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Dealing with Toxic People | Gary Thomas

Dealing with Toxic People | Gary Thomas

After I had been hitting my head against a wall dealing with a toxic individual, asking myself “Why?” and “How do I fix this/handle this/deal with this?” a wise friend, Dr. Steve Wilke, dispensed some life-changing advice. He urged me not to deal with it but to simply walk away.

“I want you to go through the book of Luke and count how many times Jesus walked away from people or let people walk away from Him. You’ll be amazed.”

As I’ve said before, I’m not clinically OCD, but I live in the neighborhood right next door to it, so when a counselor tells me to count something in the book of Luke, I have to go through all four Gospels. I documented every case and came up with forty-one instances. While some of the citations refer to the same incident, and of course others might disagree with some of my interpretations, there are still at least a couple dozen occasions where an interaction with Jesus didn’t result in the other person agreeing or changing, and Jesus let the situation stay that way. Jesus didn’t give chase or further explanation, and he didn’t question himself or count himself a failure.

This was life-changing for me. I always looked at such interactions as failures on my part. Perhaps I wasn’t hearing God correctly. Maybe there’s just something annoying about me. Maybe I was lacking in my knowledge of the Word or was too compromised by sin or hidden attitudes. If only I could get closer to God and walk with more integrity, then that person would change and/or see the truth.

In other words, it was usually what is wrong with me?

But nothing, of course, was ever wrong with Jesus, so maybe I was asking the wrong question.

It was astonishing to me to read the Bible with Dr. Wilke’s perspective. While not all of the forty-one occurrences could be interpreted as necessarily engaging “toxic” people (some were just needy people or close-minded people), Jesus displayed a unique freedom to speak the truth and let the person choose whether to take it further. Sometimes, even when people begged Jesus to stay, He still felt tremendous freedom to leave and disappoint them. I saw how Jesus responded exclusively to His Heavenly Father’s will (even above His immediate family), not the flattery, needs, or attacks of people. I wanted that freedom, and spent an entire year reading the Bible through that “walk away” lens, coming away astonished at all that was “new” in the Bible that I had read dozens and dozens of times.

How do we know when to walk away? How do we distinguish between “toxic” people and “difficult” people? (It’s very important to do so.) How do we balance the Bible’s call to love the “unlovable” with Jesus’ example and admonition to “shake the dust off your feet” (Matt. 10:14)? What do we do when the toxic person is a family member or works at our office? That’s what the When to Walk Away Bible study explores, and it applies this principle to every relationship you can imagine: work, friends, family, church, etc.

I’m excited to finally be able to share all that God has taught me. After Dr. Wilke challenged me, it felt like I had been given a brand-new pair of glasses that helped me see clearly where before I had been blinded to so many obvious truths.

Gary Thomas is a bestselling author and speaker with a passion for bringing people closer to God and closer to each other. He received his masters in theology from Regent College in Vancouver, B.C., and was awarded an honorary doctorate from Western Seminary. Gary is an adjunct faculty member at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon and Houston Theological Seminary in Houston, Texas. He serves as a writer in residence and on the teaching team at Second Baptist Church in Houston, Texas, and has authored 19 books, including Sacred Marriage, Sacred Pathways, and Cherish.