September 25, 2019

Being Okay with Others Not Being Okay with You

Gary Thomas — 

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.

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25 responses to Being Okay with Others Not Being Okay with You

  1. Such an excellent reminder, as most of us have that toxic person in our life. There is such freedom in taking those negative thoughts captive and making them obedient to what Christ modelled for us and expects from us. A side note, “Sacred Marriage”, both the book and the seminar you gave at our church years ago, has made a huge impact both in our own lives and those to whom we have ministered over the years! So thankful for your ongoing ministry!

  2. Shelley Sessions October 1, 2019 at 2:37 pm

    My dad sent me a link to this blog recently because he knows I’m struggling/hurting with a very difficult friendship. Don’t know whether its toxic or just difficult, so I look forward to your book. When does it come out? I’ll recommend that our library buy a copy!

  3. Gary,
    My reply is regarding your Sacred Marriage book and not the above post other than it mentions Sacred Marriage. I just wanted to say that my marriage of almost 45 years has had many seasons of my crying myself to sleep at night. Most marriage books couldn’t touch my pain. When i read Sacred Marriage i was so encouraged by your saying (maybe not in words, but in concept) that God wanted me holy more than He wants me happy. My husband and i still struggle, but we are fighting the good fight to do it God’s way.
    Thank you, Gary!

    • Thank you Ella! It’s a fight worth fighting, and I’m honored if God used anything I’ve written to encourage you along the way

  4. I recently read two of your books Cherish and Sacred Marriage. My wife and I are currently in an informal separation but continuing to go through counseling. I see the validity in both of your books, but I was surprised to see what your next book is about…letting go of toxic people.
    You might have written about this in a past post, but I was curious to know what this might mean for someone that is married to a toxic person. I did read a post of yours entitled Enough is Enough…how the church needs to not enable abusers in the church. I did see however that this was only related to male abusers…Do you ever see any instance where a man could be the abused? This is not to say I want to be given “permission” to walk away, but just wondering if men are supposed to have a different tolerance for abuse than women. Are we as Christian men never allowed to leave our toxic wives, wherein women leaving a toxic husband is acceptable? As I write this, it might be good to fully understand what a toxic person truly is. I believe the terms toxic, or abusive are used so flippantly and such frequency that the true definition is lost. Perhaps a definition is needed. What is toxic? What is abusive?

    • Travis,

      These are all fair questions, but they require answers much too long for a reply box. In short, yes, men can be abused. I do believe there is usually a different threshold, particularly just in talking about physical differences in strength (not in all marriages, but in most of them), which changes the “threatening” factor. But abuse can go beyond the physical, and toxic certainly can as well.

      It takes me three chapters in When to Walk Away to define “toxic” and to distinguish it from “difficult” or “frustrating.” And then another couple chapters discussing how this might apply to Christian marriages and individual believers who believe, as I do, that marriage is a sacred covenant. I can’t include all of that here and thus fully answer your question, but, as always, if money is an issue for you and you think this could help your situation, we send out books for free. Send an email to, explain your situation, and we’ll do what we can to provide what you need.

  5. So sorry to hear this but Thank you for all the lessons you have drawn out of this experience. I’ve heard you interviewed many times and you sound like the nicest Christian. Love your work
    God bless your ministry

  6. Preorder purchased! So thankful for this material…can’t wait to highlight and take notes in my kindle book!!! Blessings Gary, you have helped me grow so much and have blessed our marriage by your teachings! ((HUGS)) to you and Lisa 💗

  7. This hits hard. It is so difficult to let toxic people hate you, misunderstand you, etc. but it is wasted energy, unneeded anxiety that we shouldn’t invest in. There are so many worldly issues that I don’t support which makes me very unpopular, especially in the social media world. If i disagree, i am suddenly an extremist. A bigot.
    I’m trying to learn to “walk away” and not hold on to that hurt.

  8. Gary, I LOVE your blog! Your insight, wisdom and transparency is so refreshing!! I also struggle, at times, with people not being okay with me. It’s something I really have to work through – depending on who the person is & my relationship with that person.

    I can so relate to what you said about feeling the need to respond to people. It does sometimes feel rude not to respond. I was raised to be polite and responding was part of that. I really have to work through a lot mentally to see if something needs to be responded to or not. And, I can allow myself to be troubled longer than I need to be about a specific situation.

    I LOVE what you said about how spending any time with toxic or difficult people takes away from healthy relationships. I have worked really hard over the past 12 years to become a healthier person emotionally and mentally.

    Recently I had a surprise “attack” by a family member that was extremely hurtful. I apologized and asked forgiveness for what they accused me of at the time, but I’ve had to remind myself that they had their own issues and were projecting them onto me. So your blog and perspective was very helpful and insightful to help me continue in my healing process.

    I have a quote I like – “The only way to win with a toxic person is not to play.” I look forward to reading your book!!

  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.” I’ve been trying to learn this lesson for 40 years and it’s so good to see it in writing and addressed by a Christian. Thank you for using your time to highlight a message that has been under-taught in religious circles. I so appreciate your work on “Enough is Enough” and these posts on when to walk away have been nourishment to me!

  10. Oh, Gary. What a great article! How I wish I could have read this article when I was in college, surrounded by toxic people who fed into my own toxicity. Back then, pleasing people was all too important, and there were times I choose the approval and praise of people to my own detriment. I’m looking forward to buying and reading your book when it comes out. Keep speaking and writing truth. We need it!

