September 18, 2019

Pruning Toxic Relationships Out of Our Lives Isn’t Unchristian; God Does it Too!

Gary Thomas — 

I want to make your life much easier, more joyful, less stressful, more productive, healthier, and richer relationally and spiritually.

You up for that?

I grew up in Washington State, famous for its rain in the West and its apples in the East (Washington produces about 2/3 of our nation’s apples grown for immediate consumption).  

To grow great apples, a farmer must nurture great trees, and the way a farmer does that is by cutting off every branch that doesn’t produce good fruit. If a branch produces no fruit, it’s depleting the rest of the tree’s output. If it’s producing sub-standard fruit, it’s taking up space from a future branch that could hold delicious fruit. If it has diseased fruit, the disease might spread to the healthy branches, so it must go.

The wise farmer, the farmer who stays in business, the farmer who actually makes money and feeds his/her family well, cuts off the harmful, disease ridden, or barren branches without apology and with great expectation of what will replace it.

Your life is like a tree and people are the branches. Learning to handle toxic people is learning that, sadly, some branches (relationships) need to be cut off. Beginning a friendship isn’t a commitment to continue it until the day you die. Ministering to a person one day isn’t an iron-clad commitment to walk with them through every crisis for the next forty years. If someone is making you a less involved, less energetic, less caring person in your top-priority relationships, it may be time (and probably is time) to do some pruning.

Pruning isn’t about our comfort as much as it is about our productivity. Most of us want to be involved in people’s lives; we’re certainly not looking to increase “Netflix” time, but hopefully we want those relational encounters to be productive rather than wasteful.

I’m amazed at how our refusal to prune can put even strong and capable people in comical situations. I spent time with a high-powered married couple whom God is using on a national and even international scale. They confessed to me that when one particular woman rang their doorbell they both hit the floor, staying as quiet as they could, wanting her to just go away as they prayed she wasn’t able to see them through the windows. This is not a weak couple! Yet they found themselves in a comical, sit-com like situation because they hadn’t been able to directly “prune” this woman out of their lives. If you find yourself in a situation like this; if you wonder if it would be easier to get a new phone so they can’t contact you, switch churches so you won’t see them even once a week, move to a new house so they can’t find you, or even make your home in a new country, you almost certainly have some pruning to do.

For some of you particularly sensitive people (and I love you for this!), it may seem harsh to prune someone out of your life. It may not sound very “Christian.” But consider the words of Jesus: “I am the true vine, and My Father is the vineyard keeper. Every branch in Me that does not produce fruit He removes, and He prunes every branch that produces fruit so that it will produce more fruit.” (John 15:1-2)

God Himself does this!

The Jesus who told us to pray for more workers (Luke 10:2), who told us to seek first His kingdom (Matt. 6:33), who spoke with such urgency about our task (“We must do the works of Him who sent Me while it is day. Night is coming when no one can work” John 9:4) wants us to see that fruitfulness matters. Unfortunately, we live in a day where our faithfulness is defined by “piety” (avoiding sinful actions) more than it is by fruitfulness. You can make a strong case that God is at least as concerned with fruitfulness as he is with piety (witness his praise of King David, for starters). I don’t have a problem with pursuing piety; it’s just that piety without service is a sub-par faith.

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. Doing so isn’t an act of cruelty; it’s an act of discipleship and service. Another way of putting this, as shocking as it may sound, is that worshipping God may mean walking away from certain people so that you can walk toward the people he has prepared just for you.

It’s not that we don’t want to be bothered; as Christians, we live to be bothered! Instead, it’s about taking yourself and your calling more seriously. Be a tree that produces an abundant harvest. You won’t harvest great apples in the late summer and early fall if you’re not pruning in the winter.

Please, take a few moments and pray over this post. I believe God may have had someone in your life in mind when he led me to write this post. Ask God to reveal to you those unhealthy encounters—the ones you hide from, the ones that drain you, the kind that leave you lying on the floor of your house hoping the person knocking on your door won’t know you’re home, the one whose very name lighting up on your phone can spike your blood pressure—and take the hint. God wants you to be free to focus where He’s leading.

Maybe it’s time to do some pruning.

For more on this, please check out Gary’s upcoming book, When to Walk Away: Finding Freedom From Toxic People, now available for pre-order (the publication date is October 8).

