Unresolved Conflict

The first interpersonal conflict that occurred in the Bible was between Adam and Eve’s sons Cain and Abel. Genesis 4:1-7 tells us:

Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord.” And again, she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a worker of the ground. In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell. The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it.”

“The fact that God ‘had regard for Abel and his offering” raises the question, is God completely impartial? In some texts (Exodus 2:25; Leviticus 26:9; 2 Kings 13:23; Psalm 138:6), he is said to acknowledge or pay attention to a person or group of individuals. Other passages state that God is no respecter of persons (2 Chronicles 19:7; Acts 10:34; Romans 2:11: Ephesians 6:9; 1 Peter 1:17). Although no one has a higher standing in God’s eyes because of their status in life or of something they themselves have done, God does, according to his sovereign will, pay specific attention to certain individuals and situations. The fact that God accepted Abel’s offering and rejected Cain’s may not have been based on the fact that Abel’s involved the shedding of blood and Cain’s did not. Some of the required Old Testament offerings were bloodless, such as the grain offering (Leviticus 2:1-14; 6:14-23; 7:9-10) and the sin offering brought by the very poor (Leviticus 5:11-13). It may have been that the attitude of faith in which Abel brought his offering pleased God rather than the offering itself” (note on Genesis 4:3-7). It says in Hebrews 11:4, “By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts.”

God asked Cain, “If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it” (Genesis 4:7). The Hebrew words that are translated well and accepted have to do with being happy and exhibiting cheerfulness (H3190/H7613). God was pointing out to Cain that he was responsible for his own happiness and said that sin had to be mastered by him. Cain’s response to God’s intervention indicated that he was not willing to take responsibility for his own actions. Genesis 4:8-9 states, “Cain spoke to Abel his brother. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him. Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is Abel your brother?’ He said, ‘I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?’” 1 John 3:9-12 explains that the interpersonal conflict between Cain and Abel was based on their relationship to God. John said, “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God. By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother. For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous.” John identified two categories of people, children of God and children of the devil, and said that it is evident which category people belong in. The phrase born of God is “spoken of God begetting in a spiritual sense which consists in regenerating, sanctifying, quickening anew, and ennobling the powers of the natural man by imparting to him a new life and a new spirit in Christ (1 John 5:1).

God’s selection of Jacob rather than Esau created a conflict between these two brothers that was never resolved. Genesis 25:21-23 tells us:

And Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren. And the Lord granted his prayer, and Rebekah his wife conceived. The children struggled together within her, and she said, “If it is thus, why is this happening to me?” So she went to inquire of the Lord. And the Lord said to her,

“Two nations are in your womb,
     and two peoples from within you shall be divided;
the one shall be stronger than the other,
     the older shall serve the younger.

The Hebrew word that is translated divided, parad (paw-radˊ) “often expresses separation of people from each other, sometimes with hostility” (H6504). Genesis 27:41 indicates that Esau hated his brother Jacob, “because of the blessing with which his father had blessed him” and Rebekah sent Jacob to live with her brother Laban, stating, “Behold, your brother comforts himself about you by planning to kill you” (Genesis 27:42).

Unresolved conflict continued to be a part of Jacob’s heritage. His son Joseph was hated by his brothers because of a dream he had that indicated he would rule over his family (Genesis 37:8). When his brothers “saw him from afar, and before he came near to them they conspired against him to kill him. They said to one another, ‘Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits. Then we will say that a fierce animal has devoured him, and we will see what will become of his dreams’” (Genesis 37:18-20). Jacob’s family was forced to leave the land of Canaan because of a famine and remained in Egypt as slaves for 400 years until God sent Moses to deliver them from their bondage (Exodus 6:6). After they returned to the land that God had promised to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, each of the twelve tribes of Israel were given an inheritance that required them to occupy specific territories within the borders of the Promised Land. The territory allotted to the tribe of the people of Benjamin “fell between the people of Judah and the people of Joseph (Joshua 18:11). The inheritance for the tribe of the people of Simeon “was in the midst of the inheritance of the people of Judah” (Joshua 19:1). “Dan’s inheritance was on the coastal plain, south of the territory given to Ephraim” (note on Joshua 19:40-48). The inheritances of Zebulun, Issachar, Asher, and Naphtali were nestled in between the eastern and western portions of land given to the tribe of Manasseh (Joshua 19:10-39). The close proximity of the tribes’ inheritances to each other’s made it more likely that their unresolved conflicts would continue. “Having distributed the land to the tribes, the Lord’s next administrative regulation provided an elementary system of government; specifically a system of regional courts to deal with capital offenses having to do with manslaughter. Thus this most inflammatory of cases was removed from local jurisdiction, and a safeguard was created against the easy miscarriage of justice (with its endless blood feuds) when retribution for manslaughter was left in the hands of family members” (note on Joshua 20:1-9, KJSB).

