All pastors know what it means to struggle with difficult people in their churches, and almost all would welcome guidance regarding how to deal with and counsel those types of persons. In “Toughest People to Love: how to Understand, Lead, and Love the Difficult People in your Life,” Chuck DeGroat, associate professor of pastoral care and counseling at Western Theological Seminary, attempts to provide such help.
The book is divided neatly into three parts. In Part 1 (Understanding People), DeGroat urges his readers to seek to understand and love members of their communities who engage in maddening and sometimes self-destructive behaviors. In emphases that he maintains throughout the book, he argues that this requires both 1) an understanding of the basis of these behaviors and attitudes in others and 2) a better apprehension of one’s own brokenness as a leader. In arguing for a vision of brokenness as leaders, he makes frequent reference to current books on leadership written primarily for business leaders, arguing that they have captured an emphasis on transparent leadership that church leaders need.
Part 2 (Leading and Loving Difficult People) focuses on specified psychological maladies that churches may be called upon to help, including personality disorders, addictions, and various kinds of “foolishness,” which he defines as “a life lived out of a finely tuned false self, arrogantly sure of the rightness of her way.”
Part 3 (Dealing with Ourselves: the Best Help we Can Give Another) urges the reader toward self-awareness and a sense of one’s own brokenness. This section relies heavily on medieval Christian mysticism, interpreted through the lenses of a 21st century therapeutic understanding of life, in order to arrive at a spiritual and psychological view of the path to wholeness.
While these are subjects of importance to pastors and church leaders, this is not a book that this reviewer can recommend. The work suffers from a number of doctrinal deficiencies, beginning with its deviation from the biblical doctrine of original sin. While theological explanations have varied in some of the details, traditionally Christians, both Protestant and Catholic, have understood that in some sense a historical Adam sinned, with a result that brought guilt and corruption on all of the human race. Rather than understanding original sin and human depravity as something that is passed down in this way, DeGroat sees the Adamic story as more of a prototype that each child experiences. Thus, like Adam and Eve, each human being enters the world in a state of “righteousness” before experiencing brokenness very early on as a result of the brokenness of the people the child interacts with from the start. In pursuing that line of thought, which is sustained throughout the book, DeGroat even manages (page 33) to misconstrue Question 6 of the Heidelberg Catechism. DeGroat takes it to refer to “children” being created good and in God’s image. The briefest review of the context shows the question and answer to be related to the original state of Adam and Eve.
From that beginning point, the author proceeds to redefine the typical Christian understanding of sin and grace, fallenness and redemption, in purely psychological terms of psychic wholeness. The problem here is not that DeGroat sees redemption as applying to the whole man, for that would be a welcome emphasis. Rather, the problem is that the understanding of redemption and the work of Christ as providing a solution to objective and subjective guiltiness before a God who reconciles a people to himself is entirely replaced with something different.
Readers looking for a work addressing a similar topic from a better theological foundation might consider a book that I have just started working through: Kathryn Greene-McCreight’s Darkness is my Only Companion: a Christian Response to Mental Illness.