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Dealing with a world full of difficult people

JamesKnight2Network Norwich columnist James Knight addresses how we might deal rather differently with difficult people, in his latest column.

The world is full of difficult people, folk to whom we would find it hard to offer forgiveness; on whom we would find it difficult to avoid casting judgment, for whom we would find it difficult to pray sincerely, and whom we find it impossible to love as we love ourselves. 
Now the Bible makes no concessions on these instructions, even about people we do not much like. We are to forgive them, suspend judgement, pray for them, and love them. In order for this message to affect you in the most sublime way possible, I am going to suggest that you think of a person of whom all the above can be said - the one person who you find most difficult. Perhaps you dislike this person very strongly - perhaps he or she is the one person who is stopping you from being the person you truly want to be. 
Everybody can say to his or her neighbour, 'you find so and so difficult - go and have a clear the air talk', or something of that kind. But everyone knows that that advice would not be so easy when it comes to you having to approach the 'so and so' with whom you are having difficulty. The biggest difficulty is that this problem is not always soluble; that is, doing nothing very rarely brings about any positive change and approaching them almost always creates as many new problems as it dispenses with old ones. 
A quiet word might help remove from 'so and so' his laziness on the factory floor, but it might create, or be substituted for, ill temperament or moroseness. Give an avaricious man what he wants on Tuesday and he will want something more by Wednesday. Complain about a man's tight-fistedness on Friday and he might take notice, but deep down inside he will still be that tight-fisted man on Monday morning. People are what they are, and circumstances very rarely change the fundamental characteristics of a person. Novelty sometimes does but only for a transitory period - the character of 'so and so' is the fact of his being; it is very difficult to alter it. 
A good way to see this more clearly would be to imagine a situation when the opposite is happening. Imagine that for one person you are the 'so and so' that they find most difficult or dislikeable. Upon hearing the charge against you, you would almost certainly retort in one of three ways; either you would claim that the faults of the accuser were the cause of your being like that, or you would claim that they did not have an adequate understanding of your true nature, or you might recognise that the point they were making might have some justification but the severity has been grossly over-exaggerated. The times when we find ourselves admitting we are wrong are not really the same as the times when we are impugning our own character. In arithmetical terms we treat them not as though we do not understand mathematics, just that we have had 'a miscount that could happen to anyone'.
PaperPeopleYes, we are obstinate souls, and it is no wonder that many of us take a long while to see ourselves for what we really are. The key, I think, is to see this realisation (when it occurs) as a blessing, not as an annoyance. A woman who goes to night classes to learn some new skill thinking that she is 'way above' all those with whom she is going to be learning, could, on realising that she is not fit to brush off the shoes of the humble woman next to her, find that that realisation was the most precious blessing life had ever bestowed upon her. The man who finds that his seemingly 'arrogant' colleague is really a hundred times less conceited than he, might be having at that moment of realisation his first ever spiritual experience. 
The point of all this is more significant than we perhaps realise - for this situation that we find ourselves in is a bit like that which God is in when He created creatures like us. He has set us up in creation to use our reason as best we can, yet so often He is witness to our bad decision-making, our silly disagreements, our solipsism, and the way in which we constantly fail to do what is ultimately most spiritually beneficial to the self. You can be sure that when we do something which is devastating for us, it is even more devastating for God who, it seems, loves us even more than we love ourselves. 
In that case, why doesn't He simply alter our psychology so that we all behave in ways which are beneficial to the self at all times? No doubt He does alter our psychology on many occasions. No doubt prayers for an inner-change are answered just as prayers for other things are answered. The nature of free will is that God has allowed us to make our own choices; that He will not intervene unless the circumstances are especial or unless a change of that kind is requested in prayer. 
Freedom occasions individuals to go wrong. But it seems that God thought this method of creation was better than creating us as automata. That obviously must mean His plan for us is different to what many people think His plan should have been for us. Of course the comparison I made between your position with 'so and so' and God's position in relation to us is only partly synonymous - for He sees what is really in us. Those faults which we thought were really the faults of others - the ones that we did not want to admit having - they are the parts of us that God sees more clearly than we do. 
Whatever you think is wrong with the person who sits next to you at work, it is very likely that he or she thinks the same about you. Perhaps your friend's impatience with you was really a disguised wish to let you know how difficult you are; perhaps the reason your sibling was moody with you was because you didn't show tenderness where tenderness was needed. We all know very well what this is like, for it is exactly the pretext that we use when the reverse is true. 
The other difference between God's situation and ours is that He is much better at forgiving and much better at loving than we are. He will love and forgive in those times when we found it impossible. 
From all this we should see that this is the fundamental reason why God calls for us to let Him do His work in us, for He knows that when we start to become more like Christ we shall be blessed and we shall escape the claustrophobic nature of judgement and criticism of others. 
I will go further - only when we begin to look through other people's faults into the very best that they have will we be able to do the same to ourselves with greater honesty. Only when we can say, even for a brief second to begin with, that we suspended judgement because we knew full well that our own self was equally as bad, will we get a glimpse of what knowing Him is like. 
We must pray hard for those that cause us pain and distress. To pray for a blessing to fall upon those we do not much like is the first sign that we can love them in spite of their faults; after all, loving in spite of the faults is the exact thing that we do with the self every hour of the day. The plain truth of 'improvement' is that the only person in the world that we can improve is the self. And in doing so, we often make great strides in helping others to improve at the same time.

The views carried here are those of the author, not of Network Norwich, and are intended to stimulate constructive debate between website users. We welcome your thoughts and comments, posted below, upon the ideas expressed here. You can also contact the author direct at 

James is a Norwich local government officer, author and Proclaimers church member in Norwich.

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