Should I Confront Or Walk Away?

Discerning the best way to deal with conflict

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I had only been working as a physician assistant for a year or two. There were several medical assistants at the practice, but for some reason, one of them was consistently rude to me. When I asked her to do anything for my patients (like draw blood or run a strept screen), she would roll her eyes or huff and then take her own sweet time to get it done. She did not treat the other employees like this, so clearly her issue was with me, but I had no idea why she disliked me. Since this girl was only a couple of years younger than me, I thought that if I reached out in friendship, maybe she would soften towards me . . . so I invited her over to my house to hang out with me and my roommate. The look on her face clearly communicated she was not interested.

This went on for months until finally another medical assistant, who was a dear Christian friend of mine, saw what was happening and approached me. She insisted it was not okay for this girl to treat me that way. I knew Scripture encouraged us to live at peace with everyone, but I did not even know why this girl snubbed me . . . so how was I to fix it? My friend encouraged me to simply approach the girl and ask her. So I prayed for the Lord to help me and I pulled her aside one morning at work. The girl did not want to talk to me, but I told her I just needed a few minutes of her time. Then behind closed doors I simply said to her, “It seems you are upset with me and don’t want to work with me for some reason. Did I do something to offend you?” She opened right up and told me she thought I was arrogant and demanding, and that I expected her to drop everything else she was doing to help me with my patients right away. I immediately apologized for anything I had said or done that gave her that impression and assured her that was not the case. I told her I was simply communicating what my patients needed, and that I understood she had to multi-task many things as a medical assistant, and sometimes that meant things would need to wait. I told her I thought she was a good medical assistant, and that I wanted to find a way to work amicably together as a team. Her countenance immediately changed. She thanked me for talking to her and we went back to work. From that point on, things were radically different - she was positive towards me and eager to help my patients . . . even requesting to work with me on several occasions after that! All because of a five-minute conversation.Carey at work

When it comes to relational conflict, Ken Sande says there are three kinds of people: peace-breakers, peace-fakers, and peace-makers. Peace-breakers are often self-centered individuals who dominate situations to seize power and control to their advantage. If they do not get their way, they escalate the conflict by blowing up, often trying to intimidate the other person into giving way.

Peace-fakers are the opposite. They avoid conflict like the plague, shoving any discord under the rug . . . or simply clamming up in the face of it. These individuals live in bondage to the fear of man. They are overly concerned about what others will think of them and allow this worry to drive their behavior. The discomfort of dealing with conflict can feel completely overwhelming, so they run from confrontation at all costs.

Peace-makers, on the other hand, see conflict as an assignment. They approach the problem in a reasonable and humble manner, while seeking wisdom from God (James 3:17-18). They do not intimidate, but they also do not hide. They acknowledge disagreements as a normal aspect of life, but because they value unity, they intentionally work at fostering healthy communication and resolving conflict . . . even when the process is uncomfortable. In the end, these are the people Jesus calls blessed (Matthew 5:9).

For those who do not feel like they fit into any of these three categories, there are certainly milder variations of them, and mixtures of them. We can even waffle back and forth between the different types of behavior depending on our circumstances. But as believers, our goal should always be to grow more into the image of Christ . . . who was a peace-maker.

But Carey, you may be thinking, your situation was different. You were not risking a meaningful relationship - if things did not work out, you could just move on. What about conflict with a good friend or family member? What about bigger issues and deeper wounds?

I get it, because I have had to navigate through deep pain in meaningful relationships too (you can read more about it HERE). But I actually believe the more significant the relationship, the more important it is to address the problem.  Conflict in all relationships, no matter how big or small, requires prayerful consideration and action. That action may be confrontation, it may be walking away, or it may be just praying and waiting on God to intervene. But ignoring the issue only causes the offense to fester and build . . . and can eventually create an emotional trigger.

So when conflict arises, the first question we should ask God is whether we should even confront the other person at all.

WHEN NOT TO CONFRONT:

1 – When the scope of the offense is small. Some people can be overly sensitive and make a big deal out of every little thing. In such situations, their frustration may have more to do with their own heart issues than the other person (especially if they are seeking affirmation from some place other than Jesus). It is important not to stuff one’s feelings, but sometimes it is better to work through those frustrations with God instead of the other person. Some people may need help doing this, and might benefit from counseling or inner healing prayer to identify deeper wounds that could be triggering their pain or anger. But ultimately, if the infringement is minor, and not a recurring issue, it can be best to just let things go (Proverbs 19:11).

2 – When silence would speak louder than words. In some cases it can be best to just turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:38-40) and refuse to engage in battle with someone who is attacking us (Proverbs 10:12, Proverbs 15:1). There are times when we should just pray for the other person, while modeling a godly life (1 Peter 4:8). Our kindness alone can lead others to the feet of Jesus (Romans 2:4), and this is one way we can overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21, Proverbs 17:9).

