One of life’s greatest challenges is learning to deal with people who are draining, unsupportive, difficult, and adversarial; with people who are bent on systematically diminishing and finally destroying your inner life. In this series of posts, I will talk about how to identify and respond to the words and actions of such toxic persons. In this first installment, we will explore the ways Jesus responded to toxic people. In future installments, we will discuss how to identify toxic people, delineate different styles of toxicity, and understand toxicity from within biblical-theological categories.
For a Christian, the go-to question is, “How did Jesus Respond to Toxic People?” When dealing with any difficult situation, Christians want to know what Jesus would do. But an encounter with a toxic person makes the question even more pressing. When faced with a seemingly impossible person who won’t respond positively to good intentions, right actions, or reasonable words, what is the “Christian” thing to do? When a person constantly manipulates, attacks, and accuses us, how long must we stay engaged with that individual?
And the short answer to these questions is: Jesus would not converse with them for long, would not engage on their own toxic terms, and most often would walk away from them altogether. As Gary Thomas writes, “Since Jesus came from heaven to walk among us, Christians tend to think that walking away from anyone, or letting anyone walk away form the truth, is a failure on our part. But Jesus walked away or let others walk away…a lot” (17). Thomas counts forty-one such instances, and we will explore a couple of those examples today.
Consider, for example, Jesus’ interactions with Pharisees, who were the “Internet Trolls” of Jesus’ day. They operated out of bad faith and sought to manipulate, trap, and shame Jesus at every turn. How did he respond? Jesus said to his disciples, “Every plant which My heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them. They are blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind leads the blind, both will fall into a ditch” (Mt 15:13-14).
Similarly, Jesus taught his disciples, “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet” (Mt 10:14). Here, Jesus is not saying to discontinue our gospel witness if a person does not immediately respond in a positive manner; he was saying that if a person exhibits bad-will and wishes to disrupt the mission, we can “move on.”
Similarly, consider what happened on the Sabbath when Jesus had plucked grain for his disciples and healed a man’s withered hand. When the Pharisees trolled him, Jesus “withdrew from there” and instead of answering them, ministered to the multitudes who wanted to hear his teaching (12:15).
What was Jesus “thinking” when he just walked away? He was thinking in line with the Bible’s rich teaching on walking away from toxic people, as exemplified in the Wisdom writer’s counsel, “A prudent man foresees evil and hides himself, But the simple pass on and are punished” (Prov 22:3). He was carrying out his mission in accordance with Scripture’s admonition to, “Answer not a fool according to his folly” (Prov 26:4).
The point is this: toxic people feed off of Christian goodwill. They relish the opportunity to goad Christians into an extended “conversation” centering on the rightness of a given Christian’s words or actions. They feed off of a Christian’s love of God and like nothing more than to derail that Christian’s mission. They are empowered by Christian sensitivity and good will, using it to spread their own misdirected or malicious agenda.
Therefore, like our Lord Jesus, we must learn to walk away so that we won’t be sidetracked from our mission. A 10-minute social media interaction with a toxic person could take a week or more to recover from, mentally and emotionally. A month’s worth of face-to-face interaction with a toxic person could hinder our mental focus for a year or more. But God doesn’t want us to pour our good intentions and goodwill into toxic people. If a person is getting in the way of who God wants me to be and what he wants me to do, that person is toxic to me and I have permission to walk away.