Loving Toxic People: Part I

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….

When Sovereignty and Worry Collide

My husband and I just arrived back home this week from sailing on a wonderful cruise to Alaska. It was only our second cruise, so I came away with some new insights: 1) All of my clothes have suddenly shrunk. 2) The ship’s bathroom shower was custom made for Froto. 3) I want to know who paid the whales, seals, and bears to take a vacation away while we were there. We did briefly see the backend of a bear as he was entering the brush. Awesome.

Seriously though, the absolute greatest and best insights that I gained was seeing the beauty of an unspoiled frontier, experiencing the majestic vastness of the land, and enjoying the quiet of nature, because they were ever-present reminders of just how big and great our God is. The experience reminded me of how the heavens and the earth constantly shout of His presence and obey His commands. My inner thoughts were tenderly touched by His voice that constantly proclaimed, “I am the great I am. I am sovereign over all things.”

This daily, natural reminder of God’s great sovereignty caused me to think about how we can often be full of anxiety and worry, despite the fact that God, our Keeper, is ruler over everything in life. Think about it….paralyzing anxiety challenges belief in God’s sovereignty, and cannot allow there to be peace . The two will clash and one will win our heart. The confidence of His sovereignty should cancel out any fear we may have in times of our uncertainty about the future. But yet, we somehow either forget, or we have never truly grasped what His sovereignty means. I urge you to think about what you mean when you say you believe that God is sovereign, for it is the foundation of how you’ll come to understand life, its purpose, and its challenges.

By definition, sovereign means that someone is supreme above all. Someone stands alone in their reign; they are independent of all others. Nothing or no one has power over them. We say we believe that God is all these things, yet when circumstances are challenging or unsure, we fret over the potential outcome. What does this say about us? Sadly, it exposes our weak faith. Surely, it’s normal for us to be fearful for a time because we’re emotional beings, but when we get stuck in the quagmire of worry, it’s time to take a precise look at exactly what we believe, because sovereignty and stress cannot reside in the same camp. One or the other will become the guiding force.

I heard a lot about bears while we were in Alaska. They were an ever present danger, if given the right circumstances, during hiking or camping. A large brown bear can weigh 1500 pounds or more…. certainly no match for a person. People and bears can coexist at a distance, as long as the people don’t forget that bears rule, and they have the physical advantage over people. Bears are to be respected in all cases, and people need to know how to protect themselves if an encounter should take place because bears don’t have the people’s good in mind…. only their own. Consequently, people and bears cannot reside closely in the same camp and expect peace.

Similarly, when we’re anxious, we think as though our powerful God is like the big, brown bear. We believe he is powerful and we can coexist with His sovereignty at a distance, but at the same time, we also have to protect ourselves from anything that threatens our future safety. We believe we have to come up with our own escape or plan in order to shelter ourselves from the danger of His prospective plan and purpose for us. We may even sometimes look on God as an adversary who wants to plague us with difficulty for his own amusement.

Remember when Jesus was facing the imminent challenge of a painful death, and He called out to God to remove Him from the impending pain of the cross? Yet, overriding His plea for a different less tortuous way to die, was his willingness to submit to the Father’s sovereign will. Jesus didn’t want pain any more than we do. Jesus dreaded the cup of God’s wrath ahead of Him, and in his humanity, He asked God to, “Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” (Mark 14:36) Doing the sovereign will of the One he trusted and loved was his overriding comfort and confidence to press on, even though he wasn’t looking forward to the manner of death ahead of him. Likewise, we don’t often look forward to what God may have for us, but instead of trusting and submitting, we slide into doubt and worry (as if we could change what has been sovereignly predestined).

