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by Daniel Waldheim, Charis Scholar at Regent University

We’ve all been there. At some point in your life, you have been wronged, purposely avoided addressing the hurt, and have experienced an overflow of contempt, frustration, and anger towards the person who hurt you. Maybe your good friend or spouse was hostile, impatient, selfish, insensitive, or condescending. Maybe they lied, judged, or tried to micromanage you. Regardless of the type of interpersonal discord, this conflict sequence is very relatable and common in lived experience. 

Psychologist Jim Sells created the Conflict Cycle to detail and explain the stages of interpersonal conflict. 

  1. First, it is inevitable in a relationship that one person experiences pain
  2. Then, this pain is improperly addressed because the hurt party suppresses, avoids, or rationalizes the situation the pain is derived from.  These ways of handling pain are called defenses
  3. Finally, the hurt person feels like they cannot go any longer without addressing the situation, but does so in a truculent, spiteful, or demeaning way.  This defense can often become an offense. The original offender now has a grievance against the hurt person who has just retaliated. 

Thus, the conflict cycle effectively describes tumultuous interpersonal relationships characterized by a perpetuating series of pain, defense, and offensive outbursts.

A lesson in pain from Martin Luther King Jr.

The conflict cycle reminds me of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Hatred and Not Seeing Straight speech. In this speech, King recounts a time that he and his brother were driving to Atlanta, Georgia from Chattanooga, Tennessee at night. Inconsiderate drivers would not dim their lights so that it was hard to see the road. King’s brother, exasperated, finally declared that he would refuse to dim his lights for the other cars. Discourteous drivers had inflicted pain on King’s brother so that he became defensive for a period, and then decided he would reciprocate the same pain that had been inflicted on him (offense) in an unabating cycle. In his wisdom, King immediately instructed his brother not to proceed because of his awareness that someone on the highway needed to have enough sense to not retribute pain. Otherwise, there would be too much light on the highway, and the cars would end up in a junkheap of mutual destruction.

King was cognizant that there must be intervention in the Conflict Cycle between the stages of pain and offense, namely, mitigating the time spent in the defense stage by addressing the pain through the mechanism of forbearance and forgiving the other drivers. Addressing the pain and forgiving the person who has hurt you is the only way to end this destructive cycle without a cathartic eruption.

Now let’s make this practical

The Bible provides a model for conflict resolution that emphasizes the importance of both addressing the wrong (pain) committed by the other person and then forgiving them. In fact, the Bible does not provide the option of avoiding the pain and defensively holding a grievance against the other person. It instructs us to act to personally address the person that has wronged us. 

Matthew 18:15 provides the biblical framework for conflict resolution, “If your brother has sinned against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone” (ESV). If someone has hurt you, go directly to that person and let them know. Confrontation is not easy, but it is necessary. By confronting someone who has wronged you, you effectively break the chain of the conflict cycle and are not held in its destructive shackles. However, in 1 Corinthians 16:14, the Bible demands that we do all things in love. Biblical confrontation, then, is firm and assertive, but loving. 1 Corinthians 13:8 describes love like this, “Love is patient and is kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way. It is not irritable or resentful” (ESV). Therefore, confrontation should be the means to the end of forgiveness. Why? Because Christ is the exemplar. Ephesians 4:32 says we are to be “kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (ESV). 

Christ as an example of gracious response to pain

Through his blood, Christ forgave us for defying his holiness and reconciled us back to God through Himself so that we are saved solely “by grace through faith” (Ephesians 2:8). The biblical God is no volatile Greek god. These gods, in response to human affairs (pain), grew angry (defense) and unjustly, whimsically inflicted suffering on humanity (offense). Conversely, Christ Himself “is the propitiation for our sins,” (1 John 2:2, ESV) bearing the wrath of God our sins deserve in our place. Through Christ’s substitutionary death and resurrection, we are imputed with the righteousness of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:21, ESV). Although God could justly give us the judgement we deserve for our sin, (Psalm 51:4, ESV) Christ addressed our disunion from God by becoming our great High Priest (Hebrews 4:14, ESV) and removing the transgressions “as far as the east is from the west”  (Psalm 103:12, ESV) of those in Christ. There is no greater display of intervention in the conflict cycle than the grace of God shown towards Christians through the gospel.

Take it home with Forgiveness

Do not feel the need to confront for petty grudges. Move on. However, if there is an enduring pain, it needs to be addressed by forgiving the person who has brought you pain. The person you are confronting may not accept that they need forgiveness from you. You may not feel as if you can bring yourself to forgive them. Nonetheless, it is necessary for you to forgive them to interrupt the Conflict Cycle and heal. When the time is right and if you are able, go to the person who has caused you pain and lovingly tell them their fault. Be ready to forgive and extend grace. If you struggle with forgiveness from practical help from our friend and colleague, Dr. Worthington’s website on forgiveness  

Harboring pain and unforgiveness is like having a faucet pour out anger into a stopped tub. Eventually, the tub will overflow. Therefore, be diligent to address, not avoid, the pain that was inflicted upon you. Do this by forgiving others as Christ forgave you.