Difficult People


Bunk Mates in Heaven

A pastor friend of mine quipped the other day: “There are some people I couldn’t warm up to even if I was cremated with them.”

I laughed, and then didn’t.

I know exactly what he means. There are people who, no matter how hard I try, I just don’t like. They grate on me. They get under my skin. Their laugh, their voice, their manner, their habits, their prevailing attitude or tone or bent – something about them irks or irritates me, and just their showing up forces me to practice Lamaze breathing.

I know this confession outs me for the spiritual pygmy I am. But there it is.

Jesus commanded us, in no uncertain terms, to love each other. But then gets meddlesome, and goes on to define the scope of “each other”: friends, enemies, the least of these, the worst of these, the brother who sins against us again and again and again. It’s a big list. He virtually leaves no one out.

Fine and well. Alright, I’ll do it. I love them. There. You happy?

But you never said I had to like ‘em, right?

Ah, but I’m a pastor. I have, on top of the general command to obey everything Jesus says, one large extra burden: I will be judged more severely if I get it wrong. I cannot become an accuser of the brethren. I cannot choose which sheep I feed or protect, and which I leave in the gulch or to the wolves. I don’t have the luxury of contempt or neglect.

So over the nearly quarter century I’ve been a pastor, I’ve learned and practiced, failed at and started over with, several disciplines that help me love – and even like – those I’d rather avoid. Here are four (of many):

  • Remember the state I was in before Christ found me. Jesus wasn’t drawn to me because of my winsome ways or attractive personality. I was a wretch. I was a starving ragged stinking prodigal, still dripping with piggish muck, when he ran to kiss me. It was my desperate condition that awakened his compassion. He welcomed me and rescued me, not because of who I am, but because of who he is. He calls us to love like that.
  • Tap the power that is in me through the risen Christ. Paul says (in 2 Corinthians 5) that Christ’s loves compels us, because we are convinced his death and resurrection are for everyone. And so, he says, we no longer look at anyone from a worldly point of view. Christ not only gives us a heart transplant: he gives us an eye transplant. The more we steep in his love and grace, the more we see people – everyone – from a “heavenly point of view.” Christ gives us his very own eyes to see people with. Use them.
  • Value others above myself. Paul commands this in Philippians 2. It’s one of the most convicting verses in Scripture, because it’s not limited only to people we like. Paul is talking, for instance, to Euodia and Syntyche, two women who want to rip each other’s faces off (see Phil. 4). It is a sobering and humbling exercise to actually, tangibly do this for someone you don’t like – to value them above yourself, and then act on that value. Try it.
  • Remember where this all ends. I have a theory: the person we least like on earth will be assigned our bunk mate in heaven. I don’t think God will do this as a prank, though. I think he’ll do it so we can laugh with that person for a few thousand years about how petty and small-minded and self-centered we were, and rejoice with them for all eternity at how great is the love of God that he lavishes on us, that we should be called his children, and made one another’s brothers and sisters.

There may be people you couldn’t warm up to if you were cremated with them. But could you if you knew you were to spend eternity with them?


When I practice these things, and more besides, God changes me, slow but sure. My LQ – Love Quotient, Like Quotient – goes up.

How’s that going for you?



Getting a Grip



 “Like a city whose walls are broken down is a man who lacks self-control.”

   Proverbs 25:28


I was in a coffee shop the other day and a mom announced to her little guy – maybe 2 and a half years old – that it was time to leave. Little Guy didn’t want to leave. At first he ignored her, then he defied her, then he assailed her. To her credit, she remained calm. She spoke quietly. She stood her ground. She didn’t bargain. In the end, magnificently composed, she carried Little Guy out the door, thrashing and wailing all the way.

It got me thinking. It got me thinking about the difference between control and self-control. These two things – control and self-control – stand at opposite ends of the maturity spectrum. The toddler was a live-action reel of a fierce effort to control. And he was a spectacle of immaturity. The mom was a breathtaking portrait of impeccable self-control. And she was the epitome of maturity.

Toddlers brim with the impulse to control (even as they bungle the execution). A 3-year-old will resort to wild-eyed tantrums, incessant whining, ear-piercing screams, coy manipulation, and flat-out demand to try to get their way: to control their parent, or sibling, or playmate, or the situation at hand.

The irony is bitter: as the toddler’s attempts to control things escalate, his ability to control himself deteriorates. His need to control makes him more out-of-control. The results are not pretty.

This all looks different in adults – usually. Certainly, we’ve all met 28- or 33- or 59-year olds (sometimes in the mirror) who, in an increasingly desperate effort to control people or situations, throw tantrums, power up, make threats, emotionally blackmail, and so on.

But most of us, by age 19 or so, have an epiphany of sorts: that the louder we shout, the less others listen. That the more we manipulate, the further others back away. That the more we toss a fit, the more others look at us and think, “What a sad strange little man.”