An important thing for us to understand is that God’s sovereignty never changes or weakens, but we can ignore it or disbelieve it, which changes us. We act as though we’re running from the big, brown bear! Our stress certainly doesn’t mitigate God’s sovereignty, but stress can cover up the surety of God’s good plan and purpose in our hearts. Think about it….A cover-up is meant to protect and change the way something looks. Cover-ups are meant to escape the brunt of how things feel. When we use a coat as a cover-up to protect us from the cold, the cold is still there. It doesn’t go anywhere. The cover-up only changes the way it feels between your body and the outside temperature. Likewise, when worry and anxiety are used in forming a plan to protect us as a cover-up to what may happen, it may help us to feel differently, but God’s sovereignty is still there. It doesn’t go away or disappear. Stress never overrides or overpowers the will of God. So why do we spend so much time trying to outwit Him, or to get ahead of Him as though we can cut Him off at the pass, or thwart His will? It’s a fool’s game to worry and stress. These things don’t change a thing about God, and they further feed our pride in thinking that we know better than He does.

I’d like to suggest a couple of things to ponder at this point which feed stress and worry:

First, consider your unbelief. I’m not talking here about your salvation (although that can’t be ruled out). I’m talking about the sanctifying process of growing in faith. When we simply will not accept what God has in mind for our lives, it speaks of our lack of belief that God can be trusted. We usually try very hard not to follow those whose intentions are shady, but we gladly follow those who we believe have our best interest at heart. If we believe that God can be trusted to act on our behalf for our good, then we will shelter there for safety. If we believe that God is against us, or simply apathetic to our needs, then we’ll worry over outcomes that aren’t in our control, and devise a plan to avoid the suspense, i.e. taking matters into our own hands.

I often worry about the future. What if my husband dies before I do? Can I handle the absence of a 50-year relationship? Won’t I feel alone? How will I manage the finances? These worries would consume me (and I admit that manytimes they threaten to), if I didn’t believe that God’s sovereign plan and purpose for my life can be trusted, because I trust Him to know what is best for me. He is conforming me to the likeness of Christ in all things, and that is His goal for you, as a believer, as well. He always acts for your good. (Romans 8:28-30) Never to devour you as a big, brown bear, but to loyally guide you to a deeper faith. Confess your unbelief, and repent and turn from devising your plan of safety, to a faith that trusts Him wholly.

Second, consider how you view God. Is He good all the time? Do you sometimes feel He is against you? Does His sovereignty scare you, like the big, brown bear? If you’re afraid of His plan for your life, then I’d encourage you to reconsider the gospel message. When we think of God as a cosmic sheriff, then we have forgotten His grace and mercy. We have adopted the world’s view of humankind, and have bought the lie of “Why do bad things happen to good people?” The Scriptures tell us that, “There is no one righteous, not even one;… there is no one who does good, not even one.” (Romans:3:10,12b) I dearly love the C. S. Lewis quote from his Anthology, “No man knows how bad he is, until he tries very hard to be good.” If you think you’re good, then listen to your thoughts. How many times have you criticized or judged someone today (ouch!), how much of your day has been spent in envy or jealousy of someone else (double-ouch!), how often do you get angry for not getting your way, when was the last time you were selfish, have you lusted over someone or something? The list is endless and condemns us at every turn, yet God in His grace and mercy demonstrated His love for us through the redeeming death of Christ. Confess your pride and repent, acknowledging that God is good to continue loving you, despite your sin.

Be not afraid. You can be joyfully thankful for the sovereignty of God. We don’t have to see Alaska in order to appreciate His reign over all. Look around you today and listen to His voice with your eyes…. the heavens, the stars, the waters. Let these sights be a reminder to you that God didn’t create the planet Earth, and then decide to place us in it. He crafted the Earth because he knew that it would be a suitable place for his people. He uniquely created it for Himself to enjoy fellowship with us….yes, with you. If He cared about you so greatly to have lovingly formed a particular planet for your pleasure and survival, how much more can you humbly trust Him to sovereignly manage your life and your future? Let your Turn Around Time be short as you move from doubt to trust, which moves your heart from anxiety to peace.