Look Before You Heap! – Five Lessons in Dealing with Difficult People

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Photo courtesy of ethicsalarm.com

Photo courtesy of ethicsalarm.com

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. – Romans 12: 20b-21 (NIV)

God often provides us with, ahem, “character development opportunities” disguised as difficult people.  We can avoid some difficult people, but others we cannot because they are work colleagues, bosses, or perhaps even reside under the same roof.   God afforded me one of these opportunities over the past year, having to interact with a difficult person that I could not otherwise avoid.  I have had to learn, and in some cases, relearn the following lessons that I want to share with you:

  1. Pray for the good of the difficult person.  This is certainly easier said than done.  We are tempted to pray for the demise of those we deem as our enemies.  We’d prefer to look to some of the prayers of David in the imprecatory Psalms where he prays for the destruction of his enemies as our model prayers.  Instead let’s look to the Apostle Paul’s admonition to the early church concerning treatment of their enemies found the verses at the beginning of the post.   Paul says by treating an enemy, i.e. difficult person, well, we’re actually “heaping coals of fire on his head.” The New Living Translation interprets the colloquialism this way, “they [your enemies] will be ashamed of what they have done to you.”  The Apostle does not write it, but certainly implies that if we treat our enemies harshly, we will end up feeling worse in the process.  I can tell you from personal experience that thinking ill of the difficult people in your life does not make you feel better, but ironically worse.
  2. Do not vilify the difficult person.  It is easy to see the difficult person as the devil incarnate, an all grown up version of Rosemary’s baby.  We may seek out others who share our views about the difficult person to validate our own feelings.  Seeing the difficult person as a caricature devoid of any redeeming qualities makes it easier for us to hate them.  Truth be told, there are very few sociopaths among us.  The difficult person in your life is not likely the next Hitler, Stalin or Kim Jong-il.
  3. Do not read ill intent into the difficult person’s action.  It is easy to construct a narrative reading ill intent into the difficult person’s actions.  This narrative may be based on our previous interactions with the difficult person, coupled with our distorted views based on past hurts we’ve experienced.  The leadership consulting practice, Gap International has coined a phrase for our collection of thoughts about others – files.  Think of a cabinet stuffed with manila folders, filled with papers.  These files frame all of our interactions with the difficult person.  If we hope to find some common ground with the difficult people in our lives, we must purge the files we have about them.
  4. Pray to see the difficult person in your life as God sees them.  You might see a difficult person in your life as your own personal nemesis, but God sees him or her as a hurt, wounded individual in need of salvation, grace and healing.  You may be familiar with the phrase, hurt people, hurt people.”  The difficult person in your life may be acting out of their own pain and hurt, and you just happen to be in way.  If you see the difficult person in your life as a hurting individual, you will more likely show compassion to him or her. 
  5. Set appropriate boundaries with the difficult person.  Seeking the difficult person’s good does not mean you have suffer harm as a result.  You should seek your good and the difficult person’s good simultaneously.  If you suffered harm from the difficult person in the past, it will mean that you must courageously set boundaries to guard yourself against future harm.  If you struggle in this area, I would recommend as a first step you read the excellent book, Boundaries by Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend.

We all want the manifestation of the fruit of the Spirit in our lives, but the fruit must be cultivated.  It does not just magically appear.  In nature, fruit trees must be planted and tended carefully, sometimes for years before fruit appears.  The deep furrows your soul may be suffering now will yield the peaceable fruit of righteousness later, if you allow them to do so. (Hebrews 12:11).

I’ve listed five lessons I’ve learned in dealing with difficult people, but I’d love to hear yours.  Please leave your comments.

What is Your God Narrative?

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low-flow-shower-head-TP-md

If God is for us, who can be against us? – Romans 8:31b (NIV)

A few weeks ago, I was listening to a podcast from Michael Hyatt, which I highly recommend, entitled “Change Your Story, Change Your Life.” To introduce the podcast, Hyatt said this, “Inside your head and mine, there is a narrator. He or she is constantly telling us stories. These stories shape how we perceive reality. In fact, if we don’t intervene, these stories can shape our destiny for the worse. Or, if we are intentional and take control of the narrative, these stories can shape our destiny for good.”

This podcast got me thinking that our narrator also extends to our views about God.  As A.W. Tozer famously wrote, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”  Our God narrative in large measure determines whether we live a defeated life or whether we have victory in Christ.

Our view of God is shaped by a number of influences.  Our families of origin and our upbringing greatly shape our view of God.  Parents are generally the first authority figures a child encounters, and are essentially a surrogate for God in the early life of a child.  This is especially true of the father.  The God of the Bible communicates in the masculine voice.  He is presented as God the Father.  Dysfunction in the father / child relationship will likely negatively impact how that child sees God.   If a father mistreats a child through abuse or neglect; that child will likely struggle to see God in a positive light.

