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How to Love a Difficult Person Without Them Controlling You

How to Love a Difficult Person Without Them Controlling You

How do you stay true to what you believe while not offending those who aren’t willing to get on board with your perspectives and practices? What if you have a weaker brother or sister that you can’t correct? Does the “weakest link” in the relationship determine how things will be? When do you take a stand for what you believe, or capitulate to the other person?

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There are always two ditches in these types of relationships. You aim to stay out of both of them. In one, you cater to the person because you don’t want to offend them or experience their angry reactions. In the other, you can “bull your way through” without caring for the other person. You get what you want, but you damage the relationship in the process. Let me illustrate.

Mable struggles deeply with insecurity. Her three primary shaping influences made her into a fearful person. Adam shaped her, as well as other folks like her siblings, parents, and close friends. And the choices that she has made throughout her life have been significant shaping influences, too.

Everyone in her Bible study knows about her fear struggles, so they typically “tip-toe” around her because she has responded in anger whenever someone jostles her. Last year the leader of the group, Marge, called on Mable during group time, asking her a personal question. While it was an appropriate question, it mortified Mable. She tightened up as fear gripped her, and a surreal tone came over the group.

Afterward, Mable sent Marge a nasty email, letting her know how hurt she was, and that she “had better not do it again.” Since that time, Mable has been the de facto leader of the Bible study. No one knows that Mable “leads” the group except for Marge. Even Mable does not see how she “leads” the group. Because of Mable’s insecurity and reactive anger, Marge is unwilling to delve into any personal relationship with her.

The effect of Mable’s sin has an even more profound impact on the group, which requires Marge to lead the group around Mable’s weaknesses. Part of the reason for Marge’s “abdication of the group” is because she sincerely wants to care for her “weaker” sister.

But it’s also true that Marge has backed off leading the group because she is afraid of Mable. She never knows how Mable may respond or take any offense at something. From Marge’s perspective, going deep in the group is not worth the mess it might cause. So she caters to Mable’s weaknesses, and the group never goes beyond superficiality.

Rick's BooksSee the Pink Elephant?

But there is more. After Mable exploded last year, she now feels the liberty to bring other assessments about how Marge leads the group. None of her critiques help anyone. Mable unwittingly speaks without inhibition because of her deep craving for safety, coupled with a fear that anyone would challenge her, especially Marge. She hides her fear by taking the offensive. Her criticisms serve as a regular reminder that you had “better not say anything out-of-line to Mable.”

Mable’s critical spirit dampens the entire demeanor of the group. On the days she does not show up, the group takes on a completely different atmosphere and attitude. This difference is evident to all. Sadly, gossip and grumbling have crept into the group. The members are wrestling through their frustration about the “sanctification stagnation” of the group. They know that Mable is the culprit, but no one is willing to address the problem.

They have chosen to uncharitably talk about what has become known as the “pink elephant in the room” rather than biblically working it out. Falling into the snare of fear is not the practical outworking of the gospel. God wants us to be redemptive in each other’s lives; controlling fear will not permit you to do that. Ironically, all three players—Mable, Marge, the group—are struggling with the same thing, which is fear.

Who’s the Leader?

At some point, Marge will have to decide if she is going to lead this group. She can’t continue to let Mable be the unstated, de facto leader. Marge has to carefully and lovingly take charge. If she does not, there is potential for the whole group to unravel, and escalating unresolved conflict will ensue.

One of the more unusual things about Christ was His ability to lead a complaining, insecure, and sometimes angry group of people. And He never abdicated His position of authority. He knew how to keep out of both ditches of fear and self-righteousness.

Sometimes Jesus kept His mouth shut because what He had to say was not in the best interest of the group (John 16:12). At other times He said tough things, even though He knew His words would hurt or offend His friends (John 11:14-15). There are three critical elements of His leadership style to understand when navigating this minefield.

