Christian Living

Why Do We Fight? Understanding the Rapid Progression of our Conflicts

Raise your hand if you’d had this experience. You walk into a store to do some shopping. Suddenly, your heart skips a beat after you hear a blood-curdling scream from the other end of the aisle. You turn around to see a toddler rolling around on the floor, with arms and legs swinging in every direction. Standing above the child is his mother, desperately trying to prevent him from causing a bigger scene than he has already caused.

Ah, yes, it’s another temper tantrum. We’ve all been there. Either you’ve been on the receiving end of one or more of these instantaneous outbursts, or you’ve been a witness to the unfortunate encounter. For many of us, we were once the child on the floor!

Experiences like this are common. As fallen human beings, we engage in conflicts with others on a regular basis. Some are relatively small like this temper tantrum. Some are quite serious, such as marital conflict, physical altercations, or division in a church.

Cravings Cause Conflict

Conflict is a painful reality in a fallen world. The short answer to why we fight with one another is because of our sinful nature. However, the Bible provides more specificity. In James 4:1-2, we read: “What is the source of wars and fights among you? Don’t they come from your passions that wage war within you? You desire and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and wage war.”

In this passage, we see that the cause of our conflicts is the cravings and unmet desires within us. As I once heard a preacher explain in a sermon on this passage, cravings cause conflict. When we cannot obtain those things that we desire, we fight to get them.

As you think about how quickly conflict can arise in your own life, it’s helpful to note that there’s a logical and rapid progression that leads from these cravings to the resulting conflict. I first learned about this progression in Ken Sande’s wonderful book, The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict, which I highly recommend. According to Sande, this progression toward conflict includes four stages.

Stage 1: Desire

Every conflict begins with some kind of desire. It could be a sinful desire, such as lust, greed, or covetousness. However, not all desires are wrong or sinful. Perhaps you have a desire to be a pastor, which Paul describes as a noble task (1 Timothy 3:1). Perhaps you have a desire for your child or grandchild to make good grades. Perhaps you have a desire for a little peace and quiet in your home. Whatever the desire, please note that not all desires are sinful desires.

But the problem is when you want a good desire too much. When that happens, you progress to Stage 2, and you’re well on your way to a conflict.

Stage 2: Demand

If we’re not careful, we can allow our unmet desires to become demands. We think we can’t be happy without whatever it is that we want. We no longer say, “I’d like to have this.” Instead, we begin to think, “I must have this.” Whenever that happens, our desire has turned into a sinful demand.

Stage 3: Judgment

When others fail to satisfy our desires and demands, we often begin to judge them in our hearts and quite possibly in our words. We question their motives, their work ethic, their love for us, and many other things. We reach faulty conclusions that others are intentionally trying to hurt us by not giving us what we want. And we’re not going to stand for it! This mindset quickly ushers us into the final stage.

Stage 4: Punishment

After we have pronounced judgment on someone else for not giving in to our demands, the only thing left is to punish them. We can do this in a number of ways. Perhaps we lash out with hurtful words, or we give them the silent treatment instead. Perhaps we gossip or complain about them to others. In extreme cases, physical assault may occur. Although punishment can come in many forms during the conflict, its primary purpose is the same: to hurt the other person like they have hurt us by failing to meet our demands.

Case Study: Temper Tantrum

This progression is simple to understand, but I still want to provide some examples of it in everyday conflict situations. Think back to the temper tantrum I described at the beginning of the post. Most likely, the child saw a new toy that he wanted (desire). It probably didn’t take him long to decide that he must have the toy in order to be happy (demand). When his mother refused to buy the toy for him, he probably thought that she was a mean mother because she wouldn’t let him have a nice new toy, even though he had been good all day (judgment). Finally, he drops to the floor in full temper tantrum mode to try and force his mother to buy him the new toy (punishment).

Case Study: “Honey Do” List

Imagine that a man worked long hours at his job. When he came home late one evening, he wanted to do one thing, and one thing only: put his feet up in his recliner and relax and watch the football game (desire). He wasn’t going to let anyone or anything stop him from doing so (demand). However, when he arrives home, his wife has a list of tasks that she needs him to work on. A lightbulb needs changed, the garbage needs to be taken out, and their son’s bicycle has a flat tire. Mentally questioning why she couldn’t have completed these tasks while he was at work (judgment), he gives his wife a dirty look as he gets up and works on the items on the list (punishment), frequently whispering complaints about her under his breath (judgment). Finally, after finishing everything on the list, he collapses into his recliner and doesn’t speak to his wife for the remainder of the evening (punishment).

Case Study: Potential Church Split

Imagine a church has recently called a new pastor. Soon after his arrival, the new pastor began to introduce some changes that didn’t sit well with some of the members. A few months later, he announced that the church was going to cancel Sunday evening services indefinitely in order to provide some other ministry opportunities during that time slot. For a small group of members, this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. They had no intention of allowing this new pastor to eliminate Sunday evening services (desire). Some of the leaders of the group stopped by the pastor’s office, and gave him an ultimatum: either stop making these changes or they would withhold their tithes and offerings (demand). When he refused to do so, they concluded that the new pastor did not respect the past and was not suitable to serve as pastor (judgment). He did not listen to their “advice” like their former pastor, so he needed to go (judgment). After rounding up some more members to their cause, they called for a vote of no confidence against the pastor the following Sunday (punishment). Shocked by this turn of events, the pastor resigned immediately. However, a significant portion of the church did not agree with this decision, and they tried to convince the pastor to start a new church which they would gladly join.

These are only three fictional examples, but you get the idea. The same progression is found in conflicts on social media, in political disagreements, work environments, and any situation where fallen human beings interact with one another. When we don’t get what we want, conflict soon follows.

How to Prevent Conflict

This post is not meant to describe how to resolve conflict (perhaps a good topic for another day). However, understanding this progression may help you prevent conflict before it starts – at least as far as it depends upon you. 

Whenever you begin to get angry or upset with someone, stop and ask yourself this question: What is it that I want in this situation? Once you have answered that question, then you need to determine if you’ve allowed your desire to become a demand, and if this is really something worth fighting over. Are you elevating your desires and preferences above the desires of others? (See Philippians 2:1-4) Or is this really something worth the conflict that will inevitably follow? 

While there are situations when you should disagree (e.g., nonnegotiable theological doctrines), you can still engage in healthy conflict (again, another post for another day). However, more often than not, you’ll discover that in most personal interactions with others, our tendency is to turn molehills into mountains. To elevate our preferences above the preferences of others. When that happens, you can prevent the conflict entirely by recognizing what is happening in your heart. Pray and ask the Lord to transform your nonnegotiable demand back into a preferable desire – assuming that it’s not a sinful desire. Ask Him also to help you place the desires and preferences of others above your own.

Recognizing the progression of a conflict will not resolve conflict in your life that is already taking place, but it may just prevent some unnecessary battles in the future!

P.S. As I mentioned earlier, check out Ken Sande’s The Peacemaker if you want a full treatment on how to resolve and prevent conflict biblically.

Photo by Johann Walter Bantz on Unsplash

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