Our experiences influence our God narrative. If we experience loss or trauma, we may wonder why God did not protect us from those outcomes and struggle with trusting him.

What we have been taught by others about God shape our views of him.  If, for example, you are exposed to legalistic teaching about God, you may come to view God as a punitive taskmaster waiting to catch you doing something wrong.

Lastly, our God narrative is influenced by the enemy of our souls, Satan.  1 Peter 5:8 tells us that, “Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” Satan tempted our first parents, Adam and Eve, he tempted Jesus, and he certainly tempts us today.

Our God narrative might be shaped by various influences, but ultimately it needs to be shaped by God himself if we are to experience his abundance.  Our carefully constructed God narrative needs to be held up to the true template of scripture to understand what God says about himself.  We must be wary to not allow our influences to clog and distort this true view of God.  I recently completed some overdue household maintenance that helped to drive home this point for me.

Last weekend I changed the chlorine filter on the showerhead in our sons’ bathroom.  The filter should be changed every six months, but only God’s knows the last time it was changed!  The flow from the showerhead had slowed to just something north of a trickle, so I could put off the task no longer.  The filter housing had become so stuck to the point that I had to use extra-large pliers to apply the necessary torque to take the housing apart.  Upon examining the old filter, it was heavy, filled with sediment and covered in lime scale.  The new filter by contrast was light and clean.   Upcoming replacing the filter, the water from the showerhead once again flowed freely.

What’s the point?  Even with the old filter the water at the source never really stopped flowing.  However the flow was blocked by the dirty filter.  Our influences can over time negatively impact our God narratives and thwart the flow of his blessings like a dirty filter.  You might need the help of a trusted friend, pastor or counselor to replace your filter, but you owe it yourself.   Doing so will allow you to fully partake in the free flow shower of God’s blessings.

What NOT to Crowdsource

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When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!” – Matthew 27:24 (NIV)

Crowdsourcing has really changed the way that solutions are found, funds are raised and products are launched.

If you’re not familiar with the term, crowdsourcing, it refers to broadcasting problems to an unknown group of solvers in the form of an open call for solutions. Potential solvers, i.e, the crowd, submit their solutions. Instead of engaging traditional funding sources such as lenders and venture capitals, fledging entrepreneurs can now raise capital for their projects through crowdfunding websites such as indiegogo, and kickstarter.  I just read in the business section of my local paper today about a woman who raised $2,000 to send herself to clown school in Paris using this approach. (No, I’m not making this up!)

I believe there is an innate appeal to crowdsourcing because it engages the masses and transfers power from the traditional gatekeepers.  If you think about, America Idol essentially crowdsources the selection of its winners to those willing to simply pay for the cost of a text.

Despite its rising popularity, there are certain things that should never be crowdsourced – the critical decisions that only you and I can make.

Before the word crowdsourcing was ever conceived, Pontius Pilate put the concept into practice to a disastrous end by condemning Jesus Christ to be crucified.  The Sanhedrin Council who tried Jesus did not have the authority to kill him.  Only the Roman Procurator, Pilate could issue such as order.  Pilate knew in his heart of hearts that Jesus was innocent and declared so three times before the Jews. (See Jn 18:38, Jn 19:4 and Jn 19:6).  Pilate’s wife even warned her husband not to crucify him, having dreamt about it (Mat. 27:19).  Yet Pilate, who had previously stirred the ire of the Jews by moving his headquarters from Caesarea to Jerusalem and displaying the names of Roman deities there, did not want any more problems from them.  He was not willing to sacrifice his political career so instead he sacrificed the life of an innocent man by appeasing the crowd.

Scripture also contains other crowdsourcing pioneers who met with similar results:

  • Aaron listened the crowd’s request to make a golden calf to worship after Moses had been on the mountain longer than they expected. (Exodus 32:1-4)
  • Saul offered a burnt sacrifice instead of waiting for the prophet Samuel to do so when his men became fearful and started to desert him when facing the Philistines. (1 Sam 13:1-13)

I am not suggesting to not seek out Godly counsel when faced with difficult decisions.  In fact. scripture encourages us to do so (Pro. 15:22).  There are others times when facing decisions, that the right choice is evident even if it is not easy or popular.  That is not a time for crowdsourcing. In those cases we must resist the temptation to make the easy choice, which only brings temporary relief but also carries with it long term negative consequences.

I love this tweet I read from Kent Julian a few days ago.  “Decision based on fear = bad decision.”