  11. Bravo, Gary! You know I have learned that a lot of times people that talk about you and cut you down for things that are happening in your life are often just jealous. You are a successful speaker and author (world renown!) and you just have to expect the pettiness of people who are jealous of your success. I was teaching a bible study at my church and during a certain period of that time we were putting in a pool. I was walking down the hall toward the study and a lady actually stopped me in the hall and began to tell me how horrible it was that I was excited about my new pool. How dare I show pictures of it on social media. I was shocked and almost felt embarrassed. Was I being selfish? It troubled me for days, but soon God showed me that that was rooted in jealousy. It’s hard to not take these things personally but I finally realized that I had worked hard, save money and waited for 50 years for something I had always wanted. Walking away is the best choice in these types of situations. I wish you complete success on this new book. It is a much needed read….I pray the church embraces it!

  12. Fr. Anthony Messeh September 25, 2019 at 7:40 am

    Fantastic post as always Gary. What you said is spot on. And speaking of Nehemiah, the passage I think of in the face of these situations is Nehemiah 6:3 where he responded to his opponents with: “I am doing a great work, so that I cannot come down. Why should the work cease while I leave it and go down to you?”

    In other words, as you said, I’m not stopping what I’m doing to appease you.

    Thanks so much for your post Gary and thank you for all you do for the kingdom of God. May the Lord reward you mightily!

  13. I counsel people and I often wonder how much I should persue a person that just wont give up the sin that is causing so many of their problems. God asks us to change by renewing our minds, putting off the old behaviors and putting on new. But I too know that my time is best spent helping those that really want help. It’s just so hard to leave those that dont want to change. Often I feel like the father of the prodigal son, starring down the road looking for their return.

    • I wonder if there isnt a healthy balance, one that pushes a toxic person away, and gets us out of arms reach for our own safety, but not out of influencing a toxic person, in love, committed longterm to the relationship. For instance, what if one is in a destructive marriage with emotional and verbal, or physical abuse? I know of one person, speaking as a woman, that is, who has physically separated to live close by. She is determined to relate to her abuser’s nice guy “Dr. Jekyll”s, and sidestep his bad guy, “Mr. Hyde’s” self confessed intentional cruelty, practicing 1 Corinthian’s 13 forebearing love. Why do we have to walk away completely? Arent we throwing away the baby with the bathwater, so to speak?

  14. Gary, I appreciate your humility in sharing situations that we know we all experience. I’m looking forward to reading this book, and for the record – in case I’ve not stated it enough times – your previous books have been in the “life-changing” category, drawing me closer to Jesus and deepening my relationship with my husband. Thank you for your ministry!

  15. Gary, these words are so true! I’ve just come through a four-year valley where my son-in-law has been that toxic person. The hardest thing as a Christian is releasing the idea that if I am just kind enough, or just serve him, or just apologize for whatever he might think is true he’ll actually begin to show love. It’s hard to walk out of that valley of devastation, but to follow the Lord I think it’s absolutely necessary. 2Timothy 2:24-26 lays out our instructions to be patient, kind, and not be quarrelsome within the church because some are being held captive to do the enemy’s will. I love your reference to Nehemiah, because to do God’s work he had to worry about pleasing Him, not the naysayers. We can get so bogged down in trying to please one toxic person, that we neglect all the other people we are called to lead, love, and serve. We can begin to define ourselves by the one person’s rejection. We can think if we can just quote enough scripture, or affirm them, or just be enough like Jesus then they will eventually be won over. But sometimes that’s not God‘s plan. Sometimes you have to do like Peter and John did, determine whether it’s right to obey God or men. I’m looking forward to reading your new book! And by the way, Sacred Marriage was awesome! But you didn’t need me to tell you that, LOL. I think the Lord has made you aware of that!

    • And by the way, you can (and should) still love that person, pray for that person, and be kind that person. You just don’t let their toxicity define your Christianity. You have to lean back on what you know God says about you, not their reinterpretation.

    • Harry,

      I could have written this very comment myself just a few years ago. I was caught in the same misunderstanding you state so well. You get it! Sounds like we’re on the same journey. Thanks for sharing.

    • Harry, I too have that toxic son-in-law. Before my daughter married him I tried to help her see that he was a “toxic” person to everyone around him. Even his mother and brother told me of the extreme toxicity he has created in their family. My daughter chose to begin a life with him. Now they have two daughters (one with a congenital disability) and I have witnessed his abuse of her with my own eyes/ears. He threatened me, demanding that I tell the authorities that I lied about the abuse i witnessed. His own family has told me they are terrified of him. He demanded that my daughter no longer have contact with her family and she has no choice but to comply. I have not spoken with my daughter nor have I seen our grandchildren in over 5 months. He is extremely toxic and though I know I must keep myself safe, I fear and pray for the safety of my daughter and granddaughters everyday. How does someone maintain their safety at the same time support their children who are married to extremely toxic individuals? Thank you for the book….and of course loved Sacred Marriage!

  16. So good. So helpful. I’ve already shared this article. Thank you.

  17. Arrgh! I’m still working on this! The fear of not pleasing people has way too much influence in my life. Galatians 1:10 helps me a lot “For do I now persuade men, or God? or do I seek to please men? for if I yet pleased men, I should not be the servant of Christ.” Pleasing Christ is the bottom line.

    • Jenny,

      That’s been one of my favorite verses too, probably because that’s where I’m so naturally weak.