Do you have someone in your life you consider to be toxic? Maybe it’s a coworker or a neighbor, or even a family member you’re forced to interact with.
As Christians, we know we’re commanded to love people. In John 13:35, Jesus says, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (NIV). It’s one thing to love a stranger whom you may never see again. But it can sometimes be difficult to show love to toxic people in our lives, especially when the person has hurt us or continues to do so.
How do we show love to toxic people without allowing that toxicity in our lives?
WebMD defines a toxic person as anyone whose behavior adds negativity and upset to your life. They might cause stress, unpleasantness, difficulty, or conflict. You might experience manipulation or verbal abuse, or they might violate your physical, emotional, spiritual, or other boundaries time and again. Being around them can feel exhausting.
What Does the Bible Say about Toxic People?
The term might be new, but the concept is not. Those who wrote the Bible were well-familiar with toxic people. Several scriptures address these difficult souls who wreak such havoc in our lives.
In 1 Corinthians 15:33, the Apostle Paul urges us, “Do not be misled: ‘Bad company corrupts good character.’”
And in Proverbs 22:24-25, we’re warned, “Do not make friends with a hot-tempered person, do not associate with one easily angered, or you may learn their ways and get yourself ensnared.”
How Do We Love Toxic People?
Yet Jesus tells us to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22:39). He goes further in Matthew 25:35-40, commanding us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the prisoner, and welcome the stranger as though we are doing it to Jesus Himself.
We know from the Bible that Jesus died to offer salvation to all sinners (John 3:16) — toxic people included. And loving people is a way we can introduce or reinforce the life-saving gospel truth in their lives, as well as to honor the blessing Jesus offers in our own lives.
Now, if that toxic person in your life is abusive in some way, that is different. Abuse is illegal, dangerous, and by no means permissible. Loving them might look like forgiveness and moving on, far away from them. (And if you are in an abusive relationship of any kind, I urge you to reach out for help, whether from law enforcement or an organization such as the National Domestic Violence Hotline).
But for non-abusive toxic types, the Bible offers us ways to love them without allowing that toxicity in our lives.
Sometimes people are toxic because of a personality disorder. Sometimes it’s because of a sinful or merely annoying trait. Other times, they are going through a “dark phase,” such as a breakup, death, mental health crisis, or job loss, and not dealing with it well, perhaps consumed with insecurity, envy, ambition, greed, or fury.
One thing we can do is try our best to empathize with them. Many times, I feel an aversion to someone who reminds me of myself in some way — and particularly reminds me of things I don’t like about myself and strive to push past.
Maybe you have far more in common with that toxic person than you think you do. Maybe she’s just an earlier version of you, and you could help her evolve just like someone else helped you. In Matthew 7:3-5, Jesus said,
“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.’”
Try to understand life from their perspective, which will help your heart soften and be more receptive to love.
Pray for the Toxic Person
Never underestimate the power of prayer. Scripture tells us prayer is mighty and can move mountains.
Jesus has the power to transform the heart and life of anyone. Pray for that transformation. Pray they heed the call of Christ to be loving, kind, merciful, and true.
In Luke 6:28, Jesus tells us to “bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”
Roman 12:14 echoes that, reminding us, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.”
God hears our prayers always. He is at work in the lives and hearts of every soul on this earth. Your prayers can make a tremendous impact.
Be Kind to the Toxic Person
Another way we can love a toxic person in our life is to show them kindness. Galatians 5:22 lists kindness as among the fruits of the Spirit. Those who have the love of Christ in their hearts will naturally show this trait.
Ephesians 4:31-32 says, “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”
We’re told in 1 Corinthians 13:4 that love is patient and kind. We model love through kindness. Kindness is being generous and loving, doing something truly nice and considerate for someone else.
For that toxic person in your life, try showing some kindness (even if you’ve tried before). This might be holding open their door or helping them with a task, or paying them a sincere compliment.
