Responding to Toxicity in a Biblical Way
The sun was thinking of setting, so I trundled my way across the field to sit and behold its glory. It had been a whirlwind of a day, and — to be completely honest — I just needed a couple of minutes to regroup, pray, and refocus my mind and heart on truth before doing the next thing on my list for that busy day.
It was just before the start of a semester at Ellerslie Discipleship, and the campus was in a flurry of being prepped for arrival day! I purposefully found the most inconspicuous spot where I would not be discovered and sank in a heap below a retaining wall where nary a person could see me … or so I thought.
Lo and behold, I wasn’t as undetectable as I envisioned and not two minutes into my breather, through closed eyes, I could feel the presence of someone who had just sat down beside me. My heart smiled and grimaced all at once. Really, Lord? Can’t I just have five minutes to myself? I’m a bit embarrassed at my internal processing, but there it was all the same.
In that moment, His answer was a loving and gracious no. I was presented with an opportunity to rise up by His grace and sacrifice my five minutes for self to give five minutes of encouragement to a precious soul who was in a hard season and had come looking for biblical help and direction. And she found me.
Years have passed, and I actually smile at that little interlude as I reminisce on how the Lord has grown me in loving those who, for whatever reason, are hard to love. It wasn’t easy to silence my flesh in that moment, but it was necessary in order for both of us to have the opportunity to grow in Christ-likeness.
I’m sure I, too, have been the subject of a similar story in someone else’s life. After all, who hasn’t encountered troubles and trials and been in need of a listening ear at one time or another? It’s a reality that anyone can be taxing, frustrating, and needy in the world’s eyes, but it is an absolute truth that in God’s eyes each and every soul is of inestimable worth, endeared to His heart, and desperately needed.
Not long ago I was chatting with someone who was sharing about a relationship they had severed in the name of the offender being a “toxic person.” But as I listened to her account, I couldn’t perceive anything dangerous about the individual’s interactions or impression on her life. It seemed to stem from being personally inconvenienced, frustrated, and intruded on in some (or various) ways. This interaction as well as others like it have made me ask: What really is a toxic person?
It got me to thinking, and even sleuthing around Google, to understand what a toxic person is. I’ll sum up my findings with the following definition that is cut and pasted from different sources online:
Toxicity — someone who brings out the absolute worst in you, whether it’s a friendship, relationship, or even a family member; anyone whose behavior adds negativity and upsets your life.
One source went on to proclaim, “Nobody should have to endure someone who drains the life out of them instead of filling them up.”
Immediately a red flag of discernment was raised.
A Heavenly Example
Something didn’t sit right in my spirit about what I was reading, and I began to ponder the way of Jesus in His relationships, interactions, and communications with others. Over and over in Scripture, Jesus rubbed shoulders with all sorts of characters. A list began quickly forming in my mind as I noted the “sort” of people Jesus did life with:
Sinners — like the woman who brought an alabaster box to anoint His feet.
Tax collectors — like Matthew who was considered the offscouring of Jewish society.
Betrayers — like Judas who sold His allegiance to Jesus for 30 pieces of silver.
The oppressed and possessed — like Mary Magdalene who was saved from seven devils.
Self-righteous religious leaders — like the Pharisees and Sadducees who constantly found fault and falsely accused Him.
Cultural standards would state that Jesus was surrounded by influences that could drain Him rather than fill Him up. Even His disciples misunderstood, betrayed, abandoned Him, and drained Jesus’ time and energy. Yet Jesus didn’t self-protect, distance, or isolate Himself from “problem people” who demanded more of His time and attention. Instead, He did the opposite. He moved closer to them.
By all accounts Jesus was touched out (Matt. 9:20), He was “peopled” out (Mark 12:15), He was followed around (Matt. 14:13), and He was rarely alone for a moment of “me time.” But Scripture says His response was completely supernatural: “But when He saw the multitudes, He was moved with compassion for them, because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd” (Matt. 9:36, emphasis added). Rather than sending people away, He invited them closer and even performed miracles for them to behold God’s glory! (See Matthew 14:13–21.)
Modern voices would say that any and all negative influences upon our lives should be ruthlessly removed. In the same vein, those with a legalistic or “religious” spirit would reason from certain passages of Scripture that we must remove ourselves from situations in which more is required of us mentally, emotionally, and spiritually in the name of “being in the world and not of it.” But this is not what the Word of God means by this passage. (See 1 Corinthians 5:9–10.) And while it may be true that there are certain instances where we may need to limit our exposure to taxing individuals because we are in a weakened state spiritually or emotionally, this should only be for a season of time and for the purpose of being built strong to be poured out again in the future. If Christ did not distance Himself from those who were hard to love, then it stands to reason that neither should we. And yet, in order to do that, I have found that extra grace is required.
Welcoming the E.G.R.
Those whom the world would label as “toxic” oftentimes are what a friend of mine would jokingly call an “E.G.R.” — or someone for whom Extra Grace is Required in order to love them well. Meant to be humorous, I’ve found that it has been a helpful phrase that reframes my thinking and endears these souls to my heart. When I view others through a lens of grace, my perspective is enlightened towards those who personally inconvenience me, those who take from rather than invest into the relationship, those whom I would prefer not interacting with, or those who are taxing or depleting.
However, many times what the world calls “toxic” people are those who need to either a.) be led to encounter Jesus Christ in a personal way or b.) those who know Jesus but need His truth applied to an aspect(s) of their life in order to walk in freedom, wholeness, and peace with themselves and others. And the only way to do that is to draw near with His love … and love on them.
