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8. Resolving Conflicts God’s Way (Ephesians 4:17-32)

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November 19, 2017

It happens again and again, all across America. A couple meets. Something “clicks.” A romance begins. They fall in love. As they stand at the front of the church pledging their lives to one another, family and friends look on with beaming smiles. Everyone agrees that they are such a perfect couple.

But at some point after this idyllic scene, problems hit. The couple discovers that they are not as compatible as they had thought. The romance fades. Conflicts grow more intense and frequent. They finally conclude that they are no longer in love and go their separate ways, hoping to find someone the next time around who will be more compatible. And it doesn’t just happen to movie stars; it happens in evangelical churches.

But the problem is rarely a lack of compatibility—no two people are compatible. The problem is not working at solving conflicts God’s way, or not being willing to follow God’s way. Every married couple will have conflicts. A good marriage isn’t one where two compatible people never have conflicts; a good marriage is one where two self-willed people have learned to deny self, submit to Christ, and work out their differences in Christian love. You will have a God-glorifying, satisfying marriage to the degree that you learn to solve your conflicts God’s way. You don’t need to find a more compatible mate as much as you need to learn how to become a more compatible mate.

In Ephesians 4:17-32, Paul gives some principles for solving conflicts. (For more in depth on these verses, see my nine messages in the Ephesians series.) His context is relationships in the church, but these verses apply to solving family conflicts. To sum up...

To resolve conflicts God’s way, put off the behavior of the old man and put on the behavior of the new man, walking by the Holy Spirit.

1. To resolve conflicts God’s way, put off the behavior of the old man (Eph. 4:17-24).

The main source of conflicts is our old man (old nature, flesh). Paul describes our old way of life (vv. 17-19) as futile in mind, spiritually darkened, alienated from God, ignorant, hard of heart, callous, given over to sensuality and impurity, and greedy. But now, there is to be a distinct difference between how we used to live as unbelievers and how we now live as believers. We are to lay aside the “old man,” be renewed in the spirit of our minds, and put on the “new man,” “which, in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth (vv. 22-24).

Some scholars say that believers do not have an old nature, but just a new nature, and that our propensity toward sin comes from the flesh. I fail to see any biblical distinction between the old nature and the flesh. Whatever you call it, there is, even in believers, a strong, inner disposition to do what we want rather than what God wants (James 4:1). When we live under the domination of the old nature (= old man, or flesh), the result will be conflicts.

There are other factors which, when coupled with our sin nature, can lead to conflicts: Husbands and wives are different genders. We come from different family backgrounds. We’ve had different life experiences. We have different habits, different convictions and values, and different ways of doing things. But with all these factors, the underlying reason for conflicts is our self-seeking “old man,” living to gratify itself.

When you experienced the new birth, a radical change took place: You became a new person in Christ. Your bent toward sin was not eradicated, but God created your new man in righteousness and holiness of the truth (Eph. 4:24). The power of the old man was broken. Positionally, you took off the dirty clothes of the old man (v. 22) and put on the clean clothes of the new man (v. 24). As your mind is renewed by being conformed to God’s word (v. 23; Rom. 12:2), your behavior becomes progressively changed into the image of Jesus Christ. But now you must daily lay aside the old man (die to self) and put on the new man that you are in Christ. As Paul put it (Rom. 6:11), “Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus.”

Jesus was speaking about the same thing when He said (Luke 9:23): “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me.” To follow Jesus, there must be daily, repeated self-denial, putting self to death. There must be a daily, decisive break between the selfish way we used to live before we met Christ and how we now live in Him.

As you learn to believe what God says about you in Christ and to act upon it daily, your relationships, whether your mate or others, will improve, because selfishness is the main cause of relational conflicts. So the first step to solve conflicts God’s ways is to put off the old man. Repeat as often as necessary.

