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How Can I Get Along with Difficult People?

July 20, 2008

Romans 12:9-21; Colossians 3:12-14

Do you know Tom and Ray Magliozzi? They are brothers who operate an automobile repair shop called The Good News Automobile Repair Shop. You probably know them best, if you know them at all, as Click and Clack. They host a radio show on Saturday mornings called Car Talk. Clare and I often listen to these two men, give car repair advice. Car Talk is the number one rated show on all of National Public Radio. Every Saturday, two million people listen to this program.

Of course, the Magliozzi brother’s advice on how to repair an automobile is not the most attractive aspect of the show. These two men have the greatest sense of humor. That, mixed with their strong Bostonian accent, really gives the show its flavor. During the course of the show, people call in and ask questions about problems they are having with their vehicle. The brothers do know what they are talking about when it comes to automobile repair. Both are graduates of MIT. In fact, they, together, gave the commencement address at MIT in 1999.

Yesterday on Car Talk, the most-requested previously recorded show was aired. Max, an automobile dealer from Valencia, California, had called in with a request for some advice. I want to share his story with you if I can do so without laughing too much.

Max told of noticing that Bill, a salesman at his dealership, would start walking across the street at lunchtime, go about halfway to the other side, and then return. He had noticed Bill doing this several times.

Finally, he asked, “Bill, what are you doing? You go halfway across the street and then come back.”

Bill answered, “I’m afraid I’m going to miss a sale if I go eat lunch. I’m afraid somebody will come in, and I will miss my opportunity to make a big sale.”

Max had a service courtesy for customers who brought an automobile in for repairs. Max would loan them a bicycle to use for a few hours while he worked on the vehicle. He suggested, “Bill, I have an idea. Why don’t you just ride one of the bicycles across the street to get your lunch? The bike will make it a lot faster for you.”

Bill agreed.

The next day, a rather difficult woman, married to a very prominent citizen of the community, came in to purchase a new automobile. She had a reputation of being hard to please, but she was very satisfied with the car she purchased. Bill was her salesman. When she got in her new automobile to leave the lot, Bill saw this as his opportunity to go to lunch. He got on the bicycle and began pedaling across the street. When the woman turned out of the dealership, she hit Bill on the bicycle, and then jumped out of the car. Max, who saw all of this from his office window, rushed out and found that Bill, who was just scuffed up a little bit, was going to be OK. The bicycle, however, was totaled.

Max saw the dent in the bumper of the woman’s new automobile and recognized, as her face turned red, that he had better respond quickly. He said, “Don’t worry. We will fix the bumper on your car at no charge.”

Satisfied, the woman asked if she might go across the street and shop while repairs were made.

Max replied, “Certainly. Would you like to use a bicycle?”

She declined his offer. The woman basically shopped ’til she dropped. She returned to the dealership about 8:30 that night, not realizing that the body shop had closed at 6:00. Neighbors around the car dealership who heard her ranting and demanding her automobile called Max at home. He rushed back to the shop.

As he opened the big garage doors, the woman said, “I am really worried about my dog.”

Max wondered, What dog?

“My miniature Schnauzer is in a crate in the car.”

Max was horrified, thinking of a dog being inside the metal building where the heat rises to 104 degrees in Valencia, California. When he opened the garage door, he realized that about thirty cars were parked in front of this woman’s car. He would have to move all of those vehicles in order to get hers out of the garage. Not wanting to wait, she said, “Call me when my car is ready. I’m taking a cab home.”

Max made his way back through all of those automobiles to the woman’s car and looked inside. Yes, a crate was in the back seat of the car. Yes, inside was a miniature Schnauzer with its feet in the air – dead as a doornail.

Fortunately, Max knew a pet shop owner, whom he called. He told the owner what had happened, adding, “I have a real problem. You need to help me replace the dog. It has to look exactly like this woman’s dog.”

The man answered, “Max, today, I saw a man who has twelve miniature Schnauzers for sale. He lives in Acton.”

Max returned the dead dog in the crate to his car and drove thirty miles to Acton, California, where he met this man who breeds Schnauzers. Max walked in and laid the dead dog on the counter, explaining, “I need a dog that looks just like this one.”

The guy looked through his twelve dogs and found one that resembled the woman’s dead dog.

Max asked, “How much?”

“Twenty-five hundred dollars.”

Max had $375 on him. He said, “I can’t pay that. It’s too much for a dog.”

The man asked, “Max, what are you going to do with the dog?”v “I am going to replace this dead dog. I do not need the papers. I am not going to breed the dog. I am not going to show the dog. I just need a dog that looks like this one.”

“You are fortunate. I have a little dog that has no pedigree, no papers at all. I have raised him for about a year. He is completely house-trained. Let’s see if they match.” Max thought it matched closely enough.

“Two hundred seventy-five dollars,” the man said.

