DEALING WITH PROBLEM PEOPLE
In Part 5, we saw how others can help us in our fight against anxiety. Here, however, we are going to do a reality check, for Christians don’t claim for a moment that they or the church is perfect. The church is full of problems because it is full of problem people. Everyone in it is a sinner, albeit saved by grace, but nonetheless influenced by unredeemed human flesh. The church grows spiritually in direct proportion to how well we deal with anxiety and other sins in our midst.
The apostle Paul said: “We urge you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted [the anxious], help the weak, be patient with everyone. See that no one repays another with evil for evil, but always seek after that which is good for one another and for all people” (1 Thess. 5:14–15).
Group number one is “the unruly.” Let’s call them the wayward. They’re never in step. “Get with the program” is something they hear often. When everyone else is moving ahead, they’re going backward. Out of either apathy or rebellion, they’ve gone spiritually AWOL, and they’re not interested in learning or serving.
Group number two is “the fainthearted”—the worriers. They fear the unknown. They hate change; they love tradition; they want no risk. All the issues of life seem far more than they can bear. They’re usually sad, perpetually worried, sometimes in despair, and often depressed or discouraged.
The third group is “the weak.” These believers are spiritually and morally weak. Because of weak self-discipline, they tend to fall into the same sins over and over. You barely get them up on their feet and dust them off when suddenly, they’re back in the same hole again. They find it hard to do God’s will consistently. They embarrass themselves, their church, and their Lord. Thus they require a lot of attention.
The fourth group could be called “the wearisome.” Paul said to “be patient with everyone.” Some people we encounter require an extra degree of patience. You can pour your energy into them, and when you look to see how close they might be to the overall goal of Christ-likeness (Phil. 3:12–15), they seem further away. Everything distracts them—they are not focused individuals. They’re very exasperating because you make the maximum effort and get the minimum return. They don’t grow at a normal pace.
Group five is “the outright wicked.” Even though Paul was addressing Christians, he found it necessary to say, “See that no one repays another with evil for evil, but always seek after that which is good for one another” (1 Thess. 5:15). There are, sad to say, Christians who commit sins against other Christians. They break up marriages. They defile daughters. They steal. They gossip. They slander. They falsely accuse.
If a church or a fellowship group is to grow, it must minister to all five groups. The Lord would have you understand these groups of people so that you might use your spiritual gifts to help them. Then they, in turn, will be able to help others. Help a worrier not to worry, and your own worries disappear in the process. That is an effective way to attack anxiety.
Perhaps their way of sitting on the bench is moving farther back in the pews, hanging out on the fringes. They’re the first to cut out when the service ends. Either out of apathy or rebellion, they resist involvement. They are unwilling to go beyond an audience mentality.
Scripture says to admonish the wayward. If you know believers who are not doing their duty—not using their gifts, not being supportive of the team effort—come alongside them and try to put some sense into their heads. One way to do that is to speak softly and say, “I’ve noticed you you’re not involved in a ministry, and you tend to criticize the church and / or fellow believers. You do realize that if you continue on that path, there are spiritual consequences, and I do not want you to experience them.”
When you truly love someone, you don’t hesitate to warn him or her. It’s not because of some agenda, but because you don’t want them to have to deal with the inevitable consequences of being spiritually aloof. We want them and everyone else in the church or group to know the fullness of God’s blessing.
This confrontation is often necessary. It’s all abour fellowship; it’s being involved in the lives of fellow believers—including the troublesome ones.
These individuals aren’t on the fringes; they’re huddled in the middle. They don’t want to get near the edge—it’s too scary! They need encouragement from God’s Word, which is the solution to anxiety.
Paul described these anxious believers as “the fainthearted” (Gk., oligopsuchos). That term comes from two words meaning “small” and “soul.” Challenges threaten such individuals. Since they like what is familiar, they tend to cling to traditions. They are reluctant to do anything that hasn’t been done before; they love what is safe. They want a risk-free life with absolute security.
Since absolute security is impossible in this life, they’re usually depressed. They lack the strength to move out with the church or fellowship group and try new ministries. Because they fear persecution, they find it difficult to share the gospel. Instead of rising above their problems, they sink under everything. They seem to have a great weight upon them. Consequently, they themselves are like weights that the church or fellowship group needs to drag around. They lack vision and fear failure.
Often they admire courage and a sense of adventure, but rather than learning to cultivate those virtues, they find it much easier to fall into familiar patterns of anxiety.
Paul said simply to encourage them. If you know someone who’s fearful, worried, melancholy, depressed, or despairing, the Lord wants you to come alongside and develop a friendly relationship with him or her. If you tend to be that way yourself, develop friendships with godly people who will console, comfort, strengthen, reassure, cheer, refresh, and soothe you from God’s Word. You will be a different person because such relationships bring relief from anxiety.
What kinds of encouragement bring the most relief? The encouragement of prayer to the God of all encouragement, the encouragement of a secure salvation, the encouragement of our sovereign God working out everything for the believer’s good, the encouragement of the love of Christ, the encouragement of the final resurrection and the righting of all wrongs. All that and more help the worried to participate in the adventure of life.