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40 responses to Pruning Toxic Relationships Out of Our Lives Isn’t Unchristian; God Does it Too!

  1. Gary, I think this is a wonderful article and I’m looking forward to reading the book. However, I do want to mention a couple of things that I think are important. 1) Fruitfulness is not just about “service”, although that is a very important part of it (and might I add that we don’t always recognize “service” as such as we begin to live lives that are God focused…some service just seems to be “what we do” (like changing diapers, getting food on for the family, listening to a friend who is hurting, or waking up to pray with someone in an emergency)…Fruitfulness also has to do with living out who we are in Christ…you know peace, patience, kindness…and so on. It’s ALL part of bearing fruit, I think. And by-the-way, as the fruit of the Spirit is borne in our lives it dramatically affects the service and ministry that we do. The heart of how we do ministry matters. 2) Sometime that “difficult person” is the service and ministry God has called us to (I’m thinking about the man who stays with his wife though no one else would…or some such scenario) I suspect you address the need to be intensely prayerful and discerning in this (and, on the other hand, we need to be intensely prayerful and discerning who we DON’T prune out of our lives too…And sometimes, when we can’t actually prune them out of our lives for whatever reason, we need to ask God how to put creative boundaries in place and for creative ways to deal with the toxicity.) After having written all that, however, I do think the message of your book is probably one we ALL need to read and pray over. Thank you for writing it!

  2. I used to have someone that would come over, see me. call me and the first words out of their mouth was something to derogatory and hurtful. They would point out imperfections and jab at things they knew were important to me. I felt obligated to be/have a relationship with them even though it was like I wanted to run and hide when I saw them, not answer the phone when their name was on the caller ID. This person was a VERY close family member. I was always on guard and my insides in knots when they were around. After the encounters I was still affected internally, which manifested externally and effected the good relationships I had. I started “pruning” back the amount of time I was available to see them. I wasn’t mean, just started to realize that it was ok to choose myself sometimes. Was this time healthy for that person? NO! It was just a time for them to try and make them feel better by putting me down. As time went by sometimes I would miss the person, feel weird that I rarely interacted with them. Then I would answer a phone call from them. By the time I hung up I was like, “Yep, that’s why I don’t hang out with them any more! Did I quit loving them? No. Did I quit caring? No. Sometimes you aren’t the right person to help that person. Reality is that ends up not being a healthy relationship for either of you.

  3. What if it is a parent?

  4. Gary, thank you so much for addressing this difficult subject! I can’t wait to read your book, and hopefully hear you preach on it sometime soon!

  5. I’ve heard the term ‘toxic’ people from the world of psychology…where looking after number One, namely yourself, is the key to s happy life etc. it is a selfish pursuit of life… cutting off people that you just don’t care to suffer long with or who irritate you etc.
    are we not called to love the sinner and hate the sin? Are we not called to reach out to the lost in society who are often deemed ‘toxic’?
    I think as believers and followers of Jesus we have to be very wary of the world creeping into the church with its seductive teachings. ‘Toxic people’ and the whole avoiding thing shouldn’t be done in a way that’s irresponsible and careless. We should pray for our ‘enemies’ and be gracious and know correct boundaries. We don’t have the worlds authority to get rid of ‘toxic’ people around us…we must ask the Lord to show us how to d alvwith people and for wisdom in each situation.
    I think it would be sad to hear Christians even use the term ‘toxic’ people. It smacks of selfishly living to me. It’s the language of the world. We should use a different name/term that is more biblical. I haven’t given it much thought yet but maybe…person has a stronghold of ….

  6. Boy, God brought a wonderful, faithful, honest, caring man of integrity into my life after the horrible end of a 37-year marriage to a man who has NPD, though I’d never heard of it and didn’t till after he divorced me. I still lift prayers for deliverance for the4 first guy, but that’s God’s business, and I end my prayers with, “But whatever your will is, Father, so be it.” Now I’m writing small gift devotional books for a Christian company, and I’m able to put stories from my friends into these books to inspire and encourage others. I realize, sadly, I couldn’t do this if I were still with the first man. How sad these people are, how lost, and only Jesus can heal them.

  7. Well said and would simply add that many of the toxic folks that need to be “pruned” are those in the throes of “churchianity.” Thanks and make it a great day in The Lord!

