My pastor loves “sermon series,” and has just started up a new one entitled “Difficult People.” I must admit I am very much looking forward to it, because we all know such individuals… people who are obnoxious, who are problematic, who attempt to emotionally manipulate and control us or just plain have nothing nice to say about anything. And unfortunately, under the guise of being “nice,” all too often we allow ourselves to become doormats to them. Me in particular. I would love to be a Lois Lane type of character who says what she thinks and isn’t bossed around by anyone, but years of guilt-trip relationships have made me much less assertive than I need to be. Now I avoid confrontation much more than I enter into it because I do not like the accusations and guilt-trip that transpires whenever I challenge people.

This past week, I watched the miniseries Colditz. The main plot is about escaping a German prison during WWII, but secondary is the story of a young Scottish man who returns to London after a successful escape and falls in love with one of his friends’ girls. He suspects he cannot get her to love him the honest way so he manipulates her into a relationship by making her think the man she loves is dead. Bad idea and it all ends in death and tears. I felt a tad bit sorry for him because he was so pathetic and desperate — he was unwilling to take a chance that she might not love him for who he is regardless of her childhood sweetheart posted overseas. Nick had control issues. He could not take a chance. He was a manipulator. Ironic then that the first sermon would address “Manipulators.” I’m going to share my sermon notes in case there is anyone like me out there who needs to hear them, who may or may not have a controller in their lives.
Manipulators: know what they are doing and continue doing it because it works. They use guilt and emotion to get people to respond to them or do whatever they want. (“If you loved me…” “Well, if we were really friends…”) I could name dozens of classic manipulators in film and television, and I’m sure you can think of a few, too. No problem is ever their fault. They are always the victim. You know you are being manipulated if you find yourself constantly or frequently doing things you do not want to do to avoid an argument and increasing experience resentment toward the person that got you there. Manipulators can manipulate you out of your convictions, morals, standards, and sense of self worth.

Manipulators… have to get you alone. They lose their power in a group, so isolation is their weapon of choice. To pull you aside, to corner you where no one else can hear, to send you an e-mail or phone message that only you will read or hear. They do not do well in larger groups and tend to become anxious, jealous and angry if your relationship expands to include other people. (Because deep down, they are afraid of losing control over you.)

Manipulators… covet control. They have to have control because they are scared about not knowing what happens next. If they lose control, they panic. Since they cannot control life, they attempt to control people in it so they are always assured of the outcome — whatever they want it to be. They tend to “cling” to people who can be more easily controlled and strong-willed people make them nervous or defensive. Bottom line — they have control issues that need to be worked through.

Examples of Biblical Manipulators:

+ Jacob and Esau, particularly Jacob manipulating his brother out of his birthright for a bowl of lentils.

+ Herod’s stepdaughter, dancing for him and then demanding the head of John the Baptist. (Watch your words! Manipulators WILL use them against you!)

+ Sampson and Delilah, as she nagged and manipulated him into revealing the source of his strength.

(May I just say here — I don’t think Samson or Esau were very bright, but that doesn’t make the people who took advantage of them any less evil.)

How To Know If You’re Manipulated:

1. You can’t say “no” to this person.
2. You always feel guilt about your relationship.
3. You feel ultimately responsible for all problems within the relationship. (“How could you do this to me?”)
4. You compromise your values to please the other person.

We need to be careful about allowing other people to control us, since that is essentially idolatry — putting another human being before God in our estimation, either out of devotion, fear, guilt, or the desire to maintain the relationship. If you are constantly avoiding standing up for yourself with this person just to avoid an argument, then you need to take a step back and reconsider the “relationship.” (I might add here that allowing someone to get away with it is not scriptural either, particularly if they answer to the title of “Christian.” By permitting another person to control and manipulate you, you are indulging their sinful behavior.) Ultimately, we are called to be God Pleasers, not People Pleasers. We cannot do both. There is a difference between a Peacemaker and Appeasement.

How to Break the Power of Manipulation:

1. Recognize it for what it is — admit it is manipulation.
2. Verbalize it — to yourself and others. (“This is not going to work on me this time!”)
3. Redefine the relationship — and don’t ever compromise again.

Expect… well, all hell to break loose. People with control issues do not like other people pulling away from them or asserting themselves, so there are going to be sparks and in some cases, arguments. I can tell you from experience that it isn’t fun breaking out of this kind of a relationship … but it’s much better than the alternative, which is months (years?) of resentment and unhappiness, as well as self-loathing for allowing another person to control you. If a relationship has you walking on eggshells, nervous about how that person might respond to you, or constantly preparing for the worst — it’s not good. If you are more exhausted after seeing someone than lifted up, it’s a bad relationship. Sometimes the best thing is to end it — if you can. Sometimes the manipulators in our lives are spouses, siblings, children, or parents, in which case you have to find a dynamic that works.

Ultimately, it’s wrong to manipulate other people — and it’s wrong to allow yourself to be manipulated. Eventually, we have to stop being doormats and take a stand.