Do you have difficult people in your life? Do you have people who have negative character traits that make it difficult to be around them?
Conventional wisdom says avoid difficult people, hurt them, or hold them in contempt. Pass judgment on them as inferior. Look down on them. Want them to hurt.
Jesus says, “There’s a better way.” Jesus provides wisdom on how to respond to these people in a healthy way. That’s what we’ll talk about this Sunday.
- I will give up trying to fix people.
- I will love people as is.
- I will reflect on the apostle Paul’s words about critics.
- I will not give to another person the power to determine my mood.
- I will pray for the difficult people in my life.
Full Sermon Script
Hi I’m Matt VanCleave, one of the pastors at Blue Oaks.
If you’re just joining us in this series, you couldn’t have picked a better week. We have two more weeks in this series, and we’re going to look at two parts on how to deal with the difficult people in our lives. If we’re going to live at peace with one another, undivided, we’re going to have to learn how to deal with difficult people.
John Ortberg wrote a book with a great title, “Everybody’s Normal Till You Get To Know Them.”
This is what he writes:
In many stores, you can often find a section of merchandise where you can get a great deal on stuff. And the tip off is a particular tag that you’ll see on all the items in that area. Every tag carries the same words, “as is.”
This is a euphemistic way of saying, “These are damaged goods.” Sometimes they’re called “slightly irregular.” It’s part of truth in advertising.
It’s the store’s way of saying, “You’re going to find a flaw here – a stain that won’t come out, a zipper that won’t zip, a button that won’t work. We’re not going to tell you where the flaw is. You’ll have to look for it, but we know it’s there.
So when you find it – and you will find it – don’t come whining and sniffling to us about it. You won’t get any refunds, exchanges, or sympathies. Don’t expect perfection – not in this part of the store. You have received fair warning. If you want this item, there’s only one way to obtain it. You must take it “as is.”
And I was thinking this week – what if there was a truth-in-advertising law for people?
If you’re single, what if dating services or single’s websites or single’s church groups required everyone to wear a sign: “Slightly bruised self esteem,” or, “Mildly impaired ability to commit,” or, “Total wacko. Run for your life.”
If there was a truth in advertising law for people, would anyone ever get married?
If you’re sitting with someone, take a look at them for a minute. That person is slightly irregular. There’s a tag on that person that reads, “As is. Don’t expect perfection, not in this part of the store. There’s a flaw here. When you find it – and you will find it – don’t be shocked. No refunds.”
The reason I mention this, of course, is that this week and in the weeks to come, with the holiday season here, you and I are going to gather around the table with extended family members.
And there’s a real good chance that one of them might have some flaws. You may have a difficult relationship there. Or you may have one with a neighbor or someone you work with.
Author Les Parrot gives indicators that you might be in what he calls a “high-maintenance relationship.”
Let me run through a few of those indicators. Just see if you can identify if you have any high-maintenance relationships in your life.
Number one: You feel less energy.
After being around high maintenance people you feel drained or guilty or defeated. You just come away feeling emotionally depleted.
Number two: You become self-critical.
When you’re with a high-maintenance person you become more self-critical. You often find yourself judging yourself. You feel kind of condemned. You feel more self-doubt.
Number three: You get anxious.
You experience anxiety or irritation when you hear their voice. You get a voicemail and just hearing their voice makes you anxious. You don’t want to return the phone call. You start thinking of all the excuses for why you didn’t return their call.
Number four: You have imaginary conversations.
You find yourself holding imaginary conversations with them when they’re not around – the things you’d love to have out in the open that are not in the open.
Number five: You avoid.
You find yourself going out of your way to avoid these people.
And maybe after being with this person, you sometimes find yourself wanting to engage in negative escapist types of behavior, like drinking too much or eating a box of chocolates or listening to Country music.
Can you think of at least one person, maybe at work, maybe who’s going to be sitting around the table this week, who ought to wear a sign, “slightly irregular”?
Now, the writers of Scripture have quite a lot to say about relational wisdom. In fact, some of Jesus’ most famous sayings, and some of his most misunderstood sayings, are about difficult relationships.
For instance, Jesus says in Matthew 5, verse 40:
If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.
