God’s Relationship Principles for Dealing With Difficult People

God’s Relationship Principles for Dealing With Difficult People

Our relationship with God will determine our relationship with other people.

Bonnie is a pastor’s wife and Shepherdess Coordinator for the Carolina Conference in Charlotte, North Carolina.

The biggest problem in the world isn’t war, famine, or even AIDS. It’s people! Seriously, I don’t know how God puts up with us, which only re-confirms for me what a patient and loving God He is. People can be so unkind at times, and since we are all people, I guess that would mean we are all capable of being unkind.

Some people have a way of bringing out the best in you, and others bring out your worst. It might surprise or dis­appoint you to realize that the person who bothers you most may actually live under your roof. The only thought more disturbing than that is that we are one of those people. But some people seem to be unkind most of the time. They just have a knack of rubbing us the wrong way. But God can help us love these “un-lovables” just as He does.

Our relationship with God will determine our relation­ship with other people. When we are right with God, ev­ery other relationship has the potential to be right, too. 

God called us to a ministry of reconciliation. To be reconciled one to another, we must first be reconciled to God. And our first priority for reconciliation is in the home. How can we expect to help others if we aren’t right with God and our families?

Have you ever wondered why a God who knows our every weakness allows us to be placed in situations that test our weakest area? If we lack patience, He surrounds us with irritating people. If we need to be more loving, unlovable people come out of the woodwork. If we need self-control, emotional button-pushers will descend on us like a plague of locusts, giving us opportunity to practice the very thing we need. And if we lack faith, He gives us endless opportunities to grow it.

God loves us so much that He isn’t going to leave us where we are. He’s going to help us every day in every way to become more like Him. To the difficult person(s) in my life, I may be the only example of God they meet. Jesus told us that our love for one another would prove to the world that we are His. A disciple is an imitator of the one he follows. Disciples study their master, wanting to be like him, choosing to do what he does, going where he goes, and sharing what has been shared with him. With every step, breath, and choice, a disciple becomes more like the one he follows. The question we need to ask ourselves each morning is “Whom will I imitate today?”

People. God’s people. Re-created in His likeness by grace to represent Him to a dying world. To be kind and loving is to be God-like. We can even hasten His coming. How? We are told that by being kind and courteous, we can win 100 souls where only one is won today. And that when Christ’s character is rightly reflected in His people, then He will come.

Sometimes God uses difficult situations and/or diffi­cult people to bring about a desired change in our lives. It’s uncomfortable and even unsettling at times. It can be life-changing. A changed life is the bottom line for God.

When you find yourself in a situation where you are being rubbed the wrong way, miffed, put out, angry, hurt—whatever feeling or title you want to give it—re­alize that it’s another opportunity to become like Christ.

Let’s look at the story of the Samaritan woman (John 4) to discover the biblical principles for dealing with dif­ficult people.

Principle 1 – Be Loving: Recognize Their Worth

You know the story. Jesus was traveling back to Galilee and came to a town in Samaria called Sychar. Jesus could have gone another route, but He had a divine appointment with a woman, a woman despised because of her profes­sion, a woman society rejected. He took His seat at the well and waited. She came, and He told her all about her life. His were not condemning words; Jesus loved her right where she was—as she was. He recognized her worth as a child of God.

That’s what we must do with those who are difficult or unlovely. Recognize their worth—they are children of God, no matter how obnoxious, sinful, ugly, or disagreeable they are. The only way we can recognize their worth is to have His spirit within us, helping us to see them as God sees them, and to lay aside any attitude we may have that does not reflect His image (2 Corinthians 5:14-18).

Jesus valued her, by speaking to her. In His day, women were considered inferior to men. Men never spoke to women in public. But in Jesus’s eyes, she had great value. What value do we place on the difficult people in our lives? Do we speak to them or ignore them?

Jesus not only loved her, pur­sued her, and valued her, but Jesus chose her to carry out His plan. He wanted to reach the people of Samaria—the despised, the outcasts, the rejected ones who would never be chosen by anyone for anything­ in other words, the difficult people of Samaria! Wow!

