How to Deal with Difficult People

Today, people are angry. They are mad. They rush to judgment. They are critical. They are adversarial. They no longer respect authority and authority figures. You can see this in the Summer 2020 riots that took place in cities around the country. Take a quick look on Twitter and you will see how angry people are as they make snide comments on one another’s Twitter feeds. No doubt people’s anger has been fueled by the loss of jobs, the political uncertainty during the 2020 presidential election, and the ongoing effects of COVID on our country. Difficult people are everywhere. They can be divisive.

Churches experience division, too. Ask any pastor and you will quickly hear stories of how strife and anger have taken place in their congregations this past year, and in many cases are continuing to take place. This past year, people in congregations were divided over the issues of wearing masks or not wearing masks, and they argued about staying open or remaining closed. Difficulties arose about whether or not the church took a strong enough stand politically, whether it was sensitive enough to racial issues, and whether it had reopened fast enough, or was too slow to reopen (some pastors, myself included, were labeled as “faithless” by angry congregants because we exercised caution during the pandemic, following CDC guidelines as we led our churches to reopen as safely as possible). As I told one lady who attacked me on Facebook over the issue of masks and reopening the church, “I’m not faithless, I’m just acting like the shepherd God called me to be.” Difficult people are all around us, and they can come out of nowhere.

Difficult people these days tend to raise baseless accusations, argue, major on the minors, act selfishly, exercise control, and defy authority. No wonder pastors are retiring early, or are moving from one church to another in an effort to stay in ministry by fleeing unwanted conflict. A director of missions I know told me he expects there to be a huge need for pastors in his association of churches because so many are leaving ministry. William Vanderbloemen, CEO of a company that helps match church leaders to open positions, says “I promise you, ’21 is going to be the year of turnover. And so this year, we’ve been preparing for that. It’s going to be a storm surge.”

Ambrose Bierce, a poet and writer from the mid 1800s, said, “Speak when you are angry and you’ll make the best speech you’ll every regret.” He’s right about that. There is a better way to deal with people. Difficult people create a certain amount of churn in churches as seen by the pastors and staff who exit a ministry in order to escape their wrath. A pastor can leave one church for a new one, but he will soon encounter similarly difficult people in his new congregation. Perhaps you are not a pastor, but you work with a difficult person on your job. Or maybe you have a difficult person in your family with whom you interact on a regular basis. At some point, you have to learn to deal with difficult people in healthy ways. Thankfully, God gave us a path forward with difficult people!

Scripture instructs us to “Let no corrupt talk proceed out of your mouth, but only that which is good…” (Ephesians 4:29). Proverbs 10:12 says, “Hate stirs up strife…” and James reminded his readers that no one can tame the tongue (James 3:7-8). Thankfully, we know that a gentle answer turns away wrath, but harsh words stir up anger (Proverbs 15:1). As someone has said, “Words create worlds.” When we deal with difficult people, we must be extra cautious in the language we choose to use.

The apostle Paul wrote to the church in Rome, and gave the people eight ways to deal with difficult people. Some of the difficult people were in the church, while others were outside it. In either case, his instructions can guide believers to deal effectively, and biblically, with difficult people today. I’ve used Romans 12:14-21 recently as a guide in dealing with a difficult people in my church. As a person who has served three congregations as a pastor, I’ve run into angry, bitter people who acted in terrible, ugly ways. Only God knows the true state of their souls, but if you didn’t know better, you’d say these people were unregenerate.

So what are we to do when difficult people come along? I have found that using Paul’s instructions at Romans 12:14-21 is helpful. I wish I could say that following them always leads to reconciliation and forgiveness, but they don’t. However, as you follow these admonitions, you do stay aligned with God’s heart, which is always a great position from which to lead. Here are the 8 things Paul instructed the members of the church at Rome to do when they encountered difficult people:

  1. Bless difficult people (v.14 – Bless those who persecute you: bless, and do not curse). This is not just refraining, but actively pursuing the good of another person. Love desires the best for the other person. Our old nature says “curse,” but new nature says “bless.”
  2. Continue to serve and minister to difficult people (v.15 – Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep). We should not withdraw ourselves from the difficult person/people. Instead, we should stay engaged with them, serving them and ministering all the while. When they weep, don’t gloat; when they rejoice, don’t hold a grudge.
  3. Live in harmony with difficult people (v.16a – Live in harmony with one another…). “Be of the same mind” means to arrive at a mutual understanding of God’s way of thinking. This is good for creating unity among two estranged people, especially believers.
  4. Practice humility towards difficult people (v.16b – Do not be proud; instead, associate with the humble. Do not be wise in your own estimation). “The person who is wise in his own eyes is rarely so in the eyes of others.” We must relate well to all, serve all (both the regal and the lowly). Do not think you are too good for some people (the lowly), but instead serve and love them.
  5. Act honorably towards difficult people (v.17 – Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Give careful thought to do what is honorable in everyone’s eyes). The human tendency is to get even. According to this verse, we are to live out the gospel in plain sight. One translation says to “act honorably,” which means we turn the other cheek and we go the second mile (Matt. 5:39, 41).
  6. Pursue peace with difficult people (v.18 – If possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone). To “live at peace” is to not “stir the pot.” We do not provoke the difficult person, but instead we seek peaceful resolutions to our differences. Paul was clear that you have a role to play in seeking peace, but the other person will not always be reciprocal.
  7. Trust God to deal with difficult people (v.19 – “Friends, do not avenge yourselves; instead, leave room for God’s wrath, because it is written, Vengeance belongs to me; I will repay, says the Lord”). This is perhaps one of the greatest of these eight commands. In the end, God will avenge you. He cannot tolerate the evil behavior of people, and because he is a God of justice, you can leave your difficult situation with him. Move on. Let the past stay in the past.
  8. Act kindly towards difficult people (v.20 – “If your enemy is hungry, feed him. If he is thirsty, give him something to drink. For in so doing you will be heaping fiery coals upon his head”). Although commentators do not always agree about the exact meaning of the phrase “heap burning coals,” there is general agreement that it refers to creating burning pangs of shame on the part of the difficult person. Earlier in Romans, Paul wrote, “The kindness of God leads you to repentance”(Romans 2:4). Acts of kindness towards a difficult person may have the end result of turning an enemy into a friend.

Who is the difficult person in your life or ministry? You cannot do much about the way they treat you, but you can follow these 8 commands and leave room for God’s Spirit to work in the heart of the other person. Billy Graham once said, “Suffering is part of the human condition and it comes to us all.  The key is how we react to it, either turning away from God in anger and bitterness or growing closer to Him in trust and confidence.”

I recently practiced all 8 of these with an angry woman I knew through my church. Unfortunately neither she nor others from the church recognized my efforts to follow these biblical instructions. Their lack of knowledge about the Scriptures was extremely disappointing, but I left with a clear conscience that I’d done all I could to seek peace. Today, God has blessed me tremendously since that time. I am a walking testimony of how following God’s Word leads puts you in a posture that is pleasing to him. I continue to pray for this angry, bitter woman, and I wonder how many of you must have someone in your life and/or ministry that is your difficult person? Follow Paul’s commands for dealing with difficult people, trust the Lord to handle the situation, and be blessed as you follow God’s will as seen here in Romans 12:14-21.

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