Is That Relationship Really Toxic?

I’m working on a translation of the Bible more suitable to the Christianity that is comfortable to practice. Here is my suggestion for Matthew 5:23-24:

“So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Unless of course this is one of those ‘toxic people’ that nobody can please. And then it is absolutely understandable that you have a fractured relationship. In this case leave your gift and let the toxic person go on to his destruction.”

I like that a bit better. It fits a bit better with what I keep hearing about the dangers of toxic people within the body of Christ. This also makes it incredibly easy to not actually have to deal with broken relationships. It’s also pretty easy to identify toxic people.

I took an online quiz that really helped me determine all the toxic people in my life. Basically anyone who impacts me negatively, causes me to dread being around them, challenges my deeply held beliefs, exhausts me, creates drama, makes me feel bad about myself, or hurts my feelings is probably a toxic person. And I don’t need them in my life. They won’t help me fulfill my dreams or become the person that God has called me to be. They’ll just drag me down.

Now, you must know I’ve only partially got my tongue in my cheek. I believe there really is such a thing as a toxic person and the Bible really does tell us to avoid them. The problem, though, is that we’ve taken the world’s definition of toxicity and applied it to biblical passages. We’ve cast off genuinely struggling folks onto the island of toxicity and managed to be our own version of Pontius Pilate, washing our hands of the whole mess. But if we want to be faithful to the Bible we need to consider whether or not someone actually is toxic before we give them the boot.

I think I’ve come up with a helpful set of questions to determine whether or not someone actually is toxic.

First, is this actually a big deal?

We are an easily offendable bunch. It’s not beyond us to consider somebody toxic just because they get on our nerves. It’s also not beyond us to put unbiblical expectations on people and then lash out in anger when they fail to meet them. If I really think I’m in a relationship with a toxic person I have to be able to show that this is a pattern in their life and it’s something that the Scriptures actually consider a big deal. Uncle Leroy’s refusal to stop eating his own toenails doesn’t make him toxic, it makes him disgusting. But I don’t have a right to make a big deal out of this. If it’s not a big deal then I have to consider that I’m looking for specks and ignoring a log in my own eye.

But if it is a big deal…

Secondly, does this person know about it?

This is where we most often misstep. Scripture is clear that we aren’t permitted to simply end relationships just because someone has offended us or because we now consider them toxic. There is a process to this, and at the front end of this process is actually confronting the person with their sin. If you’ve ended a relationship because you thought somebody was toxic but you never told them this, then you aren’t totally innocent in this fractured relationship. (This doesn’t mean that you can’t take somebody else with you or even confront through someone else in issues of abuse). They might be toxic. You might need to end the relationship. But you can’t truly know that until you confront them. Because you have to be able to at least somewhat answer this…

Thirdly, are they repentant or rebellious?

At this point we make a sharp turn from most of the advice you are going to read on the internet about dealing with toxic people. In the Scriptures truly toxic people—those who are really to be avoided—are marked by one chief characteristic; namely, a stubborn and obstinate heart that refuses to submit to God.

2 Timothy 3 gives an outline of the type of wicked people who we’d call toxic.

But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. 2 For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy,3 heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, 4 treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, 5 having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people.

But what really marks a person off as toxic is their stubborn and obstinate heart. This is what causes such a one to be broken beyond repair (Proverbs 29:1). It is this type of heart that causes Scripture to repeatedly command believers to avoid contentious people (see Titus 3). The truly toxic person isn’t going to change—not because change isn’t possible but because of his obstinate refusal to find rescue in Jesus.

I do things that are in that list in 2 Timothy 3. But it isn’t who I am. When I find myself loving pleasure more than loving God, the Spirit grieves my heart and I run to him for rescue. If the toxic people in your life are truly regenerate then they’ll eventually move towards redemption instead of rebellion. They’ll hate their sin and agree with you that their toxic behavior needs to change. The truly toxic, won’t. They’ll remain stubborn and obstinate in their sin.

If the answer to this question is “yes”, then you are called by Scripture to avoid such a person (at least after a season of pursuing their repentance). But just because they are repentant it doesn’t mean the end of the story. We need to ask at least one more question…

Is this a burden for you to carry?

You may truly not be in a position to walk through the fire with someone. You might have your own particular issues and struggles and unique temptations that means you need to not be the one carrying this burden. I truly believe that if you smell a skunk in the road that it’s now your problem. But that doesn’t mean that I have to be the one to clean it up.

For example, I’m probably not the best person to help a female walk through her struggle with lust. But that doesn’t mean that I’m not responsible for helping her find someone who might be more suited. In the same way there might be a person who, for a whole host of reasons, causes me extreme anxiety to counsel. I don’t have to be the one to carry that burden. I can find other help in the body of Christ.

But perhaps the Lord will show me that this “toxic person” isn’t really a toxic person at all. They are a sinner. A very difficult sinner. Perhaps a sinner who is so wrapped up in the effects of sin that they are really hard to love. Maybe this is a sinner who is going to sin against me and wound me and hurt me a thousand times over, but I’m still called to walk through the fire with them as we both find redemption in Jesus.

We don’t have biblical justification for ending relationships because they are difficult or because they hurt us. We cannot confine someone to the island of toxicity because they are particularly difficult and/or prone to sins which tend to hurt others. If they are truly repentant and truly wanting redemption in Jesus (no matter how sloppily) then we are called by God to somehow help them through.

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One Comment

  1. Great article, Mike; I’m permanently saving this one in my iCloud files. I have a question not exactly related to your article but related to these verses in Matthew: I have heard it preached—by a very well known and respected pastor and prolific author—that this passage from the Sermon on the Mount instructs the Christian to seek out ANYONE who he/she has offended in the past, even if the offense was not involving anger (which seems to be the context of this passage) and regardless of how long ago the offense was. I can think of some people I hurt back in high school (that would be in the 1960s … I’m currently 65), long before I was a Christian; none of these folks was someone I had a “relationship” with, i.e., not friends or family, and I have not seen them since high school. The power of the Internet is such that I could probably track them down if they are still alive. What’s your take on that interpretation? Thanks! (and I understand if you choose not to answer this question).

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