It is a sad reality that a good book on conflict resolution for Christians is an absolute necessity. Although the Christian life is by definition a life of grace (John 1:16) and Christians are called to live according to a higher standard than their secular neighbors (1 Peter 1:13-16), the people of God are not at all immune to strife and discord. In fact, a simple perusal of Paul’s first letter to the Church in Corinth might make the reader wonder if the church is not at times even more beset by conflict than the wider world. This is one of the millions of ways the ongoing struggle with remaining sin plays itself out: prior to glory the Christian life will never be free of conflict, whether it be with those outside or inside the Church.
Although the necessity of such a book on conflict resolution in the Christian life is a sad reality, this sadness is somewhat alleviated by the fact that a very fine book exists to meet this purpose. The Peacemaker by Ken Sande is a comprehensive, practical, and Biblical roadmap for the twists and turns of interpersonal strife. Sande takes his cue from the words of Christ in Matthew 5:9 and interacts with the various “peacemaking” principles and themes God has given us in His Word, presenting them in a logical and manageable program for Christian conflict resolution. He writes that “When used properly these principles can rob conflict of its destructive tendencies and turn it into an opportunity to find lasting solutions to serious problems, to experience significant personal growth, to deepen relationships, and, best of all, to know and enjoy God in a new and vibrant way” (p. 12).
The above quote highlights the way in which Sande avoids a common weakness which is endemic in most practical Christian literature. That weakness is a lack of balance between broad themes and specific detail, between the big picture on the one hand and the minutia of everyday life on the other. Too many books on practical Christian living favor one at the expense of the other. Either the reader is treated to sweeping panoramas of God’s eternal purpose behind practical questions, yet is left wondering what he is actually to do; or he is given a simple “how to” scheme cut loose from anything distinctively Christian other than the odd Bible verse and token jargon. Sande has avoided either of those errors, and has struck a balance which is rare and refreshing. The Peacemaker keeps always in view both the macro issue of pursuing the glory of God in all things and the micro issue of real world practical procedures for putting these principles into action.
This review will be organized into two parts. First, the two major benefits this writer has received by reading The Peacemaker will be highlighted. In so doing, the basic program the book lays out for conflict resolution will be summarized and interacted with. Second, one area of cautious concern will be presented. This concern is not meant to undermine the very positive impression of the book the writer wishes to convey, but rather is offered as a vehicle to work through some unresolved questions it has occasioned. It is for this reason that it is a cautious concern.
The two major benefits derived from reading The Peacemaker both involve how one views conflict. First, this book teaches Christians to view conflict as opportunity. In chapter one Sande utilizes the helpful analogy of a group of friends on a backpacking expedition encountering a raging stream where a bridge used to be (p.16-17). Confronted with the prospect of a cold and potentially dangerous crossing, several possible reactions are offered to this scenario. One person reacted with fear and wanted to turn around. Another wanted to show his bravado by wading straight through. But two hikers saw the stream as an interesting challenge, one which provided opportunities which would not have existed otherwise. Sande applies this illustration to how we view conflict on page 17, writing:
I have found that people look at conflict in much the same way that my friends and I viewed that stream. To some, conflict is a hazard that threatens to sweep them off their feet and leave them bruised and hurting. To others, it is an obstacle that they should conquer quickly and firmly. But a few people have learned that conflict is an opportunity to solve common problems in a way that honors God and offers benefits to those involved. As you will see, the latter view can transform the way you respond to conflict.
Viewing conflict as opportunity truly is transformative. When the inevitable conflicts of life come to the Christian, it is all too easy to react with fear, guilt, or anger. We are afraid of what others may think of us or what they may do to hurt us, we feel guilty that we have not avoided conflict and suspect that we may be under some special judgment, or we are angry that anyone would stand in our way or try to thwart our plans. While these reactions are quite common, we ought to recognize them for the sinful missteps that they are and endeavor toward a more sanctified response.
Sande offers three helpful correctives, namely that conflict is an opportunity to Glorify God, to Serve Others, and to Grow to Be like Christ (pp. 26-31). Getting one’s head and one’s heart wrapped around this radical view of conflict will do much to alleviate those more sinful views previously summarized. The key is to endeavor to think this way long before a conflict erupts. Then, rather than feeling tossed about in the waves of life, a Christian can better tack his sails into the wind and steer where his Master would have him go. If we can do this then we will experience a sea change in regards to our understanding and experience of conflict, and we will be found faithful to the call to not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect (Romans 12:2).
The second major benefit derived from The Peacemaker is to view conflict as process. This was a point which this reviewer personally found to be particularly corrective. It is very easy to limit our thinking about conflict to the “climax moments,” the times when words and emotions boil over and things are said and done which we often later regret. Sande very helpfully clears away that sort of thinking and lays out a systematic process for working through any conflict which may arise in our lives. Being a Biblical peacemaker isn’t just about how we interact with those who we end up in conflict with directly, it is about all that occurs before, during, and after that moment; both between the interested parties, in our own hearts, and most importantly: between us and our God.
