Identifying manipulative individuals in your life.
Now the serpent was more crafty than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made…
I have learned never to associate with a manipulative person.
For the record, you cannot expect anyone – including yourself – to be perfect on this side of eternity. I’ve learned that I can bear with people who struggle with impatience, anxiety, depression, narrow-mindedness, foul-language, over-sensitivity, and just plain immaturity. But the characteristically manipulative person, I have learned to avoid like the plague.
The reason is simple: manipulation is the primary tactic from the playbook of Satan.
It is in Genesis 3:1 where the Bible first unveils the reality of Satan and his existence. And the choice word used to describe this most evil of God’s enemies is “crafty.” Dangerous? Powerful? Ferocious? All of the above are true about the devil, but crafty before anything else. Craft, at least in this connotative sense, refers to the ability to somehow subdue a more powerful and capable adversary using cunning and tactful strategy. It involves being able to steer others into volitionally doing things that they would otherwise not want to do. To be a devilish person is to be a crafty person. And to be a crafty person is to be a manipulative character.
For the record, Christians will struggle with just about every type of sin. But I’ve been hard-pressed to find a genuine follower of Jesus Christ who, had you asked his closest friends to describe him in one word, would be labeled as manipulative. For how can one who is born of the Spirit of God be of a nature that is consistent with the very nature of Satan himself?
For a while, the picture I had of such people was nebulous at best. It was only after this past Sunday, after teaching a Sunday School lesson on Genesis 3:1-12 on the Fall of Man, that the picture took a concrete form.
The following are signs of a manipulative person based off of the profile of Satan himself as revealed in Genesis 3. Granted, each of us may struggle with a few of these at any given situation. But it is the presence person who displays the majority of or all of these signs who calls for the red flag to be raised.
Sign #1: The manipulative person goes out of his way to look harmless
Remember that 1 Peter 5:8 describes Satan as a roaring lion. Revelation 12 describes him as a dragon. Satan is a powerful, though fallen, angelic being who leads a legion of other demons against God’s people. Yet, to the woman in the garden, he appeared as a serpent. Pre-fall serpents weren’t poisonous fork-tongued slitherers that spook the daylight out of women and children. They were harmless crawling critters living under man’s dominion. And it was in the form of this creature that Satan, the prince of the demonic armies, took when he approached Eve to tempt her.
Manipulative people will go out of their way, both in dressage and in demeanor, to appear harmless. In my personal experience, the most manipulative people I knew not only worked to look harmless, but also worked to look helpless – often adopting the appearance of being physically sick or ailed – particularly during those times when they’re requests or demands have been met with resistance or when they’re anticipating a confrontation from someone they have wronged.
Sign #2: The manipulative person tends to approach the people closest to the individual he is attempting to control
This deserves all eyes and ears: In the garden, Satan was after Adam. He knew that it was Adam who had been given the commandment from God not to eat from the fruit of the tree of knowledge. He knew that it was Adam who represented the human race. He knew that it was Adam who needed to transgress in order for sin to make its way into humanity and for the curse to enter the world. And yet, not once in this passage does Satan speak to Adam. In fact, Adam himself never recounts Satan’s speaking to him when confronted by God later. Satan, in his craftiness, spoke to Eve and her only. In doing so, he got to Adam, albeit indirectly.
One of the marks of a manipulative person is the refusal to directly approach or confront the person with whom they desire to deal or address. There have been several instances in my life where a particular individual wanted to get me to do (or not do) something concerning a particular issue, but I would never be directly approached or confronted. Instead, I would later find out that the particular individual had approached my wife, my close friends, my pastor, my boss, my siblings, or others who were close to me with regards to the issue. Manipulative individuals seek to control individuals by influencing the relational network around those individuals, often before dealing with the individuals themselves.
Sign #3: The manipulative person indirectly questions the credibility of the individual they are attempting to sabotage
Not only was Satan indirect in approaching Eve rather than Adam, but he was indirect in the way he initially attacked the credibility of God before her. Rather than forthrightly refuting what God said (which for the record, would have been equally wicked), Satan lured Eve with a question: “Indeed, did God say…?” Satan not only interrogated Eve regarding what God said, but inserted some purposeful exaggeration: “Did God really say that you cannot eat from the fruit of any tree?” Reality: God commanded Adam to refrain from the fruit of one tree.
