By Simon Presland
A twig of a lady, Tracey* smiles generously whenever she greets someone in the halls of our church. After she started attending, my wife, Trish, and I soon noticed her helping to prepare communion. Then we found her on Monday evenings, ready to give food and snacks to the hungry students who attend Bible college. The next thing we knew, she was handing out bulletins on Sunday mornings.
It was obvious that Tracey loved to serve. By all appearances she was becoming a great benefit to our congregation. But we also found out that Tracey has a prickly side. Easily offended, she ran to our pastors anytime she thought someone was the least bit unkind to her. She was fiercely protective of her church duties and would only grudgingly allow someone to help her, and only if a leader had directed that person to do so. Tracey was a difficult person to work with, and it wasn’t long before some people started shunning her, some gossiped, and others became openly hostile.
Not wanting to see her hurt and potentially leave the church, but realizing she could not continue offending others, our pastors asked Trish and I if we would mentor Tracey. In the days and weeks that followed, God not only changed Tracey, he also taught us some valuable lessons about dealing with difficult people.
Jesus dealt with difficult people all the time. How did he handle it? As we talked about this situation, Trish and I were reminded of Luke 19:1-10, the story of Zacchaeus. A tax collector, he was a societal outcast and certainly had a harsh, unfeeling side.
Jesus found Zacchaeus up in a tree, where he had climbed to get a better look at the visiting rabbi. Jesus’ first words to him were, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today” (v. 5). Even though tax collectors were notorious for confiscating more money than just the taxes that were due, Jesus didn’t begin by confronting Zacchaeus over his actions. He simply befriended Zacchaeus. In Jesus’ day, going to someone’s house meant acceptance of the person, not necessarily of their lifestyle. Jesus’ actions spoke of the unconditional love he had for all people.
This story showed Trish and me what our first step should be in dealing with Tracey. While we had always been friendly toward her, we needed to go out of our way to get to know her. So we began taking her out to lunch on Sundays after church. While enjoying our meals, Tracey confided to us that she had a hearing problem caused by beatings she had received at the hands of her ex-husband. Many times she only heard partial conversations and didn’t realize when she was raising her voice. She also had other health-related problems, and the medications she took affected her moods. These and other things she told us caused Trish and me to have greater compassion and understanding toward Tracey.
Jesus proclaimed: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9). It is interesting to note that he didn’t call us to be keepers but makers of peace. In my view, one cannot make peace without resolving an issue. Resolution often requires confrontation—something most of us loathe. But if our goal is to make peace, then we will approach confrontations with an objective mindset. Trish and I took this approach with Tracey. We wanted to help Tracey understand how her behaviors were affecting other church members without being accusatory.
As our lunchtime conversations progressed, Tracey let us know that she grew up in a home where no one protected her. As a child she was picked on because she was so slight. As an adult she was bullied by coworkers. At church she felt she couldn’t stand up for herself, so she went to our pastors with any problems so that she would feel protected. This gave us the opportunity to explain that handling her issues that way caused friction with others.
We could then speak the truth in love according to Ephesians 4:15. We were able to connect her feelings of helplessness as a child to present-day conflicts. This helped her realize that she had been living out of her past. We let her know that it was OK to speak up for herself and that others would listen if she didn’t become defensive and lash out. Tracey realized that if she explained that she was hard of hearing and had to read lips, then people would be more patient. She agreed to try to talk through any issues on her own before seeking help from the church leadership. These were huge steps.
A Bigger Picture
When dealing with difficult people, it is easy to get caught up in emotions. We get frustrated at the lack of consideration we perceive in others. But as with Tracey there are always underlying reasons for people’s actions. While we should not let others get away with inappropriate behavior, we need to ask God for wisdom before attempting to handle such situations. James 3 tells us that God will grant wisdom to all who ask with right motives.
If you’re dealing with a difficult person and you want to resolve an issue, keep the end in mind: What action do you want to see changed? How will your relationship with the person be affected? If the person reacts poorly, how will you respond? Planning ahead will help keep your emotions in check. Our natural instinct when dealing with difficult people is to defend ourselves and attack the other person. However, Philippians 2:3 reminds us: “Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself.” When we approach someone with a mindset of trying to understand where they are coming from, it will help us to know what to say and how to say it.
Before our lunch with Tracey, Trish and I had decided we wanted to help her understand what God was doing to bring healing to her life. Over dessert we explained that our outward reactions are caused by how we feel, negative or positive. When someone irritates us, God could be showing us something about ourselves. For example, when others are chronically late God may be helping us to overcome impatience. “We need to look at our own actions,” Trish told Tracey, “or we make the other person the sole source of the problem, which is rarely the case.”
While putting on our coats, we let Tracey know how much we appreciated her heart for serving others. “Thanks,” she replied. “People rarely take the time to get to know me or help me to understand circumstances and situations.”
Today Tracey continues her roles in church with her ever-present smile. She’s learning to talk through difficulties, something those who work with her appreciate. When a situation arises that she doesn’t know how to handle, Tracey discusses it with Trish and me. She listens and is willing to take responsibility for her actions. We are watching her grow in Christlikeness, something God wants for all of us.
Simon Presland is a freelance writer in Clinton Township, Michigan.
* Name has been changed.