Playing Spiritual Defense
About the Guest
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Gary ThomasGary Thomas is a writer in residence at Second Baptist Church in Houston, Texas, and an adjunct faculty member teaching on spiritual formation at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon and Houston Theological Seminary in Houston, Texas. He is the author of 20 books, including When to Walk Away, Sacred Marriage, Sacred Pathways, Cherish, Sacred Parenting, and the Gold Medallion Award-winning Authentic Faith. He has a master’s degree from Regent College, where he studied u...more
Sometimes it’s best to just walk away. That’s what Gary Thomas wants you to know when facing toxic people. Thomas explains how, in the gospels, Jesus walked away from people 41 times.
Playing Spiritual Defense
Bob: God designed relationships to be life-giving and life-affirming. Author and pastor, Gary Thomas, says some relationships are life-depleting; they’re toxic.
Gary: Toxic people want to control you: “You will do what I want you to do,” “I’ll pretend to be your friend,” “I’ll pretend I’m in need,” “I’ll pretend I’m going to threaten you,” “4I’ll pretend I’m going to protect you from others.” Whenever you’re feeling controlled, demeaned, like they don’t want you to do what you believe God has called you to do, that’s a big sign that you’re dealing with a toxic person.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Monday, February 15th. Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson; I'm Bob Lepine. You can find us online at FamilyLifeToday.com. How can we recognize toxic relationships, and what do we do when we have one? We’re going to talk more about that today with Gary Thomas. Stay tuned.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. You guys know—our listeners don’t know—but you guys know the amazing Tonda; right?
Bob: Tonda does—
Dave: Oh, we sure do.
Ann: She is amazing.
Bob: She is amazing. She has, for more than 25 years, done research for FamilyLife Today. She—I calculated this the other day—she has to have read more than 2,000 books on marriage and family over the last 25 years, and she’s a single woman; right?
Bob: She’s given us all kinds of data/information; helped us out. She came to me—I don’t know—a month or so ago, and she said, “Gary Thomas has a new book coming out.” I said, “Book him.” She said, “Don’t you even want to know what the title is or what he…” [Laughter] I said, “I don’t need to know. It’s Gary Thomas. He’s writing a book; it’s going to be on relationships, because that’s what he’s on. It’s going to be biblical; it’s going to have wisdom.” I mean, you don’t need to know anything else; right?”
Ann: Who doesn’t want Gary Thomas?
Bob: Then I see what it’s about and I go, “Well, maybe we should have talked to him.” [Laughter] Gary, welcome to FamilyLife Today.
Gary: Thank you, Bob. [Laughter]
Bob: Gary has been a regular guest here since the book, Sacred Marriage, was released now 20 years ago?
Gary: Twenty years ago.
Bob: Wow! I actually/I read Sacred Pathways before I read Sacred Marriage, and that was so helpful on the whole subject of worship and different approaches to worship. I still think of that as one of those books I recommend to people. Since then, Sacred Parenting, Sacred Influence; you’ve written 20 books, give or take. [Laughter]
Gary: Yes; I don’t really actually count, but I think it’s at 20.
Bob: Gary has written a book called When to Walk Away: Finding Freedom from Toxic People. This is—I mean, I’m thinking about subjects you could tackle, and you—I mean, I know you!—this is kind of like, “Gary’s writing about toxic people?” because you’re so nice.
Ann: “You’re so nice!”
Gary: Well, and that’s how I got eaten up by toxic people. It was terribly prideful; but I had this false messianic complex—that if I was walking in holiness, walking in wisdom, prayed up, surrendered to the Holy Spirit, had the right words and the right attitude—that everybody I talked to would see the glory of Jesus and say, “Of course, you’re right,” and turn to Him.
We see Jesus—what He’s done in our life—and we can think, “Why doesn’t everybody want Him?” That gave way then to some people taking advantage of that. It took me years until I learned, in addition to spiritual offense, you need to sometimes learn how to play spiritual defense.
Bob: You had somebody come to you and say, “Would you read my book and give me some feedback?”—right?
Gary: Well, it was really two. I’d written a blog post on a particular issue, and it exploded.