Relieved, Max shelled out the money, left the dead dog with the man who raised Schnauzers, put the live dog in the crate, drove the thirty miles back to Valencia, California, put the crate and the dog in the car, and called the woman. When she came to get her automobile, she looked inside the car, saw the Schnauzer, and said, “That is not my dog.”

Max answered, “Not your dog?”

“That is not my dog. My dog was dead.”

Max asked, “Why did you have a dead dog in your car?”

She said, “That dog has been my pet for eighteen years. I couldn’t bear to part with him. My sister told me I could have him frozen and then get him stuffed by a taxidermist. That is what I plan to do. I want my dog back.”

Max called the fellow in Acton and asked if he still had the dog. Fortunately, he did. The next morning, both Max and the woman drove their cars to Acton. She got her dead dog back and drove away, leaving the two men.

Now Max, who had bought this little dog, said, “I don’t need this dog.”

The owner pointed to the sign on the wall: “No returns. No refunds.”

Max complained, “I don’t need this dog.”

The man insisted, “Max, that dog is yours.”

Max told the two hosts of Car Talk, “I am calling because I have a problem. I need to find a good home for this miniature Schnauzer.”

Have you ever tried to deal with a difficult person? Doing so can be absolutely exhausting. In fact, we will try all kinds of things to avoid conflict, to satisfy people who are extremely difficult. Every single one of us has at least one person in our lives who is very difficult. You are probably thinking of somebody now who causes you difficulty, who irritates you, who gets on your nerves.

These people will absolutely drive us crazy if we let them. The blamer finds something wrong with everybody. The complainer never seems to be happy or satisfied. The bully insists on always having things his or her way. “It is my way or the highway.” The manipulator, who always has an angle, takes advantage of others. That person is self-serving. The dependent person whines and complains that nobody really cares. Then those who always seem to be right have no place in their vocabulary for “I am sorry. I was wrong. Please forgive me.” The list of difficult kinds of people continues. People in your life match those on this list. You could add to it.

Right at the outset, I need to say that it is almost certain that for somebody else, you are a difficult person. At one time or another, no matter how mild-mannered we may be, no matter how easy to get a long with we may think we are, all of us can be irritating. We need to understand that we must look to ourselves.

What kind of help can we receive from Scripture when we consider how to get along with difficult people? The Apostle Paul peppers his letters with advice. He writes in Galatians 6:1, “Look to yourselves, lest you too be tempted.” A look in the mirror will reveal that we have no place to stand back, point our finger, and talk about how difficult people are. All of us can be difficult.

Let us look at Colossians Chapter 3, beginning at Verse 12. Here, the Apostle Paul speaks about putting on new clothing, putting on a new outfit, to remind us that because we are Christians, we now are expected to live differently than others in the world. He says that we are to clothe ourselves with five virtues that will be our garments.

The first virtue is compassion. We exercise those who are difficult. We are tempted to tune them out, ignore them. If we listen, not just with our two outer ears but also with an inner ear, we will begin to hear their pain. We will understand that they are like they are because they have been hurt, some repeatedly. Others have never gotten over the hurt they have experienced. If we listen with compassion, we will be able to discern that the difficulty they exhibit in their behavior is a product of the pain they carry. Listening will give us empathy.

The second virtue Paul mentions is kindness, which simply means having a sense of respect for people. No matter how difficult the person is, he or she deserves respect. That does not mean you have to like the person. It does not mean that you have to appreciate what the person does or says. If you offer respect though, you will refrain from making comments you wish you had not said. Some words can never be undone. We cannot undo harsh comments we make to people we find irritating. We cannot get back those comments. We must respond with kindness.

Third, Paul says that we must have a sense of humility.

My grandfather taught me something that has been very important to me. He said, “Kirk, never look up at anybody.” He meant, “Do not let anyone intimidate you. Do not allow anyone to control you by intimidation.” He added, “Don’t look down on anybody. Never think of another person as somehow beneath you. Regard each person as a person for whom Christ died. Look straight across at everyone.” That attitude really defines a sense of humility. It does not mean that we become a doormat and allow others to walk on us. It means that we treat all people with a sense of respect and regard because they are people of worth. We recognize that their worth is neither greater nor lesser than our own worth.

The fourth characteristic is gentleness. Have you noticed that screaming never helps in dealing with conflict? Raising your voice or speaking harshly never helps. Dealing with a difficult person requires a spirit of gentleness. You be the calm. Let them be the storm. If you become the storm, you lose complete control, not only of your own emotions but also of your ability to control the way you react. You be the calm. Let them be the storm.

Paul says in Verse 12 that we are to put on patience. Dealing with a difficult person will try your patience, your ability to endure. A plaque in my home reads, “The anvil outlasts the hammer.” That hammer can pound and pound, but the anvil is the epitome of patience. It absorbs all that pounding without cracking, without breaking. Patience means never giving up, never quitting. We do have a tendency to want to give up, especially with people in our own home.

