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Jesus on Difficult People (August 17, 2003)

Difficult People

All of us have difficult people in our lives.  My wife has been married to a difficult person for over seven years.  She has tried to tell me what it's like, but I just won’t hear of it!

Difficult people are special.  They are always there for us when others aren’t, but especially on our bad days.  When all hope seems lost.  They have an uncanny way of saying things that just dampens the day!  They can always be counted on to bring out the worst in us, to be obtuse and disagreeable, to make easy things impossible, to put a negative spin on the things we do, to speak ill of us, or to ignite an inextinguishable fire in our bellies.  You know, they do all the very same things Satan does.

The Bible says in Isaiah 40:6 (NIV), "All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field;  the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of God remains forever."  Something else that remains forever are difficult people.  As much as we wish they would, they never go away!

I don’t think we have ever been taught how to deal with difficult people.  I sure wish that I had been taught how to deal with difficult people when I was in high school.  Those were some of the toughest years of my life.  As a freshman, I had guys who bullied me daily.  They'd insult and humiliate me in front of my friends, slam me into the locker, knock my books out of my hands, and destroy my art or shop projects.  One guy blew snot on me.  Those guys weren’t just difficult.  They might also be characterized as evil.

Two poor strategies for dealing with difficult people

But I only knew how to respond with one of two extremes.  The first extreme was to punch them in the mouth.  To physically and violently react, to join them on their level, and give them a taste of their own medicine.  In high school I did weight training not for athletic reasons, but for survival.  I wanted to become stronger and tougher than my enemies so as to defeat them.  Fighting can be a tremendous release.  It momentarily satisfies our base desire to exact revenge and to retaliate a wrong that has been suffered.  But in the end, I discovered that violence begets violence.

One time in high school I decked a guy, only to discover the very next day that several of his buddies wanted to take a shot at me.  I had my hands full for weeks.  I learned that it really is eye for eye and tooth for tooth.  At that age I was already too ugly to go around toothless and eyeless my whole life!  Besides, it's not the Christian way.

In Matthew 5:38-41 (NIV) Jesus says, "You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye and tooth for tooth.'  But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person.  If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.  And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.  If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles."  Jesus wanted his followers to break the cycle of violence and not perpetuate it.

The other extreme reaction we often take, especially as Christians, is passivity.  We become like doormats and we allow difficult people to walk all over us.  This is  how we interpret Jesus' words in Matthew 5.  We think the best response is no response.  We think difficult people will repent when they see our inaction, hear our silence, taste our saltiness, or feel our love.

I don’t want to give the wrong impression.  In high school I rarely stood up for myself.  I’d only react when pushed to the most extreme limits.  Most of the time I’d lick my wounds and struggle in quiet passivity, counting the days until I would become an upper classman or even better, graduate!  I’d hold my tongue.  I’d turn the other cheek.  I’d go that extra mile.  I’d quell my emotions and anger.  I’d suppress my hurts.  But my passivity only seemed to empower the difficult people around me.  They were emboldened by my inaction and took their abuses to new heights.

In the same way, many of you are caught between the two extremes.  You don’t want to just stand by as that difficult person inflicts fresh damage.  But in the same vein you don’t want to become like him and sink to his level.  So what are we to do with the difficult people in our lives?  If not violence or passivity, then what?  What would Jesus do?

Jesus dealt with lots of difficult people.

When you read the New Testament you will notice that Jesus was constantly surrounded by difficult people of every degree.  People who didn’t understand, who didn’t like him, who were threatened by him, and who were even trying to kill him.  Jesus never reacted violently to the difficult people in his life.  Could you imagine what would have happened if he would have reacted violently?  If he would have commanded his angels, or if he would have flexed the muscle of God, or if he would have commanded the elements of nature, or unleashed the torrents of hell? 

