Toughest People to Love

How to Understand, Lead, and Love the Difficult People in Your Life

Chuck DeGroat. Toughest People to Love: How to Understand, Lead, and Love the Difficult People in Your Life. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014. 160 pp. $14.00.

Chuck DeGroat admits his new book will be a disappointment to you if you are looking for a complete manual on “fixing” the problem people in your life. Instead he has provided something much richer: a resource to help all of us deal with the division that brokenness has inflicted on our hearts, and to effectively lead others to do the same. In short, DeGroat invites us to take seriously the lifelong work of pursuing wholeness in Christ and to help the people God has placed in our lives—especially those most broken and challenging—to find in him the answers to their deepest problems. Wholehearted flourishing in Christ, DeGroat contends, is the vision on which we must set our sights—digging deep when it comes to being disciples and making disciples of others. Along the way, the associate professor of pastoral care and counseling at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan, boldly challenges many of our preconceived notions about just what that flourishing looks like.

Let me just say right off the bat that Toughest People to Love: How to Understand, Lead, and Love the Difficult People in Your Life is one of the most helpful books I have read in many months. DeGroat's biblical insights are presented in a fresh, vivid way—the book has no dry stretches—and his personal humility and compassionate heart are evident throughout. He has an uncommon ability to communicate genuine warmth and appreciation for human frailty via the written word. It is because of these qualities that he ingratiates himself to readers almost immediately.

I also want to stress that this book is for everyone, not just pastors or business executives or those providing soul care in clinical settings. We all lead people in some sphere of life—even if just in the home—and have the potential to point them toward or away from Christ.

DeGroat grounds his work in the commonality we all share: namely, the wearing down of our souls that comes as a result of living in a fallen world pervasively corrupted by sin. As he puts it, each of us has a “long, invisible bag” of traumatic experiences. Into these bags we tend to stuff the parts of ourselves—sin patterns, yes, but also eccentricities or benign character traits which have drawn unfair criticism—that we believe others deem unacceptable. This process starts in childhood and by midlife the bags become heavy.

DeGroat says each of us must do business with the bag. Otherwise, we spend our lives hiding, like Adam and Eve in the immediate aftermath of the Fall, and living out of a “false self.” This only creates distance with God and others as we turn our gaze inward. DeGroat says that opening the bag, however, invites us to see our lives in light of how God is working in them and to start asking meaningful questions: How do I tend to hide? What about my upbringing contributes to this pattern? Does God really want a relationship with me, despite knowing the darkness of my heart? Am I curious about the ways other people hide and stirred with compassion to help them?

Practical Help

DeGroat devotes a significant amount of time speaking specifically to how we invite God's best work in the lives of the people we find most difficult to lead or understand. He groups these into three categories and spends a chapter on each: persons with what psychologists would call personality disorders, persons battling addictions, and persons who are simply foolish.

These chapters in the heart of the book are immensely helpful; I do not have the time nor space to go into each in detail. Suffice it to say that DeGroat's counsel is realistic yet not hopeless. Getting such categories of persons to assess their lives honestly is generally long, hard work that will require great patience and wisdom. Yet DeGroat wouldn't offer all the practical tips he does if he didn't have confidence that God will, in some cases, choose to open difficult peoples' eyes to their destructive behavior and its devastating impact on others. He says he's actually had the joy of seeing this happen firsthand in many of the persons he's counseled over the years.

A Threefold Approach

Among the most helpful parts of this section is the threefold approach DeGroat employs in helping people. Though the approach is outlined in the chapter on addictions, he says he also uses it to counsel people with very different issues. The approach has three levels: functional, systemic, and transformational.

The functional is where the seriousness of the issue at hand is addressed, the person's willingness to take responsibility for the problem is gauged, and a strategy is pieced together to help. This could include suggesting new behavioral choices, setting boundaries, and putting together a care team and determining how it will operate.

The systemic level could best be described as the outworking of that strategy, during which time family-of-origin issues and other factors possibly playing a role in the troubling behavior may be explored. During this time, the person being helped takes a hard look at his inner life and relationships with other people, honestly grappling with where hurt has occurred and where change is needed. This level often involves formal therapy.

Finally, there's the transformational level. This is the point at which the real change takes place. In DeGroat's hypothetical example of a recovering alcoholic named Roy, “Not only would he need to make functional, behavioral shifts and tackle systemic issues, but in relinquishing his substitute love—alcohol—he would be transformed, open to a new depth of love in God.” In other words, whatever help or guidance we're offering to someone like Roy isn't complete unless we're asking him to discern where he is in his spiritual life. DeGroat puts it well: “As much as functional strategies are vital and systemic awareness . . . is crucial, healing that goes to the core is healing that is done in union with God” (81). That is a consistent theme of DeGroat's and one reason I love this book. He knows any lasting, consequential change must be of the Lord; indeed, his only real description of the leader's role at this transformational level is prayer.