3 - When the behavior does not directly affect us. There is a time for accountability and loving correction of sin in people’s lives, but this article is not about that. If we are not careful, we can easily take on secondary offenses (judging others for the way they treated someone else . . . which is often based on partial or biased information). Many of us feel a sense of loyalty to our friends and family, but it is not our place to try and rescue or defend them by inserting ourselves into their conflict. In doing so, we can easily make the situation worse . . . and disrupt the other person’s opportunity for spiritual growth in the process.

4 - If we are actively struggling with sin in our own life. Scripture warns us not to try and remove the speck from someone else’s eye when there is a log in our own eye (Matthew 7:3). It is easy for us to overlook our own error while hyper focusing on someone else’s flaws. This is one reason we desperately need to do life in relationship with other believers, and to pay attention to wise counsel . . . because we cannot see our own blind spots (Proverbs 12:15, Proverbs 11:14). Even if we are only responsible for 1% of the problem, we should own that 1% and repent of the part we have played. As David did, we can ask the Lord to search our heart and see if there is any offensive way in us, and then lead us in His ways (Psalm 139:23-24).

5 – When our motive for confrontation is selfish or punitive in nature. If we are looking forward to confronting the other person then this should be a red flag. In such cases, we should step back and carefully assess whether pride is involved . . . whether we secretly want to humiliate the other person or make them pay for what they did. The real question is what “spirit” are we operating in (Luke 9:54-55)? Are we approaching the person out of love (if not love for them then at least out of love for God), or are we merely seeking to justify our position (2 Timothy 2:24)? Only when we come before the other person bathed in grace, humility, and meekness (Ephesians 4:2-3, 1 Peter 5:5-6, James 4:6) will the encounter have potential to bear good fruit (Galatians 5:22-23). 

6 – If we are struggling to keep our emotions in check. When we respond to others defensively we lose credibility and can end up making things worse. Even if the other person was initially at fault, we are ultimately responsible for our sinful response to the sins committed against us. Once we pick up the sword to do battle, we are liable for the wounds we incur. In such cases, repentance should precede any other action, which includes repenting of the judgment we have passed in our heart towards the other person (James 4:11-12, Romans 2:1-2, Romans 14:10-13). (You can read more about right judgment HERE). We need to think carefully about what we are going to say and how we are going to say it, because our tone and expressions will convey our true heart. If we truly want a good outcome, we must be willing to lay down our right to be right . . . to “be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry” (James 1:19). So if it all feels too raw, we might need to seek extra help from God or others so we can arrive at a better place emotionally before we attempt any confrontation.

So clearly there are times when it is best not to confront another person at all, but when do we feel led to confront another person, we need to carefully consider the best way to go about this.

SOME THINGS I HAVE LEARNED ALONG THE WAY:

1 – Killing others with kindness is a good place to start, but it may not be the right place to end (Romans 12:20, Proverbs 25:21-22). We need to be careful not to sacrifice authenticity in our relationships, expressing a pretense of kindness when offense or judgment still resides in our heart (Proverbs 27:6). This does not honor God or the other person. Passivity is not a virtue, and godliness is not equated with enduring unnecessary wounding in a relationship. There is a time to be quiet and a time to be assertive. At the end of the day, we should strive to live authentically from a place of both truth and love, not from a posture of peace-faking. Jesus was the perfect role model because He was neither passive or aggressive; he was appropriately assertive when the time was right . . . and he always knew when it was best to just walk away. How did He know? By spending time with His Father.

2 - Go directly to the person, not behind their back to others to vent or seek support (James 4:11, Matthew 18:15). This is the courageous and Godly way of addressing conflict. “Better is open rebuke than hidden love” (Proverbs 27:5-6).

3 – Be careful not to assume things. We can falsely conclude things about other people’s behavior when there may easily be a feasible explanation. The enemy loves to muddle our communication in order to incite offense and cause division among us (Romans 16:17, Proverbs 18:19, 1 Corinthians 3:3, 1 Corinthians 11:18). More often than not we should overlook simple offenses (Proverbs 19:11) . . . but if we really need to know what was going on, then we should just ask.

4 - We must be sensitive about the right timing – the right words at the wrong time may be ineffective. We should never approach a person about a problem until we have first approached God about the problem. If the other person appears to be completely resistant, then it may be best to just pray for them (Matthew 5:44-45), while waiting to see if God provides an opportune time to speak (Proverbs 25:11). If the other person has hardened their heart, only God can soften it (Matthew 13:15). Sometimes God will handle the situation without our intervention, and sometimes He compels us to speak anyway . . . even though the person may be closed to our message. 

5 – Be prepared for the possibility of a negative response. The confrontation may not end as you hope - the person could reject you, attack you, or falsely deny there is even a problem. It is not our place to try and force agreement or repentance, but responding in gentleness may soften their hearts to be receptive (Proverbs 15:1, Proverbs 25:21-22). In the end, irrespective of their response, if you have truly come before the other person with a humble attitude and loving approach, then you have honored the Lord with your attempt at peace-making. If you “suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God” (1 Peter 2:20). At this point you can shake the dust off your feet and move on (Matthew 10:14), while setting whatever healthy boundaries are necessary to prevent this person from continuing to hurt you.

