Someone asked me just recently about my thoughts, from a biblical perspective, regarding the term “toxic” in reference to people…..Yikes! Can you tell I’m breaking out in a cold sweat already? This is a sensitive topic which has no clear definition (at least in my experience), leaving it open to different interpretations. It surely challenges me! I’m going to give you my thoughts from a biblical perspective, realizing they are probably counter-cultural, and may incite you to throw things at me.
Now, before you get your pants in a wad, I want to first clarify that I’m not going to get into issues of marriage and toxicity here. Those relationships are much more complex, and could include several different responses, depending on many variables. This post is primarily to focus on relationships that are difficult other than marriage, i.e. parents, children, friends, co-workers, roommates, and relationships in general. Please don’t read this as a “one size fits all”, but rather a general foundation upon which to build.
Okay, here we go….. “Toxic” is a popular word in use these days, which refers to the relational effect of a certain type of person. Up to now, I had previously only thought of the term “toxic” in reference to drinking weedkiller or eating my sofa. As an old fuddy-duddy, I don’t care for the term, but I’m told it describes someone who has a perceived “poisonous” effect on someone else. How so? I’m guessing most people would say toxic people do their damage through some type of abuse. They make you feel bad, they say and do things which are inappropriate, inconsiderate, and oftentimes, down right sinful. They often manipulate through lies and false promises. They seem to take great pleasure in themselves. So, I ask myself, “What then, makes a toxic person any different than a garden variety sinner?” After all, I can say that I’ve done or thought even worse than the stuff listed above. (Maybe I’m toxic to everyone… who knows?) Consequently, I want to be really careful not to label someone as toxic, when what they do is often what I have thought in my own heart, but I haven’t acted it out! To be fair, there are those people who we may find to be irritating, difficult, disrespectful, ornery, verbally and emotionally abusive, and generally a pain in the gluteus maximus. (A side note: physical and sexual abuse don’t fit the perceived toxic category; they are true aberrant and perverse behaviors from which we need to remove ourselves. When that kind of sin is perpetrated, the recipient is an actual victim.)
So, considering the previous description of a so-called toxic person, let’s examine the question, “Is there ever a biblical basis for cutting relationship with someone, because they are perceived or identified as toxic?” Let’s take a look at some different biblical scenarios:
The cunning, manipulative Pharisees were constantly in Jesus’ face attempting to entrap Him, spread false rumors about him, verbally assault and mock him, and skillfully initiate uprisings against him, yet he continuously gave them his time, and more. He was fearlessly honest with them, but didn’t prohibit them from crossing his path. Wonder if they would have been defined as “toxic”? Hmm.
To look at another scenario, when the church excommunicates someone who is unrepentant, (maybe they could be termed “toxic”, after all, unrepentant sin poisons the peace and purity of the church) they are “cut off” from the body of Christ for the purpose of reconciliation, hopefully to see them restored one day. So, that example would seem, at first glance, to be that there is a special basis upon which we may cut someone out of our lives, if it weren’t for the fact that when the church excommunicates a “toxic” person, it doesn’t refuse to show common mercy, or refuse to speak to them again. So, based on this, should we continue to show grace and mercy to someone we’ve labeled as toxic? But then, maybe at the same time, somehow maintain a calculated position of distance, self-respect and dignity?
On another note, how about when God sent Jonah to Ninevah to entreat them to repent? Surely, by today’s definition, the people of Ninevah could be described as ultra-toxic to God, yet He continued to love them via His appeal through Jonah. Why didn’t He just walk away from those toxic people? They had nothing to offer God but their sin, which surely poisons holiness.
I also think of Samuel, who, as a young boy, was raised in the temple during a period where there was stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, desecration, and horrible behavior going on. Surely, that environment must have had some kind of negative emotional and spiritual influence on Samuel, yet God didn’t choose to remove him from the household of those toxic people. Indeed, if toxic people killed through their emotional, poisonous influence, Samuel would have been a basket case, instead of becoming the greatest judge in Israel.