2. To resolve conflicts God’s way, put on the behavior of the new man (Eph. 4:25-32).

Paul spells out five behavioral changes of the new man:

A. The new man replaces falsehood with truth.

Ephesians 4:25: “Therefore, laying aside falsehood, speak truth each one of you with his neighbor, for we are members of one another.” Paul is aiming this command at relationships in the church (“members of one another”). But how much more does it apply to married partners, who are one flesh with each other! In all relationships there must be truthfulness for healthy communication to take place so that conflicts can be resolved.

At first blush, you may think, “That’s not my problem. I don’t lie; I’m honest.” But because we dislike confrontation, or we don’t want to cause trouble, or because we’re afraid that if our real feelings were revealed, the relationship might suffer, we often fail to speak the truth. I’ve counseled with wives who were ready to divorce their husbands. When I’ve asked if they’ve ever talked honestly with him about the problems, they say, “Oh, no, I couldn’t do that! He’d explode!” So they’d rather divorce him than speak truthfully to him about the problems in their relationship!

Paul uses the analogy of the body here. If the nerves in your foot don’t communicate truthfully with your brain, you won’t be able to walk properly. For relational healing and correction to take place, there must be truthful communication. Your mate can’t deal with a problem he’s not aware of. To plaster over your feelings or thoughts and put on a happy face when there is a problem does not foster healthy relationships. Rather, as Paul says (v. 15), the body will only be healthy when we speak the truth in love.

I’m not suggesting that a couple be ruthlessly honest in sharing everything. I once counseled with a young couple where the husband would tell his wife every time he had a lustful thought about another woman. His comments were making his poor wife feel insecure in their relationship. I told him to judge his sinful thoughts before the Lord and be done with it. To share his every lustful thought with his wife was not seeking her highest good.

A general rule is to ask whether a problem is damaging your relationship. To avoid talking about a matter that is hindering your relationship is not to speak the truth. But to be brutally honest or to blast the other person because that’s just how you feel, is not to speak the truth in love. Your goal should always be to foster mutual understanding and love. To resolve conflicts, speak the truth.

B. The new man replaces indifference with righteous anger.

Ephesians 4:26-27: “Be angry, and yet do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not give the devil an opportunity.” In a section dealing with proper relationships, you may wonder whether Paul meant to say, “Don’t be angry and sin.” This verse has elicited a number of explanations. We need to start by recognizing that righteous anger is Christlike (Mark 3:5). Jesus was angry and grieved at the Pharisees’ hardness of heart. There is something worse than anger in relationships, namely, indifference. If you care deeply for someone, and he is repeatedly sinning, his sin should make you righteously angry. Indifference shows that you don’t love.

Paul cites Psalm 4:4 (LXX) to say, “Be angry enough so that you don’t indifferently shrug off someone’s sin, but be careful so that your righteous anger doesn’t boil over into sinful anger.” And, don’t let it fester for days on end. Deal with it and put it aside, so that you don’t let the devil get a foothold in your life. That’s the proper sense of verses 26 & 27 as I understand it.

In other words, anger that flares up because I did not get my way or because someone has offended me, is sinful. Anger that blows up is not righteous because it is not under control. We are to be slow to anger (James 1:19) because God is slow to anger (Exod. 34:6). Anger that clams up and does not confront a problem, but just goes into a slow burn, turning into bitterness and hatred, is sinful because it’s acting on the basis of self, not for the purpose of seeking love and reconciliation. Righteous anger is motivated by the knowledge that sin damages people. Its motive is restoration of the sinner and reconciliation of the relationship out of the desire for God to be glorified. It attacks the problem, not the person.

So we have to be careful. Righteous anger should motivate us to deal with the sin of someone we love. But it’s easy to cross the line from righteous anger (v. 26) to sinful anger (v. 31). It’s easy to justify selfish anger as righteous, when it’s not. But it’s also easy to back off from anger and become indifferent: “If he wants to destroy himself, that’s his problem! I couldn’t care less!” That’s also sin, because it’s motivated by selfishness. Self-sacrificing love becomes righteously angry enough to take the initiative for reconciliation by confronting sin, but it’s careful to avoid sinful anger.