Fools and the Path of Wisdom

I also found the section on foolish people poignant and sobering. For starters, DeGroat wisely acknowledges there are times we all act foolish. But a growing believer in Christ will recognize a troubling sin pattern, particularly if it's pointed out to him, and begin to do battle with it. A fool, on the other hand, will not or cannot see his folly for what it is and therefore does nothing to correct his sin or to put a stop to its devastating ramifications for those in his life.

DeGroat observes there are three kinds of fools we encounter in life: simple fools, self-consumed fools, and sinister fools. While a simple fool may just be one unfamiliar with the way of wisdom, the self-consumed and sinister fools are marked by arrogance, blindness, and a lack of empathy, all of which are willfully used to manipulate others.

The differences really matter. DeGroat suggests a gentle, patient approach with a simple fool, hoping that time provides the opportunity for the person being helped to piece together his story in a way that brings new understanding. “We're not called to make people feel bad or guilty,” he writes. “We're called to lead them to an honest appraisal of themselves, which in turn leads to honesty before God and others” (91).

Dealing with the other two types—and the difference between them is mostly a difference in degree—will require thick skin and sometimes tough medicine. A person helping a self-consumed or sinister fool will need a secure knowledge of his identity in Christ, a resolve to not play the fool's manipulative games, and the discipline to set and keep clear boundaries, among other things. DeGroat also contends that acting in love may mean establishing consequences for fools who do not find the way of wisdom; he mentions termination, church discipline, and separation/divorce as possibilities. He also advises checking one's heart before bringing such consequences into play, for there should be no joy in these acts of disconnection even though they're likely to bring some measure of relief to difficult circumstances.

DeGroat makes it clear that working with challenging people also offers leaders the chance for needed personal growth and self assessment. Then he transitions into the final phase of the book, aimed at helping us deal with ourselves. This includes an excellent chapter on embracing the dark night of the soul—life's losses, pain, and failures—as essential to growing in wisdom, patience, and compassion. Yes, this is counterintuitive, he acknowledges, but the dark night is like God's surgical knife cutting out the cancers that disease our souls. Accepting it, then, is an integral part of living a life of wholeness; otherwise, our ability to live and love will be stifled. If we look at these times of struggle as interruptions to “the good life,” DeGroat observes, we do ourselves and those we're trying to help a disservice. They are God-ordained means to a cruciform life that connects us more closely with Christ.

Final Thoughts

This book, as should be clear by now, has many strengths and much good to offer. DeGroat even manages to mostly avoid the longstanding controversies over psychology's relationship to Christianity. Though he clearly accepts certain findings of psychology and neuroscience, he doesn't paint himself into a corner in evangelicalism's “counseling wars” by setting his flag in one camp. He concedes he takes flak from both sides: those in the church who feel he diminishes the role of sin, and those in psychology who feel he overemphasizes sin and responsibility. He believes psychological labels can be helpful if they broaden our understanding of a given person, yet can also be harmful if they only or primarily cause us to see a person more narrowly. And when it comes to whether addiction is a disease or a choice, DeGroat says the Bible seems to hold both realities in tension. He is compassionate in terms of taking biological predisposition into account, but does not let addicts off the hook for their behavior. DeGroat struggles with what he calls the “endless debates” on these matters, and shrewdly avoids wading into them beyond stating his best understanding. By doing so, he has probably increased his chances of gaining an audience in each of the various camps, and that is a good thing. In short, he keeps his focus squarely on helping ourselves and others, not settling debates.

Any criticisms I have of this book are minor. For instance, I'm not totally clear on the differences between the sinister fool of chapter five and the narcissist personality of chapter three. Both seem like chronic, selfish manipulators to me. More elaboration might have been helpful, but I'm really tinkering at the margins here as DeGroat acknowledges some of the characteristics of the difficult people he describes tend to be shared across various categories.

There were also a couple spots in which I initially wondered whether DeGroat was denying the doctrine of original sin, such as when he assures readers that a precious little child is not a dirty rotten sinner (33). Rest assured, however, that DeGroat is confessionally Reformed and believes in original sin (I asked him). His point is that our sin grows the more we “hide” amid the tough realities of life, and that sin has not totally erased the image of God in human beings; there is deep brokenness in this fallen world, yes, but also beauty.

Toughest People to Love is a wonderful contribution to contemporary evangelical discipleship/counseling literature. It has the potential to reshape the paradigms and goals of individual discipleship, counseling, and motivational leadership within various institutions and organizations. It will only be a disappointment to you if your goal is to “fix” people and control them. But if the subtitle describes your motivation for reading this work—if you really want to better understand, lead, and love the difficult people in your life, including yourself—you will find Chuck DeGroat a skilled, wise, and compassionate guide. As he writes in his closing paragraphs, “Living from your core, where the Spirit dwells, you can relinquish the need to fix, to control, and to conquer, and drink in God's life, a life animated by peace, rest, wholeness, love, forgiveness, and surrender. It's the good life.” Amen.