How Would God Have Us Deal with Difficult People?
O Lord God, as I enter Your presence this day, I pray that You would bless me with the presence and power of Your Holy Spirit. Remind me of Your mercy and forgiveness upon which my future depends. Then grant me patience as I deal with my fellow Christians and all with whom I come into contact. As I deal with the difficult people in my life, may I respond to them with humility and grace, so that they might be led to glorify Your name and experience Your blessing. Amen.
Life is seldom easy! Paul, however, informs us that from the very beginning God has chosen us “for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth.” Yes, life is difficult at times, but we are to stand fast in the truths of God rejoicing in His grace and relying upon His help!
The woman at Jacob’s well was not well-respected by her fellow townspeople, but she shared her message about Jesus with those who made her life difficult. They were curious, came to meet Jesus, and were led to believe that He was “the Christ, the Savior of the world.”
Text: Romans 12:17-21
Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men. If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men. Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,”says the Lord. Therefore “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
In Christ Jesus, whose example of humility and service we are to follow, dear fellow redeemed:
We all have to deal with them. We may even be married to one of them. They can be a member of our immediate or extended family. They could be a neighbor living across the street or on the other side of the backyard fence. They might be a co-worker or a boss. They could be the customer on the other side of the counter, or a public official staring at us across the counter. Actually, come to think of it, they could be us, so look in the mirror! To whom am I referring? I am referring to those difficult people with whom we must deal in our lives often on a daily basis.
How do we deal with them? I am afraid that we often do not do very well. We get frustrated, irritated, and then respond accordingly, or we hold everything in and blow off steam at a different time, or a different place, or at a different person. That often makes the situation and our relationships worse. How ought we deal with them? Paul provides us with golden advice.
However, before considering that advice it is important for us to understand one very important fact, which will serve to adjust our attitudes as we approach this subject. Our thematic verse today is Psalm 25:9, “He guides the humble in what is right and teaches them His way.” The important fact that we need to understand is that we are indeed all difficult people from the divine perspective. We all were born in sin and have a corrupted nature. Still God loved us, sent His Son for us, has instilled faith within our hearts, has dealt patiently with us, and has faithfully blessed us and brought us to this day. As we consider then the question, HOW WOULD GOD HAVE US DEAL WITH DIFFICULT PEOPLE, let us do so with that understanding, for it will temper our tendency as we listen to God’s instructions to respond, “Yes, but…!”
Paul begins with this advice: “Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men.” It is our natural tendency to respond to others in kind. You need only think of your children or remember back when you were a child. My mother would regularly intervene in fights between one of my sisters and me. She would ask, “Why did you hit your sister, Paul?” I would inevitably respond, “She hit me first!” Now, that was no doubt true, but it still did not justify my actions either in the sight of God or my mother!
Solomon writes: “Every way of a man is right in his own eyes, but the LORD weighs the hearts” (Prov. 21:2). God knows that when we repay someone evil for evil, we are seldom if ever acting from a pure heart. We are angry and reacting with a natural and sinful response. Paul, however, tells us in Ephesians: “Be angry, and do not sin” (Ephesians 4:26). There is such a thing as righteous anger, but I must confess I have not personally mastered it. Have you? I am convinced that we would be much better off in our relationships to follow the advice Paul offers after his initial admonition—always focus on good not evil!
We are to put the best construction on everything (Luther’s Explanation to the 8th Commandment), even when that is difficult to do. Even should someone take advantage of us, we are still better off putting the best construction on everything, for then we have a clear conscience before God. I have often advised my children and others to remember that what people say and do to you is more often a reflection of their personal circumstances at the moment than it has anything to do with you. Consequently, do not get angry and defensive in response to their words or actions, but rather seek to understand where that person is coming from. Have patience with others who are having a bad day, and often that “soft answer” Solomon’s speak of will indeed “turn away wrath” (Prov. 15:1), and quite often it will bring an apology. Yes, HOW WOULD GOD HAVE US DEAL WITH DIFFICULT PEOPLE? Paul advises us, first of all, always focus on good not evil!
Secondly, he suggests that whenever possible, live peaceably! Paul writes: “If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men.” God recognizes that in this sinful and sin-filled world things do not always go right. Relationships oftentimes become frayed and cannot always be maintained. But God comes to each of us and lays upon us this appropriate burden: “as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men.” We cannot control the thoughts, words, or actions of others, nor are we responsible to God for them. We are, however, asked to control our own thoughts, words, and actions, for which we are responsible to God.
Such control, however, will not be achieved through our own will-power, which often is simply too weak. Rather, we must rely upon the transforming power of our God. Each week after the sermon we hear, we sing—but I am afraid we all too often do not remember—the words of our Offertory taken from the beautiful words of Psalm 51: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10). It is God’s transformative power, which will enable us to overlook the sins of others and live at peace with them. “Love will cover a multitude of sins,” Peter reminds us (cf. 1 Pet. 4:8)…our sins, we pray, as well as those of others!
