How to Deal with Difficult People Who Refuse to Change

God shows you how to move forward in a room of fog.

Several years ago I found myself at odds with someone. This individual had spoken severely to our daughter, and I confronted this person with the truth—but in anger, and I failed to speak truth in love.

How to Deal with Difficult People Who Refuse to Change

(Photo by Photodune)

Later, I tried to get together and talk it through. I knew I needed to ask for forgiveness for how I said what I said. But those in authority asked me to leave it alone until later. Although I tried to comply at first, I felt miserable keeping quiet. I came to realize I needed to ask forgiveness, no matter what.

The only way I felt I could honor both the Lord and those in authority came by writing a letter and asking for forgiveness. I never heard back from the individual, nor did I expect to or need to. But I needed to do my part. I needed to reach out.

But it was tough.

Difficult People Need Forgiving

I really believe even when we know someone will refuse to forgive us we need to ask anyway. Genuinely. We need to make it sincere and honest, done with such integrity that allows us to walk away knowing we have honored God. Paul qualified his command appropriately:

If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. —Romans 12:18

The reactions of difficult people to our request for forgiveness may vary:

  • They may reject us.
  • They may say nothing.
  • They may offer a glib, obligatory, “I’ll try.”

But we have to gauge the success of our efforts by our obedience to God and not by other people’s disobedience to Him. That’s between them and Him. “Be patient with everyone,” Paul urged (1 Thess. 5:14).

We cannot force what God has yet to change in another person. Sometimes, God takes his time. After all, he has taken a long time with us, hasn’t He?

Our Tough Assignment with Difficult People

How do we show love when we don’t feel like it? We reach out with the goal of love without expecting any love in return.

  • We mail a birthday card or send a text with the simple words: “Thinking of you on this special day.”
  • We give a hug and don’t react against their cold reluctance.
  • For husbands and wives, Peter also gives inspired counsel that expresses itself daily by maintaining respectful, godly behavior, a gentle and quiet spirit, and living in an understanding way (see 1 Pet. 3:1-9).

Tough assignments, sure. But as Christians, they’re non-negotiable.

birthday cards

(Photo: By Raysonho @ Open Grid Scheduler / Grid Engine. Own work. CC0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The motivation behind these acts of love? They must find their roots in our love for God.

  • We cannot love others in order to receive love; that type of barter will always feel off-balance in our favor.
  • God has already loved us more than we could possibly imagine.
  • Our love has no expectations or goal but the glory of God, and practically, we show our love for God by loving others. Love remains our only outstanding debt (Rom. 13:8).

Even When Difficult People Refuse to Change

Sometimes all we see is the mountain before us, not the entire pathway God provides over it. But it’s there. We should take the first step anyway. “Is the Lord’s power too limited?” the Lord asked Moses, “Now you shall see whether my word will come true for you or not” (Numbers 11:23). We can still believe God without seeing or understanding his plan.

Let’s face it; other people in our lives may never choose to change. But neither do they have to change us. We can choose to follow God regardless, to forgive from the heart, and to move forward in genuine joy.

God’s sovereignty allows us all of that. Jesus died to give us that freedom.

Question: What has helped you deal with difficult people? To leave a comment, just click here.

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  • Kimberlee

    Thanks for this post, Wayne. A very close relative and her husband, who is a pastor, told me that I have the worst children that she’s ever seen in her entire life (they were 1 and 2 years old at the time). I wrote her an honest, heartfelt letter trying to ask her forgiveness for whatever I did to offend her. I never heard from her and only recently saw her just a few months ago at my dad’s funeral. She never acknowledged anything had happened, and certainly didn’t make any effort to reconcile with me. And she was still keeping a watchful eye on my kids and became angry with them when they didn’t eat everything on their plates!
    I think what I’ve learned is to have compassion and love for everyone. After all, we’re all so imperfect. Only Christ is perfect. And hurting people want others to hurt as well. All I can do is accept my part and see if they want to mend our broken relationship, but I have to let go of my expectations. Instead of wanting affirmation from others, I can look to Christ to meet those needs (John 4:14).

    • Wow, Kimberlee. That is so tough to hear. (Ask me how I know.) Your response shows the love and grace of Christ. With these types of folks we really can do no more than be nice and keep our distance—and explain to our kids how wrong these critics are. Your response is really so, so good. Thanks.

