Copyright 2017 by Bob Rogers.
Your child is wronged by another child, and when you try to talk to her parents, they tell you off. A friend gets angry with you and refuses to talk to you. A fellow worker never shows you respect, always going over your head. How do you deal with difficult people? My grandfather loved to answer this dilemma with Romans 12:18, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”
This verse recognizes two important facts about dealing with difficult people: 1) we should live at peace with people, and 2) it’s not always possible. In fact, Romans 12 gives us four ways to deal with difficult people when peace is possible, and four ways to deal with them when peace is not possible.
When peace is possible
Romans 12:14-16 gives us some practical ways to live at peace with difficult people.
1. Be a blessing (v. 14)
Paul says, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.” This statement, like several others here, refer back to Jesus’ word in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus told us, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).
Paul must have remembered his own past with this statement, for many years before, Paul was the young Pharisee named Saul who held the coats of those who stoned to death the first Christian martyr, Stephen. Acts 7:60 records that as he died, Stephen said, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”
2. Be empathetic (v. 15)
In verse 15 he adds, “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.” This is more than sympathy; it is empathy. It is identifying with those who hurt. This is a critical response to a difficult person, because when we can identify with them and understand why they act the way they do, then we will be much better at relating to them.
3. Be agreeable (v. 16a)
Verse 16 begins, “Live in harmony with one another.” Literally, the Greek means to “have the same mind toward one another.” We can disagree in substance and still be agreeable in spirit.
4. Be humble (v. 16b)
Sometimes the reason that the other person is so difficult to deal with us because the problem is within ourselves! Thus Paul reminds us, “Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.” As Proverbs 3:7 says, “Do not be wise in your own eyes.”
When peace is impossible
Paul said in verse 18 to live at peace “if it is possible” and if “it depends on you.” He was recognizing that there are times when it is impossible for us to bring about peace in our own power. So what do you do when there is no peace? What do you do when it’s out of your hands?
1. Do not seek personal revenge (v. 17a, 19a)
Although I have listed this under the category of “when peace is impossible,” it probably fits under both categories. This is a principle that goes both ways.
Verse 17 says, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil…” Verse 19 says, “Do not take revenge, my friends…” Jesus also taught the same thing in the Sermon on the Mount. He said, “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also…If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles” (Matthew 5:39, 41). Jesus was not talking about social injustice; He was making reference to personal insults. As Proverbs 12:16 says, it is wise to ignore an insult.
2. Do what is right (v. 17b)
We do not need to let the meanness of another person drag us down to their level. Thus verse 17 continues, “Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody.” We must decide that even when the other person refuses to do what is right, that we will do what is right. Even when we cannot keep the peace, we can keep our integrity.
3. Let God avenge (v. 19b)
Verse 19 begins by saying, “Do not take revenge” but the verse goes on to say, “leave room for God’s wrath.” That is, we do not take revenge for personal insults and injuries, but we do make room for God to work his vengeance, particularly against social injustice.
When the Hebrews fled across the Red Sea and Pharaoh chased them, God allowed the Egyptians to drown in the sea, and Exodus 15 records the song of rejoicing that Moses sang at their defeat. Proverbs 11:10 says that “when the wicked perish, there are shouts of joy.” While it is a virtue to overlook a personal insult, it is not a virtue to overlook a social injustice. The former is gracious; the latter is gross negligence.
4. Overcome evil with good (v. 20-21)
Paul says, “’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.’ [A quotation of Proverbs 25:21-22.] Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
We can read Romans 12:20-21 on two levels: On a personal level, “kill him with kindness.” If your enemy is hungry, feed him. Let his evil be in such contrast to your goodness, that evil will be conquered by good. You may change his heart. On a social level, God will bring about the vengeance, often by using the judicial system, law enforcement and the military to bring about justice. In this way, you are leaving room for God’s wrath.
To sum up, how do you deal with difficult people? If possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with them. If possible, be a blessing, be empathetic, be agreeable, be humble. Respond to their personal insults with personal kindness. And if none of those things are possible, you may just need to walk away and let God deal with them.
How does God want you to deal with your difficult person?
It is a difficult issue, because as Christians it is not ours to avenge, but to leave it to the Lord. However, most Christians agree that there is such a thing as a “just” war when a greater evil is prevented. A good example is World War II and the ultimate death of Adolf Hitler.
There was a great German pastor in World War II named Dietrich Bonhoeffer who opposed Hitler. Bonhoeffer even participated in a plot to assassinate Hitler, and he was a Christian pastor! Why would he do that? Because Bonhoeffer knew that it would stop a greater evil.In the Old Testament, Moses was sent to Pharaoh and told to demand justice for the Hebrew slaves. God even sent a “death angel” as a final plague upon the Egyptians to set the people free. When the Hebrews fled across the Red Sea and Pharaoh chased them, God allowed the Egyptians to drown in the sea, and Exodus 15 records the song of rejoicing that Moses sang at their defeat. That is why Proverbs 11:10 says that when the wicked perish, there are shouts of joy.
How do we reconcile this with Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount about turning the other cheek and loving our enemies? I think we need to make a distinction between personal offenses and social justice. While it is a virtue to overlook a personal insult, it is not a virtue to overlook a tyrant who is oppressing a people. The former act would be consider an act of grace; the latter would be considered a gross negligence of justice.
I cannot judge the hearts of those who shouted and jumped for joy at the news of Osama bin Laden’s death. I’m sure for many, it was a hateful rejoicing at a man’s death. However, for others, it may have been more of a celebration of justice being done, as we find in some of the psalms, such as Psalm 69:19-25. This psalm is quoted by Paul in Romans 11:9-11, and is applied to the death of Judas Iscariot by the early church in Acts 1:20. You will notice in Psalm 69 that the psalmist does not ask for an opportunity to personally harm his enemy, but he asks God to bring about justice, which is actually the same thing we read in Romans 12:19, where we are told to “leave room for God’s wrath.” Thus as a Christian, I do not rejoice that a man is dead, but I do rejoice that God executed His justice to end an evil terrorist who will never be able to blow up another building or murder any more defenseless people.