Site icon Jake Owensby

Dealing with Difficult People

Can’t we all just get along?

Rodney King said this on the third day of the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Violence had erupted across the city after a jury had acquitted three of four police officers accused of assault. The verdict seemed to many to be in sharp contrast to videos showing police officers beating King.

At the time his question seemed naive. Honestly, it still does. And yet people are still asking some version of the same question in response to today’s deep social, political, and cultural divisions.

Can’t we all just get along?

In fact, we humans can get along. But it takes work. Honest and often strenuous emotional, spiritual work. Life in community is hard because, well, people.

Look, we may have all encountered pathologically difficult people. People who lack empathy, who always insist on getting their own way, who criticize everything that isn’t their own idea, and who make a point of tearing other people down.

But life in community is not hard primarily because of a few narcissistic, self-absorbed, habitually destructive people. The challenge of living in community with each other is the cussedness of us ordinary, caring, generally reasonable, neighborly people.

For the most part we really do want to get along with each other. Nevertheless, we also struggle to do just that. Observing this about people, the philosopher Immanuel Kant said that human beings exhibit a sort of “social unsociability.” People: You can’t live with them and you can’t live without them.

We Christians feel the weight of our contradictory nature acutely. You see, Jesus taught to envision and to aspire to a Beloved Community. A community in which the well-being of all is the concern of each and the well-being of each the goal of all. 

That’s a remarkably high standard for common life. It defines us as Jesus-followers. And so our struggle to live into it is especially troublesome to us (and can make us look like hypocrites to the non-Christian world).

The apostle Paul confronted this reality in the earliest decades of the faith. The fledgling church in Corinth just couldn’t seem to get along. In fact, they had divided themselves into factions. 

Here’s how Paul put it: “It has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul’, or ‘I belong to Apollos’, or ‘I belong to Cephas’, or ‘I belong to Christ.’” (1 Corinthians 1:12)

In short, the Corinthians were committed to loving one another as Christ has loved us. Just like Jesus taught. Nevertheless, they bickered, trash-talked each other, and competed for the Jesus-loves-me-best prize.

Paul’s diagnosis of the sickness plaguing the Corinthians—and the cure that he prescribes for them—speaks directly to our own present circumstances. The disease is what Robert Bellah called “expressive individualism.” That’s why Paul eventually turns to discussing spiritual gifts.

Let me explain.

Each of us is born with certain gifts, and we yearn to exercise those gifts. So far so good. This is how Christians view human existence.

Problems arise—and conflict emerges—when we seek to exercise our gifts in service to the pursuit of our own personal fulfillment. Exercising our gifts—whatever they may be—becomes merely an act of self-expression. 

If self-fulfillment is the goal, I can express myself at your expense, in competition with you, or in utter indifference to you. This is no way to promote and nurture a beloved community.

By contrast, Paul writes, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” (1 Corinthians 12:7) In other words, our gifts weave us into community. We need each other in order to exercise our gifts. And the community needs each and every person’s gifts to become who we truly are. As the African philosophy of Ubuntu puts it, “I am because we are.”

Jesus’ and Paul’s vision of this community is something like this. Each of us has an essential gift to offer and every gift is welcome and appreciated by all. Even more to the point, each person is a gift needed by and gratefully received by everybody. 

Nobody is a misfit. Nobody is replaceable or interchangeable. Each of us is who we are because of who we are together. 

Let’s face it, this kind of community remains a work in progress. And maybe the best way to make progress is to admit that, from time to time, each one of us will be a difficult person. And the best prescription for dealing with a difficult person is love, patience, and forgiveness. Especially when the difficult person is you.

You can read more about how belonging and community give us hope in my latest book Looking for God in Messy Places. Just click here.

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