I want to say a word about these sayings, because it’s very important that we understand the nature of Jesus’ teaching. In statements like these, Jesus is not giving rules or laws.
As a master teacher, what he’s doing is contrasting life in the kingdom of God with what might be called conventional wisdom about human relationships – the way people just reflexively respond to each other.
I’ll give you an example of this kind of thing. This is found in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 14. Jesus is at a dinner and he sees people jockeying around for status and position.
This is what he says:
Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed.”
So Jesus clearly teaches – we should not have our relatives over for dinner.
Some of you have been searching for this verse your whole life.
You’re so happy to know this is biblical. You’re ready to pick up the phone and call your relatives right now, “Sorry, Jesus says you can’t come to my house for dinner. Luke 14:12. It’s right there.”
Now, is Jesus really teaching here that it’s a sin to have your relatives over for dinner?
As much as we might like to believe that, that’s not what Jesus is teaching.
What Jesus is doing is contrasting conventional human wisdom with life in the kingdom of God.
Conventional human wisdom says, “If you’re going to do something good for someone, make sure it’s someone who’s strategic. Make sure it’s someone who can pay you back. Make sure it’s someone who can do you good.” That’s conventional human wisdom. “You scratch my back. I’ll scratch your back.”
Jesus is saying, “Life in the kingdom of God is now through him, his presence on earth, his teachings, his life and death and resurrection, available to all people. In the kingdom of God, life doesn’t work like conventional wisdom. In the kingdom of God sometimes people do wonderful things for other people for no strategic reason at all. They’re just generous.”
Jesus says, “There’s another way now – a better way to live than conventional human wisdom. Sometimes do something for someone that can’t pay you back.”
And he does this by way of illustration, mentioning some people in his day – the poor and the disabled who would have no way to pay back the host for such a banquet.
It’s just a way of giving a picture of what life is like in the kingdom.
He’s not saying, “You can never fix a meal for your relatives.”
He’s contrasting the way things normally run in this fallen world with another way, a better way.
When he says in Matthew 5, “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also,” Jesus is not giving a law here. He is not saying that you must let anyone who wants to hurt you keep hurting you.
He’s contrasting it with conventional human wisdom, which is known by any four-year-old and goes like this, “You hit me. I’ll hit you back. You hurt me. I’ll hurt you back. You inflict pain on me, I’ll try to make you feel worse pain.”
And, of course, we live in a world where you read the news any given day, and you see that law at work in any part of the world – year after year, century after century.
Jesus says, “Now there’s another way to live. There’s a better way to live. You don’t have to live in the law of ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ Now forgiveness and mercy and grace are a real possibility in human relationships. There’s another way.”
Jesus says, “It’s a real good thing that you have some difficult people in your life, because they’ll teach you the real condition of your heart.”
He said later in Matthew 5:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven…
If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?
He’s saying, “It’s no surprise when someone is able to love people that love them back, but the real test is what do you do with the difficult person?”
Conventional human wisdom says avoid them or hurt them or, at least inside, hold them in contempt. Pass judgment on them as an inferior being. Look down on them. Want them to hurt.
Jesus says, “Now there’s a better way. There’s a new possibility with God’s help.” It will take judgment and discernment. It’s not always simple. There are not always mechanical rules to cover every situation. But it’s a way of love. Loving people “as is.”
What I want to do now is walk through two categories of difficult people. We’ll look at two this week and two next week.
I’ll describe these categories of difficult people, and I want to ask you to think: Do you have anyone that fits this category in your life, and how can you get a handle on another way – on a better way of dealing with them – something that transcends conventional human wisdom?
Okay, the first profile I want to talk about is the
A lot of you have someone like this in your life.
If you have a critic in your world, you sometimes feel like your life is a movie and it’s his job to give you a thumbs up or thumbs down.
The critic tends to be a perfectionist, on the lookout for flaws.
And it’s not just that the critic has high standards, it’s almost as if he wants you to fall short so he can point it out.
Now, when I was growing up my mom had a high standard of cleanliness. She would clean the floor on her hands and knees with bleach a couple times a week.
As we got older we were given chores and whoever had the chore of cleaning the floor, often me, would be subject to my moms critique of the work. She would often walk around the floor pointing out any smudge or speck of dust that was missed.
