“Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” (Ephesians 4:29)
In Ephesians 4:29, Paul mentions two kinds of speech: that which builds up and that which pulls down. This verse and the surrounding passage show us ten ways that we can handle conflict well—10 ways to fight like a Christian.
1. Examine your heart.
This is a huge first step in any conflict. Even if you’ve been wronged, what does your emotional response say about your heart? Is it possible that malice, wrath, or bitterness have snuck in? These things are like alarm systems for your heart, pointing to idolatry, which is often a much bigger issue than whatever your spouse (or brother or friend or boss) has done to you.
2. Overlook whatever you can.
Part of speaking to others with grace is discerning what needs confronting and what should be overlooked. That’s a lot of what Paul means by that little phrase, “as fits the occasion.” On certain occasions (not all!), confronting little infractions only serves to heighten tensions. There are times you need to speak up and confront; and there are times to just let it go. There’s a real art to knowing the difference.
3. Be practical in how you fight.
Again, think about what “fits the occasion.” My wife and I have learned the hard way that there are certain times, places, and moods that are just bad for arguments. So we never fight, for instance, if we’re both exhausted. We table the argument and come back to it within 24 hours, after we’ve had time to rest. Now, there’s always a temptation to just table a critical discussion endlessly, so you need to be sure to keep your word. If you say, “Let’s talk about this in the morning,” then put it on your calendar and actually bring it back up.
4. Be quick to listen and slow to speak.
As our Pastor of Counseling Brad Hambrick says, the vast majority of communication problems are not expression problems, but listening problems. You’re plenty skilled at making your point known; but the “communication breakdown” is the result of your stopped up ear. Listening well is one way of applying the biblical truth of considering others’ interests more important than your own (cf. Phil 2:3–4)
5. Seek their sanctification, not your vindication.
Once you let go of the idea that you have to win every argument and vindicate yourself, you can finally focus on what helps the other person and the relationship. That means backing off, even when you think you are in the right.
6. Believe in God’s overriding purposes in your relationships.
Knowing that God has a purpose for your relationships introduces an element of hope, even to the most broken of those relationships. This will not automatically make a difficult relationship easier, but it does add perspective: God knew you would be in that relationship, and he intends to do something beautiful with your conflict.
7. Speak grace-saturated words.
When grace saturates your speech, it changes both the content and the tone of what you say. Instead of assuming the positives and noticing the negatives, you begin to assume the negatives and intentionally point out the positives. You avoid being sarcastic and condescending, because that kind of talk—even if it’s technically “true”—only serves to ostracize and tear down.
8. Don’t give up until there is no longer a chance of reconciliation.
This is specifically applicable to married relationships, though the principle is broader than that. I see so many couples going through the pain of divorce, and even though there are a few isolated cases in which divorce is biblically justifiable, I wish that more people would just give the power of grace a chance before giving up on that relationship.
9. Truly forgive.
Forgiveness is a choice to put an offense away from our minds, but it’s not conditional on another person’s repentance. Many people think, “I’d forgive so-and-so if they would just ask for it.” But don’t confuse forgiveness with reconciliation. Reconciliation takes two people; forgiveness only takes one. For your own sake, do not wait on another person’s repentance before you forgive. The only alternative to forgiveness is bitterness.
10. Do all things out of reverence for Christ.
The only way to follow any of this is for the cross to grow large in your life, to be so overwhelmed by Christ’s sacrifice for you that it reorients how you view every offense against you. If you try to resolve conflict as an act of service to your spouse, you will always lose motivation. You have to do it for Jesus.