Jesus would have been one bad dude!  No one would have messed with him.  But as it was, Jesus restrained himself.  He did not become violent or careless.  But Jesus wasn’t a doormat either.  He confronted his enemies.  But intead of confronting them with swords, daggers, threats, or insults, Jesus confronted his enemies with a forceful mixture of grace and truth.  He didn’t muddle up grace with passivity, or truth with violence.  Instead, he brought grace and truth together in perfect harmony and delivered one devastating, paralyzing blow after another to the difficult people in his life.

Jesus has a lot to teach us about dealing with the difficult people in our lives.  But we must consider his overall way of life and the sum total of all his teachings in order to develop an effective strategy for handling difficult people.  To accomplish this I want to introduce you to a simple concept that captures the essence of Jesus' effective behavior when dealing with difficult people.

Let me begin by saying that our behavior is critically important.  Our behavior toward people really does influence their behavior toward us.  More often than not, our behavior with difficult people determines whether that person will continue being a difficult person.  There are two dimensions of behavior that we need to be concerned about all the time.

We must be willing to project truth.

The first dimension relates to our willingness to project truth.  On your bulletin draw a vertical line down the center of your page.  At the top of the line write "projects truth" and at the bottom write "withholds truth."  I am not talking about being extroverted instead of being introverted.  I am talking about our willingness to inject truth into a situation that concerns us.  Our willingness to stand on principle, to convey our beliefs, to take necessary risks with the difficult people in our lives, and to speak and act with conviction.  Some lean toward projecting truth, while others tend to withhold truth from people.

Jesus believed that wherever it was championed, the truth would set us free.  But he also knew that the inverse was true.  Whenever we hold back truth, it destroys freedom.  We become enslaved to people and their bad behaviors.  One reason difficult people become so difficult is because we enable their behavior.  We value our security so much that we refuse to take a risk and speak the truth.  We don’t show people the truth of how their behavior impacts us and other people.  We don’t show people the truth of how their lack of character diminishes their credibility, destroys workplace morale, impacts their relationships with God, damages their families, or whatever.

We assume that they see their behavior as we see it.  We assume that they know how destructive their words and actions are.  We assume that they know how deeply they are hurting us and those around them.  And so we just keep quiet!  In the end we allow ourselves to become enslaved to their senseless behavior because we don’t have the courage to project the truth and say to them, "Hey!  Enough.  Here is the damage you are causing.  Here is what I see.  Here is what others see.  Here is God’s assessment.  Here is cause and effect."

The truth is that most of the difficult people in our lives have no clue how they truly make us feel or how their behavior is impacting us.  No one ever tells them!  They are the way they are because no one has taken the risk and clued them in.  Our problem isn’t knowing the truth, it is projecting the truth.  It is telling our teenager, our mom or dad, our boss, our supervisor, our coworker, our pastor, our teacher, our neighbor, that difficult person in our life, "This is how your behavior is impacting me."  It is putting an end to the falsehoods that enable their bad behavior.

We must be willing to project grace.

The second dimension relates to our willingness to project grace.  On your bulletin draw a horizontal line across your page.  On the left end of the line write "withholds grace" and to the right write "projects grace."  This refers to our ability to show concern or regard for other people.  Our ability to discipline our tongues and bodies, to take the high road, to convey warmth, to seek the ultimate good for another person, to build up and not destroy, and to forgive.  Contrary to popular opinion, the ability to project grace takes tremendous inner character and strength.  It is a quality that is truly of God.  And it is in no way a sign of weakness.

The importance of grace is captured in 1 Peter 4:8 (NIV).  "Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins."  Love means staying above the fray.  It means seeking understanding before doing something or saying something foolish.  It means being favorably disposed, even toward our enemies.  It means being full of the fruit of the Spirit which includes things like peace, patience, goodness, gentleness, kindness, and self-control.  Love never provokes sin, neither in us or other people.  It draws out the best in people, no matter how obnoxious or selfish or cruel they may be.