Paul speaks about one of the traits so important in Christian living: forgiveness. “Bear with each other,” he says, “and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Colossians 3:13). The writings of Paul and all the writings in the New Testament, as far as I can discern, connect these two ways of forgiving. Paul mentions a two-dimensional forgiveness here. God’s forgiveness of us is the vertical dimension. Our forgiveness of others is the horizontal dimension. God expects us to forgive other people. We say in the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

You will notice that the Bible never tells us that we have to forget. In fact, forgetting is virtually impossible for some things that have happened to us. God can forget, but we do not have to forget. We must forgive though. Forgiving is very different than remembering and harboring a grudge. Though we remember, we have to let it go.

Finally in Verse 14, Paul says that the virtue that covers all the others is love. This love is not a sweet, sentimental feeling. This is agape, best defined in 1 Corinthians 13:7. This love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” This love never fails. It is not a feeling at all; it is a decision, one we make in regard to a lot of different people. It is a decision husbands and wives make – “to love for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and in health.”

Would you like to get rid of your enemies? The way to do that is by following the teachings of Jesus. He taught us that we are to respond to our enemies by loving them and praying for them. That is a hard assignment. I am reminded of Mark Twain’s statement that the passages of Scripture that bothered him most were not the ones he could not understand but the ones he could understand very well. This particular passage is easy to understand but hard to follow. Loving enemies is hard; but if you do so, in time, they will no longer be that adversary you once thought they were.

In just three verses in this little passage in Colossians, Paul provides seven ways of relating to our enemies. Paul goes into more explicit detail in some ways in Romans 12. Verse 9: “Love must be sincere.” Love cannot be counterfeit. It cannot be make-believe. It cannot be saccharin-sweet. It cannot be artificial. Love must be genuine, the real thing. Paul is very strong when he instructs, “Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.” He assumes that we know the difference between good and evil, and he does not spell out all of that for us. He tells us that we are to respond in love, hating what is evil and clinging to what is good.

Verse 14: “Bless those who persecute you.” Remember that at the time Paul wrote this letter to the Roman church, Nero was the emperor. While the intense persecutions had not yet started, Paul seems to anticipate that persecution with this statement. He says to bless them, not curse them.

Do not be proud but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Do not curse others but bless them. Do not repay evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone if possible. Live at peace with others. Do not take revenge.

Paul does not suggest adopting a get-even attitude here. He says that the old Lex Talonis, the Law of the Talon, which encourages “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” is unacceptable. Christian people are not supposed to live like that. We see that, of course, in the Sermon on the Mount. Paul tells us not to escalate the conflict. Respond by de-escalating the tension, the strife, the potential for conflict. He summarizes in Verse 21: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

My favorite illustration comes from Howard Thurman, who grew up as the son of a sharecropper in South Georgia. An African-American who became a great preacher and recognized as a theologian, Thurman remembers something that happened in his childhood. During the middle of summer one year, his family moved into a sharecropper home behind another family, a white family. This white sharecropper decided to clean out his chicken coop by removing all of the manure and dumping it over the back fence into the Thurman’s backyard. Both Howard’s father and Howard were angry. His mother said, “No, leave it to me. Let me handle this.”

That smelly, steaming manure stayed in the Thurmond’s backyard all summer. In the fall, Mrs. Thurman took a potato fork out to the backyard and dug that rotten manure into a plot of ground. In the springtime, she dug up the manure again, mixing it into the earth. Then she planted a garden with flowers and vegetables.

About June of that year, she took Howard by the hand into the garden. She picked fresh vegetables and cut flowers, then put them in a basket. The two walked around the fence and onto the porch where this white farmer lived. Mrs. Thurmond had not spoken to this man since the day he dumped the manure over the fence; but when he came to the door, she said, “You were so kind to share with us your chicken manure last summer that I wanted to share with you our vegetables and flowers this summer.” Howard Thurman said that from that time on, the two families were friends. It was, he said, the perfect illustration of not returning evil for evil but returning good for evil.

Would you like to know how to get along with difficult people? I know you can think of someone who irritates you, somebody who causes you difficulty. Scripture prescribes a counter-intuitive approach. It is not the way we would typically react. Paul spells out in his writings the way Christians are to live their lives.

I often turn to the prayer of St. Francis, which is a gentle reminder to me. I want to share it with you this morning:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy;

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

That simple prayer is a reminder of how we are to get along with all people, especially those who are difficult.

Of course, this begins with our relationship to Christ. He set for us the divine example. If you have never acknowledged Christ as the Savior of your life, we invite you to do that this morning. Come down the aisle and speak to me. I will pray with you. Jesus is our Savior. He saves us not only eternally, but he also gives us the guidance to live every single day. If you have never accepted him, we extend that invitation to you.

© 2008 Kirk H. Neely

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