Gary: People were talking about it. You would think she would be happy, because it was sort of her issue. She said, “This is great. Here are two books you need to read to get up on it.”
I said, “You know, this isn’t going to be a ministry of mine; there are others that could address it more. It was a one-time blog post. I don’t have time to read two full books. I’m sure they’re great books, but…”
Gary: In the meantime, I just didn’t want to lie. Boy, talk about making an enemy.
Bob: She came after you.
Gary: She did attack reviews on Amazon and other books, and I’ve never seen anything like it. Then what really shut it down and what opened up my eyes is when the attacks were on my wife.
Gary: When they started doing that, that’s easier for me—even though I’m a people- pleaser—“You mess with my wife, and now I know where you’re coming from.”
Bob: Honestly, I thought about, as I was reading that story, I thought of the current environment on Twitter®. I think more than on Facebook® or Instagram®, Twitter seems to be the breeding ground—
Dave: Twitter is the ground. I don’t know why, but it is.
Bob: —where it’s just toxic relationships blossom and thrive on Twitter. People are daily having to block followers to avoid the kind of toxic engagement that you talk about in this book.
Gary: To engage, Bob, is to increase it; it just gets worse. If we don’t walk away, we have sleepless nights; we lose a lot of time; we’re not present with our families; we’re focused on people that will never change.
What helped me was a good friend of mine, Dr. Steve Willkie—he’s out in California—he’s been a marriage and family therapist for over 30 years. He saw how I was just hitting my head up against the wall—and he thinks I’m too nice— [Laughter] —he said, “Gary, I want you to read the book of Luke. Count how many times Jesus walked away from people when they resisted Him or how many times He let people walk away from Him.”
Well, I’m a little OCD; we’ve talked about that. I’m not clinically, but I live in the neighborhood right next door to it, so I have to read all four Gospels. [Laughter] I count every possible occurrence and came up with 41. Now, some of those, because of the synoptic Gospels, refer to the same accounts. But it still left a couple dozen encounters, where Jesus spoke the truth, people asked Him to leave; and He left! He didn’t sit there and fight. Then many times, when people were attacking Him, He didn’t take it. He slipped away through the crowd.
Now, we think of Jesus as the martyr, who allowed Himself to be crucified—once. But there were almost half-a-dozen occurrences, where people tried to beat Him up and attack Him, where He said, “Not today; not today.” He chose when to lay down His life, but He didn’t allow people to abuse Him throughout His life. That was eye-opening for me. I can’t tell you how that changed the way I looked at ministry.
Dave: Yes, and that was eye-opening for me when I read it in your book. I never—I mean, I’ve been a pastor almost 40 years—I’ve taught the book of Luke—I’ve never looked at it through that lens. I’m reading what you wrote—and I want to know exactly—that was a shaker for you; right? I mean, you read that, and it was like, “Okay, I’ve got to change the way I live.” Is that what ended up happening?
Gary: It did. It freed me up, because I looked back and I realized all the time I’ve spent with toxic people has kept me from being present with my family: I’m worried; I’m obsessed: “What do I say?” It’s kept me from positive ministry and interaction. What it’s never done is bring a redemptive resolution with a toxic person. They don’t change—I don’t change them; they don’t change me—it’s wasted time. There’s malice; there’s ill will/a lack of focus on helpful, positive fruit-fulfilling ministry.
Here’s what I’ve learned, Dave; and I think this is really one of Satan’s most subtle attacks. He can’t keep us from caring, because the Holy Spirit makes us care; I mean, it’s God’s love through us.
Gary: We want to love people, and he can’t fight that. But what he can do, instead of having—if you look at that love and care as pure water to irrigate the fields—what he can do is divert that water, that would irrigate fields and produce a great crop, and get us to pour it straight down the gutter with someone, who not only won’t receive it, but resents it and who will attack us.
It was Jesus’s parable of: “Don’t throw your pearls before swine,” that really opened up my eyes to that—that some people are so spiritually closed—you invite abuse upon yourself when you get involved with them.