Paul said to “help the weak” (1 Thess. 5:14). Being weak in faith is one aspect of this problem. It characterizes believers who are so hypersensitive to sin that they see things as sin that aren’t really sin at all. Paul described such people as weaker brothers in his letters to the Roman and Corinthian Christians (Rom. 14—15; 1 Cor. 8). He implored these churches to be sensitive to their concerns.
Often these individuals come to Christ out of a particularly sinful lifestyle. They fear that anything associated with that lifestyle might drag them back into their old habits. They are susceptible to a wounded conscience that could lead them into more sin and more weakness. Therefore, they must not be pushed into doing anything they don’t think is right, even though Scripture gives no definitive yes or no about it. With help, largely in the form of patient instruction, they will understand the Word of God more perfectly over time (see Acts 18:24– 28).
Another group of people who could be classified as weak is those who keep falling into the same sins over and over again. They are morally weak. Probably, James had them in mind when he said, “Is anyone among you sick? Then he must call for the elders of the church and they are to pray over him” (James 5:14). The word translated “sick” is the same one translated “weak” in 1 Thessalonians 5:14. When you’re feeling weak spiritually and morally, seek out those who are strong in the faith and ask for their prayer support.
In addition to prayer, the weak need “help” (1 Thess. 5:14). Paul used a Greek term that means “to hold tightly to,” “cling to,” “support,” and “hold up.” Here’s what it looks like in action: “Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:1–2). We help the weak by picking them up and then holding them up.
How do we do that? Again, intimacy in the fellowship is required. The church or fellowship group grows when the sheep help take care of the sheep—when we care enough to admonish the wayward, encourage the worried, and help the weak. That type of ministry necessitates involvement in people’s lives.
“Be patient with everyone,” Paul said. It’s easy to get frustrated, angry, and exasperated with some people. You can give so much and receive so little in return. That’s especially common in discipleship relationships. If you’ve discipled people over the years, you know what it is like to have a major disappointment.
No one knew that better than Jesus. You can almost hear the exasperation in His voice when He said, “Oh you of little faith!” You’ll find that exclamation many times in the Gospels. It’s as if Jesus was saying to His disciples, “When are you guys gonna get what I’ve been trying to tell you all this time?” But He was patient with them, and in time they blossomed.
Whether you’re a pastor or not, how would the Lord have you respond to wearisome people? By being patient with them. How patient? More patient than you’ve been. Think how patient God has been with you. In fact, God describes Himself as “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger” (Ex. 34:6). Patience is a communicable attribute of God, which means it should also characterize His children.
Recall this interchange between Peter and Jesus: “‘Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven’” (Matt. 18:21–22). Such compassion and personal love change people—even the wearisome.
This group has a whole verse dedicated to it: “See that no one repays another with evil for evil, but always seek after that which is good for one another and for all people” (1 Thess. 5:15). It is the most difficult circumstance we as Christians face—when we suffer painful treatment and abuse not from the world, but from our own brothers and sisters in Christ. It can cause the deepest pain, but our Christian faith must work at this level too.
Be prepared: There are people in the church or your fellowship group who will hurt you. They’ll harm you directly by attacking you face-to-face with wicked words. They’ll harm you indirectly by gossiping and slandering you behind your back. They might eliminate you from their social circle or keep you out of a ministry because of jealousy, bitterness, or anger. They might even break up your marriage, or influence one of your children toward sin. This is malicious harm we’re talking about here!
Believers who could even contemplate doing such terrible things to other believers must consider this sober warning:
“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it is better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of its stumbling blocks! For it is inevitable that stumbling blocks come; but woe to that man through whom the stumbling block comes! … See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that their angels in heaven continually see the face of My Father who is in heaven.” (Matt. 18:6–7, 10)
The context of the passage makes it clear that these “little ones” are believers —children of God—not just children in general. Nonetheless, some believers will have the audacity to do just that. How are we to respond when we are on the receiving end of their wickedness? Paul said, “See that no one repays another with evil for evil” (1 Thess. 5:15). Don’t retaliate.
Only God has the right to retaliate. A text that closely parallels our passage in 1 Thessalonians 5 states this:
“Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. “But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Rom. 12:17–21)
Perhaps you’ve thought of a text elsewhere that appears to contradict this teaching. Doesn’t the Old Testament grant the right to demand an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and a life for a life? Yes, but that was a governmental mandate for punishment to fit the crime. It was never a license for personal vengeance. Jesus addressed that misapplication of the governmental mandate, saying essentially, “You’ve perverted the law of God to the point of thinking you’re supposed to hate your enemy. I’m here to tell you God wants you to love your enemy and do good to those who do evil to you” (see Matt. 5:43–45).
Obey Jesus by saying to yourself, “These believers ought to know better, but in spite of how wickedly they’ve treated me, I’m going to return their hostility with goodness.” That applies not only to believers but also to all who mistreat us. As Paul said it, “Always seek after that which is good for one another and for all people” (1 Thess. 5:15). He expanded on the same concept to the Galatians: “While we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith” (Gal. 6:10).
The church or fellowship group does well as a whole when the shepherds and the sheep bond together to correct the wayward, encourage the worried, hold up the weak, be patient with the wearisome, and repay the wicked with love. That is the bigger picture on attacking anxiety.