That’s the epiphany. But what we do with it matters a great deal. It determines whether we really grow up or not. The truly wise become deeply humble. They realize that the only kind of control the Bible endorses – indeed, commands – is self-control. The New Testament has 16 separate exhortations to be self-controlled. It’s a major theme.

So the wise heed that, and work with the Holy Spirit to get a grip on themselves. They receive the comfort, the rebuke, the strength, and the instruction of God himself to discipline their thoughts, emotions, attitudes, and actions. They give up trying to control others and step up being in control of themselves.

The lovely irony is that the self-controlled exert wide influence. People listen to them. Heed them. Seek them. Follow them. In other words, the self-controlled accomplish the very thing the controlling desperately want but only ever sabotage.

Fools do the opposite. A full-on fool keeps up the toddler-like behavior right into their dotage. I saw this once in an 82-year-old man. It was… pathetic. But a semi-cocked fool has the epiphany – that just becoming louder, meaner, wilder only ever backfires – and instead of changing themselves they simply change their strategy. They seek to control by subtler, more socially acceptable means: withholding affection, icy silence, veiled threat, simmering anger, nagging, and so on.

Here’s what I’ve learned: every impulse to seize control is the Holy Spirit’s invitation to practice self-control. Every nerve jolt to freak out, melt down, start yelling, fly into rage or panic is a divine cue to slow down, breathe deep, start praying, and lean into God. Every instinct to control something is God’s nudge to control myself.

I don’t always get it right. When I don’t, I not only lose self-control: I lose influence. I lose respect. I lose dignity.

When I do get it right, I gain all around.

Lord, help me get a grip on myself.


Questions: When have you seen this dynamic at work – the more you try to control, the more it backfires? What heart disciplines have helped you get a grip on yourself?

Are you Stoning Your Prophets? Part 3

Are you Stoning Your Prophets? Part 3



I decided to write one more post on handling criticism and praise. My wife noted an omission in my last two posts: any discussion on how to guard our hearts when praised or criticised. So this is that.

Both praise and criticism can damage us. Praise can swell our head, criticism poison our heart. Praise can lull us into vanity and complacency. Criticism can waylay us with resentment and defeat. I’ve been on both sides of this. I’ve had seasons when so many people were applauding me, I became entitled and smug. And I’ve had seasons (why do they seem so much longer?) when so many people found fault with me, I became testy and sullen.

I call it the criminal/god syndrome: one minute, people treat you as sub-human, the next they hail you as super-human, with hardly a pause in between to see that you’re only human.

The Apostle Paul’s suffered the criminal/god syndrome, and gives us a model of how to deal with it. Two stories from Acts illustrate. One is in Acts 14:8-20. Paul, with Barnabas, is in Lystra and heals a man born lame. The crowd goes wild. They hail them as gods, and try to sacrifice burnt offerings to them. They protest vigorously but barely restrain the crowd from worshipping them. But that soon changes. Some of Paul’s enemies show up and persuade the crowd that he’s really a scoundrel. Next thing, the crowd stones Paul, drags him outside the city, and leaves him for dead.

He goes from god to criminal in a breath.

The other story is in Acts 28:1-6. Paul is shipwrecked on the island of Malta. A poisonous snake slithers from the brushwood and bites him: “When the islanders saw the snake hanging from his hand, they said to each other, ‘This man must be a murderer; for though he escaped from the sea, the goddess Justice has not allowed him to live.’ But Paul shook the snake off into the fire and suffered no ill effects. The people expected him to swell up or suddenly fall dead; but after waiting a long time and seeing nothing unusual happen to him, they changed their minds and said he was a god” (Acts 28:4-6).

He goes from criminal to god in a blink.

No one is immune to this syndrome, especially leaders. The more you try to make a difference in the world, the more liable you are to be seen as one or the other, a criminal or a god: one minute a hero, the next a villain; one minute a sage, the next a fool; one minute worthy of swooning adulation, the next deserving brutal rejection.

How did Paul handle it?

Simply and profoundly, he knew his identity in Christ. He knew his role and value in the eyes of God. He took his deepest cues from his Father in heaven. Whether treated as a criminal or a god, Paul remained rooted in his true identity: a servant of the Most High God, and a servant of others.

He best sums it up in 1 Corinthians, to people who had swung from lionizing him to vilifying him. He writes to them:

This, then, is how you ought to regard us: as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the mysteries God has revealed. Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful. I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. At that time each will receive their praise from God (1 Corinthians 4:1-5).