C. The new man replaces selfishness with giving.

Ephesians 4:28: “He who steals must steal no longer; but rather he must labor, performing with his own hands what is good, so that he will have something to share with one who has need.” Paul is not talking here about marriage, of course. He’s talking about the need for Christians to be honest, hard-working people who are oriented toward giving, not taking. But the context is healthy relationships. There is a principle here that applies to resolving conflicts in any relationship. The old man is motivated by selfishness, out to get what he can for himself. He looks out for his own needs and isn’t concerned about others’ needs, except to exploit them for his own benefit. But you can never resolve conflicts if both parties are trying to exploit or to enrich themselves at the other’s expense.

But the new man is not lazy or self-centered. He works hard in order to give to others. He looks out for the needs of his mate and tries to meet those needs, even if it requires hard work. He’s not in the relationship for what he can take, but for what he can give. Instead of complaining, “My mate isn’t meeting my needs,” he asks, “How can I meet my mate’s needs?”

A main reason that many couples can’t resolve their differences is that they are thieves in their marriage. They rob their partners of love and respect. They don’t give their time or themselves. They want their relationship to be 50-50, and they feel as if they’re not getting their fair share. Replacing selfishness with giving is a key to resolving conflicts. With both partners looking out for the needs of the other and willing to give 100 percent, they can arrive at mutually agreeable solutions.

D. The new man replaces destructive speech with constructive speech.

Ephesians 4:29: “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear.” Destructive speech that tears down the other person will not resolve conflicts. Proverbs 12:18 states, “There is one who speaks rashly like the thrusts of a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” In other words, your tongue can be a sword to wound and kill, or it can be a scalpel to deal carefully with the problem and bring healing.

“Unwholesome [lit. rotten] speech” includes: Name-calling, sarcasm, ridicule, mockery, gossip, slander, blaming, destructive criticism, angry words of threat or revenge, griping, complaining, lying, profanity, and filthy talk or dirty jokes. Words whose purpose is to wound, not heal, must be put off.

We are not just to hold our tongue, however. We are to replace destructive words with words that build up the other person at his point of need; and not because he deserves it, but because our God is gracious, and thus we are to be gracious in our speech. (Grace is undeserved favor.) There is a proper place for criticism or correction, but it should aim at helping, not hurting your mate. Your motive should be to help your mate grow to maturity in Christ. Correction should always be done in gentleness (Gal. 6:1; 2 Tim. 2:24-26). Our goal should never be to win. We want God to win by being glorified as we both submit to Him. I advise you to memorize Ephesians 4:29. It will help you daily to put off rotten speech and to put on gracious words that build up your mate.

E. The new man replaces sinful anger with kindness and forgiveness.

Ephesians 4:31-32: “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.” Six behaviors of the old man must be put off: Bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, slander, and malice. All these terms describe the same selfish, sinful behavior from slightly different angles. Bitterness results from anger or hurt feelings which are not dealt with. It results from blaming or keeping score. Bitterness is long-term hostility. Wrath (from a word meaning “to boil”) refers to outbursts of anger. Anger refers to a settled disposition or attitude, often with the purpose of revenge.

Clamor means fighting with loud words, yelling, screaming or crying. Sometimes angry people yell to intimidate, or they use emotional outbursts to try to manipulate. In either case, it’s selfish behavior aimed at getting one’s own way. Slander means speaking against someone to another, trying to damage the person’s reputation so that you look good. Malice is a general term for any kind of ill-will toward a person. It means “having it in” for someone; you want to see him brought down. It’s the opposite of self-sacrificing love, which seeks to build up the other person.

All these actions of the old man hinder resolving conflicts. They are motivated by self and thus opposed to love. Thus they must be put off like dirty clothes. In their place, we can resolve conflicts if we put on the behaviors of the new man that we have become in Christ:

Kindness is the opposite of being harsh. The word has the nuance of being useful. A kind person thinks of the other person’s needs and takes action to meet those needs. A kind husband allows his wife and children room to make mistakes without crawling all over them. He gives them time to grow and change. To be tender-hearted (cf. 1 Pet. 3:8) means to feel deeply for one another. Love cares and shows it.

