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Break Free from a Cycle of Mother-Daughter Conflict

  • Nicole Whitacre Contributing Writer
  • 2006 1 Jan
  • COMMENTS
Break Free from a Cycle of Mother-Daughter Conflict

I don’t understand what the big deal is! I huffed to myself, only half listening to my mom’s lecture as I prepared my defense. Haven’t I heard this speech somewhere before? Oh yeah, it was yesterday. I didn’t clean up my room then either. According to Mom, this has been happening a lot lately. I think pattern is the word she’s looking for. It’s a word she uses often.

Mom was not pleased with me. Being the discerning girl I was, I could tell. I’d really tested her patience this time. But I was angry too. I couldn’t understand why she was making such a fuss. Why does she insist that everything has to be done in a peaceful and orderly way, exactly as she likes it? Why does she have to make these silly rules? After all, I have a busy life. And I’m not an orderly kind of person. All I want is for her to understand and give me a little space. Can’t she let me live the way I want to some of the time?

We parted ways.

It wasn’t long before Mom came back to the (lovely peach) room my sisters and I shared. "Honey," she began, "I was very wrong to get angry and be impatient with you. There’s no excuse for my sin, and I’m very sorry. Will you please forgive me?"

Our quarrels often ended this way. If I had a dollar for every time my mom was the first to admit her sin and ask my forgiveness, I’d . . . well, I’d do a lot of things. Mom’s humility melted my proud heart. I felt sorry for how selfish I had been. "I was wrong too, Mom, for not serving you and the rest of the family," I said. "Will you forgive me for disobeying and leaving such a mess this morning?"

She forgave me freely, but I knew we had more to talk about. Mom always turned our conflicts into opportunities for both of us to examine our hearts. After analyzing her own motives and inviting me to evaluate her actions, she would help me to look at my heart. So she asked me questions such as: "Why is it that you leave everything so disorganized?" and "Have you stopped to consider how your harried morning routine inconveniences the family?" and "What do you think you want more than to glorify God and serve others in this situation?"

Clearly the problem was my prideful independence and selfishness. I loved to do things my own way. I wanted to leave my room a mess, without someone telling me to clean it up. I didn’t care how it affected my family. It was these wrong desires that sparked the conflict with my mom.

Perhaps you’ve had an argument with your mom or daughter today. Maybe you had one yesterday and the day before that. Maybe you fight all the time. Or it could be that you clash only once in a while, but when you do, boy, is it a blow-up! Or possibly your relationship is marked by constant tension and unspoken bitterness. It’s like the elephant in the living room that no one talks about. Or you may be a mother-daughter pair who only experience relatively minor and infrequent clashes. But no matter your conflict variation, you feel lost in a jungle of disagreements.

Sinful mothers and sinful daughters living together in a sinful world means that conflict is inevitable. You may have noticed that many of our conflicts occur right within our own families, and consequently we sin against the people we love the most. Theologian John Stott points out that because of the Fall, family relationships are tainted by sin: "For the family life which God created at the beginning and pronounced to be ‘good’ was spoiled by human rebellion and selfishness. Relationships fell apart. Society was fractured."1

But there is good news. It doesn’t have to stay this way. By God’s amazing grace, we can resolve any argument, regardless of how severe it has become or how long it has lasted. James 4 shows us a clear path out of the jungle of conflict. To guide us through these verses, I’m going to borrow my dad’s sermon notes. Besides being a great dad, he’s been a pastor for many years; so he has a lot more wisdom than I do. His message — "Cravings and Conflict" — has completely revolutionized the way I think about and work through conflict.2 (Thanks, Dad!)

Let’s begin by reading James 4:1-2: "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."

Dad points out three truths:

1. Conflict is worse than we think.

2. Conflict is simpler than we think.

3. Conflict is easier to resolve than we think.

Let’s start with the bad news: Conflict is worse than we think. I doubt that many of us consider our mother-daughter conflict to be as serious as it really is. For example, have you ever employed one of the following phrases to describe your relationship?

• We just don’t get along.

• We have issues.

• We’re wired differently.

• Our personalities clash.

• We have different preferences.

• We don’t see things the same way.

If we’re honest, I’m sure we’d all have to admit to using phrases such as these to brush aside our disagreements. But God uses stronger terms than "personality clash" or "differing preferences" to depict our conflict. He uses words such as "coveting" and "war" and "murder." Our anger and quarrelling and nasty words are to God as serious as if we were at war with each other. He even compares them to murder. How sobering.

The situation appears even more grim when we realize that our conflict isn’t simply a disagreement between mother and daughter. When we quarrel and fight, we are disobeying God. We are rebelling against His great command to love one another. We are despising His Word that says, "the anger of man does not produce the righteousness that God requires" (James 1:20). Only when we agree with God, that our sin against each other is also sin against Him, can we make progress toward resolving our conflicts. And that's key - our goal shouldn't be to avoid conflict altogether, but to resolve it when it occurs.

But though serious, our conflicts are also simpler than we think. I know it doesn’t always feel that way. Conflicts can seem complicated. For example, have you ever been smack in the middle of a fight, only to forget what you were mad about in the first place? I certainly have. And sometimes conflict hits you out of nowhere. One minute you’re chatting amicably, and the next thing you know, you’re in a heated argument. What just happened? Then there is the recurring conflict, the one you could set your clock by. You know it’s coming, but you can’t seem to get out of its way. And so it happens over and over and over again.