We can be certain Jesus could have chosen other people with better morals and certainly someone with more integ­rity then the Samaritan woman. It would have made much more sense to us that way until you factor in Grace!

After Jesus pursued her, valued her, chose her, and loved her, Jesus changed her. No longer was she rejected. She re­ceived hope. She was transformed by His love. It’s impor­tant for us to remember that no matter who we are, our value rests in the certain truth that each one of us is chosen by God. He has a plan for every difficult person’s life, too! And He wants you to become more like Him. Remember, there are no accidents with God. You are where you are for a reason, and that difficult person may be part of your con­gregation for a reason.

Knowing that we are loved and so valuable to God that He sent His Son to die for us should completely change how we live and treat even the most difficult people. Some­times those difficult people may be struggling with their own worth; they may need someone like you to show them (or remind them) how valuable they really are.

When we make a choice to love a difficult person, we invite God to work in us and through us to bring about change—to create His image in others.

As we learn to make this principle part of our lives, let’s reflect on the promise of Jeremiah 1:5: Before I made you in your mother’s womb, I chose you. Before you were born, I set you [my dear Shepherdesses] apart for a spe­cial work.

Principle 2 – Be Humble: Choose Against Pride

“God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6).

We all struggle with pride. It’s easy to view our circum­stances and relationships with the attitude “What’s in it for me?” We need to remember that pride has no place in the life of a Christian and will lead to unhealthy relation­ships.

A big dose of humility would probably do us all a lot of good and straighten out many of those “touchy” situ­ations. Paul was familiar with pride and tells us how to deal with it: “By the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment . . . We have different gifts, accord­ing to the grace given us. . . . Be devoted to one another in broth­erly love. Honor one another above your­selves” (Romans 12:3-6, 10).

Why is grace important? Let’s face it, when we deal with “impossible” people, we want them to get what they de­serve—at the very least, the same amount of grief they have given us, right? But let’s not forget that the ground is level at the foot of the cross. “When our lives are lived against the backdrop of grace, pride will die from lack of grace, pride will die from lack of attention.” I am so humbled by the fact that God gave me the gift of grace instead of what I deserved. Choosing to be loving when someone doesn’t deserve it will often resolve the diffi­culty.

Paul advises us not to think we are better than other people. Pride makes us take credit for our God-given gifts. Many times the difficult people we deal with find their worth and identity in what they do, not in who they are. So they draw attention to themselves through their ac­tions. They believe that all attention is good, and they will get it any way they can. But they need to know that whose they are matters more than who they are.

Pride is like a chigger. You know, those unseen little bugs that eat you alive after you’ve picked blackberries. There’s a little poem about chiggers that illustrates what I mean:

Here’s to the chigger,

The bug that’s no bigger

Than the end of a very small pin;

But the itch that he raises simply amazes,

And that’s where the rub comes in!

Pride attacks us in little ways like chiggers through little thoughts or unseen actions; it wheedles its way into our minds. Difficult people are like that, too. They have a way of crawling into our minds and grabbing hold of any un­disciplined thoughts, and before you know it, our own at­titudes become arrogant and prideful. We must guard against these prideful thoughts, as they will never help an already difficult relationship.

Paul continues, saying, “Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body.” We may not think a person has anything to offer in the way of serving God, but Scripture is clear that if they are believers, they are part of the plan and are gifted to serve. Pride keeps us from seeing those people as God sees them. Paul says, “Each member belongs to all the oth­ers. . . .” Simply put, we are accountable to each other. Paul restates this concept in his letter to the Ephesians. “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21). Children don’t always like submitting to their parents’ rules. We parents don’t like thinking of ourselves as being account­able to anyone except maybe to God. But God intended submission to be a gift to someone else, a willingness to consider the desires and wishes of another before our own. God places people in our lives to see things we cannot see, to encourage and build us up, to correct, to love, and to protect. Jesus submitted Himself to the will of His father to save a world full of difficult people. When we submit ourselves to others, we make a choice that will help pre­vent pride and make those difficult relationships easier.

Finally Paul says, “Be devoted to one another.” When we devote ourselves to others, we commit our lives to serv­ing. And when we serve others, we are doing what Jesus did (see Philippians 2:1-5).

