5 Ways To Deal With Difficult People

Are you in a difficult relationship?

Actually, the real question is not, ‘Are you in one?’, but rather, ‘How many are you in?’

And, ‘In how many are you the difficult party?’  But I digress…

The truth is, whether it’s a boss, spouse, one of our kids, or an annoying neighbor, difficult relationships will always be part of our everyday lives.  So, we better learn how to deal with them.

Let’s look at 2 Timothy 2:24-26 for some practical, biblical guidance for how to navigate those relationships we’d rather not be in.  (Hat tip to counselor Jeff Stark for sharing this framework with me. If you live near Philly or Wilmington (DE) and need a solid biblical counselor, he’s a great place to start.)

oscar grouch photo

No doubt this is someone you know (and/or you).  Photo by al.star

How Bad People Are A Good Thing

The bible has a lot to say about how we should deal with difficult people.  But before we dive in, though, we need to zoom out for a moment and get the bigger picture.

Which is the opposite of what I usually do.

Left to myself, I typically avoid challenging people in my life.  Sometimes before I even know they’re challenging.  For example, I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I’ve crossed the street to avoid homeless people on more than one occasion.

It’s true that God’s word doesn’t say we should just become doormats, or, excuse sin.  But when we are treated poorly, it reminds us that God is powerfully at work.

Listen to James: ‘Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.’ (1:2-3)  When we face trials – like an unfair exam or a whiny toddler – God is making us firm and unwavering in ways that good times could never produce.

And Peter: ‘Though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith… may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ’.  (1 Peter 1:6-7)  Even though difficulties rightly ‘grieve’ us, God is using them to prove that our faith is real (‘genuine’), and they lead to immeasurable blessings for both us and Christ when he returns.

If you’re anything like me, I suspect you already ‘know’ these things, yet find it incredibly hard to remember in the heat of the moment.  It’s worth marinating in these truths, and asking God to make them real to us so that they shape how we really live.

5 Ways We Can Love Difficult People

In 2 Timothy 2:14-16, Paul shows us five ways we can relate to difficult people in our lives.  Ready?

  1. Don’t be quarrelsome.  ‘And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome…’  So easy to understand, so hard to actually do, especially when the difficult person loves a good argument.  To borrow a metaphor from boxing, when the difficult person begins an unproductive argument, we shouldn’t step into the ring with them.
  2. Be kind.  Paul isn’t telling us to merely ‘be nice’ or tolerate the difficult person at arm’s length. (Darn it.)  Instead, according to the ESV Study Bible notes (see Galatians 5:22), God wants us to show ‘goodness, generosity, and sympathy toward others’.  Oh, and Paul says we should be kind ‘to everyone’, without exception.
  3. Be ready to teach and correct gently.  As God provides opportunities, we should be ‘able to teach’ and ‘correct [our] opponents with gentleness’.  Most contrary people don’t allow for many teachable moments, but God does provide them, especially if we’ve shown love to the person first. And, if we’re willing to share what they’re ready to hear.  For example, my wife spoke with a Christian woman considering dating a guy who didn’t seem to take his faith seriously.  There were a ton of issues she could have addressed, but she simply – and delicately – pointed out just how important his commitment to Christ was.
  4. Patiently endure evil.  If I were Paul’s editor, this would get cut.  But just as Jesus allowed Judas to remain among his disciples nearly until the end, we are called to love annoying people, too.  We may well have to challenge them and draw appropriate boundaries, but we can’t deny that following a crucified Savior means we’ll need to take (more than) a few on the chin (see John 13:16; 15:20).
  5. Know your limits.  This is the hardest, most freeing part of the whole passage.  We might do everything right, and the difficult person may remain just as obnoxious.  But when we relate to them God’s way, ‘God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will’.  When we truly grasp that change is God’s work, on his terms and timing, we back off and stop impersonating the Holy Spirit.
  6. Be humble.  Earlier in 1 Timothy, Paul said, ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”—and I am the worst of them all’ (1:15, NLT).  Remembering that we are often the difficult person changes how we relate to those we consider difficult.

If we start viewing difficult people as God’s tools to renew us, and relate to them in his way, we can have peace and rest even if they never change.

Questions for reflection:

  1. Who is the most difficult person in your life, and, why?
  2. Rate yourself on a scale of 1-10.  (1) I see this person as God’s way of making me unwavering and proving my faith is genuine.  (10) They’re not even a person; I’d like to strangle them!
  3. What among Paul’s advice would most help you relate to your difficult person in a more godly way?

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Bryan,
    Two great points that really stuck out to me. First, your encouragement – fittingly at the very beginning – for us to consider how often we’re the difficult person! Our flesh wants to keep us from this realization, but it’s very true. Rarely have I ever been performing counseling when there wasn’t clear fault on both sides. Additionally, rarely have I ever received counseling when someone couldn’t tell me, “Scott, you really shouldn’t have…”

    Second, yes, that an encouragement that these difficult people are people God wants to use to refine us. What better want to learn patience, forgiveness, grace. Easy to swallow now. Harder to swallow when someone is rubbing us the wrong way :).

    • Hi Scott, thanks for your specific, encouraging feedback. As I think about the big picture behind your comments, I sense a common theme of focusing not so much on the situation itself, but rather on God’s work and our own hearts in the situation.

      In other words, it’s not so much about the details of the struggle (i.e., ‘he’s always so combative’), but rather what God may be up to in us through it (i.e., perhaps he wants to humble us and help us reflect his patience and grace).

      As you mention, this is very hard to do when someone annoys us, but really profitable if we’ll keep failing in the right direction (as a mentor of mine likes to say)!