There is an important ingredient in every relationship that we must consider, however, if we are to live at peace. That ingredient is forgiveness. Sometimes forgiving others is hard, especially when they have hurt us badly. In such instances, Paul reminds us to consider our own relationship with Jesus and His reaction to us. He writes: “If anyone has a complaint against another, even as Christ forgave you, so you also do” (Col. 3:13). Let us never be like the unmerciful servant in Jesus’ parable, who was forgiven so much by his lord, but then failed to forgive his fellow servant and, consequently, lost absolutely everything! HOW WOULD GOD HAVE US DEAL WITH DIFFICULT PEOPLE? Paul advises us, whenever possible, live peaceably with all men!
Thirdly, Paul advises that we do not seek vengeance! He writes: "Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, 'Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,'says the Lord.” It is so very natural for us to want revenge against people who have harmed us, but such an attitude is both unhelpful and unwise. It is unhelpful, because it will only promote further sin. The rather infamous American feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys began shortly after the Civil War and continued for decades as one violence act was followed by another. Such an attitude is also unwise, because it betrays a lack of faith in God and, in fact, exalts man to the place of God! Vengeance of all kinds is the province of God, not of man. When we take vengeance into our own hands, no matter how justified we may feel or make ourselves out to be, we are setting ourselves up in God’s place—we are committing the ultimate act of idolatry for we are claiming something we have no right to claim! We become our own little gods assuming authority which we do not have, nor will ever be given!
Rather than infuriating our neighbor and usurping the authority of our God, let us trust God. He has promised to repay the sins and injustices we experience. It has been said that God’s wheel of justice indeed grinds slowly—so we must be patient, but we can be assured it also grinds exceedingly fine. The Psalmist says, “The LORD looks down from heaven; He sees all the sons of men…. He considers all their works” (Ps. 33:13, 15b). Jesus says, “For every idle word that men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment” (Mt. 12:36). While God assures us that He shows “mercy to thousands, to those who love Me (Him) and keep My (His)commandments,” He also states emphatically that He visits “the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me (Him)” (Ex. 20:5-6). God can and will deal with those who harm us in any way much more effectively than we could ever do or even imagine. Consequently, when we ask HOW WOULD GOD HAVE US DEAL WITH DIFFICULT PEOPLE, Paul advises us do not seek vengeance!
Rather, overcome evil with good! Paul concludes his advice with these words: “Therefore ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Paul quotes Solomon when he speaks about how we ought treat those difficult people, who we may even consider our enemies. If they are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink.
Jesus said in His Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard it said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven” (Mt. 5:43-45a). You have heard the familiar saying: “Like father, like son!” This is what Jesus is telling us to do in view of who we are. We are God’s children and so are to act like it—doing and saying good things even in the face of evil with the intent that good should come of it.
But what is this “for in doing so you will heap coals of fire on his head”? That sounds mean! It certainly does not sound loving, and yet in reality it is! When you and I respond to evil with good, it makes the person who has done us wrong feel bad. God wants that hot fire of guilt to lead that person to reflect upon his past actions, to recognize them as sinful, and then to seek forgiveness. The ultimate goal of God is reconciliation between the sinner and Himself, so that the sinner might be freed and given the gift of eternal life. When that occurs there is a good chance that those who have sinned against us will become reconciled with us as well.
Paul’s final admonition urges us not to be “overcome by evil.” Satan wants our lives to be filled with anger and resentment, bitterness and evil speech for thereby he enslaves us to our sinful passions, and he rejoices as he sees those passions take our lives in a downward spiral leading to all sorts of trouble. Paul urges us to “let… (such things) be put away from you” (Eph. 4:31). Notice, how Paul puts that: “Let… (such things) be put away from you.” Satan wants us to believe that we have no choice or control over our angry emotions, but that simply is not true. People nurse their anger, resentment, and desire for revenge. They hold them close to their hearts and stoke them by constantly rehearsing the wrong that has been done to them. Let us let those emotions go. Let us give them up to our Savior. We do not have to bear that burden any longer. Rather, let us forgive as we have been forgiven (cf. Eph. 4:32) and embrace what is good in our relationships with others, trusting our Savior God to vanquish the evil surrounding us even as He vanquished Satan on the cross and through His resurrection!
HOW WOULD GOD HAVE US DEAL WITH DIFFICULT PEOPLE? Always focus on good not evil! Whenever possible, live peaceably! Do not seek vengeance! And, finally, overcome evil with good! Amen.
--Pastor Paul D. Nolting To God alone be glory!