By Nick Brzozowski
Christians are supposed to be nice and to love unconditionally. Everyone knows that. But, sometimes loving people might mean leaving people.
If you think you may have toxic people in your life sucking your joy, stealing your hope and holding you down, then you may be interested to read the insights I gathered from Gary Thomas’ newest book.
In his book, When to Walk Away: Finding Freedom From Toxic People, Thomas surveys the Bible to find answers for anyone who has ever felt stuck in a relationship that has been destroying them. Throughout the book, Thomas is drawing on examples from different areas of life — toxic parents, toxic spouses, toxic roommates, toxic team members, etc. He then continues by seeking Biblical principles to apply to these situations and others.
Here are five thoughts that stood out to me after reading.
But, sometimes loving people might mean leaving people.
1. Jesus walked away.
Now, this isn’t just once. Throughout the gospels, we find Jesus either walking away from people or letting others walk away from him dozens of times!
Of course, each circumstance is slightly different. But, this shows us that Jesus was not afraid of relationships being torn. It is not ideal, but it is a part of life. And that doesn’t have to kill your mission or your identity.
Jesus understood his own limits. He didn’t convince everyone to follow him. He didn’t heal everyone who was sick. He gave people the dignity to choose to follow him or not.
On one occasion, an entire town asks him to leave...so...he left (Matthew 8:34). Another crowd was ready to kill him, so he slipped out (John 8:58-59). And he didn't beg the rich young ruler to join him (Luke 18:18-23).
This gives me relief that I don’t have to chase after every person and every opportunity. Jesus didn’t. And not every person is the right person for me to invest time and attention. At least, Jesus didn’t think so. And I don’t have to feel guilty about conversations that didn’t happen or connections that seemed to be cut short.
This may be the most surprising idea in the book. It doesn’t feel “Christian” to cut off a relationship or even to let it dissolve. But, at times, following Jesus may actually call for you to walk away.
Throughout the gospels, we find Jesus either walking away from people or letting others walk away from him dozens of times!
2. The Toxic Person Profile.
One food I will never understand is mushrooms. I have yet to taste a mushroom I liked. Don’t try and give me your grandma’s famous mushroom recipe. I will not comply and eat - not even to be polite.
We all give care and give attention to what we put into our body. But, some of us let poisonous mushrooms into our lives. When Thomas describes toxic people, he has the image of poison in mind. This isn’t just someone who annoys you, or has some quirks, or doesn’t share the same values as you. This person could be compared to the deadly ring that leaves just enough toxins in the hand of your enemy that after one shake, she is gone for good.
What does that kind of person look like? How do you know that you are dealing with someone so “deadly?”
Thomas is helpful here. He gives a list of three attributes of a toxic person. Now, a person may only need to have one of these qualities to be toxic for you.
By murder, he doesn’t mean with a knife or gun. He is talking about the person who murders your reputation, your calling, your sanity, etc. This person is out for your harm.
#2 Loving to hate.
Some people simply get bored with harmony. They need to spread a good dose of juicy gossip. They need to get worked up over someone who doesn’t “get it.” They will invent problems if they have to.
#3 Needing to control.
Is this person keeping you from making your own choices? Do they lay on the guilt if they don’t get their way? Do they have to know everything you are doing, where you are going, and who you are with? If you can’t protect your own boundaries around someone, then they might be toxic for you.
If you can’t protect your own boundaries around someone, then they might be toxic for you.
3. The Motive: mission.
A theme that comes up throughout his work is this idea of mission. Thomas says that they don’t call it the book of Acts for no reason! Jesus walks away from people, not because they make him feel uncomfortable, but because the mission calls for it.
A couple times, he brings up 2 Timothy 2:2, which reads: “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others. Endure hardship with us like a good soldier of Christ Jesus.”
We must be taking action to advance the Kingdom of God. Jesus exhorts us to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33).
