By Gary Thomas
An adult has 206 bones. If you remove a particularly important one, however, like the hip bone, you’re going to be in a world of hurt. You couldn’t walk, run, or stand, even though the other 205 bones are in perfect shape.
Or let’s say you take away the seven bones that comprise our neck. Though you’d still have 199 bones left, without those seven cervical vertebrae, life’s going to be tough. For our body to function at its best, it needs all its parts.
The same is true of Scripture.
Scripture has a helpful skeleton that offers much insight for the reality and treatment of toxic people in our lives. While it has more than this, when discussing toxic people, we can focus on three parts of this skeleton: creation, fall, and redemption. Just like in the human body, each one of these “bones” is essential; not a single one should be taken out.
In this skeleton, creation is good and holy, but then comes the fall. Christians recognize the profound and real presence of evil and sin, while also holding out hope for redemption. We don’t go from creation to redemption, as if evil doesn’t exist. We have to deal with evil, recognize evil, and confront evil as we wait for our ultimate redemption. Redemption has already begun (with Christ’s death and resurrection), but it’s not yet complete. Evil has been dealt a serious blow, but it still packs a punch.
Redemption gives us hope in the face of evil; it gives us courage to confront overwhelming evil. But it doesn’t pretend that evil doesn’t exist. In fact, without evil, there is no need or purpose for redemption.
So a Christian mind thinks of the world as God created it as good, but also as radically fallen. The hope behind redemption keeps us from despair, giving us perfect spiritual eyesight. We recognize evil rather than dismiss it, but we also don’t give evil more than its due. That’s because we recognize God’s power to overcome evil, and we embrace the church’s call to confront and resist evil.
Picturing creation (marriage, parenting, friendship, business, government, and church life) without evil is to be half-blind. God created marriage. God created parental authority. God thought up the idea of his followers gathering in churches. Through his Word, he endorses government. But evil seeks to penetrate, spoil, and destroy every creational design. A good creation (nuclear energy) can be turned to nefarious purposes (a nuclear bomb). The good institution of marriage can become a cover for evil abuse. Parental authority, though blessed by God, can become malicious and abusive, intent on harming instead of nurturing.
We must not look at anything in this world—even the institutions God has created and designed—as untouched by evil. When we talk about their maintenance and purpose as if we go straight from creation to redemption, we risk leaving people unprotected and unnoticed in the cavernous evil between creation and redemption.
It is a horrific thing for a man or woman to finally admit that they married an evil, toxic person. Think about it for just a second, and you can imagine how much of a nightmare that must be. What they’ve been living through may begin to make some sense when they finally apply the correct label, but the admission alone demands some severe remedies almost too awful to contemplate. Such brothers or sisters in Christ need the church’s support more than ever, yet they often feel this support pulling away, as if evil doesn’t exist or matter. “Try harder and pray more, and your marriage will get better.”
In the same way, it can take years for an adult to finally admit that their mom’s or dad’s obsessive “concern” may be evidence of controlling toxicity rather than genuine care. Who wants to think they need to escape their parents, when any healthy person dreams of having wonderful, nurturing, and godly parents?
Nobody wants to admit that they have a pact of any kind with a toxic person. As teachers and friends, our job is to sometimes help people understand not only God’s creation (and thus the need to respect proper authority, even when it’s difficult to do so) but also the effects of the fall (and thus the need to break from toxic people). If we speak only of “authority” without recognizing how it has been marred by the fall, we risk enabling evil rather than confronting it.
Ignoring toxic people is to ignore evil. It’s to pretend that the fall never happened. It’s to cooperate with evil and even protect evil rather than confront it.
The Closest We Come to Evil
The other reason it’s so important to remember that evil exists isn’t just so that we’re protected from the evil displayed by others; we need to be wary of the evil within us. We live in a fallen world, and we live with fallen desires. If I forget evil, I won’t be on the lookout for my own laziness but will instead find some noble way to characterize it. I’ll defend dangerous desires with self-lectures on “freedom in Christ,” or I’ll see my controlling behavior as “well-intentioned.”
It is evil to forget we can act in an evil manner.
We’re not just created. We’re not just fallen. As Christians, we are to live in redemption. We recognize our bent desires, but as we surrender to new life in Christ and the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, we learn to fight against our bent desires rather than give in to them.
But just like someone who has been diagnosed with and then successfully treated for skin cancer, we need to stay alert for any signs that the disease we’ve been saved from is coming back. It’s difficult to admit we’re acting with evil motives, but there’s something about the way the Holy Spirit convicts us that allows such disclosure to feel like the purest, most definitive awakening of love a soul can ever know.
I’ll never understand how God does what he does, but trust me on this one: being made aware of your own evil while simultaneously being washed and forgiven of it feels like an amazing celestial hug. We are so blessed to serve a God who makes it clear that he understands his children and wants to heal us, not condemn us.
Adapted from When to Walk Away: Finding Freedom from Toxic People by Gary Thomas. Click here to learn more about this title.
Your life’s calling is too important to let toxic people take it away. In When to Walk Away, Gary Thomas—bestselling author of Sacred Marriage—draws from biblical and modern stories to equip you with practical insights to handle toxic people in your life and live true to your God-given purpose.
As Christians, we often feel the guilt and responsibility of meeting the needs of unhealthy people in our lives. Whether a sibling, parent, spouse, coworker, or friend, toxic people frequently seek to frustrate our life’s calling. While you’re seeking first God’s kingdom, they’re seeking first to distract your focus and delay your work.
Instead of attempting the impossible task of mollifying toxic people, it’s time we dedicate our energy to the only worthwhile effort: completing the work God has given us by investing in reliable people. It’s only when we learn to say no to bad patterns that we can say yes to the good work God has planned for us.
Bestselling author of Sacred Marriage, Gary Thomas looks at biblical examples from the lives of Jesus, Paul, and Nehemiah. Drawing from years serving as a pastor, Thomas shares modern stories and practical examples for dealing with the toxic people in our lives. Each chapter includes insightful takeaways that you can apply right away. You’ll discover how to:
- Learn the difference between difficult people and toxic people
- Find refuge in God when you feel under attack
- Discern when to walk away from a toxic situation
- Keep a tender heart even in unhealthy relationships
- Grow your inner strength and invest in reliable people
We can’t let others steal our joy or our mission. It’s time to strengthen our defense, learn to set healthy boundaries, and focus on our God-given purpose. It’s time to know When to Walk Away.
Gary Thomas is a writer in residence at Second Baptist Church in Houston, Texas, and an adjunct faculty member teaching on spiritual formation at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon and Houston Theological Seminary in Houston, Texas. He is the author of 19 books, including Sacred Marriage, Sacred Pathways, Cherish, Sacred Parenting, and the Gold Medallion Award-winning Authentic Faith. He has a master’s degree from Regent College, where he studied under Dr. J.I. Packer, and was awarded an honorary doctorate in divinity from Western Seminary. Gary has spoken in 49 states and 10 different countries. He has appeared numerous times on various national radio and television programs, including CBN, Focus on the Family and Family Life Today. Learn more at www.garythomas.com.