This sentence in Gary Thomas’ new book grabbed my attention: “Sometimes to follow in the footsteps of Jesus is to walk away from others or to let them walk away from us.”
I wish someone had told me that 25 years ago, when I stood in a courtyard between Sunday School classrooms yelling at a church member. At that time, I was the 25-year-old Christian education director of the church in which I had grown up. I superintended approximately 20 Sunday School classes and taught one myself.
One day, an eager, early-middle-age Brit joined the class. At first, he kept to himself, which was fine by me. After several weeks, he began participating in class discussions, which was also fine by me. But I began to notice a trend to his class contributions. They all had to do with the inferiority of this or that modern translation of this or that Bible verse when compared to the King James Version. He was a King James Only kind of guy, it turned out.
It took me a while to catch on to this. My first response was to educate myself. Then, young teacher that I was, my next response was to educate him. But regardless of my months of feeding him articles and hours of one-on-one time explaining the error of his ways, he persisted in derailing every class discussion he participated in — and he now participated in all of them! — with bad exegesis and crazy conspiracy theories.
Which is why I was standing in the courtyard after Sunday School, exasperated at his latest shenanigans, telling him not to attend my Sunday School class, or any other, ever again.
Why do I tell you this? Not because I am proud of my response to KJV Guy. I’m not. I tell you this because at that stage in my life, I felt it was my duty as a Christian and as a minister to devote lavish amounts of time to any person who demanded it, no matter how unreasonable their demand. Over the years, as a practical matter, and to retain my sanity, I’ve stopped doing that. But in the back of my mind, I always felt a bit guilty for not being more like the “Hound of Heaven.”
But as Gary Thomas demonstrates in When to Walk Away, not only did Jesus himself walk away from people on occasion, He allowed them to walk away from Him. Thomas includes an Appendix listing 41 times in the Gospels that Jesus did this for one reason or another. It makes for eye-opening reading.
Jesus walked away or let others walk away for a variety of reasons. Thomas’ focus in this book is walking away from “toxic people.” These people excel in at least one of three things: “a murderous spirit, a controlling nature, and a heart that loves hate.” When to Walk Away includes numerous examples, from Thomas’ life and pastoral counseling, of toxic people.
Thomas is careful to warn against understanding toxicity too broadly. It’s not synonymous with difficult people or circumstances. After all, Jesus came to “to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10), and the lost are difficult people in difficult circumstances by definition. Toxic people are difficult, but in a soul-killing, relationship-destroying way. Like internet trolls, once you’ve identified them, you’re best off avoiding them.
Why? Because God doesn’t want His children to play defense against toxic people. He wants them to go on offense, using their best time, talents and treasures to develop “reliable people,” that is, 2 Timothy 2:2 people. In that verse, Paul writes, “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.”
Although Thomas spends most of the book advising readers how to identify and then disentangle themselves from toxic people, the heart of his book is really Chapters 6 and 7, “No Time to Waste” and “Reliable People.” In those two chapters, he outlines a strategic offense that allows us to put our best time and efforts into reliable people. This doesn’t mean avoiding problems or difficulties, since even reliable people have plenty of both. It does mean exercising discernment about people, however. And in some cases, the good news is that even toxic people, at least some of them, can become reliable ones through strong boundaries and good counsel.
I recommend When to Walk Away to pastors and other church leaders especially, who, perhaps more than others, strongly feel Christ’s imperative to disciple people. Thomas didn’t write it just for pastors, however, and it can be read profitably by just about anybody.
Gary Thomas, When to Walk Away: Finding Freedom from Toxic People (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2019).
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P.P.S. I wrote this review for InfluenceMagazine.com. It is posted here with permission.