What does the Bible say about dealing with difficult people?
Difficult people are everywhere. Hostile, rude, mean, selfish, impatient, uncaring, and worse (Romans 1:29–31; 2 Timothy 3:1–4; Galatians 5:19–21; 1 Corinthians 6:9–11). What may be shocking to many of us is that we have and can act the same as these people. Are we always hostile, rude, mean, selfish, impatient, and uncaring? No, but we all have the seeds of all such attitudes in our hearts (Matthew 15:19; Jeremiah 17:9). Therefore, the first step in helping us deal with difficult people is understanding that we are not better than such people by nature (Ephesians 2:1–3). We live in a fallen world filled with sinful people. We must remind ourselves of this fact so that we are not surprised when we encounter difficult people, or when we find ourselves being a difficult person.
If we have received Jesus Christ, then we are forgiven for these sinful attitudes and behaviors. When we find ourselves displaying such attitudes and behaviors, we confess to God and trust that He has already forgiven us and will cleanse us (1 John 1:8–9). We make amends when possible and seek to live differently. God's forgiveness of our difficultness/sinfulness is the basis for how we are to respond to difficult people, which is with grace.
As believers in Christ our mandate is not to get even or return evil for evil but to return evil with good (Romans 12:19–21). We are called to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:43–45). This may seem impossible, and in our own power it is impossible. However, with God working in us it is possible (Matthew 19:26).
To return evil with good may chafe at our sense of justice, and sometimes rightly so. However, we must remember that it is God's role to mete out justice. We are to leave the matter in God's hands and trust that He will judge justly (Romans 12:19). Most importantly, we must realize that we have not received what we deserve from God but have received mercy and unmerited favor instead. While we were hostile and at enmity with God, He sent His Son to die for our sins (Romans 5:6–8; Ephesians 2:1–10). Jesus, even while He was being persecuted, prayed for His tormentors (Luke 23:34).
As a point of clarity, it is not wrong to involve legal authorities. Criminal behavior is not what we are referring to when we talk about "difficult people." Social authorities have been put in place by God to uphold the law, and it is not wrong to use them (Romans 13:1–7). However, we are not to seek societal justice out of vengeance. Similarly, depending on the difficult behavior, it is not wrong to involve church authorities. Matthew 18:15–20 outlines the proper procedure for addressing grievances among church members. Again, the intent is not to seek vengeance, but to bring about peace.
As believers in Christ we are indwelt by the Spirit of God who produces the attitudes of love, joy, peace, longsuffering (patience, forbearance), kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22–23). Therefore, we are to pray to be filled with the Spirit and to keep in step with the Spirit, and not grieve Him (Ephesians 4:30; 5:18; Galatians 5:25). If we are to respond to difficult people with grace and love, we must depend upon and draw upon the power of God's Spirit. When we become angry and return evil with evil, we must quickly confess our sin and ask God for the grace to imitate Jesus Christ and show ourselves to be sons and daughters of our merciful Father (Luke 6:36). If we refuse to love our enemies then we are imitating not our Heavenly Father, but the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:21–35). It is in our eternal best interest to imitate the former and not the latter. How can we who have received such grace and forgiveness from God refuse to show the same to others?
Often it is simple to know how we should act toward difficult people, but it can be quite a challenge to do so in our daily lives. The Proverbs have some excellent practical advice. For example, Proverbs 15:1 says, "A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger." We can memorize this verse and, when confronted by a difficult person, attempt to respond with gentleness. You might be surprised how the situation de-escalates. Proverbs 12:16 says, "The vexation of a fool is known at once, but the prudent ignores an insult." Rather than take insults personally and respond with immediate offense, we can learn to simply ignore them. Proverbs 20:3 says, "It is an honor for a man to keep aloof from strife, but every fool will be quarreling." Titus 3:9 has similar encouragement to "avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless." Proverbs 17:14 similarly encourages ending quarrels before they begin. We can remind ourselves of the things that really matter and remember that some quarrels are simply pointless. There is no use getting entangled with a difficult person when the end result is "unprofitable and worthless."
In some situations, it is best to try to avoid certain difficult people altogether. Proverbs 22:24–25 says, "Make no friendship with a man given to anger, nor go with a wrathful man, lest you learn his ways and entangle yourself in a snare." First Corinthians 15:33 says, "Do not be deceived: 'Bad company ruins good morals.'" As much as we are able, we should make friendships with those who are seeking to honor God the same way we are. We are also called to live peaceably with others as far as we are able (Romans 12:18; Hebrews 12:14).
We can be proactive in dealing with difficult people by reading and even memorizing God's Word to give us the right perspective on life. His Word tells us that all people are made in His image (Genesis 1:26). When we view others as image-bearers, we may find it easier to bear with them. We can also recognize that dealing with difficult people is a trial that God can use to produce good things in us. For example, see how Romans 5:3–5 and James 1:2–5 address trials and hardships.
Dealing with difficult people becomes easier when we seek to exhibit empathy for others. We know that we ourselves can be difficult, particularly when tired or stressed or hungry. How would we want to be treated in such situations? Matthew 7:12 talks about doing unto others as we want them to do unto us. James 2:8 talks about loving others as we love ourselves. First Peter 4:8 says, "Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins" (see also Proverbs 10:12). As we proactively seek to love one another, we will be more able to forgive offenses and deal with difficulties in a way that honors God.
Difficult people are often difficult as a result of their own pain. Seeing difficult people as those who are hurting and in need of Christ's touch can encourage us to forgive them. We can also pray for their healing. Perhaps in showing them kindness their hearts will be softened to Christ.
At times we will need to confront a difficult person or point out challenging inter-personal behaviors. This will hopefully help them stop inflicting damage on others around them as well as aid them in their own spiritual growth. Christians are called to speak truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). This means that we speak truth because we love and also do so from a heart of love. Truth can sometimes be hard to share and hard to receive, but we speak it with grace out of love for others. If the difficult person in our life is an unbeliever, we share the truth of the gospel with them as well.
Dealing with difficult people requires prayer and the power of God. When we know we are going to encounter a difficult person, we should pray beforehand. Ask for God's wisdom and His strength to respond well. Pray for the person and for God's work in his or her life. Remind yourself of some of the biblical truths shared here. Then seek to love as best as you can. Take any frustrations or emotional pain from your interaction with the difficult person straight to God and seek His healing and comfort.
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