Everyone knows, or has known, a poisonous person who threw a monkey-wrench into their whole life, so how do we deal with these people when they run into us?
In the third Harry Potter book, the titular character is on a train with his two friends, headed to their school. They notice frost beginning to accumulate on the windows in their car, and the lights go out.
The door to their car opens, and a hovering figure in gossamer black looms in the doorway. Its spindly fingers grip the sides of the door as its blunt head turns toward Harry Potter. Harry slumps in his seat as the creature seems to suck his breath right out of him, and his friends huddle motionless on the opposite bench.
Distantly, he hears a memory of his mother screaming before someone leaps up between him and the terrible creature and drives it off.
His savior is none other than Remus Lupin, a longtime friend of his parents. In the aftermath, Remus explains to him that he is particularly vulnerable to these dark apparitions, thanks to the abusive nature of the household where he grew up.
“Get too near a Dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you. If it can, the Dementor will feed on you long enough to reduce you to something like itself... soulless and evil. You will be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life."
Three Signs of a Dementor in Your Life
Odds are good that we’ve all met at least one individual who felt like our own personal pet soul-sucker.
Fail to immediately answer John McToxicpants’ text, and you’ll receive 30 more asking what you’re doing, where you are, why you’re not responding, all with increasingly offensive language (which he’ll never apologize for, by the way). Every “conversation” with Sally Backbiterson either turns into an angry gossip session or an intervention where you are her worst abuser confronted with a laundry list of issues she needs you to apologize for or address.
These exchanges somehow leave you simultaneously exhausted and full of nerves, reviewing everything you said and questioning your own character, often with no energy left over for other relationships.
The quickest way to identify toxic individuals is by three particular characteristics (they may not have all three, but they will definitely have at least one).
Destroying all of your other relationships and/or making you completely dependent on them is the prima operis of many toxic individuals. They often do this through monopolizing your time and alienating your friends or family.
All of their views must be your views. If you disagree, an argument will almost certainly ensue, and they’re not interested in reaching an amicable conclusion or agreeing to disagree. Was the disagreement public? A toxic person will often go to great lengths to discredit you with whoever else knows about the dispute.
3. No Responsibility
A toxic person refuses to take responsibility for the consequences of their actions. They don’t see how they could ever be in the wrong, so they will rarely, if ever, apologize. If they do, it’s usually negated by excuses, not reflected in any of their actions afterward or only offered if you agree first to give them something in return.
Just to clarify, people who are coming from an abusive past or are wrestling with addictions may exhibit some of these same signs. The difference will be their willingness to submit to the Holy Spirit who can heal and transform anyone.
A toxic person isn’t interested in submission. All they want is to murder your other relationships, destroy your individuality and derail your calling in life.
That last cost is the heaviest and most damaging.
Not Losing Sight of the Mission
In his book When to Walk Away, Gary Thomas discusses how he is less interested in developing strategies for how to approach toxic people and more focused on “helping God’s people accomplish God’s work in God’s way. From this perspective, learning how to deal with toxic people isn’t first and foremost about protecting our joy, our peace, our reputation, or even our sanity (though these are good aims). It’s primary about protecting our mission.”
Thomas points out that this is the most biblical way that we can deal with toxic individuals. “We are saved to be fruitful. We are enlisted in a great and holy work. We don’t have time to be distracting by clever people who soak up all our energy and efforts in a hopeless cause.”
That approach may sound a bit harsh. What if we genuinely care about this person, despite the pain they cause us? Isn’t it rather unchristian to abandon them?
Unfortunately, the definition of a toxic person is someone who isn’t interested in hearing criticism of their destructive behavior and is unwilling to change. They may pay lip-service to hearing you out, if they’re particularly clever or manipulative, but their actions will tell you everything you need to know.
At that point, the most loving, Christian thing you can do is take a step back and let them experience the natural consequences of their choices.
Besides, you also have other work you need to do.
Your full attention and spiritual gifts are very likely needed somewhere else, for someone else who actually has lessons they need to learn from your experiences and advice as well as blessings to give you through your work with them.
The language that the Bible uses about our calling is urgent. “You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming” (2 Peter 3:11-12). “If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them” (James 4:17). “As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work” (John 9:4).
If we truly believe these words, we don’t have time to be waylaid by venomous people; and if we’re doing God’s work, we will inevitably meet them.
“Virtually every good work is eventually besieged by toxic attacks,” Gary Thomas explains. “The more important the work, the more you can expect attacks. Thus, to complete your work, you have to learn how to recognize, disarm, or step aside from such attacks.”
If you’re a naturally compassionate person, this may feel cold, but it’s necessary in order to obey Christ and live fully in the Holy Spirit’s calling.
The Abused, Broken and Downcast
Not every difficult person is a toxic person. We’re all broken and sinful, coming from homes where we were raised by broken, sinful people. We work cheek-to-jowl in a world full of broken sinners just like us.
Some people may have damaging habits that need to be addressed, but this does not necessarily make them a “toxic person.” They may simply need to be alerted to how their actions are affecting you and then have some restrictions set up in their relationships. Forgiveness is a gift, but trust is earned, and we may have responsibilities to protect our families, children or other dependents.
It’s also worth remembering that others may not be affected in the same ways as us. If we’re particularly vulnerable to or affected by certain types of bad behavior, that’s worth praying about and asking for the Holy Spirit’s healing or change in our own lives.
God can bring incredible, redemptive change to people’s personalities and lives. We must remember that fact, forgive when needed, set boundaries if need be and have grace with difficult people.
The difference between difficult and toxic is that difficult people are open to God’s presence and the Spirit’s work. Often, once Christ has done the heavy lifting in their hearts, they will become your greatest allies in our mission for the kingdom of heaven. After all, they have a personal witness to the Lord’s incredible power to transform and restore.
Don’t miss out on these beautiful people because a toxic individual in your past has left you hurt and afraid.
Don’t waste years of your life either, though, trying to mend a toxic person. There are people who need you and whom you need too, waiting.
God’s mission is calling!