Herein lies a whole spirituality of dealing with the criminal/god syndrome, of handling praise and criticism. Here are the key points:

  •  Know your identity in Christ and your call in God. Paul knows he’s a servant of Christ – his identity- and that he’s entrusted with the mysteries of God – his call. He is bound to this, not to anyone else’s expectations or demands.
  • Be unswervingly faithful to that identity and call. Paul lives, neither to win man’s applause nor to avoid man’s criticism, but for one thing alone: to hear God’s “Well done, good and faithful servant.” He plays to an audience of One.
  • Care very little what others think of you. Paul simply refuses to give much weight to anyone who does not acknowledge his identity and purpose in Christ. The Greek for “I care very little” carries the sense, “your opinion is the least of my concerns.” Again, I emphasize that Paul is dealing here with those trying to pressure him to compromise his God-given identity and call. He is not deaf to honest critique: he’s just deaf to useless distraction.
  • Care very little what you think of you. Paul refuses even to judge himself. He knows how warped and skewed, how self-serving or self-defeating, our own self-assessments can be. So he avoids passing final verdict on himself.
  • Be able to look God in the eyes. Paul says his conscience is clear. How I apply this: Can I look God in the eyes? Am I confident that I can stand before God and, without shame, tell him what I’ve done and why?
  • Don’t assume you’re right. Even still, Paul does not pronounce himself innocent. It’s possible, he acknowledges, that he’s wrong. The jury’s still out, and so he denies himself any self-righteous posturing.
  • Trust God to judge finally and rightly. Paul knows that God in his time will render a perfect verdict – vindication, or condemnation. At that point, no earthly court’s verdict matters a whit. No human opinion, our own or another’s, means a thing. God deals with the real stuff – the motives of our heart – and gives a true, just and final judgement. It’s the only one that matters. Wait for it.
  • Live in such a way that you anticipate God’s praise. Paul anticipates that he will receive God’s praise. He lives for it. He endures brutal opposition in the hope of it. He never compromises his identity or his call, because he knows that man’s praise without God’s praise is nothing, but God’s praise, with or without man’s praise, is everything. The only prize he sets his sights on is God’s praise.


Who sees you as a criminal? A god? If that is messing with you, apply Paul’s remedy. I’d love to hear about it.

Are You Stoning Your Prophets? Part 2

Last week, I wrote about handling criticism. I promised a second installment. Here it is.

Years ago I read a story, the source of which I’ve now forgotten, about a young acolyte who approaches an old saint and asks how he can be made perfect. The old man says, “Tomorrow, go down to the graveyard, choose any burial plot, and spend the say praising whoever lies beneath.”

So he does. The young man returns in the evening and tells the old man that the mission’s accomplished. And he asks again, “How can I be made perfect?”

“Tomorrow,” the old man says, “return to the same grave, only this time spend the day cursing whoever lies beneath.”

So he does. The young man returns in the evening and tells the old man that the mission’s accomplished. And he asks again, “How can I be made perfect?”

“The first day you stood over the grave and gushed praised, did the grave’s inhabitant respond?”


“And today, when you spewed curses over the same grave, did he respond?”


“My son, when you can do likewise with the praises and curses of man, you shall be perfect.”

I only half agree.

Frankly, I’m not dead yet, and the praises and curses of man stir in me strong emotion, and immediate reaction. I think for all of us, while breath remains in us, we will find it so. Until our dying day, our emotions, to some extent, will ride the waves of what others think of us. Maturity consists, not in being dead to others’ opinions, but in shaping our response to their praise and curses so that we gain maximum benefit from both, and do minimum damage.

But here’s what I’m tempted to do: to cancel one with the other. I tend to use praise to cancel criticism, or (especially when I’m raw and vulnerable) criticism to cancel praise. In the first scenario, I think, “All my critics are wrong, because all my fans say I’m wonderful.” Or, alternately, I think, “All my supporters are wrong, because all my critics say I’m horrible.”

Neither is true.

I have formula I use:

Discount by at least 20% the praises of a supporter, and discount by at least 80% the curses of an enemy.

Both your fans and your foes have a skewed perception of you. You supporters, by definition, over-estimate your wisdom, goodness, insight, prowess, and the like. Your enemies, by definition, underestimate these things. The top layer of a supporter’s praise is usually pure flattery. The bottom layer of an enemy’s criticism is always thick bile.

But there are two voices you should especially pay attention to:

1)      A compliment from someone who routinely criticizes you

2)      A criticism from someone who routinely encourages you

When a chronic critic says “Thanks” or “Well done,” I pay attention. And when a habitual exhorter says “What was that?” or “That’s not up to par,” I pay attention. I think both these voices approach something close to true reality.

Two quick stories to illustrate.

In my first church, the person who least wanted me to be their pastor – who voted against my coming, who came out guns blazing on every idea I proposed, who muttered and griped about my preaching – stood up as I announced my resignation, confessed to all that he never wanted me as his pastor, but wanted to be the first to say he wished I would stay.

