“I would love to know your feelings about cutting “toxic” people out of our lives. Would and did Jesus do that?” This is a question posed to me in a comment of a past blog post.(https://openspacetothink.wordpress.com/2013/11/18/honest-advice-2-be-merciless-to-sensitiveness-in-yourself/)
This question has been brought to my attention more than once recently so I will take the time to give my opinion on whether or not it is a good idea to cut “toxic” people out of our lives.
The best place to start this conversation is to actually define what or whom “toxic” people are. My first thoughts as to who toxic people are involve people that keep you from meeting your goals in life, people that discourage rather than encourage, people that like controversy more than confidence, and people that are most happy when the attention is always on them. As I spent more time considering who toxic people are I approached the Bible to see if there was a description of people that could be considered toxic and what the prescribed action should be in the event of encountering those people. I think I found a sufficient answer in the book of 2 Timothy in chapter 3.
“People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents,ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God— having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people.” 2 Timothy 3:2-5
These are the harsh yet honest words of the apostle Paul. If Paul’s description of these kinds of people does not qualify as toxic, then I’m not sure what would. I find Paul’s definition of toxic people to be more useful than my original definition because it provides a more objective definition than mine. By my description a person might be toxic to me, but not to another. However, by Paul’s definition a person displaying such characteristics would be equally as toxic to everyone. While this might seem trivial, I think that there is an important concept at work here that could be overlooked. When we are considering an action so severe as cutting someone out of our lives we need to be sure that the person is more than annoying to you based on your personality, but the person is legitimately someone that is dangerous to everyone.
Perhaps equally as harsh as Paul’s description of toxic people is his prescribed action when faced with toxic people. “Have nothing to do with them”, is a pretty bold suggestion. Paul leaves little room for interpretation in this concise statement. Paul is writing this letter to his protege of sorts, Timothy, in the period of time when the Christian church was just beginning to take shape. Paul knew that if Timothy were to allow these people to be a part of the identity of the church that it would certainly mean the destruction of the church. In a similar way, if we allow these toxic people to become a part of our identity today, we will be putting our future in a very dangerous position. Both Christian and secular philosophers agree on this point for Paul quoted the Greek poet Menander when he said, “Do not be misled: ‘Bad company corrupts good character’ ” in 1 Corinthians 15:33.
If having nothing to do with certain people seems to be a little harsh or vaguely contradictory to what Jesus would have said, then you are probably more correct than you might think. While it might be more convenient to simply eliminate people from your life, this is not the complete prescribed action that Paul gives Timothy in his letter to him. If you read further in 2 Timothy you will see that Paul tells Timothy that while he should avoid the toxic people, he is also to “Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage – with great patience and careful instruction.” (2 Timothy 4:2) Who would Paul want Timothy to preach the Word to? It seems to make far more sense to be preaching the Word to those who do not know the Word and display that lack of knowledge through their actions, than to preach the Word to those who already know the gospel message and are living in accordance with it. After all Paul does continue on to tell Timothy to do the work of an evangelist in verse 5.
So what then is our conclusion about toxic people? Avoid them, do not associate with them, and do not let their attributes begin to shape your character, AND at the same time we should be sure to take our given opportunities to share the good news of the Gospel of Jesus with them. How will they know that they are exhibiting the characteristics of a toxic person unless we “correct, rebuke, and encourage – with great patience and careful instruction”?
This conclusion that I reach in Paul’s writing is also very similar to what Jesus taught about when a brother sins against you. In the Gospel of Matthew chapter 18 Jesus describes the three steps that should be taken when someone sins against you. Here is a quick paraphrase.
Step 1: Go to the person that offended you alone and show him his fault. If he does not listen,
Step 2: Go back to that person with one or two others so that both sides of the story may be heard by a mediator or two. If he still does not listen,
Step 3: Take the offender before the church to confront him, if he still refuses to admit wrong doing, treat him as an unbeliever.
There are two things that need to known about this course of action. First, this is the course of action to be taken only when both the offender and offended are Christians. Second, in the event of step three not succeeding and having to treat the offender as an unbeliever we need to remember how it is that we interact with unbelievers. For the non-Christian our job is to display the love and grace of Jesus so that they might come to understand the gospel.
For another perspective on this issue, check out this blog post that I read a few weeks before this question was posed to me.