The challenge for us is to harmonize grace and truth with people and to demonstrate Christ-like behavior.  In the upper right hand corner write "Christ-like behavior."  So our goal is to project truth while also projecting grace.  We need to stand up for what is right while also showing the love of Jesus Christ.  To not show either truth or grace at the expense of the other individually, but always to show truth and grace together.  So let’s talk about what we typically do wrong when dealing with difficult people.

We often use the wrong approaches when dealing with difficult people.

Bully

Sometimes we project truth, but withdraw grace.  We pump up our dominance, angrily take charge of a situation, and become a bull in a china shop.  We recklessly tear into a situation without gaining understanding or perspective.  We force our ideas, we use one-way communication, intimidate, interrupt, become belligerent, make demands, coerce, argue, and become closed-minded.  We in essence, bully people to act in conformity with our wishes.  The combination of truth and no grace can get quick results.  But in the end it doesn’t really resolve anything.  It polarizes people.  It exacerbates the problem.  It builds walls instead of bridges.  It leads to ongoing power struggles between whatever parties are involved.  In the upper left hand corner you can write "bully" or "jerk." 

Postal syndrome
 
Another combination is when we withdraw truth and withdraw grace from a situation.  First, we take a passive, submissive, weak, or compliant posture out of fear or insecurity.  We don’t want to create problems.  We don’t want to lose our jobs.  We don’t want to get in a fight, or make waves, or become controversial, or be unpopular.  We become doormats and we let others walk on us.  But then at the same time we take a hostile, unresponsive posture toward a person out of anger or hatred.  We lick our wounds.  We tally their sins.  We suppress our true feelings and emotions.  We turn inward and become introspective.  We secretly plot their demise and wish evil on them.

Some people refer to this as the postal syndrome.  This is when a post office worker everyone thought of as "quiet" and a "nice worker" suddenly shows up at work with an automatic rifle and shoots his coworkers and boss.  There were a number of such occurrences years ago.  The postal syndrome is the result of a person letting his anger fester for years until he can take it no more.   Then he explodes in violence!  It's the profile of the shooters at Columbine and of the people involved in other school and workplace shootings.  So if you want, write "postal" in the lower left hand corner.

Enabling

The other combination is that we project grace while withdrawing truth.  Instead of dealing with the problem we just let things happen.  We show the same weakness, compliance, and submissiveness as the last profile.  But instead of getting angry, we try to appease the aggressor.  We want to be accepted and loved.  We want to be popular and keep people happy.  So we meander and compromise while the whole world around us deteriorates.  We smooth over differences and conflict.  We value harmony over truth.  We enable.  We speak falsehoods to achieve artificial peace.  We seek to become one big happy family or country club.  In the lower right hand corner you can write "pals."

So just reflect on these various approaches to difficult people and situations.  What happens when we act like a jerk with difficult people?  Projecting truth at the expense of grace?  It provokes.  It exacerbates the problem.  It creates hostilities!  What happens when we go postal with difficult people?  Withdrawing truth and grace.  Burying our hurts.  Wishing evil on others.  It backfires.  It destroys us. What happens when we pal around with difficult people?  Projecting grace at the expense of truth?  It enables them.  We get taken advantage of.  What happens when we show Christ-like behavior with difficult people?

The best strategy for dealing with difficult people is Christ's strategy.

As you can see, there is really only one effective behavior on this entire grid.  There is only one behavior that effectively moves a situation toward resolution.  In closing let me call your attention to Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:15-17 (NIV).  "If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you.  If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.  But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.  If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or tax collector."
 
Project truth.  Be proactive when someone sins against you.  Show him his fault.  Tell him about the impact of his actions or words.  Project grace.  If he refuses to listen, treat him like a pagan or tax collector.  Treat him as a person outside the family of Christ, as a potential Christian, and as a person who needs to know the love and forgiveness of Christ.

You can never go wrong with Christ-like behavior. 

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