The Peacemaker lays out just such a process. The chapters of the book are organized into four parts which make up the four major steps for working through conflict in a Biblical manner. These four steps (organized into a helpful alliteration) are to Glorify God, Get the Log Out of Your Eye, Go and Show Your Brother His Fault, and Go and Be Reconciled. As these four steps basically sum up Sande’s peacemaking system, time will now be taken to briefly summarize them.
First, we are to Glorify God. If we take seriously the command of 1 Corinthians 10:31, that whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God, then we must ask how conflict can be sanctified for His purposes. Sande shows several ways in which this can be done. Conflict can glorify God by teaching us to trust Him more. Chapter three, entitled Trust in the Lord and Do Good is an excellent review of some of the various attributes of God and how they ought to orient our thinking throughout the conflict process. Rare indeed is the Christian book in the “practical living” genre which is so well grounded in solid theology. Another avenue for the glory of God in conflict highlighted involves the effect our conduct can have on observing eyes. On page 40 Sande rightly says that “When peace and unity characterize your relationships with other people you show that God is present in your life. The converse is also true; when your life is filled with unresolved conflict, you will have little success in sharing the Good News about Jesus Christ.”
This first step in the Peacemaker process is both the easiest to overlook and by far the most critical to carefully observe. It is tempting, even with this material in hand, to say a hasty prayer and then lapse back into carnal thinking about conflict and strife in our lives. Truly taking the time to glorify God in our conflict means giving it over to Him and submitting our rights and interests to His higher purposes and final justice. Learning this lesson well would make for significant improvement in the way many Christians experience conflict, this present writer very much included.
Second, we are told to Get the Log out of Your Eye. Here Sande wades into the sometimes tricky waters of the personal self-examination which is the Biblical prerequisite to approaching others in regards to conflict (Matthew 7:5). Like with the previous step, it is very tempting to go through the motions with token admissions and false humility when we are truly still focus on the deficiencies of the other party and the assertion of our rights. In these chapters we are called to do serious work with our own hearts and with our God prior to confronting others about their conduct. We need to take the time to see how our own sins and failures have contributed to any discord we have become a part of. Sande writes much that is very helpful, including an excellent system for confessing wrongdoing to others in clear and practical terms (pp. 109-119).
Yet perhaps the most helpful material in this section is actually intended to stop many conflicts in their tracks before the peacemaking process proceeds any further. That material is found mainly in chapter four, entitled Is This Really Worth Fighting Over? Sande builds a Biblical doctrine of overlooking offense, utilizing such texts as Proverbs 19:11, 17:14; 1 Peter 4:8; and Ephesians 4:2, 32. He writes that “Since God does not deal harshly with us every time we sin, we should be willing to treat others in a similar fashion. While this does not mean that we must overlook all sins, it does require that we make every effort to overlook inconsequential wrongdoing” (p. 73). To be properly understood, this doctrine of overlooking offense must be seen as unacceptable in certain scenarios and cannot be a mask for simply harboring resentment or a cloak for a passive aggressive standoff. If the offence has caused “a wall” to be thrown up in a relationship or if “God’s reputation” is being affected then it is not an option to overlook (p. 73). Furthermore, we read that “If you decide to overlook an offense, you should not simply file it away in your memory for later use against the other person” (p. 73). Overlooking means just that- overlooking. The offence is literally over looked, and it is put away from a place where it can be looked back on. In scenarios which meet the acceptable parameters, a true commitment to overlooking offence could be revolutionary for mitigating conflict in our lives, especially within the Church where opinions tend to run deep and skin can therefore be a bit thin.
The third section of the book is given the name Go and Show Your Brother His Fault. This is most likely the material which many readers would be expecting from a book on conflict resolution, but it is instructive that Sande doesn’t get to it before spending 128 pages dealing with the pursuit of the glory of God and the examination of one’s own heart. It is only after carefully working through those other steps that one will be properly oriented and prepared to engage with his brother.
Sande examines in these three chapters the full spectrum of conflict interaction, ranging from cautious inquiry to formal church discipline. His emphasis is always on grace and prudence, a quality which is evident in comments such as the one found on page 138, that “…anyone who is eager to go and show a brother his sin is probably disqualified from doing so.” This is a section which is rich in wise counsel, from the specific options given for interacting with the person who refuses to own their part of a conflict, to the particularly helpful chapter eight which deals with the words we choose to use entitled Speak the Truth in Love. What Sande has produced is essentially a distillation of Biblical precepts, sanctified common sense, and years of experience which form a faithful field guide for some of the most tense moments of the Christian life.
The final three chapters form the fourth section which is entitled Go and Be Reconciled. Here we see what fruit can be reaped from viewing conflict as opportunity and following carefully God’s process. Like the rest of the book, these chapters contain much sound counsel and helpful practical directives. However, this section also contains some of the material which was most concerning to this reviewer and which will be interacted with below by way of cautious criticism. Even the presence of some of this concerning content should not at all diminish the value of much of what Sande has to say at this point. Particularly helpful is the PAUSE acronym for equitable negotiation (Prepare, Affirm relationships, Understand interests, Search for creative solutions, Evaluate options objectively and reasonably (p. 206-24) and the manner in which he ends the book by returning to what must be the heart of the manner if God is to be glorified through our conflict. Referring to the four step system he has presented as the Peacemaker’s Pledge (Glorify God, Get the Log Out of Your Own Eye, Go and Show Your Brother His Fault, Go and Be Reconciled), Sande ends his very helpful book by writing
…use the pledge as a standard for conflict resolution in your church, ministry, or business. As more and more groups of Christians adopt this pledge, the church as a whole will be able to deal with conflict in a more biblically consistent manner. Such a trend would help to reestablish the church as the effective peacemaking body God intended it to be. Surely this would bring honor to our Lord Jesus Christ, the greatest peacemaker of all (p. 237, emphasis mine).