That had my full attention.

On the other side, when a friend who’s always exhorted and defended me recently said he was disappointed in me, that got my full attention.

I’m not dead yet, and not yet made perfect. But between now and then, I want to get the most benefit out of both praise and criticism, and do the least damage.


How have you handled both praise and criticism? Does my formula – discount a supporter’s praise by at least 20%, and an enemy’s curses by at least 80% – sound accurate to you? What percentages would you use?

Would I, Could I, Should I?

I’m going to sharpen my focus for this column. Each week, I will zero in on one of three themes: Leadership, Creativity, or Spirituality. These are my three grand obsessions. They are the large prisms through which I refract the world. Virtually everything I muse on has some touch point in one of these three areas – leadership, creativity, or spirituality – or in all three of them. Indeed, these three things are not separate, not in my head anyway: for me, they braid together so tightly that each intimately touches on the others. But I will, for the sake of clarity and brevity, focus on just one each week.

Today, leadership.

I was talking with someone recently who said that their boss typically gets them to do tasks he’s too afraid to do himself: correct fellow employees, confront exploitative clients, clean up messes.

There’s another word for someone like that: Coward.

This person’s verdict: “I like my boss. I just have zero respect for him.”

Every leader should pay attention here. All who have been given responsibility toward and influence over others – bosses, parents, pastors, teachers, etc. – must steward that responsibility and influence with utmost integrity, humility, industry, and courage. By all means, seek to be liked. But even more, earn respect. Nothing guts influence faster than forfeiting respect.

As I thought about this person’s boss, it struck me that he had committed the fatal error of abdicating responsibility rather than delegating it. The difference is subtle in practice but glaring in effect. It’s the difference between dumping a task on someone because you’re too proud, lazy, or cowardly to do it yourself, versus empowering someone to do a task because, well, they’ll probably do it better than you would anyhow. And it’s your job to help them be great.

No leader worth his or her salt should ever ask anyone to do something they are not willing to do themselves. That is so axiomatic it needs no further argument or defense.

But every leader worth his or her salt must ask people, and often, to do things they best not do themselves. Here’s a short list of such things:

  • Ask someone to do what you don’t have time or energy for – you could do it and would do it, but it would demand more time or energy than you have.
  • Ask someone to do what you lack sufficient skill for – you could do it (or maybe not) and would do it, but you’d do it poorly, maybe disastrously.
  • Ask someone to do what you hired or recruited them to do – you could do it and would do it, but that’s what you brought them to the table for.
  • Ask someone to do what releases their potential – you could do it and would do it, but it over-extends you and under-develops them.


What would you add to this list?



While in Rome, Do as the Romans?


We're in southern Italy, in a breezy villa a short walk from the beach. The beach, embracing a wide expanse of blue-green sea, stretches the 3 km between the tiny seaside village of San Marco and the larger coastal town of Santa Marie. Perched directly above us is the historic village of Castellbate, clinging to the mountainside. It's quintessential Italy, at least the Italy I've imagined all my life. 
These next 2 weeks are the holiday part of my sabbatical. I've put aside my writing for 16 days to enjoy the sights, sounds, smells, foods, and sun of Italy and France.
And I love it all – with one exception: the driving. Or, more to the point, the drivers. I have witnessed – up close and personal – some of the most insane, dangerous, and aggressive drivers I've ever seen (and I've been to Thailand, India, Argentina, Bolivia, Kenya – you get the idea: I'm no stranger to madcap  drivers). Yesterday, a crazed Italian tried several times to force me off the road for the offense of driving too slow – and I was doing 10km over the limit, just to try to get him off my tail. He was driving a new SUV Volvo – maybe a hundred grand vehicle – but was willing to smash it up, it seemed, just to make a point. What's more, after he got by me, he kept pulling over to the side so that I would pass him and he could repeat his reckless antics. I was feeling my inner Hulk awakening. 
Wales has slowed me down. I have come to savor taking my time. And now Italy's roads want to force me back into my pattern of rushing. I am resisting with everything in me, but it is unnerving to be in a place where it's actually dangerous to drive the speed limit: you risk, literally, being run down. 
And the guy in the Volvo was not even running late – his road warrior antics must have delayed him 10 minutes. That's  the thing about being in a hurry: it's usually, literally, pointless. It's a soul condition, not a condition of lateness.
Just before my encounter with the Highway madman, we were having dinner in the picturesque city of Sorrento after an unforgettable day on the Island of Capri. I was thinking about the 3 hour drive home, and was anxious to get going, so asked the waiter for the bill even before my daughters were finished their meal.
"My friend," he said. "Slow down. You're on holiday. Relax."
Great advice. I just wish it applied to the roads here. In that at least, while in Rome I plan not to do as the Romans.