The Best Way to Respond to Negative People

Our friends had a four-year-old daughter and a son of fifteen months who was just learning to toddle and talk. The girl loved to show off her brother, particularly because he really knew only one word: “No!” Regardless of what he was asked, the answer was always “No!” even if he would sometimes nod as if trying to say yes.

Most hilarious, at least for the older sister, was when she offered her sibling candy, asking if he wanted any. His head would nod vigorously, his hand would reach longingly, but his little mouth kept saying “No!” So she would pull the treasure away, pop it in her own mouth, and laugh excessively.

Growling Dogs

It was comical at the time, but reminded me of people who have dotted the congregations of my ministry. One man, dominant in his family and prominent in the church, was secretly called “No-it-all” by his children. His first response to any request from them, as well as any proposal in the church, was “No!”

In another congregation, a woman proudly told me that she and her husband were self-appointed watchdogs for God, determined to “keep things from getting out of hand.” That meant nixing any change suggested from any quarter.

And then there was George. I’m not sure how his personality wiring got its settings, but no matter what anyone said to him, there was an immediate four-fold deceptive response:

  • He smiled brightly, as if you had just declared the most amazing thing
  • He nodded, as if agreeing with you
  • He grabbed for your hand, as if to shake it (but I learned quickly that it was meant to hold you in position until he had unloaded)
  • He then started talking with this invariable opening line: “But you have to understand…”

No matter what the topic, George was always against it, in seemingly the most amicable of ways.

Helpful Lessons

I have learned many things from negative people, mostly what they are not teaching, and without them ever having realized the instruction gained: patience, kindness, listening, forbearance, defusing arguments, disarming tensions, negotiating… I have also learned that I am not always right, and that sometimes my optimism or faith makes me blind to cautions that my negative sisters and brothers have better eyes for.

Yet I cannot believe that the gospel runs on negativity, or that a good “No!” which begins the turnaround of repentance is the last word of the gospel. After all, Paul was very clear about such things to the Corinthian congregation: “For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was proclaimed among you by me and Silvanus and Timothy, was not ‘Yes’ and ‘No,’ but in Him it has always been ‘Yes.’ For all the promises of God are ‘Yes’ in Christ. And so through Him, our ‘Amen’ is spoken to the glory of God” (2 Corinthians 1:19-20).

The prime antidote of impious negativity in the church was summarized well by a pastor colleague some years ago. His large church had decided to form “house churches” to nurture fellowship and discipleship. The elders, who had adopted the plan, committed themselves to leading or participating in these groups, even though not all were enthusiastic about it.

One elder dutifully attended his assigned house church, but skeptically and aloofly. He was a “No!” man, and did his best to keep everything within the parameters. He warned and quoted catechism.

The groups, though, had been created to gather diversity of age, social status, and gender into each small fellowship, and there was a young woman at every meeting who at first annoyed the elder. She didn’t know the catechism, and seemed ignorant about church structures. But she read her Bible all the time, and popped off references like she was a friend of Samuel and David and Isaiah and Jesus and Paul. And she had the irritating habit of telling her story, how she led a wasted life, how her sins had torn the life out of her, how Jesus had found her and transformed her and loved her like she never knew possible.

Speechless

The elder found himself becoming interested and then fascinated with her. While he talked about Christianity, often in negative ways, she breathed Christ in the most winsome manner. After a few months of meetings, he anticipated the little church meetings with enthusiasm, talking less and listening more.

When my friend asked the elder, later that year, how things were going, he expected the usual negative report and a demand that the church end this foolish experiment. Instead, the elder fairly wept, “Why did it take me sixty years to learn what it means to be a Christian?!”

Tricks can sometimes tame growling dogs, but only new eyes can transform hearts. Many nay-sayers I have known, who hear Jesus’ great yes spoken through enthusiastic lives, lose their bark.