How to Deal with Toxic People (A Guide for Christians)

Jim Gerakinis & Mark Green

Should Christians get rid of all the toxic people in their lives?

At some point in your life you have probably made a goal to be more efficient with your time. 

If you spend any amount of time on social media, you will hear this attractive and seemingly sensible solution to make the most of your time:

Remove toxic people from your life.

Let’s be honest.

It makes sense!

I mean, isn’t it a tad masochistic to tolerate these kinds of people?

Life would be so much more tolerable and, in fact, enjoyable if I simply didn’t allow toxic people to steal my joy!

In the name of better self-care, eliminating toxic people from your life can seem like a pretty good course of action.

But is that what Christians should do?

Is that what Christ did??

In this article, we want to (1) help you to accurately assess who in your life is truly toxic and (2) give you Biblical advice on how to deal with them.

What does "Toxic" mean?

Being in the counseling profession I hear many stories of individuals in toxic relationships and I was eager to gain a few tips on how to help individuals struggling in this area.

That led me to Gary Thomas’ book When to Walk Away which offers helpful examples of what “toxicity” looks like.

While there is no single, exhaustive definition of a toxic person, here are common signs of a toxic person:
  1. Being ruled by selfishness and spite.  
  2. They are usually draining instead of encouraging.
  3. They use people instead of loving them.
  4. They are often seemingly addicted to self righteousness and rash judgments.
  5. They frequently fight with people instead of enjoying and appreciating people.
  6. They may be jealous of healthy people’s peace, family and friendships.
  7. Seek to bring people down to their level of misery rather than blessing others.  
  8. They seek to control you (want you to stop being you).

Thomas says that although not every toxic person will exhibit all three of these areas, a toxic person usually excels in at least one of these areas:

  1. A murderous spirit
  2. A controlling nature
  3. A heart that loves hate

What "Toxic" doesn't mean

To understand what “toxic” means, it is also important to understand what “toxic” does not mean.

Sometimes we use the label “toxic” too broadly.

Some people are just difficult or different, but not necessarily toxic. 

We have to be careful that we don’t use the term “toxic” as an excuse to avoid people who are hurting.

As followers of Christ we need to minister to these people and not cut them out of our lives.

To gauge whether someone is truly toxic or not, reference the traits and signs listed above.

Why do we need to protect ourselves from toxic people?

It is good to protect ourselves from toxic people, but perhaps not for the reasons one would expect.

Gary Thomas says,

“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 primarily about protecting our mission.”

The truth is, all Christians have a God-given mission as we see in 2 Corinthians 5:20:

“Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”

Just as an ambassador to a foreign country must know the mission of the sending country, he must also know the audience of the country to where he goes.

As believers, God calls us to know our mission (to help in the ministry of reconciliation by sharing the gospel) as well as knowing our audience we are serving.  

Knowing our audience entails us to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16).

We should expect our audience, the world, to be toxic sometimes!

Many people are hostile to the message of Christ.

Being as wise as serpents means we should be prepared for toxicity to be one way people respond to Christians faithfully being ambassadors for Christ.  

Did Jesus ever walk away?

When Jesus came to earth, he had a mission.

As a part of that mission, he exposed himself to many toxic people.

But did Jesus ever separate himself from these people?

Yes, he actually did.

One example of Christ walking away is found in Matthew 15:39 which says,

“And after sending away the crowds, he got into the boat and went to the region of Magadan.”    

It is interesting that previously in verse 15:32 he had compassion on the crowd because they had been with him for three days with nothing to eat.

Jesus said, “I am unwilling to send them away hungry, lest they faint on the way.”  

It appears Christ took responsibility for these people, despite the fact that they had been coming to him for their needs for three days already.

Jesus cared for their physical needs and fed them before sending them away.

In Matthew 16:4 it states that Jesus left the pharisees and sadducees because “an evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign”.

Christ was able to recognize those who were trying to trap him out of malicious intent and his response was to leave.      

