Dealing With Difficult People
 
How to turn problem people into productive people.

"I've had it. Either she goes or I go," stormed Laura. I knew right away that Laura was talking about Liz. In the six months that Liz had been coming to our singles' fellowship, I had to ask her to move to a different small group twice. Now Laura, our most experienced and dedicated small-group leader, was fed up with Liz as well.

Growing up with serious health problems, Liz had been in and out of the hospital from the age of seven. When her parents' marriage fell apart under the strain, Liz began to carry the burden of her parents' unhappiness and failure as well. She had for a time turned to drugs, but by the grace of God was delivered from this after she became a Christian.

Now, at 29, Liz was absorbed in self-hate. She compensated for her low self image with a razor-like tongue that she used to bring everyone else down to her level of unhappiness. No one knew if her unreasonable behavior was an after-effect of drugs, related to her illness, or a spiritual problem.

I found myself half praying, half wishing that Liz would just go away. She'd been church hopping for a couple years, maybe it was time for her to move on. Surely someone else could meet her needs better than we could. She had alienated everyone in our group. Why did she keep coming back?

My conscience twinged at the thought, and yet, I rationalized, some people are so difficult that ministry to them becomes impossible and ministry to others is damaged as well. That evening I told my wife that I had decided we had done all anyone could reasonably be expected to do for Liz and, for the sake of the group, I would have to ask her to leave.

My wife winced. "You know, just this morning I was reading Luke 14, and it occurred to me how much Liz was like those who came to the banquet. Maybe you should pray about this some more."

I got my Bible and read Lk. 14:13-14. "But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous."

I looked up at my wife and she said, "It's not strange that the cast-offs of this world are often angry and bitter. I'll bet that these people were, too. Maybe they were just as difficult to get along with as Liz."

Some party, I thought. But that night I sat down with my Bible and my concordance and studied God's view of needy people. What I discovered convinced me that in wishing Liz would go away I had been sinning. God has a special place in His heart for needy people. Whether those needs are physical, because of illness or handicap; emotional, due to some trauma or abuse; financial; or spiritual, His Church is to be a place where they are welcomed and cared for, even when they are incredibly hard to get along with.

A Sanctuary among God's People

A theme runs throughout the Old Testament that the needy and poor should find sanctuary among God's people. This includes people with all sorts of needs, not only financial. God decreed that the needy could not be denied justice in the Jewish courts and that His people were forbidden to be "hardhearted" or "tightfisted" toward them (Ex. 23:6, Dt. 15:7-9).

When God, through Jeremiah, warned Judah of its impending destruction, one of His charges against the people was that they had not cared for the needy (Jer. 2:34).

The New Testament confirmed my growing sense of conviction that I could not ask Liz to leave our group. In Lk. 14:21, Jesus said that when God issues invitations to His great banquet in Heaven He will tell His servant, "Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame."

Liz is more like one of those invited guests than I am.

And then, in the classic prohibition against favoritism in the church, James places favoritism in opposition to obeying the royal law, "love your neighbor as yourself" (Jas. 2:8-9).

I was convinced. Not only could we not ask Liz to leave our group, we had to reach out to her with even more love in action. But what we had been doing was of little use to Liz and perpetuated an intolerable situation.

The very fact that Liz kept coming back to our group, even though frustrated people had not always been very kind to her, showed that she needed us. We were going to have to be there for her. But how?

When we started our quest to serve Liz, our goal had been simply to avoid the sin of turning the downtrodden away. As time progressed we began to experience some of the joy that the Good Samaritan must have felt as he saw his charge on the road to recovery. We found eventually that our more focused approach to meeting Liz's needs applied to others as well.

1. Assign a personal discipler.

One of the things that had most frustrated Liz's small-group leaders was that she ignored requests to keep the discussion on the topic at hand. Instead she provided caustic commentary on everything from the group leader's weight to the behavior of the senior pastor's kids in church.

General announcements did not work. Liz needed someone to sit down one-on-one and explain why so many of her comments were out of line, and even hurtful. As it turned out, Liz did not even know she had been offensive.

Few people want to be difficult. Those who are often have never had someone in their lives with enough love and enough courage to be honest with them.

A personal discipler who communicates genuine friendship, a desire for the other's growth in Christ, and perseverance can make a world of difference in someone whose behavior has always driven others away. He or she can, in humility, help apply the Scriptures in such a way that sinful behavior patterns can be identified and discouraged and growth in godliness encouraged. It is important that this personal discipler be someone with a vision for who the person can become in Christ and not a person who simply wants to "fix" the offensive behavior. For Liz, that person was Carol.

Carol was an elder's wife who had been active in ministry for years. She had raised three children to adulthood and had experience in dealing with people when they were most difficult. Most of all, she had the tender heart of a shepherd. She seemed an ideal match for Liz.

