Whether they’re family or strangers, some people can be harder to deal with than others. Thankfully, the Bible has plenty to say on dealing with difficult people.
Even though the Bible never uses the phrase difficult people, it sure talks a lot about them. The worst of them it divides into two broad camps:
Enemies and fools.
Enemies are people who are opposed to and hostile toward us. Fools include people who are opposed to and hostile toward God, and who can be immune to reason.
Now, to be clear, not every unpleasant or demanding person in our life is automatically an enemy or a fool, and it would be a terrible idea to operate on that assumption. But enemies and fools are absolutely difficult people. By examining what the Bible has to say about these two groups, we can extract some valuable principles about how to deal with difficult people in general.
(Plus, it helps us make sure we’re not being a difficult person ourselves.)
1. Listen more; talk less.
But first, let’s examine a general piece of advice given to us by the apostle James: “So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath; for the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:19-20).
While that’s important to keep in mind during any social interaction, it’s especially important when we encounter difficult people.
It’s easy to get angry when we’re interacting with people who see the world differently than we do, but that wrath doesn’t accomplish anything. It certainly doesn’t cultivate “the righteousness of God” within us, and getting angry usually just makes things worse: “A soft answer turns away wrath,” wrote Solomon, “but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1).
Knowing that, James told us to be “swift to hear.” It’s easy to assume we know where the other person is coming from, but people are complicated creatures. There are layers to everyone’s motivations, and if we take the time to listen and ask questions instead of jumping to conclusions, we might at least begin to understand why a person is being difficult.
This step requires us to both exercise patience and shift our focus from what’s bothering us to what’s bothering someone else. We might not agree with the other person’s viewpoints, but we don’t need to. Understanding is the ideal takeaway from this step.
2. Look for ways to help.
Once we have that understanding, Solomon shows us what to do with it: “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink; for so you will heap coals of fire on his head, and the LORD will reward you” (Proverbs 25:21-22).
There’s a lot of debate about what is meant by “coals of fire” here—shame, indignation, judgment, divine retribution—but the main point here is that our job is to show kindness. It’s not about getting even or finding an opportunity to verbally lash out at difficult people, but about understanding how we can help and then helping.
It’s a principle Jesus emphasized during His earthly ministry: “But I say to you who hear: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who spitefully use you. … And just as you want men to do to you, you also do to them likewise” (Luke 6:27-28, 31).
Paul echoed that thought in his letter to the Romans. After reminding them to “repay no one evil for evil” (Romans 12:17) and to leave the act of vengeance in the hands of God (verse 19), he quoted Solomon’s proverb about feeding our enemies and concluded, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (verse 21).
It’s not about how we feel difficult people should be treated. It’s about treating everyone the way God wants us to treat them. Even if our kindness doesn’t turn our enemies into friends, it helps us to approach difficult situations with the right attitude and mind-set. (See more about this in our article “The Way of Peace.”)
3. Don’t try to win.
The easiest error to make when dealing with difficult people is approaching each interaction as if it’s a battle we need to win.
The easiest error to make when dealing with difficult people is approaching each interaction as if it’s a battle we need to win.It’s a hard instinct to shake. When we believe we’re in the right, it’s easy to want to force the other person to acknowledge it—to present logic so unassailable, or a remark so clever and cutting, that our opponent is left speechless, humbled and defeated.
But that’s not how life works.
Solomon, the wisest king who ever lived, wrote a lot about fools—people who are always “right in [their] own eyes” (Proverbs 12:15), whose mouth “pours forth foolishness” (15:2) and who “despise wisdom and instruction” (1:7).
Dealing with difficult people means not trying to win. Solomon also wrote, “If a wise man contends with a foolish man, whether the fool rages or laughs, there is no peace” (Proverbs 29:9), and, “Go from the presence of a foolish man, when you do not perceive in him the lips of knowledge” (Proverbs 14:7).
While it’s unfair (and, honestly, foolish) to classify every difficult person as a fool, there’s an important principle in Solomon’s warnings:
In general, don’t try to win. Our goal in dealing with challenging people should not be to strong-arm them into admitting defeat, because more often than not, trying to win is more than ill-advised—it’s impossible. There’s no sense entrenching ourselves in verbal conflicts where neither side is willing to budge. Better to move on from the encounter as quickly and as quietly as possible—even if that means being seen as the loser.
4. Don’t compromise.
Of course, sometimes the stakes are higher than that. Throughout history, difficult people have tried to force God’s people to compromise or recant their beliefs. In these circumstances, there’s no quick and quiet end to the encounter.
When Nebuchadnezzar ordered Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-Nego to bow down to his idol, they began their reply with, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter” (Daniel 3:16). When the council ordered the apostles to stop preaching about Jesus Christ, they began their reply with, “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-Nego weren’t trying to convince Nebuchadnezzar that they were doing the right thing. The apostles weren’t trying to debate the council. Both groups of God’s people simply answered, “I’m not going to do that, and here’s why”—and then held their ground, regardless of the penalty.
Sometimes difficult people in positions of authority will ask us to compromise our relationship with God too. They’ll ask us to work on the Sabbath. They’ll ask us to lie or steal. They’ll ask us to do other things God commands us not to do.
When that happens, there’s still no point in trying to win a debate—but these are the moments when we need to respectfully explain our position and refuse to budge, come what may.
5. Get personal.
When we talk about dealing with difficult people, the implication is usually that the difficult person is—well, someone else.
If only it were that simple. But in any given situation, it’s entirely possible that we’re the difficult person. Or one of the difficult people. Life is complicated like that—there are degrees of difficulty, and situations aren’t just limited to one person being the problem.
Anytime we’re experiencing friction with someone else, it’s always worth asking, “Is it me?”
Is there something I could be doing differently? Am I misunderstanding what the other person is saying or doing? Am I being clear in my own motivations? Am I willing to consider new ways of doing things? Did I come to this interaction with any preconceived ideas that are getting in the way?
True Christianity requires continual self-examination and course correction (James 1:22-25). It’s never comfortable, but it’s a huge part of what enables us to follow in Christ’s footsteps. The more we come to understand the ways we can be difficult people, the more we can do to make sure others have an easier time interacting with us.
A place to start with difficult people
There’s no one-size-fits-all solution for dealing with difficult people, but this handful of principles should give us a place to start. There’s never a time to compromise our faith, but when it comes to less important battlefields, there’s plenty we can do to make everyone’s life a little easier. Be swift to hear. Tend to the needs of our enemies. Don’t make it about winning. Make sure we’re not contributing to the problem.
And if our faith is on the line, we must plant our feet and do the right thing.
If you’d like to suggest a topic for future editions of “Christianity in Progress,” you can do so anonymously at lifehopeandtruth.com/ideas. We look forward to your suggestions!
Note: Thanks to the many ministers with years of counseling experience who gave their input!