The record we have of Jesus’ birth in the Bible indicates that he was born into an environment that was hostile to him. John’s gospel states, “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (John 1:11). Two groups of people that Jesus focused most of his attention on were neighbors and enemies. It can be assumed that both of these groups consisted of unsaved people that Jesus’ followers lived in close contact with. Neighbors might have been open to God, but enemies were not, and yet, Jesus taught his disciples to love their enemies. Jesus said:

“But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.

“If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. (Luke 6:27-36)

Jesus’ message left no room for retaliation and made it clear that love was the only acceptable response to all types of harsh treatment. With regard to judging others, Jesus went on to say, “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take out the speck that is in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother’s eye” (Luke 6:41-42).

Proverbs 27:17-19 provides important insight into how positive human interaction can change the outcome of an unresolved conflict. It states:

Iron sharpens iron,
    and one man sharpens another.
Whoever tends a fig tree will eat its fruit,
    and he who guards his master will be honored.
As in water face reflects face,
    so the heart of man reflects the man.

Iron sharpening iron depicts the effect of a harsh attitude or fierce look toward another person. It says that “one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17), indicating that the person’s response will be made more sharp or more fierce by the attitude or look that has been displayed to him (H2300). The contrast between iron sharpening iron and a person tending a fig tree (Proverbs 27:17-18) has to do with a person’s investment in a particular relationship. The Hebrew word that is translated tends in Proverbs 27:18, natsar (naw-tsarˊ) “refers to people’s maintaining things entrusted to them, especially to keeping the truths of God in both action and mind” (H5341). Whereas a harsh attitude or a fierce look can quickly sharpen the countenance of another person, tending to a relationship over time will produce spiritual fruit in the life of a believer. Likewise, protecting someone that has authority over you will benefit you in the long run.

The statement, “As in water face reflects face, so the heart of man reflects the man” (Proverbs 27:19) indicates that it is impossible for us to hide our attitude toward another person. When God confronted Cain, he made note of the fact that his face had fallen (Genesis 4:6). The Hebrew word that is translated face, paneh (paw-nehˊ) “represents the look on one’s face, or one’s countenance” (H6440). What God meant by Cain’s face falling was that Cain’s negative attitude toward Abel was evident in his facial expression. God could tell that Cain was very angry that his brother’s sacrifice had been accepted and not his own. The heart of man is considered to be the seat of his inner nature (H3820). Jesus explained to his disciples, “What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander” (Matthew 15:18-19). Jesus also remarked to the Pharisees, “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil” (Matthew 12:34-35). When God asked Cain, “’Where is your brother Abel?’ He said, ‘I don’t know; am I my brother’s keeper?’” (Genesis 4:9). Cain’s response made it clear that he had no regard for his brother’s well-being. When Cain killed Abel, he intentionally murdered him and was not sorry for his crime.

Proverbs 27:4 states, “Wrath is cruel, anger is overwhelming, but who can stand before jealousy?” In this proverb, jealousy is portrayed as an intense fervor that is greater than anger or wrath. The letter of James which is largely composed of general exhortations and admonitions, has been referred to as “The New Testament Book of Proverbs” (Introduction to The Letter of James). James offered warnings and advice on many difficult topics including conflict among believers and judging your neighbor. James wrote:

What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.

Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor? (James 4:1-12)

James attributed quarrels and fights to passions that are at war within us and indicated that the fallen spirit of man is responsible for his propensity to sin (note on James 4:5). James identified grace as the solution to our sin problem (James 4:6). Grace is “the divine influence upon the heart, and its reflection in the life” (G5485). Paul said in his letter to the Ephesians, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).

James identified three critical steps that can restore our relationship with God and others. James said, “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you” (James 4:7-8). The Greek word that is translated submit, hupotasso (hoop-ot-asˊ-so) means “to subordinate; reflexive to obey” (G5293). Hupotasso is derived from the words hupo (hoop-oˊ) which means “under” (G5259) and tasso (tasˊ-so) which means “to arrange in an orderly manner, i.e. assign or dispose (to a certain position or lot). Submission to God involves our acceptance of the circumstances that he has placed us in and also the destiny that he has prepared for us before the world began (Ephesians 1:4-5). The allotments of land that each of the twelve tribes of Israel received as their inheritance was determined by God (Joshua 14:1). They were instructed to take possession of the land, but it was their decision to do it or not.

Resisting the devil means that we stand against him, we oppose the thoughts and feelings that he brings into our minds (G436). Paul instructed the believers in Ephesus to stand against the schemes of the devil. He said, “Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:10-12). When we draw near to God, we are approaching him with the intent of worshipping him without any ulterior motives. We’re not trying to get something from God or trying to get God to do something that we want him to. The offerings that Cain and Abel brought to God were both acceptable types of offerings. It was the way that they were offered that caused one of them to be accepted and the other rejected. The interesting thing to note about Cain’s offering was that even though his offering wasn’t accepted, God personally interacted with Cain and attempted to prevent him from making the wrong choice. “The LORD said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it’” (Genesis 4:6-7). God depicted sin as something that is waiting to overtake us and said it must be mastered by us. Living with unresolved conflict is like we are leaving the door open, but don’t expect sin to come in. James advised us, “Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you” (James 4:8-10).

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