Even in Jesus' ministry we see there are legitimate times to walk away.

However, if we look at the whole of his life, Jesus consistently ministered to the needy, sinners, and even his own disciples. 

Three Biblical ways to deal with toxic or difficult people

1) Look at them with the eyes of Jesus

It is very easy to become frustrated and irritated by toxic people.

The things they say can hurt and hurt very bad.

The manipulative actions they take can take the joy right out of your day.

You can easily fixate on how they treat you and fail to see why they treat you the way they do. 

But what did Jesus do?

Jesus didn’t focus on Himself.

He came to this earth with a purpose, to redeem a sinfully lost world.

Jesus looked at people, not as a personal irritant, but as sheep without a shepherd.

He looked at them and loved them.

He looked at them and recognized that without Him, they would be eternally lost in Hell.

In a word, Jesus looked upon them in LOVE.

You must look at all people this way.

Including the one who brings toxicity to your life.

Have a measure of compassion with them.

Why do they act the way they do?

Are they mean because they are hurting inside?

Are they trying to manipulate me because they are lacking something in their life?

It doesn’t excuse or justify their behavior, but it does help you understand them and not become bitter.

After all, Jesus came to save toxic people too!

2) Offer them the other cheek

Jesus declares that the believer, when struck on the face, is to offer the other cheek for another strike (Matthew 5:38-40).

This seems so harsh!

So should I just be a doormat and let people treat me however they want and I’m supposed to just take it?

No, I don’t think that is what Jesus means here.

The principle Jesus is sharing is that there are times when we are to give up our rights, even when it is painful, for the sake of the other person who may only be thinking of themselves!

This act of self-denial could be the impetus for repentance on behalf of the toxic person (See Romans 12:9-21).

Again, we must be careful that we are not enabling the toxic person to continue in their sinful behavior, but sometimes, “blessing those who curse you” instead of reciprocating, is just the action that shows them their pride and arrogance.

3) Stand strong and let them walk away

However, there comes a time when nothing is getting through to the toxic person and it is time to distance yourself from them.

You should still “love your enemies and pray for them that persecute you,” but you do not need to continue to receive their abuse.

Even the church exercises the right to exit someone from their membership for their lack of repentance in order to preserve the holiness and health of the body (Matthew 18:15-19).

So stand strong in your faith.

Speak the truth in love to them.

Tell them that they are sinning against God and you when they are being abusive in their language or their actions.

It is not only for their good that they have someone stand up to them, it is for your good as well. 

Toxic people prey on weak-willed people.

So instead of being a push-over that allows their sinful behavior to flourish, “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of might" (Ephesians 6:10).

Jesus came to save toxic people, of whom I am chief
There are many things I appreciate about the Apostle Paul but one of the most appealing characteristics he possesses is a brutal self-awareness.

Paul is not simply self-deprecating to feign humility.

No, he understands that he is as sinful as they come.

He says in 1 Timothy 1:15,
“The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.”

As Christians, we are wise to share this perspective.

When we realize just how wicked we are as individuals, we begin to have a humble perspective of ourselves.

We recognize our desperate need for redemption.

We see that, while we may not be as bad as the toxic person our lives, we are bad enough to need the reconciling work of Christ on our behalf.

And, hopefully, this realization will motivate us to share the life-giving gospel to that toxic person who so desperately needs Jesus.

I need more help! (Resources)

Maybe you need more specific advice on how to handle a toxic parent, spouse, or child.

We highly recommend Gary Thomas' book When to Walk Away.
Oftentimes, the solution is not to cut someone out of our lives, but rather to create healthy boundaries.

We recommend Boundaries by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend:
Maybe you need more help to know how to forgive and restore a relationship.

For that we recommend Bold Love by Dr. Dan Allender and Dr. Tremper Longman III

Additionally we recommend for a variety of resources (books, coaching, or free resources) on emotionally destructive relationships.