When I first began writing this article, I had a specific person in mind—someone whose behavior was extremely . . . inspiring.
But since then I’ve moved in with a friend. Sharing her space has brought new insights—among them, the fact that I’m not as easy to get along with as I had thought when I lived alone.
Still, I like to think I’m fairly affable and people-skilled, with courtesy and respect as default positions. Sometimes, however, certain individuals rub me the wrong way. At those times I’m sure it’s not me; it’s them.
Dealing with difficult people can try even the wisest of us. After all, Israel’s King Solomon had occasion to observe, “As . . . wood to fire; so is a quarrelsome person for kindling strife” (Prov. 26:21, NRSV). And one wonders what scenarios prompted comparisons of “one who boasts of a gift never given” to clouds and wind without rain, or an unfaithful person in a crisis to “a bad tooth or a lame foot” (Prov. 25:14, 19).
If interpersonal relationships challenged even Solomon’s renowned wisdom, what about the rest of us? We may sometimes indulge in revenge fantasies, but as Christians we’re called to exhibit grace and love.
A few years ago I had a colleague, “Kent,” who was self-centered, abrasive, and apparently oblivious. I finally had to seek counseling from a pastor friend to avoid a bitter confrontation with him.
I wasn’t just angry with Kent’s behavior, I told my friend; I was worried about its effect on his work relationships and on his ministry. I wondered if I should speak to him about his relational flaws—for his own good.
My friend’s advice was sage. He said if I really wanted to confront Kent, I probably shouldn’t. But if I really didn’t want to, I probably should.
When people behave badly, a powerful impulse is to rebuke them. There are times for that, but consult the Holy Spirit for the schedule; rebukes aren’t required as often as we sometimes think.
Believers are cautioned to be “quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19-20). We are to bless those who persecute us, manage our pride, and make every effort to “live at peace with everyone” (Rom. 12:14-18).
Along with resisting the tendency to nurse anger, we are to actively pursue peace. That often means ignoring offenses and letting go of anger, even when it’s justified.
Being angry is passive, but peacemaking is active, progressive. It redirects our energy toward godly goals.
Marriage and family therapist Jim Hurley of Reformed Theological Seminary says some who find peacemaking difficult because of anger may be laboring under a faulty definition of forgiveness. “God commands forgiveness,” Hurley notes, “so failing to forgive is disobedience. However, God exhibits anger, so anger is not inherently sinful.”
In fact, Hurley points out, anger can be useful in alerting a person to a threat or blocked goal. “It is important to pay attention to our anger, but also to how we act on it,” he says, “because that’s where sin can occur, especially if our focus is revenge.”
“After you’ve been wronged,” he adds, “you may justifiably desire vengeance. But forgiveness is not ridding yourself of anger; forgiveness is giving up your ‘right’ to revenge.”
God makes it clear that vengeance is his purview, while our job is to extend forgiveness and grace, showing kindness even to our enemies. Thus we “leave room for God’s wrath” and “overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:19-21).
In the end, we should try to view fractious people as opponents of a common adversary, the devil—the true enemy of peace and unity.
Offering forgiveness and grace to difficult people may seem like a lot to ask, but the Holy Spirit provides more than sufficient resources, and we cannot forget what Christ has done for us.
Also, it pays to remember—we are doubtless on some other folks’ hard-to-handle lists.