Now that we have explored the concept of toxicity and delved into how we can identify people who are toxic to us, we can explore the concept theologically, employing biblical-theological categories to understand the phenomenon and to craft a faithfully Christian posture toward toxic people.
As Gary Thomas writes in When to Walk Away, Scripture reveals at least three traits of toxic people: a murderous spirit, a desire for control, and a love for hatred. To Thomas’ three points we will add a fourth: an addiction to heart-theft. Taken together, these four traits provide Christians with a helpful theological categorization of the types of characteristics (Toxic People 102) and styles (Toxic People 103) we outlined previously.
A Murderous Spirit
The first category to be noted is a “murderous spirit.” Toxic people want to take you down and derail your mission. They want you cause you to feel shame, guilt, and discouragement. They enjoy making self-righteous and rash judgments and intend to discourage you with them. And, if you let them, they will systematically diminish, and finally destroy, your inner life. You cannot allow this to happen. Ultimately, Satan is the one manipulating toxic people to do his bidding. In essence, he is a murderer, and quite skillful at what he does (Jn 8:44).
A Desire for Control
The second category is a “desire for control.” Toxic people want to control you in some manner, if not entirely. If they can’t control you overtly, they will do so covertly through skillful manipulation. In so doing, they have become a tool of the Evil One. God doesn’t control us; this is seen clearly in the life of Jesus, who did not attempt to control those around him. Thus, when toxic people attempt to control us, they are assuming the authority of God but using the tools of Satan. They want you to bow to them, to be directed by them, instead of focusing on God’s will for your life.
A Love for Hatred
The third category is “a love for hatred.” People who love God are wired for humility, gentleness, and kindness (Col 3:12,14). Toxic people, however, are wired for anger, rage, malice, and deceit (Col 3:8-9). In fact, people who love God have a very difficult time understanding how a person claiming to be a Christian can be so hateful. Thus, we must realize that toxic people have an entirely different set of motivations and fears than healthy people, and that “normal” methods of interacting with them are ineffective and, in fact, counterproductive.
An Addiction to Heart-Theft
The fourth category is “heart-theft.” When a toxic person realizes he can’t control you overtly, he will seek to bully you covertly through manipulation. When a person engages in manipulation, she is trying to control you without your permission, and thus infringes on your autonomy. In other words, the toxic person is trying to change the conditions of your encounter with them in order to engineer a change in you of which you are not aware, with which you would not agree, or that you do not desire. What does that have to do with the “heart”? When the Bible refers to a person’s heart, it is referring to the spiritual concentration point, the inner reflective core which sets the direction of our thinking, feeling, and acting. Thus, manipulation—which aims at that core—is best understood as “heart theft.”
Christians on Mission
How should we respond when a toxic person gets into our head? We should raise the rent and kick them out. We should not allow toxic people to derail our mission. Our calling is to wage battle in the heavenly realms, to seek first the kingdom of God. Thus, we need to put toxic people into spiritual perspective. They are hindering our mission. Thus, we needn’t engage with them, explain ourselves to them, or try to defeat them. Our job is to ignore them, or at the very least, to keep our eyes on the mission without allowing them to become a distraction.
Satan on Mission
Just as God has a mission—to glorify himself by redeeming his image-bearers and restoring his good creation. Conversely, Satan has a mission—to bring glory to himself by derailing God’s mission and his image-bearing ambassadors. Satan is always actively and aggressively seeking to kill and destroy, and we must resist him and the people who are (often unwittingly) his tools. As Thomas argues brilliantly in When to Walk Away, if we refuse to engage with people who are trying to destroy our God-given mission we make the point that God is our master and they are not.
Coming to Grips with Being Maligned
When toxic people realize that they cannot control us, they become unhinged. At this point, often resort to bullying, threatening public humiliation, mocking, dismissing the target’s concerns, and engaging in nearly any other behavior to get what they want—which is to derail you. Thus, we must listen to the Bible’s teaching on how to interact with people who are not toxic to us but also its instructions regarding how to interact with people who are toxic to us.
We must remember the Bible’s teaching about the Fall, which declares that evil will persist until Christ returns. We mut keep in mind Jesus’ example of walking away from toxic people (Toxic People 101) and his instructions about using wisdom and discernment when dealing with people who come against us (Mt 10:16-17). Similarly, we must remember Paul’s counsel to stay away from people who serve their own appetites and who use smooth talk and flattery to deceive (Rom 16:17-18).
Refusing to Invest in Toxic People
As kingdom-seekers, we should be looking to invest in people, and we should focus our efforts on people reliable enough they can be ministered to. As for toxic people—who are the walking definitions of “unreliable”—we should either walk away from them or let them walk away from us. Jesus walked away from the rich young ruler instead of running after him. Jesus called Herod a “fox” (Lk 13:32), Judas a “devil” (Jn 6:70), and the Pharisees “children of hell,” “blind fools,” “hypocrites,” “blind guides,” and “snakes” (Mt 23). And, while we are not omniscient like Jesus and will never fully know the state of another person’s heart, we can draw on Scripture and the life of Christ so we can see the “red flags” of whether or not another person is toxic for us, personally.
Toxic people are much better at being toxic than we are at knowing how to deal with them. Toxic people enjoy conflict like a pig enjoys mud. They don’t want us to act like Christians; instead, they want us to do what they want us to do and and they revel in our desperate attempts to engage with them. As Jesus demonstrated, there comes a time to walk away. As Jesus said, “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces” (Mt 7:6). Spiritually dead people don’t recognize truth or love for what they are, and they derail us from our mission. Thus, we must determine not to waste our time on toxic people.