On the other hand, true toxicity seeks to poison and bring to the point of death, but Jesus had a surprising perspective on how to respond even to these extreme situations:
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who spitefully use you. To him who strikes you on the one cheek, offer the other also. And from him who takes away your cloak, do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who asks of you. And from him who takes away your goods do not ask them back. And just as you want men to do to you, you also do to them likewise. But if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive back, what credit is that to you? For even sinners lend to sinners to receive as much back. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. … Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful. — Luke 6:27–36
The body of this truth is located in the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus was preaching about the behavior of Heaven and how His own are to reflect heavenly radiance in a perverse, opposite world. While much can be gleaned from this passage, a simple, overarching principle that we can take away is to go against our natural inclination to self-protect and instead place ourselves in total dependence upon Jesus by not shying away from those who are hard to love.
Jesus’ position is clear — the posture of our hearts should be one of sacrificial love, not self-preservation. And His very life proves that it is possible to encounter truly toxic people and not be poisoned by them when we are sourced by His Spirit instead of our own strength.
Interacting with E.G.R.s can tempt us to hole up in our comforts and justify our lack of love — especially when we are confronted with the deficit between Jesus’ flawless execution in interpersonal relations and our own. But that is exactly why He sent His Spirit to empower us to do what we cannot do in our own strength and ability. He fills us so that He might flow out of us to any and all we encounter.
It is in these moments of personally relating to others that we are provided with the opportunity for God’s love to be brought out in us and in them. And, when we patiently endure and sacrificially love those whom Christ causes to cross our path, we are not drained but are filled to the brim with His grace.
I’m sure we could all identify at least one person in our lives for whom extra grace is required — and the flip-side is also true. We could be the very person on someone else’s list! While I have so much to grow in when it comes to loving others, the Lord continually brings me back to a few steady helps that flood my heart with compassion rather than a critical spirit, and I want to share them with you in hopes that they might give you a lifeline when you find yourself coming up short in grace.
(A side note: More often than not, those whom we will encounter will be those who inconvenience us — not those who bring physical harm into our lives or the lives of others. While this article doesn’t seek to address those instances, for those rare exceptions, I encourage you to seek out godly wisdom and practical help from a trusted counselor who can walk with you through your situation.)
#1 Ask For His Help
Scripture tells us that Jesus got alone to pray to His Father. (See Mark 1:35–39.) How much more do we need time in His presence to ask for grace to help in time of need? Get to your secret place of prayer and be honest with your Father in Heaven. Pray by name for the individual you are struggling to love. Pray for His enabling grace to respond with Christlike compassion. Ask for forgiveness for wrong attitudes or actions. Thank Him for what He desires to do in and through this hard situation. Jesus was able to lovingly respond at all times because He was always in constant communion with His Father. As we develop a lifestyle of prayer and seeking the Lord, we will be readied to love those whom He places in our path.
#2 Get To Know His Heart
I mentioned before that Jesus had compassion on the multitudes. Scores of people didn’t exact His frustration, they elicited His mercy. And the littlest in stature or status invoked His notice and love. We must renew our minds with the Word of God in order to exchange our earthly perspective for Heaven’s eyes. Paul said, “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus…” (Phil. 2:5). Christ’s perspective doesn’t often come naturally to us, but it can become our new normal as we exchange wrong thinking with His truth. Search the Scriptures to find what God says about bearing with others. Here are a few of my favorites:
Then Peter came to Him and said, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.” — Matthew 18:21–22
[Love] bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. — 1 Corinthians 13:7
And let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith. — Galatians 6:9–10
Bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do. — Colossians 3:13
We urge you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with everyone. — 1 Thessalonians 5:14 NASB95
If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you do well. — James 2:8
#3 Go On In His Grace
An old hymn reminds us of what grace we often forfeit when we do not take things to the Lord in prayer! Grace is not just forgiveness when we mess up. Rather, God’s grace is able to equip us to go the extra mile in loving our neighbor as ourselves. Enabling grace is the very power and ability to do what we cannot do in our own strength. Herein lies the secret to loving the hardest person on the planet — the enabling and beautiful grace of God. It is otherworldly, supernatural, and impossible to accomplish apart from abiding in Him and seeing His actions become our own. Here are a few baby steps to move forward fueled by His grace:
Bless the person you are struggling to love through prayer. Pray a prayer of blessing for that person by name. Praying for others changes us and the person for whom we are praying. Don’t underestimate the work that God can do in your heart as you faithfully bring those who are hard to love before His throne of grace!
Send an encouraging note or text from the heart. Think on things that are praiseworthy in the other individual and be thankful for those very things! It helps turn our minds from critical thoughts to thoughts of blessing.
Extend a simple act of service. It can be small, but blessing others through serving them is a way we can put our own feelings aside and seek to be the practical hands and feet of Jesus.
Amy Carmichael once encouraged someone to offer up a short prayer before entering into situations where love was required. She said: “Our loving Lord is not just present, but nearer than thought can imagine, so near that a whisper can reach Him … Do you need courage? ‘Thy courage, Lord!’ Patience? ‘Thy patience, Lord!’ Love? ‘Thy love, Lord!’ … Shall we all practice this swift and simple way of prayer more and more? If we do, our Very Present Help will not disappoint us. For Thou, Lord, hast never failed them that seek Thee.”
Let’s remember that many of those who are hard to love are members of the Body of Christ — and that means that we will be spending eternity with these souls in perfect unity and harmony. May our prayers now be those of bringing Heaven to earth in the midst of our relationships so that Christ’s love can be put on display. Whatever extra grace is required for the situation, our faithful Father is more than able to assist us with every ounce of His almighty, unending strength!
This article was originally published in Issue 41.
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