I like Pinterest. I like all the colorful pictures and home decoration ideas and recipes. But, because I am a writer most likely, I find myself drawn to the “quotes” category more than the others. I scroll through, rolling my eyes at the slurpy love quotes, being annoyed by the coarse jokes and stopping in wonder at some of the gems of thought I find after a thorough search. But then, there are those other quotes, those statements taken out of context, those half-truths that do so much damage to susceptible minds. I’m often tempted to add them to my quotes collection but don’t because there are either fatal flaws in the ideas or the ideas only represent a grain of truth or the ideas are flat-out wrong to begin with no matter how well-written. It wouldn’t be a good thing to take them to heart because, to quote Richard Weaver, ideas do have consequences.
Consider the topic of toxic people. I’ve noticed a lot of “wise” words about “toxic people” lately, and they tend to bother me. For instance, “Don’t let negative and toxic people rent space in your head. Raise the rent and kick them out.” (Robert Tew) At first, it sounds like a reasonable motto. But what exactly are toxic people? Well, judging from all the wise words I’ve heard on the subject, toxic people are the kind of people that make you feel bad about yourself, those who love you too much, stifle your creativity, impose their standards on you, are negative and so on and so forth. Here’s a helpful diagnostic from Daniell Koepke, “Not all toxic people are cruel and uncaring. Some of them love us dearly. Many of them have good intentions. Most are toxic to our being simply because their needs and way of existing in the world force us to compromise ourselves and our happiness. They aren’t inherently bad people, but they aren’t the right people for us. And as hard as it is, we have to let them go. Life is hard enough without being around people who bring you down, and as much as you care, you can’t destroy yourself for the sake of someone else. You have to make your wellbeing a priority. Whether that means breaking up with someone you care about, loving a family member from a distance, letting go of a friend, or removing yourself from a situation that feels painful — you have every right to leave and create a safer space for yourself.” There you have it. The definition of a toxic person…and subjectivity overload. I guess everybody just has to figure out who is toxic to them and eliminate accordingly.
Besides the fact that I object to referring to human beings as toxic which sort of puts them on the same level as the chlorine in our water and the fluoride in our toothpaste and just that disposable, here are my main concerns with the “freedom from toxic people” attitude.
- From the life and example of Christ, we have no precedent for eliminating toxic people from our lives. It just isn’t there. I mean, think about it. What group of people living during the time of Christ would qualify as toxic more than the Pharisees and other religious leaders? If those individuals I quoted above are right, than Jesus was a real sucker. Not only did he not remove them from his life, he engaged them in conversation. He answered their accusatory questions with more questions. Instead of avoiding them, he confronted them. And finally, when they incited a crowd to blood thirst, he died for them.
- The term “toxic people” denies sin. Like I mentioned before, people are not toxic. Chemicals are toxic. People are sinners. All people. That includes you. You may be successful in getting rid of all the toxic people in your life. Block them all on Facebook, refuse to answer their phone calls or move to a different church to avoid seeing them, be a hermit in a cave, but there will always be one toxic person left to egg you on—you. You sin quite well all by yourself.
- Eliminating toxic people is all about self-preservation, not Biblical restoration. Getting rid of toxic people has an element of cowardice in it. The only time we are Scripturally instructed to avoid someone is after a very, very long chain of events FOR THE PURPOSE OF RESTORATION! It’s not about you. It’s about the good of the offender and the glory of God. To learn about that chain of events, read Matthew 18 and I Corinthians 5. It involves a courageous act called confrontation. But before confrontation, you have to do one thing that’s even harder than confrontation. You have to get the huge, ugly log out of your eye. Is it any wonder that Biblical confrontation so rarely happens? It’s so much easier to simply swat those annoying people away like so many pesky flies than look into your own heart in fear of what you might discover there.
- We actually need toxic people. I read this on Pinterest a while back, “Terrible people awaken all of the terrible parts inside of you.” I could not find out who wrote this, but it is true. What you do with this truth is what matters. The “freedom from toxic people” idea suggests that this is why we need to eliminate such people from our lives. But I think we should embrace them. Okay, maybe they’re so ornery they won’t let you physically hug them, but at least thank God for them. God always puts the people you need in your life when you need them. And sometimes those people waken the beast inside of you. They let you know just how bad you really are. They bring all the selfishness, all the pride, and all the anger right up to the surface which is where all that stuff needs to be so you can deal with it before God. Treat terrible people as throw-away objects and you’re the one that sinks. You lose the opportunity to grow, lose the chance to confront your own sin and bring those aggravating people up with you.
So the next time you see some words like these, “Toxic people will pollute everything around them. Don’t hesitate. Fumigate, (Mandy Hale)” do yourself a favor and toss them in the garbage heap where they belong. (Not Mandy Hale, by the way. Just the words.) In closing, I’d like to share a few words that a Facebook friend, Julie Beeman, said about this subject, “For one thing it [toxic people mentality] presumes that each person’s highest aim is perpetual personal happiness, and that the people around them serve toward that end….a completely unworkable social construct. And it ignores the ‘kingdom’ characteristics of mercy, longsuffering, and forgiveness.” I couldn’t have said it better.