Scripture exposes conflicts for the simpletons they really are. In answer to the question: "What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you?" God responds with a rhetorical question of His own: "Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have" (James 4:1-2). Inside the freight train of every conflict is one powerful engine: a sinful desire for something that we want but don’t get. Another word for this sinful desire is a craving. Counselor David Powlison remarks, "Cravings underlie conflicts."3

Conflicts don’t create the problem. They reveal the problem. They expose the sinful cravings lurking in our hearts. When we don’t get what we crave, we quarrel and fight. It’s that simple. And this truth — that cravings underlie conflicts — is the key to resolving even the most complicated mother-daughter disagreements.

Take your most recent conflict, for example. What did you crave that you weren’t getting? Did you want to be left alone, be understood, have your own way, or be in control? Was it that you weren’t getting the appreciation, recognition, or affirmation you thought you deserved? Or maybe you didn’t want to clean your room, take care of your siblings, or do whatever it was your mom told you to do. Perhaps you longed to get even, inflict hurt, be right, or win the argument.

At first glance, many of these desires don’t seem like a big deal. But when we are willing to fight in order to get them, it’s a sure sign they are a bigger deal than we think. They have developed into sinful cravings. As Dr. Powlison (paraphrasing John Calvin) writes: "The evil in our desires often lies not in what we want but that we want it too much."4

Our own evil desires — and not the other person’s — must be our first and chief concern. God reminds us in James 4 that the root cause of conflict is the "passions that are at war within you" (emphasis added). Not the other person, but you. So if we point our finger before repenting of our own sinful cravings, we’ve strayed from the path that leads out of Conflict Jungle.

Moms, may I encourage you to set a godly example by being the first to ask forgiveness for your sinful cravings? Take it from a daughter — the swiftest way to your daughter’s heart begins with humility. Paul Tripp says it plainly: "Here is a good rule: Deal with yourself before you deal with your teenager (Matt. 7:3-5)."5 But, girls, let’s not sit back and wait on Mom. Let’s race to see who will be the first to repent of sinful desires. Why? Because it’s a race to win for the glory of God. And now that we understand how simple conflict really is, nothing should hold us back.

Conflict is also easier to resolve than we think. Seeking forgiveness from one another, and talking through the root of our conflicts are certainly keys to resolution. But there is really one vital thing we must do to stop the brutal cycle of mother-daughter disagreements. James 4:10 records the solution to conflict: "Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you."

That’s it. No exception clause. No writing 100 times on the blackboard: "I will not fight again." No penance. It’s that easy. We simply need to humble ourselves before God and confess our sins to Him and to our mother or daughter.

But as my dad says, "It can only be this easy because our Savior has done the unimaginably difficult." Jesus died on the cross, crushed by the weight of our sinful conflicts. He bore the wrath of God that we deserved for our fighting and quarrelling. Because of Jesus’ work on the cross, we can humble ourselves, repent from our evil desires, and be reconciled to God and to each other. Scripture invites all who are in conflict: "Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon" (Isa. 55:7). Resolving conflict is easy because Jesus Christ has already done the incredibly hard work on the cross.

So the next time you find yourself in the midst of a mother-daughter argument, remember that James 4 points the way out of Conflict Jungle. Your conflict is worse than you think, simpler than you think, and easier to resolve than you think. Mothers and daughters who quickly and consistently work to resolve their conflicts will be best equipped to pass on the language of biblical womanhood.

1. John R.W. Stott, The Message of Ephesians (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1979), 244.

2. Much of this chapter has been adapted from "Cravings and Conflict," an audio message by C. J. Mahaney, available at www.sovereigngraceministries.org.

3. David Powlison, Seeing with New Eyes (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R Publishing, 2003), 151.

4. David Powlison, "Anger, Part 1: Understanding Anger," The Journal of Biblical Counseling, Vol. 14, No. 1 (Fall 1995): 42.

5. Paul David Tripp, Age of Opportunity: A Biblical Guide to Parenting Teens (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R Publishing, 2001), 77.

This column is part of an ongoing series on Mother-Daughter Conversations on Biblical Womanhood. Click here for last month's installment.

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Carolyn Mahaney is a wife, mother, homemaker, and the author of Feminine Appeal: Seven Virtues of a Godly Wife and Mother, and Girl Talk: Mother-Daughter Conversations on Biblical Womanhood. During her more than 30 years as a pastor’s wife, Carolyn has spoken to women in many churches and conferences, including those of Sovereign Grace Ministries, which her husband, C.J., leads. C.J. and Carolyn have three married daughters and one twelve-year-old son, Chad.

Nicole Mahaney Whitacre is the oldest daughter of C.J. and Carolyn Mahaney, as well as a wife, mother, and homemaker. She assisted her mother with Feminine Appeal, and is the co-author of Girl Talk. Nicole and her husband, Steve, have one son, Jack.

Carolyn and her three daughters keep a weblog for women in all seasons of life, also entitled "Girl Talk."

This column was adapted for Crosswalk from Girl Talk: Mother-Daughter Conversations on Biblical Womanhood (Crossway 2005) by Carolyn Mahaney and Nicole Mahaney Whitacre © 2005 (Used by permission of Crossway Books, a division of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187, http://www.gnpcb.org.)