      • Sandra

        Hello Wayne, Thank you for such a wonderful post. Kimberlee I am so sorry that you have not been acknowledged,knowing this is a deep painful acceptance,although I am happy for you that you have such a loving perspective looking to Christ to meet those needs…I am touched in a healing way for my own “wanting affirmation from others” with family issue. I seem to be letting go. I mailed cards for years with no reply, recently discontinued to focus on those who I know will appreciate a God filled gesture. And yet I cannot stop myself from thinking to extend the love and joy of Christmas card to those who express no interest of me…..
        I will sit quietly with this message, so filled with wisdom and all of the input to this post , Colleen ,Kimberlee and Wayne comments are so nurturing with Grace.
        Thank You all for sharing your most precious thoughts, so real and true .
        Sandra

        • Thanks, Sandra. Our Lord certainly will honor our genuine efforts to reach out in love, even when it is snubbed. These thoughts also cause me to consider anyone I may have overlooked in any way. I’m grateful for your good words here. Thank you.

          • Sandra

            Wayne, you are welcome. I struggle with this issue greatly. It is my greatest intention to love, it is an issue of old family abuse where I spoke the truth and was not acknowledged as I had intended. I seemingly continued to give from the heart Love, distance grew and still does. when someone is in denial they will do all in their own power to destroy what has the truth and it is toxic energy. I have heard various thoughts around this specific issue ..not being invited to a neice wedding keeps stabbing at a hurt that I am healing and finding the heart to continue to forgive I keep at the forefront of much pain and abandonment for being a victim not heard or believed really. I need respect those boundaries of not wanting my presence as well and it seemingly does not feel right or true not to forward a wedding gift, yet I have not. It can be difficult to stand back where normally I am all Loving in this type of instance .
            Thank you again for sharing.
            Sandra

  • Wayne, what a great, grace-filled post. A friend of mine once said forgiveness is letting go of the wish for a different ending. While it is that and much more, it is about letting go and allowing God to do His work with others and within ourselves as only He can do.
    And Kimberly, I am so sorry you had such a painful experience. I am so very sorry. Wouldn’t it be great if people paused before making a judgment and considered there may be more going on than they can see at any given moment, it would remove a lot of hurt that goes on. For what it’s worth, I’ve been there many times….Wayne’s words are right on…what grace and character was revealed in your response. That’s incredible.
    Thanks again Wayne for this timeless reminder. Colleen

    • Thank you, Colleen. We all wish for a different ending sometimes, don’t we? It’s so tough, but essential, to release it to God. I try to remember it’s not over until it’s ALL over. Until then, we do our best to show grace.

      • Wayne,
        The hard part of “doing our best” is that sometimes I think it could always be better and yet, God’s peaceful comfort reminds me there are season’s where my best is just simply my best and He is okay with that. So thankful for His unconditional grace and yes, it’s not over until it’s ALL over…I love that! Thanks for your wise words and continued growth. Colleen

  • Kimberlee

    I appreciate all of your comments Colleen, Sandra, and Wayne. When we find ourselves dealing with difficult people, it does remind me a lot of Joseph and his brothers. Others can hurt and wound us, but it does always come back to how we will respond to the pain or broken relationship. I had to really grieve the broken relationship and trust that God will work in their lives. And if I find myself in a situation where someone angers me or I get upset, I just don’t want to become a difficult person and inflict that kind of pain on someone else and try to hurt them.

    • Kimberlee,
      I just finished a book titled “Exquisite Agony: Healing for Christians who have been hurt by other Christians”, by Gene Edwards. It’s a bit old and a little harder to find…I found a recent copy on Amazon. But, the whole focus is what you have said here…”I don’t want to become a difficult person…”; which as you said all depends on how we respond to the pain. I too have had broken relationships and the Lord has had to work within my heart to keep it open, soft, and tender in spite of feeling pain at times. I so appreciate your attentiveness to your inner life. Few people really examine their motives and choose to change in spite of our human feelings. In fact, I write a blog and just posted one today on justice…how we want God’s final justice to be in our present circumstances when in fact, He will have the final say in His time. So we press on, wait, forgive, trust, and do the next right thing. Great to connect with you here on Wayne’s page! Have a great day! Colleen

  • Michelle thick

    Thank you again. I have some pretty tough girls who aren’t forgiving each other and its hard to see that. When God can truely touch them. I’ll pray for that now. I do have one person I need to forgive and I will do it in a nice card. Even though I know it won’t help. But I’ll do that because It’s what God wants. Happy Thanksgiving
    God Bless

    • Good for you, Michelle. I agree with you, even though it may make no difference to someone else, it makes a difference in our own lives to honor the Lord.

  • Jeanelle Sims

    I have prayed many times ” Father help me see others through your eyes” I confess I don’t always do that but I am getting better at it. Father, I am so thankful to be your child Amen.

    • Yes, Jeanelle. Your prayer mirrors Paul’s command in Colossians 3:13: “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”

  • Breitnica Mascarenhas

    Only & only God’s grace…!!!