If you want freedom from toxic people, you have to learn how to be okay with others not being okay with you.
Historically, I’ve been rather weak in this regard. I hate it when people aren’t okay with me. Even toxic people. That weakness gives them a power they don’t deserve and potential control that they love to exploit.
I got a cryptic request from a lawyer recently who asked me who some of my favorite classical writers were. I sent him a list, and then he explained he was reviewing Sacred Marriage to see if it was “acceptable” for his church to read. His requests were part of his process of looking for ammunition and “suspect sources” that I rely on.
This lawyer was suspicious that no one “famous” had endorsed Sacred Marriage, but when the book first came out 19 years ago the publisher didn’t seek any endorsements (I don’t remember why). He then followed up with an email about his conclusions: my book had “many fine quotes” but was troublesome and likely even blasphemous. He was writing a review and wondered if I would talk.
Perhaps foolishly, I agreed, but it wasn’t really a discussion. I was dumb founded by how petty many of his criticisms were and how confident he was in his small-mindedness. He was deeply offended that I called Fenelon a “Christian” because Fenelon was born after Calvin and didn’t become a Calvinist. He was gravely concerned that in the book I mentioned how my wife read Guideposts magazine (which had been a gift subscription from my mom), and even though I say in my book that Guideposts (which was, he informed me, founded by Norman Vincent Peale) isn’t really the kind of thing I read, he wanted me to know that many Christians would be asking “Why is Gary letting his wife read Guideposts?” The audacity of this question, why I would let my wife read Guideposts, paints a picture of marriage that is completely foreign to me. And, among many other things, he was deeply troubled by my recounting of Leslie’s story in Sacred Marriage. After being cheated on and abandoned by her husband, and left with minimal financial resources, Leslie saw a beautiful Easter lily and said in a short prayer to God that she would love one of those. She didn’t have the money to buy one, but the very next day someone left one on her desk, which Leslie received as a gift from God. “That’s mysticism!” my lawyer-critic challenged.
I could see we weren’t going to get very far so I mostly listened, sometimes even laughing (not intentionally or trying to be mean; the laughs sprang from genuine puzzlements) when he made another point that astonished me. Some other comments were more substantive, of course, but it was difficult to keep up.
When his review was finished and (surprise, surprise) his conclusion was reached that it still wouldn’t be “safe” for most people in his church to read Sacred Marriage he wanted me to react point by point to his critique after he sent it to me. I declined. He wrote a couple more times, saying all I had to do was write “agree” or “disagree” with every assertion. I’ve found that toxic people don’t like to give up. They don’t like the word “no.” They still want another piece of your time.
I think he may have been bothered that I told him I was praying God would bless him with humility—not in a mean or snarky way, but as a genuine blessing. Still, it was difficult for me not to respond, and his attacks kept coming back to my mind because I know he’s going to post the review and I know that people in his church will be told it’s not safe to read Sacred Marriage. It took a couple days for me to “mentally” walk away. I can still be rather weak in this regard. My publisher told me that we should reach one million copies sold in October. One lawyer’s review among the hundreds that have been published, and one church putting it on the “forbidden” list won’t define it, but I can be so weak, it still troubled me.
In the midst of my weakness, here’s what I’ve learned: you can’t please toxic people without hurting or offending the faithful. Toxic people force you to choose. To make them happy is to often grieve God and wound others. To please him, I’d have to demand that my wife not read Guideposts (she hasn’t for decades, but not because I don’t “let” her). I’d have to tell Leslie it’s inappropriate to believe that God provided her with that Easter lily. And I’d have to tell others it’s not “safe” to read anyone who didn’t become a Calvinist or agree with Calvin if they were born in or after the sixteenth century. (For the record, I also quote John Calvin approvingly in Sacred Marriage, as well as John Owen, who systematized Calvinism. My theological mentor in seminary—and the person whom I currently read as much as anyone else—was none other than Dr. J.I. Packer. I just don’t restrict my reading—or quoting—to Calvinists.)
To be a healthy person is to have the courage to let toxic people oppose you, hate you, and say awful things about you.
In When to Walk Away I have an entire chapter on Nehemiah, who brilliantly sidestepped many toxic challenges. The chapter was getting too long so I had to cut it considerably, and one thing I don’t point out in the book is the selfish side of Tobiah’s attack against Nehemiah. Tobiah was enmeshed in Jerusalem’s social and political establishment. He could both request and grant favors, the kind of guy that contemporary people would say exists in Washington D.C.’s “swamp.” One of these favors (J.I. Packer addresses this in his book A Passion for Faithfulness, and I’m leaning on his insights here) was getting a temple storeroom reserved for his personal possessions. Eliashib, the high priest in charge of the temple, allowed Tobiah to take over this part of the temple. It was supposed to be reserved for offerings and sacred purposes, but Eliashib allowed Tobiah to use it as a personal storehouse.
When Nehemiah found out about this, he personally threw all of Tobiah’s goods out of the storeroom and into the street (Neh. 13:8). The language makes it sound like Nehemiah did this personally, and the verb used literally means “threw.” This wasn’t a polite repositioning; it probably looked more like a reality show altercation.
Imagine Tobiah’s fury! He had been getting a free deal but now his personal control over God’s temple was over. For Nehemiah to placate Tobiah, he’d have to accept the selfish misuse of God’s temple. Nehemiah chose to please God; “I put back into [the storerooms Tobiah had taken over] the equipment of the house of God, with the grain offerings and the incense” (Nehemiah 13:9).
Taking time trying to please a toxic person will keep you from using that time to invest in healthy relationships and discipling reliable people. Don’t divert healthy possessions, time, thoughts or mental energy trying to make a toxic person feel a little better about you. You can’t do that without taking that time and energy away from a more worthwhile pursuit.
Value your time. Toxic people won’t. I’ve learned that they will keep sending emails until I finally don’t even respond anymore. It feels rude to me to stop responding, but their arrogant demands are also rude. Normal people can accept a “no thank you.” Toxic people usually won’t.
One of the verses that I write about in When to Walk Away, a verse that has become a new daily encouragement for me, is the very last verse of Nehemiah (13:31), when Nehemiah prays “Remember me with favor my God.” I want to be remembered with favor by God. It doesn’t matter what an Amazon reviewer says. It doesn’t matter what people say on Facebook or Twitter. It doesn’t matter what a proud lawyer thinks.
What matters for me and for you is how God views what we are doing. Other church members may bad mouth you. An ex-spouse may pummel your reputation. Perhaps even your children or parents will hold you in contempt. That’s always unfortunate and hurtful. But sometimes, to be remembered with favor by God means being held in contempt by toxic people. And that’s okay.
It’s a mark of spiritual maturity when we can learn how to be okay with others not being okay with us.
Pre-order your copy of When To Walk Away today and receive a free digital copy of Holy Available! Simply order When to Walk Away from your favorite retailer and submit for your bonus at whentowalkawaybook.com by October 7.