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What You Can Learn from the 'Sandpaper People' in Your Life

Mary Southerland

You will be glad to know that I have discovered the main problem in our world today. It’s people. If there were fewer people, there would be fewer problems.

Every day, we face the daunting challenge of getting along with the people who are part of our lives. Some of them make it easy, and some don’t. Some are kind and gentle, encouraging and replenishing, while others drive us to the brink of insanity and beyond. I fully realize that it might shock and dishearten you to realize that the roughest sandpaper person in your life may very well be living right under your own roof. The only possibility more disturbing is that you are one of the sandpaper people.

Understanding that we can all be abrasive at one time or another is an important admission in the quest to deal with difficult relationships effectively. However, there are still those people who live in abrasive mode, day in and day out, constantly rubbing us the wrong way. I call them “Sandpaper People.”

Who Are Sandpaper People?

Sandpaper people come in all shapes, sizes, and colors, and sometimes they are us! We try to change them, run from them, ignore them, and even take a stab at fixing them. If only it were that simple. It rarely is. When it comes to these problematic relationships, I have good news and bad news. The bad news is - there will always be sandpaper people in our lives. The good news is that difficult relationships are no exception to the fact that God’s Word is relevant and powerful enough to meet every need – including the ability and wisdom to deal with difficult people.

By choosing to love as God loves, we can learn how to love the unlovable, just as God loves us. It is crucial to note that these relationship principles are rooted in and flow from a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. When our relationship with God is right, every other relationship in life has the potential to be right. Sandpaper people need to be loved but wrongly believe that to experience love, they must first be lovable. The opposite is true and foreign to the way a sandpaper person thinks. We must first be loved in order to be lovable.

Because of this faulty pattern of thinking, a sandpaper person will look for love in all the wrong places, demanding it instead of simply accepting it. Their abrasive behavior, a desperate attempt to hold emotional hostages until the ransom of love is paid, drives away the very ones who would give them the love they seek. We grow impatient with their emotional antics. But in God’s eyes, impatience is a love problem.

A heart saturated with love leaves no room for impatience. When we are filled with love, little will irritate us, not even the abrasive behavior of sandpaper people. But when we are filled with anger, almost everything will irritate us, especially the behavior of sandpaper people.

Creating an Emotional Allowance

“Be humble and gentle. Be patient with each other, making allowance for each other’s faults because of your love” (Ephesians 4:2, NLT). “Making allowance for each other’s faults” means we are to handle relationships in a way that makes room for their inevitable faults.

When our children became teenagers, we soon realized that a new plan was needed for their allowances. Dan and I were tired of being asked for money by two kids who enjoyed the privilege of a regular and what we thought was a generous allowance. There seemed to be confusion about what their allowances should cover as opposed to the expenses that would fall under the responsibility of parental funding.

For example, our son Jered would fill up his truck with gas and then drive my car. Our daughter Danna would buy a new pair of shoes and then need money for a movie since she had spent her “very own money” for a staple item like shoes, clearly a purchase that a parent should make. A new plan was badly needed, even though Jered and Danna seemed content with the plan in place. We sat down with each child to list what their allowances would cover, encouraging them to budget their money while setting aside part of each allowance for the special things they wanted to buy. The result was a clear plan of how much money they would receive and an exact list of what it would cover. The confusion and frustration disappeared because the right plan was in place.

God’s plan for dealing with sandpaper people includes an “emotional allowance,” setting aside part of our emotional energy to cover their faults and allow for their weaknesses – which is the right plan. In other words, we are supposed to “admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak and be patient with all men” (1 Thessalonians 5:14, NAS). And that word “all” really does mean “all.” Sandpaper people are unruly, meaning that they are frequently careless or out of line in their behavior. The word “unruly” applies to soldiers who refuse to follow orders, insisting on doing things their own way. Sound familiar? It is the motto of every respectable sandpaper person. Patience lovingly corrects and points out the right way. Sandpaper people tend to give up easily, feeding the failure that has become a familiar companion, training their feeble hearts to despair while persuading their fragile spirits to quit. Patience comforts these hard-to-love people, refusing to give up on them when everyone else has walked away. The “weak” ones are those who are weak in their faith – the baby Christians.

