April 23, 2020

A Fruitful Life

Gary Thomas — 

When I start writing a book, I wear the hat of an explorer. I have a general destination in mind, but I don’t always know where I’ll end up until I get there. Sometimes, it’s only until after a book is finished and I start regularly teaching on it that I finally understand the implications of where I tried to point readers to.

Such was the case when I wrote When to Walk Away: Finding Freedom from Toxic People. While I briefly mentioned how important it is to live a “fruitful” life in the book, as I’ve taught on it in live sessions and sermons, I’ve emphasized this issue a whole lot more. One of the primary (though not the only) reason we need to feel free to walk away from toxic people isn’t just because they bug us, abuse us, discourage us, or hurt us (though those can be good reasons). It’s also because they keep us from doing what we are called to do: bear fruit. And bearing fruit is what we were saved to do.  

I grew up in a Christian tradition where “being holy” meant not doing a lot of bad things. The mind change we need is that being holy isn’t primarily about not doing sinful things; it’s about being set apart for glorious eternal things. Jesus said, ““My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit” (John 15:8). He didn’t say God is glorified when I manage to not do the sinful things that many others do, but rather when I am faithful to do the holy and good works God has created me to do.

As a boy, I was terrified of being cut off by “sinning away” my faith. Ironically, when Jesus talks about something being “cut off” it’s not because of what someone did, but because of what they didn’t do: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.” John 15:1-2

A similar sentiment of Jesus’ can be found in his famous Sermon on the Mount: “So every tree that does not produce good fruit is chopped down and thrown into the fire.” (Matthew 7:19) I thought the “fire” was reserved for those who said bad words, looked at bad movies, took bad drugs, or did bad things. No one that I can remember ever told me that Jesus’ anger is aroused when we fail to produce good fruit.

The need to create and preserve a fruitful life becomes passionately important when we read of Jesus’ plaintive request for his disciples to pray to the Lord of the Harvest for more workers (Luke 10:2). Why? Obviously, because there aren’t enough! There will be never be enough. Which means all of us who do consider ourselves to be workers need to make the best use of our time, making every minute count. Instead of “spinning our wheels” with toxic people who will never be pleased and never be helped, we can walk away to a situation where God has prepared a person’s heart for a rich harvest.

If we value fruitfulness as much as Jesus does, then all of us—literally, all of us—will need to be more intentional about cutting some less than fruitful encounters and relationships out of our lives from time to time.

It’s not that we don’t want to be bothered; as Christians, we live to be bothered! It’s rather about taking yourself and your calling more seriously. If someone is making you less fruitful than God calls you to be, walk away. That’s what Jesus did, and it’s what we should do.

You were saved for a mission

When Jesus spoke the famous words of Matthew 6:33—“Seek first the Kingdom of God,” he wasn’t talking to people who were paid to do Christian work. He was speaking to farmers, parents, grandparents, carpenters, laborers. He was telling some very seemingly insignificant people that they could and should live a life of profound eternal significance.

In one of his final addresses to his disciples before His ascension to the Father, Jesus helped them understand one of the best ways to seek first God’s Kingdom: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations…teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19). This is an explicit commandment to find people who are willing to learn what it means to live a life of obedience to God. If someone doesn’t want to live such a life, they can’t become a disciple.

This was the clear message of the early church following Jesus’ ascension. The apostle Paul mirrored Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount with this sentence in his letter to the Corinthians: “Christ died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them” (2 Corinthians 5:15). Christ didn’t die just to save us from our sins, but to save us from lives without purpose or passion, self-centered lives of no account.

Paul’s “great commission” that so closely resembles the language of Jesus prior to his ascension can be found in 2 Timothy 2:2: “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.”

Jesus and Paul agree: the focus of Christianity isn’t on not doing bad things; the focus is on investing in good people. Christianity is an endless, persistent and sacrificial pursuit of investing in reliable people

By extension, we are not called to invest in unreliable or toxic people. Instead we should be investing in people who are willing to obey everything Jesus commands.

Here’s the rubric through which you understand whether you need to walk away: what’s keeping you from bearing fruit?

Is it a toxic relative? A toxic co-worker or boss? Satan may tempt you to stay in a situation that is destroying your ability to produce fruit by getting you to think it’s a “sin” to walk away from someone who seems so needy. In fact, what if the sin is staying in a place that is undercutting your self-confidence (so that you don’t believe you have anything to share with anyone), destroying your joy (since the joy of the Lord is our strength, letting someone destroy our joy is to let them make us weak) or destroying your peace so that you are not free to dream of how God wants to use you?

Frequent readers of this blog know I am not saying sin doesn’t matter. I am saying that if you grew up with the same baggage I did, you might want to think less about potentially sinning by not being “nice” to a toxic person, and more about how wasting your time with that toxic person is keeping you from living the life God created you to live.

Follow in the footsteps of Jesus and learn when to walk away.

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13 responses to A Fruitful Life

  1. William Logan May 1, 2020 at 11:08 am

    Thank you for sharing this! Definitely, it gives enlightenment!

    William | metal roofing springfield il

  2. Thank you Gary for your wise words. The Lord showed me a few years ago that I needed to “walk away from toxic people” and toxic situations. He showed me that it is a terrible distraction to those that he has called to “be about the Father’s business.” I always enjoy your posts and forward them to like-minded family and friends. ♥

  3. Gary, thank you for writing this. This helps a lot to understand the basic point of what you are saying in the book and I totally agree!