Having discussed the two major benefits this reviewer derived from reading The Peacemaker and in so doing having substantially summarized the book and the program it presents, all that remains is to offer a cautious concern. There is only one Book over written which ought to be totally beyond correction, so it is not shocking nor is it crippling to the system it embraces that The Peacemaker is imperfect. While there are a few minor issues, such as Scripture occasionally being used in such a way that strains its original context (pp. 33-4; 45; 221) and some questions occasioned by Sande’s understanding of the church discipline process (pp.168-181), the only concern which rises to the level of interaction at this point is the manner in which forgiveness and reconciliation seem to be conflated in the final chapters.
Fully delving into these issues would require more room than is allotted in this review. Furthermore, this reviewer must admit that some of these thoughts are still uncertain in his own mind. That being said it would seem that Biblically, forgiveness is the unconditional response which Christ requires His followers to extend to all those who do wrong to them, while reconciliation is predicated on certain conditions and is not required in all cases. Forgiveness is commanded in unconditional and universal terms in Matthew 5:43-48, 6:12, 18:21-35; Ephesians 4:32; and Colossians 3:12-13. Yet not all conflict is Biblically required to end in reconciliation. Although the issue is open to much legitimate debate, it seems difficult to deny that in 1 Corinthians 7:15 God allows for a marriage relationship to be dissolved in some extreme cases rather than reconciled. It would also seem to be unacceptable to say that Paul was in sin for his lack of reconciliation with Alexander the coppersmith in 2 Timothy 4:14-15.
The above brief considerations lend support to the idea that forgiveness and reconciliation are neither identical nor always coexistent. There can be some unique situations where a Christian is Biblically required to forgive but is not Biblically required to reconcile. Yet this distinction does not seem to be present in The Peacemaker, or else this reviewer has missed it (there is a helpful distinction Sande draws on pages 190-1 between positional forgiveness and transactional forgiveness but a careful reading of that section will show that it is not ultimately relevant to the concern being expressed here). The following quotes will support this assertion:
…when God forgives us, he promises not to keep a record of our sins. Once we repent, he will never bring up our wrongs again. I then explained that God wants us to forgive each other in the same way and promises to give us the power to do so (pp. 184-5).
I will not allow this incident to stand between us or hinder our personal relationship (p. 190, one of the four ‘promises of forgiveness’).
…by God’s grace you will keep yourself in a “position of forgiveness” in which you pray for the other person and are ready to pursue complete reconciliation as soon as he or she repents (pp. 190-1).
Following God’s example, you should remove any walls that stand between you and a repentant wrongdoer (p. 192).
…once a person has expressed repentance… remove the penalty of personal separation (p. 192).
No matter how painful the offence, with God’s help, you can make four promises and imitate the forgiveness and reconciliation that was demonstrated on the cross. By God’s grace, you can forgive as the Lord forgave you (p. 202).
In the vast majority of conflicts, the above quotes are a necessary and timely corrective to our petty understanding of forgiveness. Continuing the illustration of marriage, situations which would allow for reconciliation to be laid aside are hopefully very rare, and so it is appropriate in most cases for forgiveness and reconciliation to be inextricably linked. Yet Sande seems to be presenting something that is usually true as though it were universally true. On pages 208-224 a story is used to illustrate negotiation and utilization of the Peacemaker system which ends with reconciliation and a puppy being given from one party to another. But what about situations which leave betrayed marriage beds, bloodied spouses, and molested minors in their wake, rather than puppies? While it is true that the gospel frees us (and compels us!) to forgive our enemies, it does not necessarily follow (nor is it Biblical for the reasons already mentioned) that because Christ has reconciled us to God, we must always and without exception pursue complete reconciliation with those who sin against us. In fact, it would seem that in the hands of a manipulative and violently abusive person, this sort of teaching could be quite dangerous. This criticism is offered very cautiously from one who is very open to correction in these things, but it is offered sincerely and with concern.
This last critique cannot be allowed to distract from the extremely high quality and helpful nature of this book. Even the chapters which have borne the brunt of the criticism are for the most part excellent. Reading this book will equip Christians to take control of conflict in their lives, steward it in a manner which brings Glory to God, and bless those around them through the process. Ultimately, The Peacemaker ought to make us yearn for the day when the Prince of Peace Himself will bring final resolution to the conflict with sin, the world and the devil as he ushers in an eternity free of all anger, fear, guilt, and tears. Until he comes, may this book and others like it help us to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God (Colossians 1:10).
(by: Nicolas Alford)