Manipulative individuals will often attack people by questioning their credibility to those around them by some well-placed swipes of exaggeration. A parent trying to manipulate her child’s teacher might approach the school principal and say,
“Is it true that Ms. Smith gave all of the 6th grade students a 60-page reading assignment to be completed the next day?? Isn’t that a little much?” (Asks the parent of a child…to the school principal)
“Is it true that Pastor Brian doesn’t want any children in our Sunday Service? Isn’t that a bit unfair to young families?” (Asks a disgruntled church member…to Pastor Dougie)
The answers are “no,”…but the foot is in the door.
Sign #4: The manipulative person makes false threats, consequences, or promises rather than making their desires or requests known
Satan was the originator of the false-promise play. “You certainly will not die!” he claimed, should she partake of the fruit – a direct contradiction to what God Himself had promised. What had kept Adam and Eve from eating the fruit was the very real promise that death would result from doing so; and it was the consequence, rather than the command, that Satan directly attacked.
Over the years, I’ve learned to discern the brand of counsel forked from snakes:
“You’re free to become a Christian or whatever religion you want; just know that your mother will be extremely hurt,”
“You’re free to leave this ministry, but if you do so the entire young adults group may die.”
“You don’t have to put your kids into our program; just know that the program will die if you don’t.”
“You’re free to go to whatever church you want; just know that if you go down that route, I’m afraid that you won’t be able to pursue the ministry position that you’re really built for.”
“You don’t have to visit us for Christmas if you don’t want to. Just be prepared for your father to not to take it well, especially because of how sick he is.”
Manipulative characters often dress in the halloween costume of open-mindedness, but carefully present false consequences that sound oh so veritable, so as to bend a person to believe that there only one viable option. It’s craft at its best, and it’s straight from the serpent.
Sign #5: A manipulative person uses your identity to make false connections and implications
“You will be like God,” Satan promised the woman. It was more than tempting her with an ego-booster, but rather purposefully linking his course of action to her identity and design. It was the perfect launching pad to disobedience. Man was, indeed, made according to God’s image and likeness (Genesis 1:26-27). When Eve heard Satan’s false promise, she was reminded of something that was inherently true about her identity as a human being. The paraphrased translation: “Because you were made to be like God, you need to eat this fruit- it’s part of you who are!”
Manipulative individuals often pitch their tents on the soil of your identity – or at least something that’s very important to it. Salesmen do it to me all the time, although I give them grace as they’re often forced to by their training and their bosses. But I’ve known individuals who would often employ the “If you want to succeed in pastoral ministry, you have to do such and such” liners – only for me to realize later that what it is that I was being asked to do was not only unnecessary, but categorically inconsistent with faithful pastoral ministry and Christian living! I’ve had others who used more pathos than ethos: “if you really loved your mother, you wouldn’t be in communication with your father or his side of the family” (my parents are divorced).
Sign #6: The manipulative person will claim to know a hidden truth about a person they are trying to undermine.
The serpent was audacious as well as crafty: “God knows that…”. He deceived Eve into believing that God withheld a crucial truth from her that would have been otherwise good for her to know. And what he claimed God knew was contrary to what God said. Eve was duped into believing that the crawling serpent knew something about God that was purposefully but unfairly withheld from her and her husband. No wonder the fruit looked so delectable afterwards.
Manipulative characters carry around crystal balls and get you believe that they work:
“I know a lot of people say positive things about you about you, but really this is what they’re thinking. I’m trying to help you because this is what I know people are thinking about you.”
I once heard a preaching professor tell one of his students, “This is what I know the people in your congregation are really thinking about you, even though they might say that they are encouraged by you.”
Manipulative characters claim to be mind-readers. Nothing makes me want to tune someone out than the words, “A lot of people are saying…” or “I think this is what they’re thinking…”
Our Lord calls us to be shrewd as serpents while being innocent as doves. As Christians, we are not called to show partiality or discrimination in terms of whom we love, but we are called to exhibit discernment regarding those with whom we choose associate. That includes knowing when the snake is in your backyard.