Carol met weekly with Liz. They studied God's word together and prayed together. Carol opened her life to Liz and Liz began to feel accepted and loved. And Carol's view of God's mercies expanded as she helped Liz to see the grace of God and the power of His Spirit to enable her to obey Him. Liz began to find healing.

2. Set clearly understood limits and consequences.

Michael came to our group with a friend from work. Within a month I began getting complaints about him from some of the women.

There had been some "accidental" touching that made them uncomfortable. He was also calling one of the women at work and had made some thinly veiled sexual comments.

First, I asked the women who were complaining if they had confronted Michael according to the Matthew 18 principle. I encouraged those who hadn't to do so. One woman, the one he kept calling, had spoken to him about his behavior, but wasn't sure she'd gotten through to him. Suspecting that Michael was not a Christian, she had tried to discourage his attentions toward her without rejecting him in a way that would drive him away from the group.

She was far too subtle for him. I asked Michael to meet Jim, a member of the group's leadership council, and me for lunch. Jim had agreed to disciple Michael if Michael was willing.

Jim and I showed Michael that according to Eph. 5:3, there should not be even a hint of sexual immorality or impurity in men who are seeking to follow God, as Michael professed to be. We also explained to him that his behavior had made several of our women uncomfortable and was pulling the group apart. It had to stop now. Using Titus 3:10, we showed him that people who exhibit habitual divisive behavior could not be a part of our group.

Michael was stunned. He had only recently become a Christian and did not know any way of relating to women other than the "macho seducer" role he had been playing. He had not understood that he was offending anyone. Once he had the limits of acceptable behavior spelled out to him, he agreed to abide by them rather than risk losing the fellowship of the group.

Difficult people often don't respond to our attempts at subtle reproof. Most people are uncomfortable with confronting others' behavior, but we have to remember that those who are not sensitive enough to recognize normal limits often need help in learning what those limits are. When this is done with gentleness, love, and perseverance, as Jim did in holding Michael accountable and discipling him for a number of months, the Holy Spirit can make great use of our boldness.

Learning to live within boundaries when you've never had them is a painful process that most people do not enter into without incentives. That's why pointing out the logical, natural consequences of their behavior is so important in helping them learn.

3. Make the person responsible for her actions.

Difficult people are often reluctant to accept responsibility for their behavior, wanting instead to shift blame to someone else.

Current trends in counseling allow and even encourage people to blame others for all of their problems. Liz attributed lack of self-control with her tongue to the verbal abuse she'd received from her parents. Caustic comments were only a defense mechanism. After a lifetime of this victimization, how could anyone expect her to change? she reasoned. People would just have to accept that it wasn't really her fault.

For a person to be able to grow out of this sort of behavior she must be helped to understand that she, and only she, is responsible for it. God calls us to obedience in spite of any difficulties we may face or baggage we may carry with us.

It is cruel to allow people to excuse their sin as someone else's fault. If they succeed in escaping responsibility they will never deal with their sin. None of us can control how others will treat us, but we are responsible for the way we respond.

Chuck came to our group after a very unpleasant divorce. It became clear very quickly that Chuck had a great deal of anger toward his former wife. When we shared prayer requests Chuck would often spend 15 minutes pouring out his hurt. Every time someone tried to reach out and comfort him, his anger and bitterness would drive them away.

I met with Chuck and showed him that according to the Scriptures he was going to have to forgive his wife before he could get rid of his anger and bitterness. Harboring bitterness was keeping him from God, and keeping others away as well.

4. Expect change.

We began to look for ways to meet the needs of difficult people out of obedience, not because we had much expectation that they would change. We were surprised—and humbled—to see that God did indeed begin to transform their lives.

We found that no matter how deeply ingrained sinful habit patterns were, people could change if they followed the biblical pattern of Ro. 12:2, "Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind." It's the same answer for all of us in dealing with sin. These people just needed a little extra help, that's all.

The rest of our group learned many valuable lessons as well—not the least of which was the importance of understanding the interconnectedness of the Body of Christ. When one of our weaker brothers is struggling with a sin that makes it difficult for him to fit well with the rest of the Body, we are all weakened.

But when we as a group help that brother to overcome his weaknesses by learning to conform to biblical patterns, not only is he strengthened in his walk with Christ, but so are we all—especially those who provided the most help and encouragement.

Not a Cure-all

Not every troubled person who has come to our fellowship has responded to our efforts. Some moved on when limits were placed on them, others continued to be so self-absorbed that no one could communicate with them.

But those who were willing to work with a personal discipler in an accountability relationship, and who agreed to live within clearly set limits, and who began to accept responsibility for their own actions benefited in several ways. They learned self-control, found greater peace, and started making progress in their walk with God.




— Discipleship Journal
 


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