I stared at my phone, blinked several times, and looked back to see if I’d imagined the words. No, the stark sentences rose up from the phone like angled and curved little soldiers, marching right over my stunned, shattered heart.
My husband, David, seeing the shocked look on my face, asked me what was wrong. I handed the phone to him and collapsed onto the living room sofa.
“Am I being sensitive or is this ridiculously ugly?” I asked him in a shaky voice.
As he read the message, his eyes widened and he shook his head back and forth. He set the phone down hard on the end table next to me and said, “This is utter garbage, and I don’t think you have any business communicating further with this person. At all.”
In general, I’m one who doesn’t like conflict. While I’m capable of standing up for myself, some people’s strong personalities make me less inclined to do so. In situations like these, I lean toward wanting to smooth things over as quickly as possible. At the same time, I was so tired of the way this person repeatedly put me on the defensive by being hypercritical of every choice I made.
Like a lost traveler smack-dab in the middle of a forest, I couldn’t see how to take the appropriate next steps to get out of the woods. Should I take my husband’s advice and severely limit communication? But what about the fact that as a Christian I’m supposed to lay down my life for others and turn the other cheek?
Where is the line between having to spend time with difficult people we’re called to be around and needing to protect our hearts and health from their toxicity?
In today’s culture, it’s somewhat trendy for people to label any kind of undesirable communication as toxic. This can give us a handy excuse to ignore sentiments we don’t like. Of course, we do need people in our lives who offer us the gift of a painful rebuke from time to time. But their motive makes the difference — they are for us and not for themselves.
While we’re sometimes called to be in the vicinity of difficult people as the Holy Spirit directs, we don’t need to be in the vicinity of toxicity. Wisdom is found in knowing the difference. And wisdom is found in going to the right places for help in deciphering the distinction. After all, part of knowing where we belong is also knowing where we don’t.
In John 14:16 Jesus says, “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever” (ESV).
The Holy Spirit is our forever Helper who informs us on a plethora of decisions, including how to maneuver difficult relationships. And sometimes the Holy Spirit will work through the voices of others to affirm what the Bible says.
The wisdom we seek in dealing with toxic people should point toward a measure of order, not further the chaos. The actions stemming from that wisdom should be motivated by love. And as I thought about my relational patterns with this particular difficult person, it seemed that the best way to love him was to set boundaries that were as much for him as they were for me.
If you struggle to take my word for it, then take Jesus’s word on the importance of establishing boundaries. He either walked away from people or let people walk away from Him over two dozen times in the four Gospels. One such time is described in Matthew 12:14-15: “But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him. Jesus, aware of this, withdrew from there.”
Yes, when the time came for God’s redemptive plan to be fulfilled, Jesus did suffer and die for us. But He followed His Father’s direction — not other people’s — on when that would happen.
Jesus knew where He belonged, and He also knew where He did not belong. He used His Father’s guidance to direct His steps and to erect appropriate boundaries in each situation.
And Jesus knew something we all need to remember:
Sometimes being on the outside is the healthiest place to be.
So I set boundaries. And while that was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do, it was also one of the most freeing. With wisdom found in Scripture through the direction of the Holy Spirit and validated through the voice of my husband, I had peace that setting these boundaries was the right decision.
And I could see how being on the outside of that relationship put me further inside God’s wise care and protection — the healthiest place to be.
This story was written by Kristen Strong, as published in the Create in Me a Heart of Wisdom Bible study.
What a powerful story of wisdom from the new (in)courage Bible Study, Create in Me a Heart of Wisdom, available now. With stories like Kristen’s woven together with Scripture study written by Grace P. Cho, our prayer is that this study will encourage you to seek the Lord and the wisdom He offers each one of us.
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