How to Handle Toxic People

“There is no better self-care than cutting off people who are toxic for you.” So reads one of the pop-therapeutic mantras that proliferates social media platforms like Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest. There’s a consensus forming in culture that you may have encountered. Your personal happiness is so important, the logic goes, that you need to eliminate anyone who gets in the way of it. If someone hurts your feelings, they tell us, the only responsible and self-loving option you have is to get rid of them.

This philosophy reserves the label “toxic” for such people, which means “very harmful or unpleasant in a pervasive or insidious way.” When people are toxic, there’s no use trying. Forget about the rewarding struggle to get along with fellow humans. Don’t worry about conflict resolution, reconciliation, or forgiveness. Tolerance toward those with differing opinions? Please. There’s only one solution for toxic people: Get away, shut them out, and never look back.

Kaitlyn Tiffany treats this phenomenon in the September issue of The Atlantic (“That’s It. You’re Dead to Me.”). She writes from the painful personal experience of being labeled “toxic” for disagreeing with a roommate. She also cites evidence of the growing phenomenon of adult children cutting their own parents out of their lives over disagreements and hurt feelings. Tiffany’s article brilliantly identifies the problem, but when I got to the end of it, I just wasn’t quite satisfied. She writes as one who knows labeling people as “toxic” and cutting them out of your life forever is wrong, but she doesn’t seem to be able to answer why.

My reading of that article happened to coincide with my study of Saul’s conversion in Acts 9 in preparation for my Sunday sermon. Folks, it doesn’t get more toxic that Saul of Tarsus. By the time we get to Acts 9, we know a few things about Saul. We know that, after Stephen was martyred with stones for his proclamation of Jesus, the murderers laid down their garments at Saul’s feet (7:58) and that he approved of the execution (8:1). Further, we know that he was “ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison” (8:3). Saul wasn’t interested in hurting feelings; he wanted blood.

So, imagine knowing these things about Saul and probably even having some of your close friends harmed by him and then receiving instructions from Jesus to go help him see again (9:11-12). How would you respond? Ananias received those very instructions and questioned Jesus about it, but ultimately went to Saul’s aid. Jesus had explained to Ananias that Saul was going proclaim the gospel to the Gentiles (9:16), and Ananias knew firsthand the power of conversion. He knew that Jesus could change a person’s heart, for he had personally experienced that very thing. So, when Ananias arrived at the house to find Saul, blind and desperate, he addressed him in the only way that made sense: “Brother Saul” (9:17).

Brother Saul? How do you address such a toxic personality as family? Did Ananias forget about self-care? Did he not understand the risk he was taking?

Saul had been there when Stephen, drawing his last breath, prayed “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (7:60) before closing his eyes to die. Surely, Stephen had heard the report of Jesus’ last prayer as he looked upon those who had crucified him and cried out, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Now Saul was the recipient of that same forgiveness. Through Christ, he had been invited into a new family comprised of nothing but former toxic people, saved by grace.

Our willingness to forgive offenders reveals what kingdom we ultimately belong to. As followers of Christ, we know that the most toxic person in the universe can be seen in the reflection staring back at us in the mirror. The gospel of Christ frees us to love and forgive as we’ve been loved and forgiven. There’s no such thing as an irredeemably toxic person. There’s no such thing as a relationship that can’t be healed. We know because God has reconciled us to himself through Christ.

I’m glad God didn’t label me “toxic” and turn his back on me. My prayer is that the church would take our cues from God rather than the destructive mantras that fill the digital spaces of our world. How do you handle toxic people? You love them the way you’ve been loved.

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