6 – There is a time to walk away from a relationship. When you have done all you can to make peace (Romans 12:18), but toxic conflict persists, it may be time to stop investing energy in that particular relationship. Certainly if the relationship has become abusive in any way (and the other person refuses to seek help), cutting things off could be absolutely essential for healing. There are always factors outside of our control . . . and we are not responsible for other people’s choices. The tipping point will be different for each person, but walking away should not be an impulsive decision. Coming to this conclusion requires sober self-evaluation, wise counsel, and the close guidance of the Holy Spirit.

It is important to also recognize that God may intentionally place difficult people in our life to help us grow in grace and in the fruits of the Spirit . . . so walking away from these relationships would be walking away from our opportunity for spiritual growth and advancement. God is so patient with us when we “fail the test” (we get to take them over and over again until we learn the lesson), but this may delay our journey forward into the greater things God has for us. Yet another reason to diligently seek Him for wisdom before cutting things off.

One important point I have learned through the years – to never sever a relationship with another person who wants to change and is doing their best to seek the Lord for help (even if they are a complete mess). Boundaries may need to be set, but that is different from cutting them off. There have been difficult people in my life like this (who I could barely tolerate being around), but whom God called me to be a loving presence in their life. Their friendship did nothing “for me,” and I would not have chosen to invest my limited time with them, but after praying about it, I knew I needed to be that someone who would accept them as they were and not abandon them. In these situations, I sought God for His grace to accomplish this task, and I set healthy limits so it did not become a draining or co-dependent relationship. Over the years I have watched these individuals bloom as they grasped more of God’s truth and healing in their heart . . . and some of those people have even become close friends of mine.

In the end, if you do walk away, do so graciously. You will never regret that, but you might regret burning the bridge that could have led to future reconciliation or blessing. Because like the case with Paul and Mark when they parted ways (Acts 15:37-40), walking away may only be a temporary thing.

7 – Instead of cursing those who mistreat us, we bless them (Luke 6:28, Romans 12:14). This does not mean what the other person did was okay, but bitterness can be an open door for the enemy to torment us, so praying for our enemies helps our hearts release love and forgiveness (which ultimately benefits us more than them). Every moment that we choose life over death (Deuteronomy 30:19), we partner with God in shifting the spiritual atmosphere . . . and bring a bit more of His kingdom here to earth.

8 – Let peace lead the way. God’s voice always leads with peace, even when He guides us into uncertain territory. If we set our minds and hearts on God, He will compel us with a deep inner knowing of what to do (Jeremiah 29:13, James 1:5). Though we may still feel afraid, obedience is always in our best interest . . . so there are times when we just need to exert our will and press forward, even when we do not feel like it (Romans 5:3-5). And we can do hard things when Christ is strengthening us (Philippians 4:13).

The skills for loving confrontation are built through practice, so it gets easier over time . . . but we have to start somewhere. When we refuse to deal with conflict, it does not only affect our relationship with that person, it affects our relationship with the Lord. And we can carry unresolved conflict and wounds into our future relationships when we avoid learning the skills to lovingly listen, communicate, forgive, and make-peace.

So my prayer for each of you is that when relational conflict arises, you would strive to be a peace-maker, and that you would diligently seek the Lord for wisdom in how to honor the other person through the process. I pray that you would pursue connection in your relationships, and follow His voice even when it feels scary or uncomfortable . . . because He longs to mature your faith and bless you through this trial. It is in seizing these very opportunities in a spirit of love and humility that we get to release the power of God at work through lives (Philippians 2:13) . . . and there is no greater joy in life.

Further Reading:

Regarding offense: “The Bait of Satan” book by John Bevere and "Unoffendable" by Brant Hansen

Regarding connection, communication, and boundaries: “Keep Your Love On” book by Danny Silk

Regarding cutting ties: "When it is time to walk away" article by Jen Hatmaker

Resources:

"Cutting Ties - Knowing When It Is Time To Walk Away"

"When Should You Correct Another Christian" 

"The Ministry Of Correction" 

Carey McNamara

I am a wife to Bob, a mom to Connor, and a physician assistant who is passionate about beating heart disease. As a devoted lover of Jesus, I am on an unending quest for more truth, love, and wholeness through Him. I have come to a place in my life where I realize God is not afraid of my questions, and I have learned the joy of pursuing Him until I discover His heart. As a result, I created a blog to encourage others in their own journey towards Life, Liberty, and Love in Christ. I am passionate about doing life authentically in community, and am thrilled to share a bit of that with you here.

*Please comment respectfully. I welcome honesty as you share your thoughts and feelings. However, since many of these subjects are controversial, I ask that you take care to honor others in the process. I reserve the right to delete any inappropriate comments.