Bob: At what point do you diagnose the difference between somebody, who’s honestly engaged and trying to get help, and somebody who’s just a toxic drain on you? How do you know the difference between one and the other?
Dave: Define toxic.
Gary: I love that question, because I want to make it clear: “Difficult people are not toxic; difficult people can just be difficult.” The best way to describe it is: “They’re bringing you down; they destroy your peace, your joy, your strength.”
Somebody says, “So what’s the big deal if they destroy my joy?” Well, “The joy of the Lord is our—
Bob and Dave: “—strength.”
Gary: They make us weaker, and they make us obsess. I tried to, in three chapters, give sort of landmark qualities of toxic people. I don’t think everybody is all of these; but when any one of these are present in a strong way, it gets me concerned.
The first one is a very controlling nature. Toxic people want to control you: “You will do what I want you to do.” I’ll pretend to be your friend,” “I’ll pretend I’m in need,” “I’ll pretend I’m going to threaten you,” “I’ll pretend I’m going to protect you from others”; but I am determined you will do what I want you to do,” which is basically trying to take the role of God in someone’s life.
Whenever you’re feeling controlled/demeaned—like they don’t want you to be you or don’t want you to do what you believe God has called you to do—that’s a big sign that you’re dealing with a toxic person.
The second thing is a murderous spirit; I know that sounds extreme. But just as God is a God of life, and He [is] a God that gave choice, Satan is the bringer of death and destruction. Jesus said Satan is a murderer, and He includes malice as a part of murder. Toxic people destroy reputations; they gossip about/they destroy churches. You put one or two in a church, and it’s just little undercutting—they can even seem nice—but they’re undercutting the leadership. They destroy peace; they destroy joy. Everybody’s having a good time; and they find a way to bring in guilt, or condemnation, or whatever it is.
Bob: Those people—who would tear you down, people who would attack you, people who would—I’m thinking you’ve seen this—insults, anger, the kind of demeaning language that husbands and wives can use against one another/parents and children can use against one another. That’s what you’re talking about?
Gary: Let me give an example. A woman I worked with—God had called her; used her in ministry; was using her in ministry—married, I would say, a toxic narcissist. This guy’s world revolved around him. He controlled her, and he murdered her schedule. She had to do what he wanted her to do. She had appointments; she had her own thing. Her schedule had to revolve around his.
He murdered her self-esteem when he had an affair, early on, in their marriage. She’s a godly woman/beautiful woman. Of course, that doesn’t have anything to do with it. If a guy’s going to cheat, he’s going to cheat. Now, she’s thinking, “How can I be more as a wife? I must have let him down.”
Then he murdered her occupation. If he had to move, he moved. Regardless of how well her ministry was going, she had to follow. She did that her whole life.
Then they were in another situation where, because of his situation, money was tight; she was on a budget. She’s at a party, and she sees this younger woman in this beautiful dress—the kind of dress she couldn’t afford anymore—and her husband paying more than passing attention to her. Her wife’s sense went off and said, “There is more here than an attraction.”
She told him after the party: “Look; I’ve been through this before, and I forgave you.” She forgave him heroically; I don’t have time to get into the whole story. “I’m not going to do this again.” He got so angry; she realized: “It’s already happened. This isn’t an attraction; this is already happening.” He knew, because he was involved in Christian circles, his church and his occupation would not look well on a divorce and an affair; so he set about murdering her reputation. He used prayer requests: “I don’t think she’s well. Would you please pray for my…”
She figured out, because all these people were saying, “How are you doing, really? Are you sure you…” and just the way they looked at her. She thought she was losing her mind, because he’s kind of murdering her sanity.
She’s like, “What’s going on?” until he had set it up and then he divorced her. Of course, two days after the divorce is final, marries the woman who was in that dress at the party; thanking God that: “Boy, in a year of difficulty and darkness, He’s provided this comfort and this help.”
It was a digital murder. I saw the Facebook® page; my son say the Facebook page. We were appalled, because he called her “Mrs. John Doe,” —of course, not her real name—which had been this other woman’s name a week before: “Meet Mrs. ...” It was like he was just wiping her out.
