How Do I Deal with Relationship Conflicts?

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Relationships. Too often we find ourselves struggling with the relationships in our lives. Struggling with relationships that used to be healthy, but something happened. Struggling with relationships that are important to us, but we can’t seem to keep them from conflict. Struggling to maintain relationships that we know should honor God but aren’t.

Relationship challenges are not new, as anyone who studies God’s word can readily attest. You might remember one such relationship where there was a serious conflict in the early church that could have ended poorly, but God had a different plan.

Acts 15:36-40After some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us return and visit the brethren in every city in which we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are.” Barnabas wanted to take John, called Mark, along with them also. But Paul kept insisting that they should not take him along who had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. And there occurred such a sharp disagreement that they separated from one another, and Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus. But Paul chose Silas and left, being committed by the brethren to the grace of the Lord.

There was a sharp disagreement between Paul and Barnabas over John Mark. I find it fascinating that it is called a ‘sharp disagreement’. Think back on the last time you had a sharp disagreement with someone. What was your reaction to that person based on the fact you just had a sharp disagreement with them? Did you want to keep hanging around them and plan to spend time with them the next day? Or even the next week? More than likely, not.

Statue of Paul in Austria

That is exactly what happened with Paul and Barnabas. The Bible says they separated, Paul took Silas and headed toward Syria, Barnabas took John Mark and headed to Cyprus. But what caused this sharp disagreement between Paul and Barnabas? Acts 13 tells us about Paul and Barnabas being sent out together by the Holy Spirit on the first missionary journey.

Acts 13:4-5So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia and from there they sailed to Cyprus. When they reached Salamis, they began to proclaim the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews; and they also had John as their helper.

And look who was there to help them, John Mark. Seems like everything is good, they are going to Cyprus to preach the Gospel and John Mark is with them as a helper. But notice what happens in verse 13:

Acts 13:13Now Paul and his companions put out to sea from Paphos and came to Perga in Pamphylia; but John left them and returned to Jerusalem.

God doesn’t tell us why, but John Mark leaves them in Pamphylia and heads back to Jerusalem. So, in Acts 15 when Paul and Barnabas get ready to head out on their second missionary journey, Barnabas wants to take John Mark with them, but Paul disagrees. As a matter of fact, verse 38 of Acts 15 says that, “Paul kept insisting that they should not take him along who had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work.”

You can imagine Paul’s thoughts. John Mark had left them once, what was to keep him from leaving them again? Plus, look at all the extra work that might have been accomplished if he had stayed with them. Paul wasn’t going to chance that happening again, so he kept insisting that they not take John Mark. But Barnabas, true to the meaning of his name (son of encouragement), wanted to take John Mark with him and be an encouragement to him.

So yes, this was a sharp disagreement between these two pillars of the early church. But notice neither Paul nor Barnabas let this conflict keep them from continuing to serve the Lord and share the Gospel. They continued in the work God had called them to so that His kingdom was spread throughout the known world at the time.

Most of us will be quick to recognize that we have had sharp disagreements in our lives as well. And unfortunately, too often we have let those conflicts keep us from continuing to serve the Lord in whatever capacity He had called us to serve. We have let these disagreements cause separation and bitterness between us and other individuals, especially fellow Christians.

Interestingly, God doesn’t tell us how things turned out between Paul and Barnabas. I have to believe that they were still open to serving God together if and when He gave them that opportunity.

But God does tell us more about the relationship between Paul and John Mark, and it is helpful for us to see how it all turned out.

Colossians 4:10 – Aristarchus, my fellow prisoner, sends you his greetings; and also Barnabas’s cousin Mark (about whom you received instructions; if he comes to you, welcome him).

2 Timothy 4:11 – Only Luke is with me. Pick up Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for service.

Paul encourages the Colossian church to receive and welcome John Mark if he comes to them. And in his later years, he talks about how useful John Mark is to him in the service of the Lord. We know that tradition holds John Mark is the author of the Gospel of Mark, as dictated by Peter, and was an important part of the early church, despite his being the focus of a conflict between Paul and Barnabas.

So, what does this mean for you and for me? Well, it seems clear that if sharp disagreements happened among the faithful believers of the early church, then we can be sure we could fall into similar conflicts.

But praise God, just like Paul, Barnabas, and John Mark, we have the indwelling Holy Spirit of Christ to help us deal with the conflicts in our lives. Not just to help us weather the storm of conflict, but to come through the conflict honoring God and continuing to minister to others by serving Him.

Paul, Barnabas, and John Mark had to be humble and forgiving believers for them to continue to serve the Lord without their own desires getting in the way, and the same is true for us. If we are going to have relationships that honor God, we are going to have to set our desires aside and deal with conflict with humility and forgiveness.

May our humble and forgiving response to relationship challenges be the catalyst for God honoring relationships in all aspects of our lives.