Forgiving one another. The Greek word points to undeserved favor. How God in Christ forgave you is the standard. He didn’t forgive you because you deserved it. As Jesus taught in His parable in Matthew 18:21-35, God has forgiven us an enormous debt, so that anything we forgive one another is small by way of comparison. Forgiveness is costly and difficult; but not forgiving is not an option for Christians (Matt. 6:14-15). Family members need to keep short accounts with one another. If you’re wrong, ask for forgiveness; if you were wronged, forgive in your heart even before the other person repents, and grant it verbally the instant they ask you to forgive them.

To resolve conflicts, daily put off the selfish behaviors of the old man and put on the loving behaviors of the new man. This opens the door for helpful communication and problem solving. But I skipped a verse. It is undoubtedly the key to solving conflicts in the family or with other Christians:

3. To resolve conflicts God’s way, walk by the indwelling Holy Spirit (Eph. 4:30).

Ephesians 4:30: “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.” It’s significant that in the middle of a passage dealing with relationships, Paul mentions grieving the Holy Spirit! The sins Paul deals with here grieve the Holy Spirit: deception (v. 25), indifference (v. 26), stealing (v. 28), rotten speech (v. 29), bitterness, wrath, anger, yelling, slander, and malice (v. 31).

This implies several things. First, our motive for wanting harmonious relationships is not just so that we can live happily. Our motive should be not to grieve the Holy Spirit or, to put it positively, to please and glorify God. The Holy Spirit is a person who can be grieved, not an impersonal force. At salvation, He sealed us for the day of redemption. The Spirit Himself is the seal, God’s personal mark of ownership on us. If we don’t have the Spirit indwelling us, we do not belong to Christ (Rom. 8:9). The reason we must seek to put off the behavior of the old man and put on the behavior of the new man in our relationships is that we want to please the indwelling Spirit. In other words, we don’t want to strain our relationship with Him.

Also, this verse implies that we can’t separate our relationship with God and our relationships with one another. John says that if we say we love God, but we do not love our brother, we’re deceived (1 John 4:20). This means that if you claim to be a Christian, but you’re living for self, shredding relationships with your family and in the church, you need to examine your relationship with God. At best, you’re grieving the Holy Spirit; at worst, you may not be saved.

The way to put off the old man, or deeds of the flesh, and to grow in the fruit of the Spirit is to walk by the Spirit (Gal. 5:16): “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh.” To walk by the Spirit is to depend upon Him moment by moment. This means that to solve conflicts in your marriage, you need to cultivate your relationship with God through His Word. As you examine your life by the Word, you’ll learn what pleases the Lord and you’ll grow more sensitive to what grieves Him. Sins like dishonesty, indifference, selfishness, abusive speech, and anger will convict your conscience as you realize how they grieve the Lord. So you’ll replace them with truthfulness, caring confrontation, giving, words that build up, and kindness.


The poet Ogden Nash has a wise bit of verse: “To keep your marriage brimming with love in the loving cup, when you’re wrong admit it, when you’re right, shut up.”

If there’s frequent conflict in your home, examine yourself (not your mate!). Are you putting off the selfish behavior of the old man and putting on the Christlike behavior of the new man out of a desire to please the Lord who gave Himself on the cross so that you could be forgiven? The bad news is: Yes, you, your spouse and children are incompatible! The good news is: You can resolve conflicts God’s way by putting off the selfish, old way of life and by putting on the new life He has graciously given you.

Application Questions

  1. How can you know how honest to be? Should you share every secret thought with your mate? Is deception ever right?
  2. How can you determine whether your anger is sinful or righteous?
  3. How can you know when to confront and when to let something go?
  4. How can a Christian who has been deeply hurt truly forgive?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2017, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christian Home, Christian Life, Hamartiology (Sin)

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