When it comes to toxic people–and toxic marriages–do we have the courage to walk away?
Alice had endured being married to Alex for over 20 years. She had kept trying to make the marriage better–being nice to him; keeping a nice house; studying all about being a good wife. But regardless of what she did, his narcissism increased. He had an affair, but he promised he’d never do it again and they stayed married.
Alex’s selfishness increased, spending money on whatever he wanted, while Alice spent less and less to try to keep their debt under control.
Ten years later, Alice attended a Christmas party at his work, and noticed how he was acting with one of his female co-workers. Alice was wearing clothes that were a decade old, because she hadn’t been able to buy anything new to compensate for Alex’s spending. But here was this woman dressed glamorously, and obviously sharing an intimacy with her husband that couldn’t be explained away.
She confronted him, and made it clear that she would be leaving.
That’s when Alex started damage control. He told everyone at the church about his “crazy” wife with her mental illness and instability, and “asked for prayer”. He would share more and more about how she was becoming increasingly crazy, in the guise of “prayer updates”. When he filed for divorce, the church rallied around Alex. And then, a few months later, he asked for prayers of rejoicing because he had found this wonderful new woman to share his life with–the very woman he’d been having an affair with.
Alex was toxic. He ruined their marriage. And he “murdered” Alice’s soul; Alice’s reputation; Alice’s calling through this selfishness and toxicity.
That’s one of the stories that Gary Thomas shares in his newest book, When to Walk Away.
In that book, he explains how Jesus kept His eyes on His mission and did not let others derail that mission. He walked away from toxic people, and allowed others to walk away from Him without chasing them down. I talked about the book at length in my podcasts around Christmas, and it’s so good I’d like to dedicate a post to it today. I thought it would fit nicely near the end of our series about iron sharpening iron. We’re supposed to help refine each other. But when that doesn’t happen–when someone is toxic to you–then it’s okay to walk away.
If we’re going to live as Jesus did, then we need to learn when to walk away.
Arwen, one of my wonderful prolific commenters, gives this ringing endorsement to the book:
You introduced me to Gary Thomas who has become one of my favorite Christian authors. He recently wrote the greatest book i have ever read (outside of the Bible), When to walk away, i read that book crying because it spoke to MY life so much.
It really is awesome. Gary’s been trying to find a path through the mire in Christendom where we emphasize too much the preservation of marriage, and not enough the sanctification that marriage is supposed to inspire. And it was partly his struggle in saying loudly that we need to permit divorce for abuse and enable people to walk away from marriage that led him to write this book.
I’m going to share a few gems that I got from the book, and summarize little bits, but this is one book you need to get. It’s tremendously profound, rooted in Scripture, but also a relatively quick read because he includes so many fascinating anecdotes. Let’s get started with Gary’s main points!
Gary’s journey towards recognizing toxicity
Gary opens the book talking about his own journey. He was being attacked online, and no matter how much he tried to explain himself or reason with people, it wasn’t working. He finally realized:
Toxic individuals feed off misunderstood piety and are enabled by false Christian guilt to spread their attacks far and wide…
I’ve focused only on playing offense when it comes to ministry. No one taught me about playing spiritual defense. The very idea seemed “unchristian”….
When writing about marriage and parenting, I stressed playing a good offense: love, serve, sacrifice, and cherish. I didn’t stress enough the need (sadly) for some couples and individuals to play a little defense…
[What the evil one often does is] urge us to pour most of our God-breathed love, intention and goodwill on people who actually resent it and who will never respond to grace.
And that’s when he made this realization:
Sometimes to follow in the footsteps of Jesus is to walk away from others or to let them walk away from us.
How does understanding the reality of toxicity and evil affect how we see evil?
The reason that Christians get so messed up when it comes to toxic people is that we forget the reality of evil. We want to see the best in everyone, because we think that’s being kind and good. But to serve Christ is to realize that we are in a spiritual battle; it’s to acknowledge how much sin has ruined the world.
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…
“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….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.”
Too often that has been the message the church has given people, because we’ve forgotten Jesus’ warning about wolves. We treat everyone as if they’re sheep. But we forget that Jesus said that there will be wolves among us. And wolves are not sheep (John 10:12).
How do we get our own perspective right when it comes to handling toxic people?
You realize that you have a bigger calling–the mission that Jesus has given you. And you should not allow your energy, your emotions, your time to be derailed by toxic people, because Jesus didn’t. He always kept his eyes on His mission, and He left people when necessary. Gary explains:
Toxic people aren’t just difficult people. They’re not “unsaved” people. They’re not merely unpleasant people. The toxic people we’re talking about in this book are the kind of people who are basically taking you down and destroying your mission. They deflate your enthusiasm and make you feel like you’re going crazy (thus making you feel like you have nothing to say to others), and they are masters at eliciting shame, guilt, and discouragement.
Jesus didn’t focus on toxic people; he put his energy into training and helping reliable people . He didn’t even stop Judas from stealing from the offering! He just put his energy into the reliable people around Him.