Then, he still spread the stuff so that her ministry would end. It wasn’t enough to take away her family, her reputation; now, “Split the time with the kids.” If he thought anybody would hire her, that would look ill on him—because if she’s so awful he had to escape from her, then it might question his judgment if somebody thought she had anything to say—so he set about murdering her ministry. That’s toxicity at its highest level, where they just want to kill everything about you.
Bob: Gary, we hear an account like that, and all of us, I think, cringe. Some of our listeners are going, “That does sound like me.”
You said there’s a third component to toxicity, in addition to control and a murderous spirit. What’s the third one?
Gary: The third one is: “Loving hate.” I use the cilantro analogy. I hate cilantro; I call it the adolescent of herbs: “Notice me,” “Notice me,” “Notice me!” [Laughter] It wants to own the room. But it’s a genetic thing, where most people love cilantro; they find it delicious. I just—genetically, I just hate it. [Laughter]
It’s about our spiritual taste buds. Loving hate: “What do you find delicious, spiritually?” In a healthy person, according to Colossians 3, things that we love—what we want to be, where we feel it fits, this is delicious to us—is compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, and love. We don’t all get that, but that’s what we should aspire to; it’s the kind of people we want to be around. That’s what gets us energized. We recognize that and say, “That’s a good meal.”
Paul says the other kind that we need to worry about is in Colossians 3:18. This is the toxic people who love hate: they love anger, rage, malice, slander, filthy language and lying. They come alive when they’re in a battle; they come alive when they’re whispering about someone. They come alive when they’re attacking someone. It makes them feel like they have purpose; like they have mission.
A lot of us—we get angry and we might even gossip—but when we do, it’s like having the flu; we want to take a shower.
Gary: We want to say, “I want to get off of that; that’s not who I want to be.” If you come out of a gossip session, you just feel, “Oh, man!” But for a toxic person—those kinds of activities: they like it; they love it—with all due apologies to McGraw—they want some more of it. [Laughter]
So those are three things—where control-mongering, murdering, loving hate—where you don’t just do it—
Bob: You draw energy from it; yes.
Gary: Yes; those are things, where my senses go up now; and I’m realizing, “I think I may be dealing with a toxic person.”
Dave: It’s interesting. Several of your examples are extreme. There’s part of me that goes, “Okay, I don’t know somebody that bad,” or “Hopefully, I’m not that bad”; but it doesn’t have to be that extreme to be toxic; right?
One of the things you really do a good job of, that really got my interest, was: “Why do I want to confront somebody? It isn’t that they’re stealing my joy. They’re stealing me from my mission.” That was huge; explain that.
Gary: For me, this isn’t about self-protection. I am not a therapist; I’m not a psychologist; I seek the Scriptures. When you hear the “toxic” title, most people think it’s the psychological word of the day. There is more Scripture in When to Walk Away than any book I’ve done. I was astonished at how often it is addressed, conceptually, in Scripture; of course, the word isn’t there.
What got me excited was: “This is to preserve your mission before the Lord.” We get into that, for me, Matthew 6:33: “Seek ye first the kingdom of God.” Second
Timothy 2:2—ground into me by a wonderful, gifted and godly campus pastor; I’ll be forever grateful—“Find reliable people with whom you can invest what God has given you,”—that your life should be a search of giving what you have into others and building them up. I realized: “This is about protecting my spiritual offense. If I’m seeking first the kingdom of God, I wake up with His agenda: ‘Who does He want me to talk to? How does He want to use me today? How do I find reliable people to invest in, to encourage, to build up?’ I don’t have time for the toxic people.”
I have that paradigm now: “Is this person reliable or toxic?” I believe it’s a biblical command to find reliable people, and build them up, and equip them, and release them. It’s easy to get diverted into being distracted and wanting to improve toxic people or take out toxic people. I think that’s like driving by a freeway and stopping every time you see trash; that’s not what you’re supposed to do in life. Somebody else will deal with it.