Forgive the Toxic Person
Jesus died on the cross to pay the debt of our sins so we could have eternal life, and He did this not because of anything we accomplished, but because of the vast and inexplicable love He has for us. We are to model that, too, as best as possible, including when that is not easy. That’s called grace.
As the Apostle Paul wrote to the early church in Colossae, “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.
Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity” (Colossians 3:12-14).
Forgiveness is love cloaked in liberation — we hand off the pain we experienced at the hands (or lips) of another to the Lord, who takes it from there. The gift of forgiveness can transform our lives and also remind us how blessed we are that God forgives us for our own ways — our sins that are toxic to Him.
Love the Toxic Person ‘Extravagantly’
In Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount, He told people to forget the old ways of revenge, or personal vengeance — an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. That is, in the old days, if someone caused your eye to be injured, you would have the right to injure their eye in return. Jesus said to put all that aside.
Instead, Jesus encouraged wild, extravagant love, the kind of love He later exemplified by dying on the cross for every one of us.
“But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you” (Matthew 5:39-42).
Extravagant love can do many things. It can open people’s eyes and make them wonder why you are doing this. It can introduce them to Christ.
And it can make them feel shame about their own, perhaps unkind and unloving, actions — shame that perhaps leads to repentance.
Beware the Toxic Person and Shine Light into the Situation
Finally, keep in mind the Bible also warns us to be aware of — and to beware — toxic people. Sometimes these toxic people are outright, intentional evildoers whose words and actions are intended to corrupt others and circumvent God’s will and God’s ways.
Other times these people are merely misguided souls who have been negatively influenced by others and whose desire for attention or conflict wreaks havoc in your life by steering you off your focus on God.
Proverbs devotes much wisdom to the need to be aware of and avoid toxic people. Proverbs 4:14-17 urges, “Do not set foot on the path of the wicked or walk in the way of evildoers. Avoid it, do not travel on it; turn from it and go on your way. For they cannot rest until they do evil; they are robbed of sleep till they make someone stumble. They eat the bread of wickedness and drink the wine of violence.”
And Proverbs 16:28 reminds, “A perverse person stirs up conflict, and a gossip separates close friends.”
The Apostle Paul, in his letter to Timothy, warns his young friend about terrible times ahead in the last days,
“People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God — having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people” (2 Timothy 3:2-5).
Being aware of the dangers these people pose to our lives and the influence they have on our values is helpful, for we know we are to remain cautious and watchful about this.
Then, as with all harmful things in life, God offers another solution: shine His light into the situation.
John the Baptist’s father Zechariah, in Luke 1:79, said Jesus would come “to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”
Mark 4:22 says, “For whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the open.” And Ephesians 5:11 says, “Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them.”
Allowing God’s light and truth to permeate the situation can be helpful. This might be going to the person and letting them know their words or actions bother you or bringing along a trusted friend to help reason with them and guide them back on track. As we’re told in Exodus 14:14, “The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.”
The main thing to remember with toxic people is that you must protect your soul. Be watchful and mindful of the ways this toxic person can impact your life and your values. But there are ways you can love them without letting their toxicity harm you.
Empathy, prayer, small kindnesses, forgiveness, extravagant love, and general exposure to God’s powerful and redeeming light can be some of these ways.
For further reading:
Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/sanjagrujic
Jessica Brodie is an award-winning Christian novelist, journalist, editor, blogger, and writing coach and the recipient of the 2018 American Christian Fiction Writers Genesis Award for her novel, The Memory Garden. She is also the editor of the South Carolina United Methodist Advocate, the oldest newspaper in Methodism. Learn more about her fiction and read her faith blog at jessicabrodie.com. She has a weekly YouTube devotional, too. You can also connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, and more. She’s also produced a free eBook, A God-Centered Life: 10 Faith-Based Practices When You’re Feeling Anxious, Grumpy, or Stressed.