So, maybe the greater, more important question looms…. “Do we even care to seek a biblical basis here, because it feels too good to be removed from people who rock our world?” After all, toxic people can make our lives miserable, and can be greatly feared as though their poison can be spiritually and emotionally deadly. They have nothing positive to contribute to the relationship. They are, in some way, able to elicit a negative response from us that seems to just fuel their ability to wreak emotional or physical havoc. It just naturally appears to make total sense to cut them off, never to bother with them again…..that is, if we aren’t interested in what Christ has taught us about gospel love.
In Luke 6, Jesus says, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. ” This doesn’t sound like a call to put up a wall, yet our current culture would urge us to create one in order to stay emotionally safe. It would be too risky to put oneself in a position where there would be the potential of an unkind word, blatant rejection, or some kind of mental anguish. If we expressed those dreaded fears to Jesus as our reason to stay away, how do you think he’d respond? Do you think he’d say, “Erect a wall?” Jesus’ message doesn’t sound like building a fortress to me. Sounds like doing good, blessing, and praying are actions that have the other person’s interest at heart.
There is no question that Scripture issues a command to us in Romans 12, by stating, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” Of course, we don’t always have the steering wheel, so unfortunately, if someone tells us, either directly or indirectly, that they want us to exit their life, then we have no choice but to stay away from them. We simply have no more to offer the relationship. As far as it is up to us, we’ve done what we can. They have made it clear that they want nothing more to do with us. However, what about those ongoing relationships that are painfully difficult, emotionally debilitating, or verbally abusive? Could there be something for us to offer, and at the same time, maintain a measured distance, so as not to get sucked in to more of their manipulative, poisonous attacks? Maybe….
Any biblical solution, sought after as to whether or not to leave a relationship, has to have at its foundation the biblical example of Christ and the way he loves. If not, then who are we kidding? Absent Christ’s model, humility will go out the window, and the flesh will take over. Pride will stifle any hint of the Holy Spirit’s work to put oneself aside. It would be all about me; who cares about the other stinkin’ rotten person?! As a wake-up call, the Apostle Paul states in Philippians 2:3-4, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” So, this begs the question, “What could be in the other person’s best interest? How should this relationship look to serve their good?” Would to enable a “toxic” person help them? The answer is no. To help them would mean that I would no longer prop them up, or cover their lies, or willingly participate in their destructive lifestyle. I would refuse to get sucked into their manipulation, but I would also somehow keep the door open to mercy and compassion. In the world’s words…..distinct boundaries, but with a small gate open. Why the gate? Because, frankly, I don’t see any biblical justification to cut them off entirely, unless and until they say go away. Then, and only then, would I be justified to cut them off.
I know this is hard to hear, and you may disagree. There are those of you who have endured unrelenting emotional pain due to a terribly hurtful relationship. Naturally, you would want to run from those who have hurt you, and it may be that you’ll have to remove yourself from the way the relationship has looked in the past. I have had a difficult, largely one-sided relationship with a family member for years. I have wanted to run far away and give up on initiating grace to them more times than I can count, in order to avoid the hurt and rejection I continue to feel. However, as a follower of Christ, I believe we are commanded to keep the door cracked open. Why? Because Christ stood at the door of our toxic hearts and knocked, even while we were basking in our sin, and doing far more to him than any toxic person has done to us. He valued relationship with us, so much so, that he died to see us restored. Therefore, because of his loving sacrifice, I believe we are compelled to do the same. This crack in the door, or this gate, wouldn’t be for the unlikely purpose of reestablishing the old relationship (although that could happen in some cases), or to manipulate others into change, or to get admired for your tenacity. This gate would be purely and simply, to honor Christ’s sacrifice, because he has loved us first. So, I press on.
My next post, Part II, will cover what this cracked door looks like in real life. Some examples of my own, and hopefully, some ideas for you. Stay tuned….