Dealing with difficult people is one of the hardest things to do in the Christian life and ministry. Over the years, I’ve learned five ways to deal with difficult people. Many of these lessons have been won with a lot of prayer, some by observation, and others from godly saints that have invested my life. The five points we’ll consider in this article are:
- Difficult people expose our rough edges.
- Difficult people expose weakness in our theology
- Difficult people hurt others to get attention from other people.
- Difficult people require growth in the grace of God.
- Dealing with difficult people is hard, and one shouldn’t take their words to heart.
First, dealing with difficult people exposes our rough edges. Consider Joe at your workplace. He has a medical issue that causes him to cough a lot. His coughing, however, causes you to be aggravated at him. Sally is a very sweet person, but you don’t like the sound of her voice. She sounds very raspy when she talks, and that makes you cringe every time you hear it.
There are thousands of examples that we could use on this first point. Some of these may not be aggravating to you at all but in my experience it’s often the small things that irritate people the most. This is true whether it is in the workplace, at church, or somewhere else. Difficult people help show us where we need to grow. Rather than fight against these people, hold on to grudges, or be bitter towards them—we need to love them. We need to realize these are “sandpaper” people, and we need them to help smooth off our rough edges. These people help us to develop a posture of humility rather than an attitude of superiority.
Our bad attitude towards people is a reflection of our doctrine of the image of God in man. It’s one thing to say, “So and so is a nice person,” but it’s another thing to say, “So and so did this and that, and this, and, oh my gosh did you see what they did today?” On the one hand, you might still think they are a nice person but over time if you don’t address your bad attitude you are going to grow bitter, cold, and even angry at that person. Rather than allowing this to happen, let me encourage you to embrace the difficult person in your life.
Second, difficult people expose weaknesses in your theology. Often we view difficult people as objects to be avoided rather than real people in need of answers and help. God places people in our lives for a reason, and that difficult person in your life might be exposing your lack of genuine love and concern for others. Discipleship problems are almost always doctrinal problems.
The next time you deal with a difficult person who asks a lot of questions and irritates you, be sure to be slow to speak, quick to listen, ask lots of clarifying questions, and speak gently and truthfully. This will show the person that you care for them while also helping them to see the grace of God at work in your life.
Third, difficult people hurt others to get attention from other people. The difficult person in your life wants your attention. They may want to bring you down to their level. They may think you are a hypocrite. Are you? Do you live a double life behind closed doors? Do people know you? Or do you hold people at arm’s length? That difficult person in your life who is hurting you wants attention because they are hurting inside. You need to realize that you have an opportunity to befriend them for the purpose of imparting God’s grace to them. God places people like this in your life to rub the rough edges off of your life and to develop your understanding of who He is so that you’ll love others with His love. When you do that difficult people become a blessing to help you to grow in grace, not a hindrance to be avoided.
Fourth, difficult people require growth in the grace of God. Don’t get me wrong here; difficult people are hard to deal with. They require a lot of prayer, patience, and humility. All of this is good for us, though. When we understand that the Christian life is about growing in and being used by God, we can clearly see our need for grace. This is why Tim Keller has rightly noted the Gospel is the “A to Z of Christianity.” We don’t graduate from our need of grace and, therefore, we are always in need of it.
We recognize our need for grace by growing in our walk with God. Only from this perspective can we deal with difficult people. We will only be patient and kind with that person who irritates us all the time if we are growing in the grace of God. This is why I often pray for specific people who I’m struggling to know how to deal with. When I do this what happens is my attitude toward that person begins to change. It’s amazing how this happens, because over time what occurs is, I begin to have a genuine love for that person because God has placed that love in my heart for that person. I’m then able to minister to that person, build a friendship with him, and speak truthfully to him in love about my concerns, thoughts, and feelings about things going on in my life or that I see going on in theirs. By recognizing our need for God’s grace, we will ably deal with difficult people in a healthy, productive way.
The last one on our list is one that I struggle with, and it’s likely that if you are a sensitive, caring, people person, this will remain an area of growth for a long time for you, as it is for me. Our last point is dealing with difficult people is hard, and one shouldn’t take their words to heart. Here we need to realize that difficult people are likely hurting people who use their words in inappropriate ways to lash out at others, so they feel better about themselves. The only thing you can do is not permit them to have any power over you. When they speak harmful words, you speak the Word of God.
When this person continues to spew their ugliness, instead of indulging them, walk away. If they continue, tell them how what they say makes you feel. Be specific when you do this, and tell them, “I don’t like it when you call me such and such name because that makes me feel this way (tell them how you feel).” By addressing their specific behavior and how it makes you feel, you are helping them to see how their actions affect you—and most likely others.
Finally, all of what I’ve said here today about difficult people is because we care about people. The reason we care about others is because Jesus truly cares for us. He wants to have a relationship with us; He bled and died in our place for our sin to offer the forgiveness of sins to His people now with new life through His resurrection. He not only has done all of what I’ve just described, He now lives to make intercession for us as our High Priest, Intercessor, and Mediator of the New Covenant (Hebrews 4:16). Jesus is still yet returning to rule and reign over the throne of King David. He empowers His people and fills them with His Spirit so they can, in increasing measure, be empowered by the Holy Spirit to make much of Jesus.
We live in difficult and challenging times. Difficult people are all around us. They are not a burden nor are they an obstacle to overcome. Difficult people are an opportunity for us as Christians to show the world that we take seriously the love of God that we have believed and now carry this love onward into the most difficult places to the most challenging people in the world. So let’s carry forth the message of the cross and the resurrection to all peoples, all for the praise of the One in Jesus who has saved us and won for us such a great salvation. To Him be glory and dominion and power forever, amen.