Dealing With Difficult People, Part 1

“But Jesus did not trust Himself to them . . . for He Himself knew what was in man.” John 2:24-25

These words come after Jesus’ first visit to Jerusalem for the Passover. After performing some signs (John’s word for miracles) some people believed in Jesus, but apparently their faith was based solely on the signs and not on the person. In return for this shallow faith, Jesus literally did not have faith (this is the Greek word behind the translation “trust”) in them. This is an important phrase. In other words, Jesus knew people could be shallow and fickle. He was not surprised when they acted according to their nature. Thus, He “knew what was in man.”

But He never gave up on anyone. He never stopped working to bring out the best in man. He told the parable of a father’s love for a prodigal son. He accepted Peter after his denials. He called Paul to be an apostle even after he persecuted the church. Jesus went to a cross because in addition to knowing how bad our fallen nature could be, He also knew how sublime our redeemed nature could be. He died to make that possible, and lives to bring it to the surface of our lives. Repeatedly.

You also, in part, “know what is in man.” Think about it. Your difficult person may have done some genuinely bad things. People tend to do that. They have disappointed you. They have not returned your love. In fact, they may have returned curses for your love! Here is the point: you cannot be surprised when people act according to their lower instincts. We all do it regularly. It is in our nature at times to be irritable, dishonest, arrogant, etc. What is your response?

The passage above teaches us that while Jesus was never surprised by what we are capable of, He was also never disillusioned by people, and that is our goal. We must not trust everyone. Even Jesus did not do that! However, you are expected to love everyone, and you can do that through the power of Christ in you.

As in all matters, your response to challenging and difficult people is far more important than changing the challenging and difficult person. Your mission is not to change anyone, but simply be an agent of God’s grace. Trusting the person to God protects you, and is, in fact, the only reasonable response. When I am mentally wrestling with someone, wishing they would change, expecting them to change, telling other people how they should change, I am burning up a lot of energy. I’m much more at peace when I accept (not approve or endorse behavior) the fact that difficult people are part of life, and trust that grace will lead me home.

The Paradoxical Commandments were originally written by Kent Keith and several versions circulate today. They outline very nicely a grace-filled response when dealing with difficult people:

People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered. Forgive them anyway.

If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Be kind anyway.

If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies. Succeed anyway.

If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you. Be honest and sincere anyway.

What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight. Create anyway.

If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous. Be happy anyway.

The good you do today, will often be forgotten. Do good anyway.

Give the best you have, and it will never be enough. Give your best anyway.

In the final analysis, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.

Here are our takeaways: Do not be disillusioned to the point of despair. The residue of our fallen human nature can make for very prickly relationships. Cultivate a gracious love, but try not to be naïve about our shared ability to be prickly. We’re all normal until you get to us, and we can hurt each other badly. One Man gave His life for all us difficult people. Don’t try to be the second. Boundaries are essential, and you’re not the Son of God.


Dr. Terry Ellis
August 30, 2015

1 Comment
  1. Thanks for posting Terry, I strive to love everyone but I fall short daily. This is a progress not perfection point in my life.