Principle 3 – Be Accepting: Love Them Just As They Are

“Love each other as I have loved you” John 15:12.

Every parent would probably admit that their child has been a challenge at times—usually during the teenage years. I am reminded of a story of a teenage daughter during one of her “theatrical moments” when she threw herself onto the couch and cried, “Nobody loves me! Everyone hates me!” Her brother was sitting nearby, and without even looking up from what he was doing, said, “That’s not true.” His mother was so proud that he wanted to reassure his sister of his love for her when the brother added, “It really isn’t true that everybody hates you. Some people don’t even know you yet.” So much for brotherly love!

This is where God’s love comes in. It may surprise you to realize that God doesn’t love us because we are lovable. He is love. Truthfully, I don’t fully understand it. But He asks us to reflect or model His love not just every once in a while to the people we like but to every person He places in our lives. Even those difficult people!

Sometimes, we “tolerate” difficult people by imagining that if we could get our hands on them, we could modify their annoying behavior and “fix” them, making them into someone more acceptable. Tolerance says, “I accept you now, but if you don’t change, my offer of acceptance will expire.” Acceptance says, “I accept you for who you are, because of Whose you are, no strings attached.” When we accept difficult people, we hand them over to Someone who can change and restore them.

God’s love is powerfully illustrated in the life of Hosea. The Lord said to Hosea, “Go show your love to a woman loved by someone else, who has been unfaithful to you.” He was asking Hosea to choose faithfulness, to be faithful to his commitment to marriage and to his God in obedience. Difficult people rarely en­counter such love. It’s too easy to walk away; we don’t want the hassle of dealing with them. The Lord also told Hosea how to show his love: “In the same way the Lord loves the people of Israel, even though [they are difficult] and they worship other gods.” He was telling Hosea to choose to forgive Gomer. She didn’t ask for his forgiveness (most difficult people don’t ask). God asked a lot of Hosea, but God can ask a lot because He gave a lot.

By choosing to forgive, we cancel a debt that is owed. That’s exactly what God did with us, and He asks us to do the same. “Love that chooses forgiveness is the only choice that sets us free from the chains of anger, resentment, re­venge, and bitterness. Forgiveness is the deepest need of our soul and God’s greatest gift.” We need to forgive the difficult people in our lives and set our hearts free from any negative thoughts or feelings we may be harboring there.

Then God asked Hosea to choose to sacrifice. “I bought her for six ounces of silver and ten bushels of barley.” Hosea was the one wronged and humiliated. Hosea was the one following God, and he was the one called to sacrifice. Let’s take a look at what he was called to sacrifice.

Hosea had to sacrifice his pride. Remember, Gomer was “loved by another”—maybe she was sleeping with one of Hosea’s friends or neighbors. He had to swallow his pride and go to her in love and forgiveness.

Hosea had to sacrifice his rights. Gomer broke the marriage covenant. Biblically, Hosea had a right to divorce her, but instead he laid down his anger, his hurt, and his right to retaliate. He even took the initiative and went to her! Mat­thew talks about a forgiveness like that when he says, “If you are offering your gift at the . . . and there remember that your brother has something against you . . . go and be reconciled your brother” (Matthew 5:23).

God always seeks restoration and reconciliation. He com­mands us to look past what would be a logical response and look to the highest obedience we can offer.

Hosea sacrificed his money. Hosea had to buy back his own wife! “Six ounces of silver and ten bushels of barley” was the price of a slave. Prophets weren’t exactly in the top income bracket of their day, so it must have been quite a sacrifice. Even so, he did it. Love pays the price!

Hosea chose two more important things: He chose to restore, and he chose to love the way God loves. He brought Gomer home, separated who she was from what she had done, loving the sinner but hating the sin, looking past her fault and seeing her need. He chose to love her the way God loves each of us. “Hosea” means “salvation.” Hosea was Gomer’s salvation just as God is ours. God looks past our unfaithfulness and rebellious hearts and pursues us still.

