Dealing with difficult people in a Christ-like manner may be one of the most difficult ways to live out the Gospel. Difficult, because this requires patience, something I struggle to display. It has been said that if you pray for patience, God will indulge you with opportunities to develop it. And so, for this reason, God puts in our path, difficult people. They are the sandpaper we need to polish off our rough and sinful edges.
I’ve found six observations about dealing with difficult people:
1) Dealing with difficult people provides fresh opportunities to display humility. When John Calvin was asked to define the Christian life he said three times (following Augustine) that the Christian life was humility, humility, humility. Proverbs 3:34, “Toward the scorners he is scornful, but to the humble he gives favor.” James 4:6, “But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” 1 Peter 5:6, “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you,” When you love someone who annoys you, you are lowering your own estimation of yourself and exalting a brother or sister in the Lord.
2) Difficult people expose our latent pride: Following Christ involves submission to the authority, inspiration, inerrancy, and sufficiency of Scripture. 2 Timothy 3:16, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” Difficult people test this theory and often expose our own idolatry of self. The feelings we have for those we don’t like reveal our selfishness and pride. So in every relationship struggle, we have to ask ourselves: will we exalt ourselves as ultimate, or will we come under the authority of the Word and thus, reach out in love to those we may not like?
3) Difficult people force us to our knees in prayer. Here is something I’ve tried to employ when I’m forced to engage with a person who may be difficult: First, I need to make sure my heart is right before God. This will eliminate most potential conflicts. Second, I have found it wise to get some wise counsel from a godly friend or mentor (Proverbs 11:14). Third, pray for the person. Fourth, sandwich your truth-telling in love. Finally, be quick to listen to the person’s response and slow to interact with their response.
4) Be willing to hear criticism without defensiveness. James 1:19 is applicable in relationships: “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger;” Proud people are quick to speak but slow to listen. Humble people endeavor to listen well. This demonstrates love and shows you care about their thought. It also provides an opportunity for you to speak into that person’s life.
5) Dealing with difficult people point out weak areas in our lives. When criticized don’t respond negatively but instead thank the person for sharing their perspective. Humility isn’t being a know-it-all. Humility is a lifelong process of admitting what one doesn’t know and growing in God’s grace.
6) Difficult people help us to love God. Over the past few years, I’ve been learning to pray for difficult people and ask the Lord to help me love them. Instead of viewing them as people who want to argue with me, I’ve been asking the Lord to help me to see them the way Jesus does. To this end, I’ve also been asking for the Lord to help to see such people through the eyes of Jesus, the great Shepherd.
For example, there is one man in particular in my Bible study. He and I have had multiple disagreements and not always pleasant ones either. One of my Pastors, since I’m accountable to him, challenged me to start praying for him. Over time God has changed my heart towards this man. Instead of viewing him as someone who questions what I have to say, I now see his additions as means to help the conversation. Instead of being at odds with each other now, the Lord through His work in my life (and this gentlemen’s as well) has changed both of our hearts towards each other and we get along well with each other now.
We need to view difficult people, not as a hindrance to ministry but an opportunity to grow in grace. Difficult people are sandpaper people who may rub us the wrong way but are the one’s, God wants to use in our lives to refine and shape us into the man or woman He wants us to become.
If you have someone who is particularly difficult in your own life, I hope these six principles will help you to deal with the difficult person in your life. More than helping you to deal with the “other person” who is difficult these six principles will help you to see how you are difficult. This, in turn, will help you to face your own issues, grow in the grace of God so that you can pray and love that difficult person in your life through the eyes of our Great Shepherd, Jesus Christ.