Chapter 2

Look Behind the Issues

To cultivate relationships that enjoy the freedom of healthy disagreement, we need to develop an understanding of unseen motives.


The issues in a conflict are like the tip of an iceberg. Underneath are the unseen motives that cause healthy disagreements to turn sour.

The apostle James showed us that unseen motives can cause us to be like trouble looking for a place to happen. He made it clear that if we resent the attention or recognition that someone else is getting (envy), or if we are committed to getting ahead even at the expense of others (self-seeking or selfish ambition), we have a hidden conflict of interest that will shape and sour our approach to disagreement.

able to teach, patient, in humility correcting those who are in opposition, if God perhaps will grant them repentance, so that they may know the truth, and that they may come to their senses and escape the snare of the devil” (2 Tim. 2:24–26).

Friends can enjoy intense, animated debate without attacking one another’s character or turning mean.

James and Paul are not alone in their emphasis on the role of right attitudes and motives. The whole Bible is a book of the heart. The Scriptures teach us that if our motives aren’t right, our knowledge, faith, and self-sacrifice are of little value in the eyes of God (1 Cor. 13:1–3). Over and over the Word of God calls for the kind of love that is a motive before it is an action.

The Scriptures are also clear about what happens when bad motives displace good ones. After being served communion on the night of our Lord’s betrayal, it was envy and selfish ambition that caused the disciples to argue about which of them was the greatest (Lk. 22:14–27). Then in the hours that followed, envy prompted the leaders of the Jews to demand the arrest and execution of the Son of God (Mt. 27:18; Mk. 15:10). They hated this miracle-worker, not just because they disagreed with Him but because He was occupying their space. He was a threat to the attention and affection and influence they wanted for themselves.


Conflict could be defined as “two or more people trying to occupy the same space or control the same limited resources.” This is what was happening in the dispute between the herdsmen of Abram and Lot. There wasn’t room for both of them.

Abram’s response was peaceful—offering Lot his choice of land. But Lot took advantage of his uncle’s generosity by choosing the best part for himself. He chose the plain of Jordan, which was so lush that Genesis likens it to the garden of the Lord.

The reason
for Abram’s generosity goes beyond his good motives. Abram was able to be so vulnerable because he was being taught by God to realize that his well-being was not found in his own clenched fists but in the open hand of the One who was leading him (Gen. 13:14–18).

Our motives and approach to conflict will not be shaped by rules but by whether or not we join Abram in trusting the Provider God. Are we willing to let Him provide for us on His terms and in His time? Or do we believe our security depends on our ability to take matters into our own hands?

This is not to say that we are to lie down and let people walk on us whenever they want. Love doesn’t always give others their way. Sometimes they need to feel the weight and intensity of our concerns and convictions. In the process, however, they need to sense that our disagreement is gracious and loving in nature. They need to know that we are not resisting merely to protect our own interests. And the only way we can be so loving is to rest in God’s ability to provide for us.

People who know they are secure in God’s hand find their motives shaped in that awareness. They learn to live with grace, to disagree in kindness, to love freely, and to trust God from day to day when matters beyond their control do not go their way.

By the way, remember Lot? When he chose what he thought was the best land for himself, he got the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah in the bargain.


We repeat cycles of conflict when we assume that what we want is always what we need, or when we are more concerned about the people who are against us than the God who is for us. Misbeliefs are the fuel of ongoing cycles of conflict. They lead us to think that it is up to us to take matters in hand, and that if we don’t protect ourselves no one else will.

Underlying misbeliefs also help to explain why the apostle Paul wrote as he did to disputing parties in Philippi. He must have known something of the matters that were separating them. Yet he didn’t even mention the specific issues. Instead, he wrote as if the details could be worked out once both sides came to terms with the underlying misbeliefs that had caused them to turn away from the Lord and against one another.

His prescription to break the cycle of injury and conflict seems to have been twofold. On one hand, the apostle asked others to come alongside the disputing church members and relieve some of their stress. It appears that fatigue and the burden of trying to do too much for the Lord might have made them vulnerable to conflict.

Then Paul reminded them, in several different ways, that their well-being was not wrapped up in getting or demanding right treatment from one another. Twice he encouraged them to rejoice in the Lord. He urged them to be known for gentleness because “the Lord is at hand.” He reminded them to replace their anxiety with prayers and dependence on God. Then, after assuring them of God’s ability to give them peace of mind, and while cultivating a thankful confidence that they could find help in the hands of God, Paul encouraged them to think—not about what was wrong but about what was right (Phil. 4:8–9).

By addressing the real issues of underlying belief, Paul gave them a means of breaking the cycle of conflict that could have spread to many others. He knew that the formula for unity is not found in agreeing about all issues. Neither is the solution merely in knowing that we should find it within ourselves to love one another. The answer for those who know God is to have the right beliefs about Him in the troubling circumstances of life. This alone will enable us to avoid the self-protection, fear, and anger that otherwise lead to returning evil for evil and harm for harm.