) in the midst of conflict, we need to follow Stephen’s example of keeping our eyes above the fray of the gnashing teeth and stones being hurled at us, and defining our situation by the ulterior reality and realm of Christ. As Robert Murray McCheyne put it, “For every look at self—take ten looks at Christ! Live near to Jesus—and all things will appear little to you in comparison with eternal realities.”
3. Lord, help me not to take this criticism personally.
It’s the most natural thing in the world to take criticism personally. It’s as instinctive as flinching when a punch comes. But a defensive, self-referential spirit not only hinders ministry, it is in many respects the opposite of true ministry. We cannot minister to others, an essentially self-emptying act, when we are occupied with defending our own reputation or ego.
In fact, I have found that how we receive criticism is often one of the ripest opportunities for ministering to another person. When criticism comes, there is often something going on in the heart of the critic, something that many times has nothing to do with us. When our hearts are secure in Christ’s love for us, we can better see these needs and respond to them.
We cannot minister to others, an essentially self-emptying act, when we are occupied with defending our own reputation or ego.
4. Lord, give me hope for this person’s renewal.
When we are in conflict with others, their flaws tend to loom large in our hearts and minds. It can become easy to assume evil in their motives (“He’s deliberately trying to undermine me”), or reduce them to a caricature of their sins (“She’s just a gossip”), or exaggerate their hurtful tendencies (“They always do that”). Part of practicing the golden rule during conflict means that we do not exaggerate others vices and ignore their virtues. I find it helps to pray for God’s vision for a person’s progress in Christ, and then ask for grace to genuinely hope in that vision.
Dostoevsky famously quipped that to love another person is to see them as God sees them. When we’re in conflict with brothers or sisters in Christ, it can be helpful to envision them not as they currently are, but after they’ve been in worshiping among the angels for 100,000 years. Seeing people in this light not only informs our prayers for them, it also motivates and empowers those prayers.
5. Lord, how can I see my sin?
The default of our hearts toward self-justification can often lead us to neglect our own contribution to conflict, or at least minimize it in proportion to the other person’s contribution. In some conflicts one party may be the innocent lamb and the other the wicked wolf. But far more often the blame can be sliced 90/10, or 80/20, or 50/50, or some other fraction in which both numbers are greater than zero. And even in those rare situations of complete victimhood, it is healthy to remember that Jesus looked into Judas’s eyes, not with anger and self-defense, but with sadness and resignation to God’s will.
We need hearts full of the gospel in order to not feel threatened by owning our own part of the conflict. When we know that our sins have already been nailed to the cross, that our identity and standing does not hang in the balance with whether we “win” the conflict, it liberates us to examine our hearts and see how we might have contributed to the problems.
We need hearts full of the gospel in order to not feel threatened by owning our own part of the conflict.
When my own sin is not weighty to me, I often find it helpful to reflect on the second verse of the hymn “How Deep the Father’s Love For Us”:
After some reflection on these words, I may still need to go “reason frankly with (my) neighbor” (Lev. 19:17). But I hope I’m now doing so in a chastened mood, with greater openness to trust and greater expression of vulnerability, so as to make my appeal “by the meekness and gentleness of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:1).