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The enemy in family conflict is ‘your heart,’ author says


ORMOND BEACH, Fla. (BP)–Family members often quarrel because they misunderstand the source of their anger and fail to see the idolatry of their own hearts, noted author and teacher Paul David Tripp said July 15 at the 23rd annual Southern Baptist Founders Conference at Riverbend Community Church in Ormond Beach, Fla.

Tripp, author of several works including “War of Words: Getting to the Heart of Your Communication Struggles,” said that all fallen men have a common knee-jerk reaction to conflict — blaming it on the other person. The conference theme was “The Gospel and the Family.”

“We instinctively look [outwardly] to try and explain our anger,” he said. “We say, ‘It’s my husband, it’s my wife, it’s my boss, it’s my neighbor, it’s the traffic.’ But [the Apostle] James says [that is] heresy…. It is something we should not accept because that conflict is a window into something that is going on in our hearts that is dramatically spiritually important.

“You will only understand your anger by looking inward. Your anger is not caused by people and situations around us. They are the occasion in which your heart expresses and reveals itself in anger. Your anger is caused by your heart. How humbling is that?”

Reflecting on James 4, which he called “the Bible’s comprehensive treatise on conflict and anger,” Tripp said the passage offers both the diagnosis — the source of conflict is our “pleasures that wage war within” us — and the antidote: the abundant grace of God.

Many Christian marriages, relationships and even churches have had divisions for years and will never be healed until they realize that idolatry in the heart of the combatants is the primary cause, he said.

Tripp traced the pilgrim’s regress through several stages.

First, the winds of war begin to blow lightly — and usually unnoticeably — in a person when their desire for something trumps their desire for Christ, Tripp said. From there, the desire becomes a demand — something a person must have. Then the person begins to view it as a need — as something essential to their joy and happiness.

These desires subtly constrict to take the heart captive, Tripp said. Such desires can include things such as success, self-affirmation, a desire to be respected, and an endless list of other things, Tripp said.

“Literally anything can war for our hearts and lay claim to the position that only God can have and should have,” Tripp said. “The catalog is endless. There is for us, this side of heaven, an endless catalog of God-replacements.”

Once a desire becomes a need, it begins to manifest itself within our relationships and the skirmishes play out in everyday, mundane activities, Tripp said. Here, a person will lash out and even attempt to punish anyone within a close relationship who fails to affirm the desire that now rules their hearts, he said.

As an illustration Tripp spoke of a father who virulently demands respect from his son by confronting the son and even disciplining him until he gives the desired respect. A desire for respect — itself not an ungodly desire — has replaced Christ as the supreme desire in the man, Tripp said. Though the man is blaming the son’s lack of respect for their constant grousing, the man’s idolatrous heart is actually the source of the conflict.

“This is more revealing of the heart of the father than the son,” Tripp said. “Desire is not a bad thing, but desire for even a good thing becomes a bad thing when that desire becomes a ruling thing because I must not be ruled by anything but King Christ.”

This internal war is common to all people and is the very definition of biblical spiritual warfare, he said.

“This is what the Bible means when it speaks of spiritual warfare,” Tripp said. “The war is for what set of desires will exercise sovereignty over my heart, what desires will rule me. Romans 1:25 helps us here. We tend to exchange worship and service of the Creator for worship and service of the creation.

“This is the war: Will my life be structured and motivated and oriented by a desire of God and a pursuit of His glory, finding identity, meaning and purpose in Him? Or will my life be oriented to some desire for some created thing?

“It could be possessions, it could be position, it could be affirmation. It could be anything. There’s always this tug and tarrying…. When the love that I have promised to Christ is now being given to some aspect of creation, I will somehow, somewhere be in conflict with the people around me.”

Bickering between parents and children is sometimes a manifestation of this struggle, he said.

“If a desire for a certain thing is in possession of my heart I can only look at you in one of two ways: If you are helping me get what I want, I love you and I thank God for you that you are in my life,” Tripp said, “but if you stand in the way of what I want, I am spontaneously irritated and angry and I lash out in my anger.”

“Parents, at 9 o’clock at night you are not yelling at your children because they are sinners. You are yelling at your children because, in their sin, they are stepping on your idols. … That is your heart being ruled by your desire for comfort and you can’t believe that these children can make life so uncomfortable for you.”

Tripp pointed out that the victory over the idols of believers’ hearts has already been won at the cross. The cure is found in the Gospel itself, he said. Once a person realizes they have been crucified with Christ, they will live to the glory of God as servants and not as idolaters whose hearts are bowing to another king, he said.

And once these idols have been thrown down, the Christian will no longer selfishly wage war with family members or fellow believers because their own law of self-love has been properly replaced by God’s law, which will express itself in love for God and love for neighbor, he said. This “great exchange” can take place, Tripp said, because God has given the believer abundant grace in the union with Christ.

“You do not have to go where your desires are leading you,” he said. “Because of the life, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ that you are identified with, you don’t have to defeat the idol.

“You just need to start living the Gospel and step forth in faith and courage. Don’t give way to that anger. Don’t give way to that irritation. Begin to address those desires that lie under it and watch your Redeemer renew and sanctify. Isn’t it wonderful that the promise of the New Covenant is a new heart — maybe we should say a new and being renewed heart?”

Founders is an organization founded in 1982 for the perpetuation of historic Calvinistic doctrines within the Southern Baptist Convention often referred to as “the doctrines of grace.”
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  • Jeff Robinson

    Jeff Robinson is director of news and information at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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