New believers awkwardly stumble through their first steps into the world of Christianity and are often perceived to be “rough around the edges.” Patience not only reassures these frightened little lambs that they belong but also offers to walk with them until they grow stronger and their path is more certain.

Lessons Learned from Sammy

His name was Sammy. I fell in love with him the first time I saw him. I was standing at the door of my second-grade classroom, anxiously waiting to greet the thirty students who had been assigned to me for nine whole months of instruction. Though Sammy was smaller than the other children, he walked with the earned confidence of one who has seen more than he should have seen at such a young age. What he lacked in size, he more than made up for in personality and attitude. He was a blatant flirt, and I was a goner the minute he gazed up at me with strikingly blue eyes that tripped my heart while flashing two cavernous dimples that captured it. I will never forget the pain in the first words he spoke to me, “My name is Sam. I am dumb and stupid, and I can’t do anything right. I get mad real easy and like to break things. I just thought you ought to know.” It only took a few minutes for Sammy to begin what I suspected was his usual attempt to prove his words true as he swept through the quickly filling classroom, destruction in his hands. Papers were ripped and tossed aside. Children shrank away from his now scowling face, fear in their eyes. When the little girl laughed, Sammy thought she was laughing at him and pushed her to the floor.

I had seen more than enough. Taking him by the arm, I marched him out of the room and down the hall. He was not surprised or particularly concerned. It was all very familiar, but what came next wasn’t. Looking for a place to sit, I stopped in front of a bench and, much to my own surprise, instinctively pulled this precious little man into my arms and held onto him for dear life. “Sammy, it is wrong to tell a lie,” I whispered. Stunned, he drew back to ask, “What do you mean? I didn’t tell no lie.” Cupping his freckled face in my hands, I whispered, “Yes, you did. You said you were dumb and stupid and couldn’t do anything right. That is a lie. I don’t know who told you that, and I don’t care. It’s not true – is it, Sammy?” His eyes filled with tears – and a tiny ray of hope appeared in their depths.

It was enough. Slowly, Sammy began to shake his head, a watery smile creeping across his now softening face. “Nope. I reckon it ain’t true if you say so.” I smiled back, “Well, I say so. Now, why don’t you be my assistant today and help me pass out papers?” Together, we walked back to the classroom and to a new beginning for one little sandpaper person. That year I taught Sammy, and he taught me. I am not certain who learned the most, but this I do know - the more we love, the more patience we will have, and the more patience we have, the more we will love. I often wonder just how many people like “Sammy” are waiting for someone – anyone – who will choose to unleash the power of patience and, by doing so, unleash the power of love as well.

God wants us to wage peace in every relationship – including the roughest, most abrasive, anger-producing sandpaper people who come our way. Since every sandpaper person I have ever known, a formidable task comes complete with a set agenda that targets emotional eruptions and creates constant relationships upheavals. I have learned an important maneuver for dealing with difficult people. Combat is impossible when one of the parties involved has laid down their weapons and chosen peace. We must not allow ourselves to become the enemy. Let’s lay down our weapons, choose to love the unlovable, and wage peace.

“But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” (Luke 6:27-28, NIV)

Photo credit: ©GettyImages/AntonioGuillem

Mary Southerland is also the Co-founder of Girlfriends in God, a conference and devotion ministry for women. Mary’s books include, Hope in the Midst of Depression, Sandpaper People, Escaping the Stress Trap, Experiencing God’s Power in Your Ministry, Fit for Life, and 10-Day Trust Adventure, You Make Me So Angry, How to Study the Bible, Fit for Life, Joy for the Journey, and Life Is So Daily. Mary relishes her ministry as a wife, a mother to their two children, Jered and Danna, and Mimi to her six grandchildren – Jaydan, Lelia, Justus, Hudson, Mo, and Nori.