Now, my mom was, and is, a terrific person.
But critics have a way of doing this. They like to walk around pointing out – “There’s something wrong. There’s something wrong.”
And what’s so painful about that is not just that they have high standards. What’s painful about it is, generally, with a critic, you get the feeling that this is someone who wants you to fall short so that they can experience the joy of correcting you, pointing out where you’ve fallen down.
What’s so hard about the critic is you get the sense that they’re not for you. They’re not trying to breathe life into you and build you up. They have this kind of smug arrogance to them, where they enjoy pointing out flaws and shortcomings.
Interestingly, according to research, the critic is the number one most frequent difficult relationship.
And amazingly enough, although Jesus was perfect, he got lots of criticism in his day.
He was called a glutton.
He was called a drunkard.
He was criticized for the people that he hung out with.
He was called a friend of sinners.
He was attacked with racial slurs.
He was called a half-breed.
He was called a blasphemer.
Now if Jesus went through his life and never sinned, was perfect the whole way through, and still was criticized, what in the world makes us think we’re going to get through life without critics?
But there’s something inside of us that can be so sensitive to being criticized.
You know, the Apostle Paul was criticized. He wrote a letter to the Church at Corinth, and he noted that there were people there who said:
“His letters are weighty and forceful, but in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing.”
2 Corinthians 10:10
That’s what some people were saying about Paul.
In the face of this kind of criticism, Paul made this amazing statement, and maybe these words need to be your words this week. Paul said:
I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself.
1 Corinthians 4:3
Paul says to his critics, “You will make evaluations of me, I know. And I care some, but not much.”
He doesn’t say, “I care nothing if you judge me.” He says, “I care very little.”
“I’ll try to learn from what you say,” Paul says. “It matters some, but not much. Ultimately, I will not give to another human being the power to determine my worth. I don’t dare even do that for myself. That’s in God’s hands. And God already pronounced that one. God says I’m worth the life of his Son. God says I’m his child. So I’ll listen and I’ll learn as best I can, but I don’t want to expend useless energy trying to defend myself to you. And I will not have my energy for life crushed by you. I will not give you the power to determine my worth. That’s in God’s hands.”
Now, you may be living with a critic. And you may need to learn from that person whatever you can.
But you need to remember, we all have a little critic inside of us.
We all like to point stuff out to other people every once in a while, so show appropriate grace, because you’ve got some of that in you, and so do I in me.
But most of all, make this week an exercise in living in freedom as someone whose worth has been declared by God.
Make Paul’s words your words this week. “I care some, but not much, if I’m judged by you or any human court. I don’t even judge myself. Judgment is in God’s hands.” That’s the best way to live with a critic.
The second profile of someone who can be difficult is what might be called the
The wet blanket is marked by a consistent attitude of pessimism. This robs him of energy and enthusiasm. The wet blanket is rarely motivated towards growth or achievement or excitement or enthusiasm. There’s very little spark of life in this person.
But it doesn’t just affect this person’s life. The wet blanket often seems to have a need to dampen enthusiasm in other people.
Imagine you have two blankets. One of them is dry and one of them is wet. You put a soaking wet blanket next to a dry blanket in the linen closet, come back a few hours later. What do you have? Two wet blankets.
There’s been remarkable research done on how contagious moods are. You put one person like this in a group and it just spreads.
You put one person like this around the table. The mood of the whole table goes South.
You may need to hear the words from Paul.
The Apostle Paul, sitting in prison, had some people like this in his life. He’s writing to the Church at Philippi. He’s in chains and he said:
It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry but others out of goodwill… The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains.
Paul had some wet blankets in his life. But Paul’s motto and his basic command to the church at Philippi that he repeats over and over again is this:
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!
Paul makes a real deep decision. And maybe you need to make this decision. You need to do it this week. “I will not give to another person the power to determine my mood. I just won’t do it.”
The command is real clear: “Rejoice in the Lord always.”
Now, you really can choose: Who do you want to catch a mood from? From this man Jesus, who was, and is, radiantly filled with life and joy; or from someone who has a chronic spirit of negativity and defeat? That’s really your call.
Maybe you need to make these words of Paul’s your words this week: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!”
