Jesus didn’t just walk away from toxic people; he was also willing to walk away for purposes of ministry effectiveness and strategy. He never allowed the desire of others to dictate who he spent his time with. After a powerful time of ministry, Jesus became a rock star of sorts, and hordes of people wanted to be around him. Jesus had gotten up early in the morning to pray, but the disciples furiously tracked him down and said, “Everyone is looking for you!”
Listen to Jesus’ reply: “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come” (Mark 1:38).
Just when people most wanted him to stay, Jesus often left: “When Jesus saw the crowd around him, he gave orders to cross to the other side of the lake” (Matthew 8:18).
Jesus wasn’t moved by either standing ovations or jeering ridicule. He was truly Lord of his life. Neither should we allow the neediness of others or the toxicity of others to determine where, when, and how we spend our time. Neediness can be a subtle form of toxicity. Our spiritual radar goes way up when someone forcefully attacks us, but a passive-aggressive neediness can slip in unawares and steal our attention even more effectively than a full-frontal assault.
If someone is trying to control you, that itself is toxic. Whether they use force or guilt, direct attack or unreasonable neediness (“You’re the only one who can help me, and you have to help me now”), it’s still all about control. Controlling someone (or letting yourself be controlled) is wrong.
An experienced pastor once pointed out to me that Jesus chose his disciples, and so should we: “Jesus went up on a mountainside and called to him those he wanted, and they came to him. He appointed twelve that they might be with him” (Mark 3:13–14).
Jesus didn’t just model this mastery of his calendar; he specifically taught his disciples to do likewise:
“If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet.” Matthew 10:14
“When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another.” Matthew 10:23
Jesus didn’t tell his disciples, “Stay there and let them hit you because they may finally come to their senses.” No. He gives his disciples permission—even more than that, a command—to flee from those hurting them and go to another place. (If you’re wondering, What about when he said to turn the other cheek? see the endnote.)
For added balance, sometimes Jesus walked away, not to accomplish more ministry, but to recharge: “Yet the news about him spread all the more, so that crowds of people came to hear him and to be healed of their sicknesses. But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed” (Luke 5:15–16, emphasis added).
If we try to minister when our own fuel tanks are empty, we may end up doing more harm than good. We should follow Jesus’ example and not feel guilty about telling others no until we have first sat at the feet of our heavenly Father and received his love and care. We have to occasionally play defense in order to go back on the offense with renewed passion and fervor.
1 The same Jesus who said “turn the other cheek” also told his disciples to buy a sword (Luke 22:36). The same Jesus who said he was “gentle” (Matthew 11:29) forcefully chased the money changers out of the temple, using a whip (John 2:15). In Matthew 5:22, Jesus says that calling someone a fool puts you in danger of the fires of hell; in Matthew 23:17, Jesus calls the Pharisees and teachers of the law “blind fools.” We have to read Jesus’ words in context and with the proper weight, in the same way that we understand his “gouge out your eyes rather than lust” comment as a metaphor of sin’s seriousness, not as a directive for someone to actually follow. Trying to avoid a pattern of Jesus’ behavior and teaching with one outlier comment should cause us to look at the outlier comment with a more precise understanding.
Taken from When to Walk Away by Gary Thomas. Copyright © 2019 by Gary Thomas. Used by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com.