  4. Thanks for the reminder. I grew up with a similar framework of it’s all about what we don’t do. But as you pointed out, that’s not what Jesus is talking about. And toxic people are those who keep us from the work that God has prepared for each of us to do.

    When you started posting excerpts in your blog about “When to Walk Away”, I passed them on to a friend who was in a toxic work environment. The friend did choose to walk away from that job, and since then as seen God’s blessings in the new job, spiritual life and other relationships. I sent her the book when it was released and it this friend walk through and understand all the dynamics that had been happening.

    Then this friend decided to send me a copy of “When to Walk Away” because it was becoming clear I was in a toxic relationship with a flatmate. A month before the Corona virus hit our country, I broke the lease and have thanked God over and over it was said and done before the lockdowns and home isolation orders hit. This time alone has been a gift to not only process the previous 6 months, but to heal and recover. And it’s taken every day of the last two months to even begin to see joy returning and start moving into what God wants me doing in this new season.

    Thanks for stepping out into something a bit different with “When to Walk Away”!

  5. Thank you, Gary. Something that came to mind as I read this post, is the emphasis I believe many (if not most) Christians place ~ when they read about the ‘prodigal son'(for example), on the misdeeds of the son. In a course I’m taking, I’ve studied a little book by David Benner, in which he points out that the English translation poorly entitled the parable “The Prodigal Son”, when it was originally written to highlight the prodigality of the Father, the lavishness of HIS love, who does NOT focus on the misdeeds of the son when the son returns. I believe our Father, that Father in the parable, looks at us in our varying levels of waywardness, and simply embraces us (after joyfully running out to meet us) and elevates us to a place of honour in his family. Surely too, as you emphasize in this post, he desires to grow the potential in us that he placed within us, to become more like His Son Jesus. Your post inspires this in me, and challenges me to ~ even today ~ consider all the more how to use my life to bring glory to him, in watching attentively and with discernment for those who are receptive to God in me. Thank you!

  6. Gary, thank you for writing this. This is extremely helpful to me. It is an eye opener.

  7. And what happens if that toxic person is your spouse of 38 years? Being a born-again Christian, I find my walk with the Lord in severe danger, I have no private time, can’t even close the room door without my spouse checking up on me, never leaving me alone, especially during this lockdown. My spouse is also, apparently, a born-again Christian, who still prays and reads the Word, but belittles me, calls me names, throws things at meand when not doing those things, ignores me. Yet, in front of other people, myspouse is the perfect marriage partner, whom no one would believe is capable of doing such things. Do I walk away, after years of trying, disappointing our children and grandchildren who would never believe any of this? How do I start over at my age? There is no hope for the broken hearted, the used, the abused and discarded. I am dead, dried up and alone. Nowhere to go, no one to turn to.

    • I do not know who you are but I prayed for you after reading this. While I know God hates divorce have you pondered legal separation? We are currently in a situation where this is the godly counsel we have had to give a family relative who is in a very toxic relationship. This person has gone above and beyond what most would do but is slowly having their life sucked out of them. I thought about how the Lord tells us in His word to separate from worldly things which would include people that drain our souls. Some may disagree with the suggestion I pose and years ago I would have disagreed with it myself!! But I realize more and more that my relationship with the Lord is always to be the top priority. Anyone who would wrongly get in the way of that looses. Divorce is wrong but separation will bring health to your soul and is vital in your relationship with God. Don’t worry about what others may think or say. Your relationship with God has suffered long enough. I will continue to pray for you.

  8. True enough, God gave me incredible unconditional love for my first, and sadly ex, husband, who has NPD. I didn’t even hear of that condition till two years after he left me, and now, looking back, I can see red flags I missed. To his “credit,” a few years ago he emailed me and said “A relationship with me would just smother you.” I guess he knew and didn’t care that he was”smothering.” Still, I pray Jesus delivers him at last. Jesus is his only hope. God brought me to a place of great blessing that, amazingly, gives me the opportunity to share other people’s stories in devotional gift books I put together for a Christian company. God made me a writer, and I see that’s what God wants for and through my life.

  9. Gary, I had purchased this book back in January or so. It was on my shelf and I told many of my clients about it. Then one of the women I was talking with about a family situation suggested the book to me not realizing I had suggested it to her! That very day I took if off my shelf and read the first 5 chapters. I burst into tears so many times as the toxicity of this/these relationships became more clearer than I could have imagined. I felt validated and free to do what I had been so afraid to do for fear of “not being true to the family, not causing waves, being judged because I am so outspoken about my faith, and most importantly to not harm another relationship I believed was the closest I had with any member of our family.” One of these family members I chose to walk away from and the other (closer one) chose to walk away from me. Ouch!
    The great news is that the very next day I wrote down a couple ideas of how to take my coaching and teaching farther out. I started 2 new Zoom classes last week to women from 10 different states to fulfill what I have believed to be the calling on my life. 2 Tim 2:2 …To entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others also.” Thank you more than I can say!
    I will definitely be passing this post along!!!

  10. Do you think this includes a spouse? I have not read the book, it would be easy to read this as leave your spouse if toxic. I would hope not, can you give some clarity?
    Russ

    • Russ, there’s an entire chapter addressing toxic spouses and two other chapters that set that teaching up. So it’s way too long to squeeze into a comment but I do believe that there can come a time when it’s necessary to apply this even in marriage

      • That is good to hear. I will definitely check this book out. I am in a similar situation to the anonymous person about who posted about her husband of 38 years, but mine has only been for 23. I have had a counselor tell me that leaving is the best option, but I can’t bring myself to do that when I feel like leaving would be a sin. So I look forward to checking out the new book.