Well, these are two of the most common types of irregular, “as is,” difficult relationships. We’ll look at two more next week.
Now, my guess is, you have one of these people in your life. If you don’t, you will.
Part of what’s really painful about this is not only do I have some of these people in my life, but sometimes, I’m the difficult person in someone else’s life. Sometimes, I’m the difficult person. I know that about me. And that’s true of you, too.
You see, from God’s point of view, people look different than they do, often, to you and me. God doesn’t divide the human race up into two categories.
God doesn’t look down on this earth and say, “Well, there are the healthy and sound people that I enjoy being with like you and me. And then, there are the sick ones over there.” God doesn’t divvy it up that way.
He just sees a whole lot of people all in the same boat. Children that he loves, that he made in his image, who are now fallen and broken and junked up by sin, and a world that damages people – that’s what God sees.
But God has this restless longing that no one should end up in that boat. God wants human beings redeemed and reclaimed. And a part of being redeemed and reclaimed is wanting that for other people, including difficult people – especially difficult people.
God is a master at loving people “as is,” and wants his people to be the same way.
In the time we have left I want to talk about a gift we need to give to all people, but especially the difficult people in our lives.
And it’s the gift of Prayer.
Jesus said in his famous Sermon on the Mount about difficult relationships:
Pray for those who persecute you.
Pray for those who persecute you.
Pray for those who hurt you.
Pray for those who wound you.
Pray for those who say bad things to you and about you.
Pray for those who cause you trouble.
Pray for those people that you can hardly even tolerate – that you don’t admire.
Pray for them.
How are you doing with that one?
I’ll tell you why this is so important. When there are people I know that are troubled people – I see bad habits or patterns in their lives – my desire is I want to fix them.
And I often have, what I think, are wonderful ideas about how to do that.
The truth is, I can’t fix anyone. I can’t change anyone. And it’s a very good thing that I can’t, because if I had that kind of power over another person, I would do very serious damage to them.
I can’t be trusted with that kind of power, and neither can you, and God knows that.
Now I’m not saying don’t say hard things at times when you need to. I’m saying give up trying to fix them.
God has placed a key to every human heart in the hands of every human being. And if you’re real clever with people, and you may be, you may be able to control people or manipulate them or coerce them or flatter them.
You may be able to get behavioral compliance, but you can’t control someone’s heart. That door is only opened from the inside.
You can’t change anyone. Only God can do that. And God, himself, will not do that unless that person asks him to – unless that person allows it.
Therefore, the single most important thing you can do for someone, especially for a difficult someone, is pray.
Jesus had one of the most amazing conversations in human history with his friend Peter, just before Jesus died.
Jesus knew Peter was weak. He was about to deny him. So Jesus said these words in Luke 22:
Peter, Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat.
That is, “You’re going to be tempted and you’re going to fall short.” And then, Jesus says this:
But I have prayed for you, Peter, that your faith may not fail.
This is an amazing thing. Jesus himself, the Son of God, when he sees his closest friend about to make the greatest mistake in his life, he doesn’t fix him – doesn’t try to control him, doesn’t use condemnation or shame or a long lecture, doesn’t use supernatural power to rewire Peter’s brain.
He loves Peter. He deeply wants Peter to make the right choice. But he steps back and allows Peter the freedom to succeed or fail on his own. And this one thing is the main thing Jesus does – “I have prayed for you.”
Now, if Jesus, the Son of God, doesn’t fix Peter, what in the world makes us think we can fix the troubled people in our lives? We can’t.
And sometimes that’s so painful with your children or your spouse or someone you’ve known a long time. You can’t fix them.
The single most important thing you can do is pray for them. So do that.
“Especially,” Jesus says, “pray for those who persecute you.” Because when you do that, not only does that set in motion God’s work in that person’s life, but something also happens to you.
It’s real hard to hang on to bitterness and resentment and hostility and judgment towards someone that you’re authentically praying for. It’s just real hard to hold both of those things in the human heart.
If you have anyone difficult in your life, the best thing you can do for them is pray for them.
You have difficult people in your life. Everyone does.
Pray for them. Learn to be patient. Learn to give up your obsession with fixing them and changing them. And learn to see beyond the difficulty.
Blue Oaks Church