No matter what arena of life you frequent, chances are you have regular contact with difficult people. They could be customers, or co-workers, or employers, or neighbors, or acquaintances or church members, or even random strangers. No matter who they are, when someone in your life becomes hyper-critical or spiteful or surly, it can take everything you’ve got just to avoid being charged with aggravated assault.
As Christians, we know that Jesus told us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, but if you’re like me, some days that seems like one the His toughest teachings. How can I demonstrate love to someone who is sending my blood pressure through the roof? Fortunately, the Bible goes beyond abstract instruction and gives practical instructions on how to achieve something that seems impossible.
Here are five principles, taken from the New Testament, for dealing with cantankerous people:
1) Measure Your Words (James 3:1-12)– Words that explode from your mouth in moments of anger or frustration are rarely helpful. Instead, they generally do great damage. So take a breath, get control, and guard your tongue. Sometimes that means telling that “thorn in your flesh” of a person to come back in a few minutes after you have collected your thoughts. Remember, the same tongue that speaks words of division can also speak words of understanding and reconciliation. Instead of allowing your tongue to become a victim of a bad moment, use it to transform the moment into something productive.
2) Focus on the things that matter most (Philippians 1: 15-18) – In the book of Philippians, Paul gave a glimpse into some dysfunction inside of the early church. Apparently, a group of Christian teachers did not like Paul, and they used his imprisonment as an opportunity to simultaneously slander his reputation and advance their ministry. Paul was not pleased (obviously), but he kept his eyes on something bigger. While these preachers criticized Paul, they continued to preach the Gospel. In light of that, Paul was able to reflect, “The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.”
In your dealings with difficult people, can you find a larger goal on which to focus? “This person drives me crazy, but at least _______ is true.” Find something about the person or his/her work that is positive and celebrate it. I know . . . that may be difficult . . . but find something. It’s there.
3) Be willing to give up your right to “win” (Matthew 5:38-48) – In our culture we love to hyperventilate about our rights, and there are times when we must fight to maintain them. In your dealings with cantankerous people, however, sometimes the only way to win the war is to surrender some of the battles. This can be ridiculously tough, because it offends our sense of fairness, but keeping peace requires compromise! If you are willing to surrender your right to be angry and your right to be “right”, you can diffuse any difficult situation . . . and maybe even turn it around for good.
4) Watch out for pride (Philippians 2: 1-11) – If you think about it, the only person you can control in a conflict with another person is yourself. You have no input into how other people treat you, but you do have the ability to control your attitude. Unfortunately, the “control panel” for your attitude is often guarded by your pride. That’s why, when he confronted a conflict in the Philippian church, Paul suggested that the key to unity is humility. “. . . in humility value others above yourselves,” he instructed, “Not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others (verse 4). Sounds impossible, huh? Of course, Paul goes on to remind the Philippians that that is EXACTLY what Jesus did for us! (Ouch!)
5) Pass along what God has given you (Philippians 2:1-2) – This really is the crux of the New Testament’s teaching about dealing with others. God calls us to be channels of grace, mercy, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Have you been encouraged by Christ? Encourage others? Has He shown you compassion? Show it to others? Does He give you mercy when you deserve judgment; forgiveness when you deserve wrath; reconciliation when you deserve estrangement? If so, pass those same gifts along to those around you.
In Romans 5:8-10, Paul reminded the Romans that while they were enemies of God, Christ died for them. He loved His enemies. He prayed for those who persecuted Him. Yes, He willingly fought some battles and even put some difficult people in His place. But even more often, He demonstrated restraint and mercy, and in doing so, gave us an example to follow as we deal with those cantankerous people in our own life.