15 Feb 2022

Causes of Dysfunctional Conflict: The Need for Control

The natural human reaction to conflict is fight-or-flight. These are normal reactions when we face physical threats, but we also respond with fight-or-flight behavior when confronted with non-physical conflict. We either fight to protect our perceived rights, our self-image, or our emotional security; or we run away so that we can avoid the uncomfortable work involved in working out problems with others. Both of these reactions to conflict are based in fear.

The hard truth is that much of what happens in life is beyond our control. We had no choice in our parents or the world economy. We do not choose to have neighbors who like loud mufflers on their cars, nor can we control whether our spouses will agree on the color of fabric we prefer on the new couch. In the chaos of life, we are often driven by a need to control situations and people so that we can protect our rights, our self-image, and our emotional security. This need can become an obsession.

At the core of our obsession to control everything in our lives is a reality that we are acting as if we are gods. We desire that every person react in a manner we choose, and that every conflict ends as we ordain. At this point, we can become self-idolaters, creating a mental image of ourselves as the final judges of right and wrong in every disagreement we have with others.

We have a natural desire to protect our rights, self-image, and emotional security. We resist God’s instructions because we will do almost anything to maintain independent control over our lives so we can avoid discomfort. We actually see ourselves as independent gods and goddesses dispensing our own versions of justice and of how people should relate to us. Our response to God’s offer of reconciliation must include giving up worshipping at the feet of a self-made image and submitting to the re-creation of our nature.  Only then can we fulfill our original purpose as his children.

You must come to understand the uselessness of trying to control everything in your life, and you must accept your complete dependency on God. This doesn’t mean that you give up personal responsibility for making decisions. It means that you accept a radically different set of standards for decision making and conflict resolution. It means giving up your hostility toward God and accepting your spiritual poverty. It means hungering for His interaction in your life.

A Canaanite woman came to Jesus asking for her daughter to be healed. Imagine her surprise when Jesus ignored her. His disciples asked Jesus to send her away. Jesus finally addressed her by saying, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and give it to the little dogs.” If anyone ever had the right to feel offended, this woman surely did. Jesus, the one many claimed was the Messiah, was ignoring her. His disciples were rude and seemed prejudiced against Canaanites. She could have become disillusioned, claiming Jesus to be a fraud.

Instead, she answered, “True, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” Jesus commended her faith and healed her daughter (Matthew 15:21-28). The Canaanite woman’s faith couldn’t be swayed by the actions of others. She was too aware of her total dependency upon God. By understanding her own spiritual poverty, she remained unaffected by the actions and perceived putdowns of others. She trusted that God would work out what was best for her and her daughter.

Faith is more than belief in the existence of God or an acceptance of forgiveness. Faith is trust in God’s goodness and love. It is trust in God’s instructions leading to a loving response of obedience, even when those instructions don’t make sense to the natural mind. Ultimately, faith is turning control of your life to God.


From The Mercy Effect, copyright © 2018 by Gary Petty

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About the Author

Gary Petty is a 1978 graduate of Ambassador College with a BS in mass communications. He worked for six years in radio in Pennsylvania and Texas. He was ordained a minister in 1984 and has served cong