Gary contacted me when he was originally writing this book, and asked about how I handled abuse online. I sent him several quotes, which made it into the book:
For years I’ve been twisting myself into knots trying to come to terms with how some people who say all the right things about the gospel can be so hurtful and so discouraging to my ministry. Then I realized—I’m judging people too much by what they say they believe rather than how they act. Jesus said we will know his servants by their love, not by their doctrine (though doctrine is, of course, important). Too many preach Christ out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, and not out of love for the world and for God’s children. In some ways, that realization caused great grief: how could our churches be filled with such instruments of discouragement? In other ways, it caused great relief. I don’t need to satisfy everyone who calls themselves a Christian. I just need to draw close to Jesus so I can hear his voice about my own calling. And in the end, I’m not responsible to answer to someone else just because they call themselves a Christian.
After laying this groundwork, Gary spends several chapters looking at specific relationships.
Sometimes to follow in the footsteps of Jesus is to walk away from others or to let them walk away from us. – Gary Thomas
What do you do with toxic parents?
Gary tells the story of Austin, who grew up with toxic, abusive parents. As he grew older, he became a Christian, got married, and had lovely children. His parents were reaping the consequences of abusing their kids, and were lonely. They asked to see the grandchildren for the weekend, but their behavior had not shown improvement. Austin held firm. Gary writes:
His parents said: “Aren’t Christians supposed to forgive? I thought you called yourself a Christian.”
Toxic people are masters at lecturing Christians over how they are “supposed” to behave. Even though they may have never acted like a Christian themselves, they love to hold Christians to the way they assume Christians are supposed to act. Their entire Bible has fifteen words: “Forgive as God has forgiven you, and judge not or you too will be judged.”
In families, we need to grieve our loss rather than trying to spend time fixing toxic relationships. If there’s even a 5% chance that your kids are in danger, you act according to the 5%. He gives great advice in the book about dealing with toxic siblings, toxic parents, and even how to talk to them when you need to draw boundaries. It’s highly practical if you’re struggling with this.
How do you handle toxic adult children?
But what if the toxic people are your own adult children? There’s little that’s more heartbreaking.
But Gary reminds parents that parenting is not your primary mission anymore. Don’t let adult kids, who don’t even appreciate what you’re doing for them, derail the other good you could be doing. And ESPECIALLY don’t let toxic adult kids cause you to ignore your good kids!
“Don’t make the reliable children pay for the unreliability of their siblings. Also, don’t make your own mission for God pay for the toxic selfishness of your child.”
You’ve likely seen these dynamics in families you know, too: good kids get ignored because parents pour all their time and energy and money into the toxic one.
Do what Jesus did: Invest in the reliable kids. They need you, too, and they will take the things you bless them with and use them to bless others. They won’t squander your love and attention and money.
When do you walk away from a toxic marriage?
Here’s where I love Gary’s heart. In a way, this book started when he wrote his big blog article Enough is Enough, calling out the evangelical church for dooming people to abusive marriages, because those churches valued the institution of marriage over the well-being of the people in it.
Throughout the book, Gary gives real-life examples of toxic marriages where the person (whether husband or wife) had to be free to leave–and also shows where the church has often failed spouses in these situations. In the Alice and Alex story that I shared above, the church believed Alex’s version of events.
“The only reason Alex succeeded (in a limited sense) is because a naive and uninformed church cooperated with him. If I were a senior pastor who refused to hire Alice primarily because she was divorced, I would be an accessory to the murder of her ministry.”
Gary’s concern for the spouse married to someone who is toxic shows throughout the book. And he gives great examples of drawing boundaries in marriage. In a different relationship he recounts, Rachel was married to Barry, who was very controlling. Gary counseled separation, with Barry allowing Rachel to determine if they talked and when.
“I later told Barry that he’d know his heart had changed when he wouldn’t want Rachel to come back to him if that meant she’d be controlled.”
That relationship could be saved, and was. But not all can, and we we need to become wise and discerning. Many toxic people act like they repent and say all the right words, but it’s not genuine.
Some people don’t want to repent in humility; they just want to retain the “platform of abuse.”
And then Gary explains how he sees divorce, marriage, and toxicity:
A toxic marriage isn’t just frustrating; it’s also destructive. It’s marked by unrepentant, controlling behavior from which the spouse refuses to repent…
In the face of unrepentant and unrelenting evil, divorce can be an effective tool rather than a weapon…
Because evil exists, we need to condemn the cause of divorce rather than the application of divorce.”
This is a message the church needs to hear, loud and clear, and it’s wonderful to hear it coming from the pen of someone who has written so many great books about growing your marriage.
You should not allow your energy, your emotions, your time to be derailed by toxic people, because Jesus didn’t.
Some key things to remember when it comes to dealing with toxic people
You can’t change them. They play by different rules, so don’t play their game. You owe God your allegiance first, not anyone else. It’s better to spend time with reliable people than to be derailed by toxic ones.
But in everything, keep this at the forefront of your mind (something I struggle with a lot):
“In resisting toxic people and acknowledging them, never let yourself become like them.”
Dealing with toxic people is something all of us need to learn. We’ll all encounter some, but we can’t appease them.
And that’s why, sometimes, we need to just walk away.
It really is a great book, and I think will help many people focus on what Jesus really wants for their lives.