According to Thomas, we have a reason to walk away: mission. If you are cutting off a relationship for any reason other than the fact that this person is preventing you from advancing the Kingdom, then you might be acting out of selfishness.
Now, he is the first to admit that he is no counselor or psychologist. There very well could be reasons related to mental health that you should step away from someone. But, Thomas sees a clear pattern in the New Testament of purpose. As a Christian, you join this mission to advance the gospel, to build into others, and to seek the Kingdom.
You just simply don’t have time to spend being stuck in a relationship with a toxic person. You must be investing in reliable people.
Jesus divided up his time and energy thoughtfully around huge crowds, and more time with seventy people and more time with twelve and even more time with the three. He was deliberate about who he was spending time with because he knew what was at stake.
You just simply don’t have time to spend being stuck in a relationship with a toxic person.
4. The Benefit: focus.
If mission is the motive, then the payoff is focus. This means that toxic people aren’t toxic just because they may destroy our confidence, our self-worth or our reputation. Thomas sees toxic people simply as distractions from more important matters.
He brings this point home strong when he shares about Nehemiah.
Nehemiah was the cup bearer to King Artaxerxes I while Judah was in partial captivity to Babylon. When word got out to Nehemiah about the atrocious state of his homeland, he weeps and fasts and plans. He makes a request to the king to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. And to his great surprise, the king agreed.
So, Nehemiah gathered a team and the supplies and got to work. But, their actions provoked jealousy and opposition to his neighbor, Sanballat, who kept seeking to distract him. Again and again and again and again, Nehemiah refused to meet with him after multiple requests. Nehemiah refused to take in the threats and the criticism from Sanballat or his associates.
Because Nehemiah refused to engage the toxic people in his life, him and his team completed the job and rebuilt the walls.
But, the real point isn’t that they finished the job. The surprise is that they did it so quickly. We read that the walls were built in 52 days. Just under two months!
Those walls had just sat there for a hundred years. At any point, someone could have done it. It was right there. But, there are so few people in our world with the courage to resist distractions from toxic people in order to focus on a task long enough to see great results.
What would you accomplish if you had the gift of focus?
But, there are so few people in our world with the courage to resist distractions from toxic people in order to focus on a task long enough to see great results.
5. It is Ok to Label
This one got my attention. Thomas draws a distinction between name-calling and labelling. Name-calling has the intent to hurt another person. But labeling is meant to protect us.
Throughout the gospels, Jesus is calling people unhealthy trees, wolves in sheep’s clothing, fools, vipers, pigs, and dogs — not the most diplomatic of language.
But, why would Jesus use such harsh words to describe people? It doesn’t sound like the all-loving, accepting savior we follow. What is happening?
Take Matthew 7, for instance. Jesus is two thirds of the way through the Sermon on the Mount, the very most ethically demanding sermon in the history of any major spiritual leader. And at the beginning of the chapter, he tells us not to judge people. How can you avoid judging people, when you, yourself have such high standards?
But, it gets stranger. It is right after he commands us to not judge, he starts calling people dogs and pigs (not a compliment in those days).
Here’s what I think Jesus is doing here. The analogy is not meant to hurt people so much as it is to help his audience. If you gave a pearl to a pig, the pig would not see its striking value at all. In fact, the pig would be mad that it isn’t food. Similarly, if you tried to convince someone to change who isn’t interested, it won’t go well.
This turns out to be great advice. And it actually helps us to avoid judging and trying to change people all the time. The label was more of an analogy to clarify.
Even though I do struggle a bit with this one, I see the value in putting names to even people in order to help navigate our relationships.
I am going to spend time with people who are reliable, healthy, affirming and trustworthy. And for the sake of mission, I will create some distance with others who are unstable, not interested in changing, over-critical and unreliable.
What about you? How do you understand toxic people in your life? Do you have a language around how to navigate tricky relational terrain? Do you think it is ever wrong to walk away? When is it necessary?
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