When it’s toxic people, the difference is: “If you’re driving down a road, and the trash is so big you can’t drive your car, you get out—you remove the tree limb/you remove the trash; you remove the tire, and then you go,”—that’s my attitude toward toxic people—“Drive by when I can; confront when you must, but only to the extent that you can move them out of the way to complete the good work God has called you to do.”
Bob: This was helpful for me, too, as I read through that analysis. But I found myself thinking, Gary, “What about lonely people, who can be draining and can divert you from a broader mission? Are we to invest in the lives of lonely people?”
Ann: I have an exact example of that. Dave and I were first married; we were pouring into all these people. But there was one woman that would dominate the conversation. She lived close to us, so every single day she would come over and spend hours/hours and hours, talking about her problems. Even when she was given some sort of advice or “Maybe you could do this,” she would never change. It would be the same thing every single day. Was she toxic? Is that an example of a toxic person?
Gary: Here’s what I’ve found—it takes humility; it’s almost counterintuitive—I’m not the best person to reach every person in this world; that’s why we need a church. I think God has given some people particular gifts to reach certain people. But I don’t think any of us are best with other kinds of people. When somebody is bringing us down, and keeping us from the ability of investing in those we are called to invest to, we can trust God that He’s going to bring someone that can, at least, give this person a chance.
It’s like this—if we go to Dave’s football background—when you’ve got a guy, who’s
165 pounds, the coach isn’t putting him on the offensive line. [Laughter] He’s the kicker, or he’s the punter; because he’s going to get destroyed by a defensive lineman.
Gary: In the same way, if you’ve got a guy that’s 350 pounds, he’s probably not kicking the field goal.
It’s recognizing, in humility: “God is over His church; God is building His church; God is gifting His church; we need more workers, so let’s reach those we can.” This is where it’s hard, Ann. But I think of the image of triage on a battlefield. I think of D-Day, when those medics would go and put “M” on a guy’s forehead. What that meant is: “I gave him morphine; he can’t be saved. I want to find somebody who might yet be saved.”
Jesus says, throughout Scripture: “Pray for the Lord of the harvest...we need more workers”; and today, we need more workers. To divert our work to somebody that we know we’re not going to reach—in fact, that will remove our joy, remove our peace, remove our zeal; so we’ll lose an opportunity to talk to five other people—I think we kind of have to have spiritual triage.
I want urgency for the church. We have a generation running away from the truth. We need more workers, and we need urgency. That means we have to play defense and not waste our efforts.
Bob: We’re going to spend some time this week looking at how this applies in family relationships, because that’s really where it gets tricky: marriages, parents, kids, extended family relationships—
Bob: Yes, right.
I hope our listeners will get a copy of your book, Gary, and start to meditate on this; pray about this; look at the relationships in their lives from a missional perspective, as you’re saying—not from a self-interest perspective/not from a “What would please me?”—but from: “How can I best serve God?” and “How do these relationships fit into that?” That’s really at the heart of this book. We are making your book available this week, Gary, to listeners who can help support the ministry of FamilyLife® with a donation.
I think most of our listeners know that FamilyLife Today is listener-supported. The reason you’ve been able to listen to today’s conversation is because other listeners, like you, made that possible for you. We want to ask you to join the team and make FamilyLife Today possible for people in your city and people, literally, around the world, who are connecting with us on the FamilyLife Today app, those who are tuning in via Alexa®, those who listen on this local radio station.
You make that possible when you support this ministry. If you can help with a donation today, we’d love to send you a copy of Gary’s book, which is called When to Walk Away. You can go to our website to donate; go to FamilyLifeToday.com, or you can call 1-800-FL-TODAY to make a donation. Again, donate, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com; or call 1-800-358-6329; that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.” Just say, “I’d like to make a donation; and I’d love to get a copy of Gary Thomas’s book, When to Walk Away.”
Now, tomorrow, we’re going to continue our conversation with Gary Thomas and talk about how we can know whether we actually have a destructive/a toxic relationship or whether we’re just dealing with somebody, who’s a little hard to get along with from time to time. Gary will be with us, again, tomorrow. We hope you be here as well.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch. We got some help from Bruce Goff. On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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