I thank God every day for His love toward me. Be as­sured that He always loves us. In fact, there is nothing that can separate us from His love (Romans 8:39). And He asks us to love others in the same way, just as they are, with all their faults and flaws and irritating ways. Every difficult relationship we experience comes to us for a reason—as part of His plan to refine and purify our hearts. God asks us to pour out His love—a love that never gives up and never fails—to every difficult person we meet. God is eternally committed to us and won’t give up until He brings us home.

Principle 4 – Be Encouraging: Become Their Cheerleader

“Encourage each other and give each other strength” (1 Thessalonians 5:11, NCV).

The power of the spoken word is greater than we realize. Words can hurt, kill or restore life. Difficult people are ac­customed to being the targets of harsh words. In fact, some­times they even provoke words of criticism to prove that what they believe about themselves is true—they are bro­ken and cannot be mended. But words can change the course of a person’s life.

I once heard a story of a young man (we will call him Fred) who worked hard at making friends and being ac­cepted until one day he decided to show his true colors. At first he did little things—a seemingly friendly shove, caustic comments masqueraded as humor—the words of destruc­tion grew into a steady stream. Two mature youths were asked to mentor him. He wanted no part of it. One night at a youth meeting, one of his mentors was asked to sing a solo. “Mary” [not her real name] suffered from juvenile rheu­matoid arthritis which made it difficult for her to walk, al­though she never complained and always shared her faith in God and His goodness to her. You had to love Mary. As Mary stood to sing, Fred began laughing, pointing, and whis­pering to those around him. Lack of response to his antics made him try that much harder to win center stage, saying loud enough for others, including Mary, to hear, “Do you hear her sing? She sounds like a frog—not to mention that she walks funny!” Silence. Everyone froze, except Mary, who fled in tears. That did it. The youth leader grabbed Fred by his ear and pulled him out of the room. Once they reached the foyer, the youth leader let him have it. “Do you realize what you have just done?”

“Yes,” said Fred, “I embarrassed Mary and hurt her feel­ings.”

The youth leader was furious. “I cannot believe you! Mary has been a real friend to you, defending you when you didn’t deserve defending and inviting you to be part of the group when no one else wanted you around. What is wrong with you?” Fred just stood there, accepting his deserved punishment without offering one word in his defense.

Right then God sent Mary. God spoke words of life through that young woman to that young man. “Fred, I was thinking about why you did what you just did. I real­ized something. I love you and you know that. But you don’t think you deserve that love, so you tried to kill it by hurting me. It won’t work. Do you know why?” Fred shook his head. Mary smiled, wrapped her arms around the one who had viciously wounded her, and with fresh tears streaming down her face choked out, “I love you with God’s love, Fred. Not mine. And His love just won’t die. People tried to kill it on the cross, but even that didn’t work. So I just wanted to tell you that I love you—no matter what you say or do. I am your friend—period.”

From that day forward, Fred was a different person­ not perfect, but different. From time to time, he would slip back into his old habits. But when he did, Mary or someone under her direction and influence would bring him back with words of kindness. The other youth who witnessed this undeserved love were also changed and called higher in their obedience to God.

We must:

1. Understand that the tongue is a gift from God (Prov­erbs 16:1). We are responsible for managing and using it.

2. Recognize the power of the tongue (Proverbs 18:20, 21). Words are persuasive, powerful, and eternal; they live forever in the heart and soul of the person to whom they are spoken. When God controls our tongues, He controls us. Never underestimate the guidance you give or the direction your life takes because of the words you speak or refuse to speak.

3. Learn to control the tongue (Proverbs 13:3). Check your heart (Matthew 12:34, 35). Guard your mind (Psalm 26:2). Ask God for help (Psalm 141:3). Speak less (Ecclesiastes 5:2).

Words are a powerful gift from God, and we must use them in the right way. Every difficult person will at one time or another hurl insulting words at you, hoping you will lose your self-control. Look behind the mask for the wounds that cause those words and choose words of res­toration. Be a cheerleader. Encourage them with words of life from the Word.

It reminds me of that beautiful hymn “Sing them over again to me, wonderful words of life!” By God’s grace, let us only speak words of life to everyone—even those dif­ficult ones!

Bonnie is a pastor’s wife and Shepherdess Coordinator for the Carolina Conference in Charlotte, North Carolina.