  8. Something to be balanced with much discernment and love, for sure, and not easy.

    • Donna,

      I agree with you 100%. This isn’t always easy, and it’s difficult to find the right balance. Part of my motivation for writing this book, however, is that by never or rarely talking about it, we’ve given some toxic people an open playing field to prey on believers without warning or help.

  9. No one has ever had the courage to step up and speak this truth! Christians think you should suffer
    because God put these relationships in your life for his plan and purpose so we keep waiting and suffering until God reveals that plan to us. Thank you for posting this- going to get your book for more insight.

  10. Gary, does your new book discuss how to navigate the situation when you are married to the toxic person? Friendships are much easier to “prune” but marriage is a different animal entirely!

    • Kelly, yes!

    • This is my situation too. I am heartbroken to be going down the divorce road, but I could not continue to stand by a man who will lie and cheat to get what he wants, all while professing his christianity and morality. I thought it was my job to help him try and be a better person. You cannot help someone that sees no wrong in anything they do.

    • I agree and have a similar question/situation. It’s a lot more difficult to prune away a relationship that you have promised God you would be committed to until death. It gets messy. I’m interested in reading this book…

    • I need that answer too!!!!!

  11. may i know if there is a way to discern if the person herself is the toxic person whom people are walking away from? i am asking because i used to be friend who gave me so much heartaches and sleepless nights. i used to wake up crying in the night because i couldn’t confront her passive aggressiveness and the hurts manifest in my dreams. she is none the wiser after all these years and conversations still hint of her being the victim instead of the aggressor.

    • Clara,

      Sometimes I find it helpful to look at it as “toxic interactions” without having to assign blame. For whatever reason, the two of us are like sparks and gasoline and it’s best to just walk away, and in the end, let God be the judge. That serves both humility and kingdom focus.

      • Gary,
        I love this answer to Clara! As a Christian Life Coach, mentor and teacher I will definitely be incorporating it. Will be ordering your book too!

      • Exactly, and some predators are in the church both in leadership and in the pew and certainly know how to play the victim role while being aggressors and burning up time, energy, and resources all the while minimizing, spiritualizing, and sowing confusion.

  12. This is a huge paradigm shift in thinking. I’m standing here having to take deep breaths. I’m on launch team and have an urgency to finish the book to understand this. I do lay biblical counseling and working with a wife that this might apply. Feeling very mixed up because I have had her reading Sacred Marriage and encouraging her to hang in there and “win the unbelieving husband without words”. Also for myself to understand the difference between a difficult person you hang with vs the toxic person. How do you do this if it’s your child??? I think this message is going to take a bit to get our brains wrapped around because i know it isn’t a message that I have ever been taught. It’s going to rock some lives, but as you say there can’t be good fruit without pruning.

    • Toni,

      There’s an entire chapter about toxic children, but it’s about adult children. I’m not a therapist, and I think when you’re dealing with kids who live in your home and depend on you, the dynamics and appropriate applications will be different. And for that I’d recommend a counselor.

    • I believe it’s a right idea if the person has been sexually abusive, if the person steals from you, if the person is a fire setter, however in my opinion in most situations walking toward builds strength while walking away builds walls and cowardice. Boundaries – yes – walls no. My opinion only.

  13. Oh dear Gary, my heart is so heavy that I feel I must respond. Perhaps I’m reading your post incorrectly, but I have a problem with your “tree pruning” analogy, only because it can be heartless work. I believe one of our Heavenly Father’s greatest uses of people in our lives is to “prune” us. A dear brother in the Lord made this statement: In a world of so much to remember – always remember these two things:
    #1 every circumstance/relationship is about keeping my heart in an unpolluted state
    #2 how does God view the other person. God’s mercy did THIS for me (in spite of my sin/behavior)
    Condescending gentleness
    “Father, they don’t know what they’re doing”

    The Lord finally gave me the go-ahead to separate from my husband (married 33years) but I can honestly say, I don’t hate him, my heart breaks for him-even tho no one understands, my marriage to him has been the best thing in my life (next to salvation). There’s something to be said for leaning in to Jesus, obeying His commands, DESPERATELY needing Him. Stepping into this hard path, is what we were made for!!
    It says “In the last days the love of many will grow cold”… In Revelation the Lord Jesus says “I have somewhat against you because you have left your first love”. We must be rooted deep in HIS love so that our love for others will not be cold:-) oh I just want to encourage others to do the hard/costly work:)