Wisdom – The wise person uses a biblical filter to think about friends. The use of wisdom means there are no cookie-cutter answers. You pneumatically live as you bring applications of God’s Word to bear on the situation at hand. You might not have a Bible verse for what you’re going through, but God gives the wisdom to know how to apply the Bible to your relationships.

Love – The loving person carefully discerns the Spirit, so he knows how to care for each individual in unique moments. Thus, you pneumatically love this person, which removes the temptation to cave to fear or judge them self-righteously. You’re not better than them, and you’re not afraid of them. You aim to love them.

Faith – The trusting person moves forward “in faith” because he knows the way the group should go. God gives you the confidence to bring the Bible to bear lovingly, even if the “love” stings them at the moment, and they react sinfully to your care.

Love the Weak – Work with the Strong

Jesus did what was best for the group, rather than catering to the weak. He was never unkind or unloving to the insecure person, but the weak ones did not determine His agenda. Jesus was prepping to leave our planet, but before He left, He wanted a network of reliable and equipped friends who could push His message globally.

Though He was not about offending individuals, there were times when He had to say hard things, even if it meant that some would fall away and not follow anymore. As hard as it is to take a stand, He knew the weak could not ultimately control His mission. He would not be able to serve everybody well if He scripted His life and plans according to how the weak wanted Him to be.

This problem happens in many of our relationships. For example, your child becomes sick and pleads with you not to proceed with your plans for making him better. Maybe it is as simple as not liking the medicine. Perhaps it is a fear of a doctor or a needle poke in the arm. It could be a more challenging situation like the fear of surgery.

As a parent, you have no choice because of the love you have for God and your child. There are times when “the best interest of the person” (or the group) means pain and suffering. If you have a weak view of love, you will not take a stand for Christ. If you have a harsh view of love, you will hurt others when you stand for Jesus.

Gospel-Motivated Care

Remember the gospel? It pleased the Father to bruise His Son because of the greater good (Isaiah 53:10). God so loved the world that He did difficult and painful things to His chosen beloved (John 3:16). You can’t love well if you’re not free to respond to God in obedience because your fear of the other person controls you.

These decisions are hard to make, and you have to make them carefully, prayerfully, and with wise counsel. A Bible study or small group leader needs to get the counsel of an elder of oversight or pastor. Someone “up the chain” needs to speak into this situation. If you don’t have such a person, you can always reach out to us. We’re not the best answer, but it can be an excellent safety valve.

Maybe there is someone in the group, besides Marge, who can come alongside Mable to serve her. The goal would be to restore her to God and her group. Nevertheless, someone needs to talk to her. She cannot run the group because of her fears.

Marge needs to repent of her fear of man (Proverbs 29:25). She must take control of the group for the glory of God. And the group must repent of any gossip about Mable while resisting the temptation to succumb to speech that does not build up each other (Ephesians 4:29).

In the best-case scenario, Marge, Mable, and the group will repent to God for their “unique sins.” Marge will lead, Mable will follow, and the group will become a sanctification center. It is possible that Mable does not repent and may leave the group.

When the young man heard this, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions (Matthew 19:22).

Call to Action

  1. Which temptation is more natural for you: to back off because of fear or jump in impulsively with harshness? What does your temptation reveal about your relationship with God? How do you need to change so you can be a better friend practically?
  2. What person controls your life—other than God? I’m not talking about an abusive situation where it would be unwise to speak against the demands of the other person. I’m speaking of a relationship that fits within the context of this article? Why do you give them control?
  3. Are you more apt to talk critically about that person who is like Marge, or think strategically and redemptively about how you can cooperate with the Lord in restoring the caught person (Galatians 6:1-2)?
  4. Are you the weak person who manipulates others because of your insecurity? Will you find help today so you’re not controlling others, and impeding the work of God in your life, as well as theirs?
  5. Do you know how to say the hard things with love? Are you willing to say those things even if you lose the relationship? Perhaps it would be great if you studied the four gospels where Jesus either said “no” to others or He did not give them what they wanted.
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