One of the more popular psychology magazines posted ten practical ideas for dealing with difficult people. The middle of the list was simple, direct, and to the point. They advised avoidance as a way to reduce interaction with individuals known to influence us negatively. Of course, the basic presupposition of their contemporary approach to relationships is egocentric. How other people affect the unholy trinity of me, myself and I is the center point of such advice. How we might influence others doesn't fit that model. Preserving self-worth is the ruling sentiment in a system that puts the troubling people on a shelf. And, that's basically antithesis to what it means to be a disciple. Jesus said self-denial is the first step of following him (see Luke 9:23).
If avoidance is the real deal, then we'll just all move into a closet. The truth is difficult people inhabit the world around us. We live with some of them, work with them, drive beside or behind them on the daily commute, stand in line with them at the big box store, and sit beside them in church every Sunday. A few of us are among them as well, our human condition being the right stuff for saying or doing the wrong thing. Every one of us has the capacity for oddness, behavioral twitches, half-baked opinions, and the menace of the times, fake news. It might be good to remember that avoidance is one of the criticisms the world aims at church people right now. One of our neighbors, an ultra-liberal free thinking atheist asked me how things were up in the Baptist bubble. She viewed Christians as elite separatists not willing to engage or interact with real people like her. I usually hid in the bathroom when I saw her coming. Not really!
Being in the world and not of it was a central thought in the high priestly prayer of Jesus recorded in John 17. Certainly being salt and light in our broken world supposed our presence in it. As a result, isolation should never be our prime option for dealing with the unusual people around us. In my mind biblical standards for engagement should guide our response to the difficult people who challenge and perplex us. The trouble is, these standards are spiritually discerned, and are anathema to our human systems of response. Rather than avoid difficult people, we should---
1. Be prepared to respond to them biblically.
This will require some measure of Christian virtue in our own lives. Paul wrote to the Colossians---
Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness,
humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a
complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you
also must forgive.
Colossians 3: 12-13, ESV
2. Pray for the difficult people in our lives.
This isn't some strange, unknown spiritual mystery, our prayers for the people in our lives. Scripture admonishes us to pray without ceasing, and doesn't provide an out for our prayers for troublesome people. Again, Paul wrote---
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be
made for all people.
1 Timothy 2: 1, ESV
3. Encourage them.
There were difficult people and situations and life circumstances in the first century too. The New Testament earmarks encouragement as a basic interaction with others. To the Thessalonians Paul wrote---
Therefore encourage one another and build each other up...
1 Thessalonians 5: 11, ESV
We'll never know how a kind word or action will register with those who are creating tremors in our lives.
4. Be gracious.
Yes, we all have a bad day in us. Words and actions defined by a gracious spirit communicate the heart of Christ to people who are troubled or thought to be trapped by life circumstances. Paul reminded the Ephesians---
Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up,
as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.
Ephesians 4: 29, ESV
5. Make the most of your time with them.
Rather than avoid difficult people, encounter them more. It's a broad topic in the Bible, being wise with our time. Another Pauline thought shared with the Ephesians emphasized it---
Making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Ephesians 5: 16, ESV
The days are truly evil. Watch the news telecast one day, or read the newspaper. And, our time in precious, especially the time we are allowed to spend with special people.
The New Testament does instruct avoidance in certain strategic life circumstances, especially people intent on dividing the church or corrupting our faith. Just the same, living in a cloister is not our commission. We are to be prepared to take our faith to the world and people around us, even to the those who have the potential of creating havoc in our lives.