    On another note, your posts have always been a breath of fresh air helping me navigate my twisted/whiplash marriage. Blessings to you and yours:)

    • Janie, I don’t disagree with your two points; I love them! And I’m not sure how this post contradicts anything you say. I’m certainly not advocating hatred or ill well. “Walking away” is different from hating. In fact, sometimes walking away is the best tool to keep us from developing hatred. And I also agree that God can use difficult relationships to help us grow–that’s the message of Sacred Marriage. But, as I state in the book, there’s a difference between “toxic” and “difficult.”

    • I don’t think this is referring to being “cold” or “hateful” in any way. Relationships are hard work. Ministry is hard work! That’s just the nature of people. Still, when people are unwilling to be taught, creating an unhealthy “drain”, or just looking for attention, it might be time to “prune” them away. This can be done in love and with the utmost kindness – in fact, for the sake of love and kindness, it MUST be done!

    • I am not understanding why the separation of the marriage is so good?

    • I pray that though you separated from your husband you will never file for a civil divorce from him, “for she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife. 12 To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. 13 And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him.” 1 Corinthians 7:11-13

    • I also had a difficult time with using the idea of God pruning – we aren’t God and many people have decided to cut people out and done harm. There are times, I wish that it had been made clear in this article that the times are very rare, and that more often we need to work on ourselves and the relationship to improve the situation. Laying on the floor when someone comes over is not adulting it in my opinion. Facing that person, telling that person you are unable if that is the case, if she is disrespectful or dangerous, the police can be helpful. Old fashion shunning is not helpful, does not facilitate growth and causes pain. That’s why I think this idea of pruning friends is a great idea in very rare situations.

  14. Gary, this is such an awesome read and a subject that needs to be addressed in all of us. Thanks for your boldness to share truth!

  15. True. Those who helped you decide to destroy your marriage and family and are still in your life…they need to go. They are not a friend Friends don’t help you do things like that.

  16. I respect you tremendously and have read several of your books. How do you balance this concept with your earlier concept of crashing into others making you more holy (from Sacred Marriage)? There are relationships other than marriage that seem to be for our good and refinement that may be tremendously draining or full of conflict (parents, siblings). I have been wary of the Boundaries theology because I think many use it as an excuse and never withstand the pressure that builds character and depth of relationship. Certainly there are types of people the Bible says have nothing to do with, but it also encourages many times to bear with one another, clothe ourselves with compassion and humility, lay down our lives for one another. This is a sincere question, i have several mature, believing friends ready to cut sisters and others out of their lives and I have been encouraging them towards the advice in Sacred Marriahe because I believe it is Biblical and God has used it to refine me. Thank you for any clarification.

    • Thanks for raising this point, Laura. The challenge of a blog post is its brevity; blog posts don’t allow me to get into the finer points like I can in a book. In general, I think we need to distinguish between “difficult” people and “toxic” people. It takes me three full chapters to do that in the book. God uses difficult people to shape us, but truly toxic people often end up either destroying us, destroying our work, or destroying our participation in other healthy relationships. That’s where we need to draw the line.

  17. Looking forward to reading this one! You bring out so many great biblical pointers about how, when, and why to ‘Walkaway’ – thank you for allowing God to work through you to share such wisdom! It truly is a blessing from above!

  18. But what do I do when it’s my adult son? I have prayed over 40 years for him but he continues to make bad choices. When I see his name come up on my phone, my stomachs starts hurting and I’m thinking now what.

    • Bev,

      I’m sorry, Bev. I’m sure that’s excruciating.

      The answer is way to long to put in a reply box, however. WTWA has an entire chapter on that, as well as a preliminary chapter (“A New Allegiance”) that sets up the conclusions.

  19. Are you familiar with the term family scapegoat? That is my story. It’s evil in every side. How does one move forward after you’ve pruned the toxic people who are your family out of your life?

    • Cece,

      You immediately work to replace them with healthy relationships. Find older mentors. Find younger mentees. Lean on the church to grow God-honoring relationships in which you can receive and give, invest in, and serve. Loneliness is such a dangerous place to be, spiritually speaking. Walking away from toxic relationships should be seen only as a prelude to walking toward healthy relationships.