How to Identify Toxic People: An Interview with Gary L. Thomas


Gary L. ThomasDid you know that in over two dozen encounters recorded in the Gospels, Jesus allowed people to walk away from following him? He didn’t chase after them once they made their decision to not believe his teachings. The Bible offers insights on ways to properly deal with difficult people in your life. Whether a sibling, parent, spouse, coworker, or friend, toxic people seek to frustrate our life’s calling. While you’re seeking first God’s kingdom, they’re seeking first to distract your focus and delay your work.

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Bible Gateway interviewed Gary L. Thomas (@garyLthomas) about his book, When to Walk Away: Finding Freedom from Toxic People (Zondervan, 2019).

Here’s an excerpt from the video conversation:

What are observable characteristics of toxic people?

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Gary L. Thomas: Not every toxic person presents himself or herself in the same way, but I found three markers that tend to be true of most toxic people. They tend to have a murderous spirit. Now that sounds so intense, but by murderous spirit, it means they’re murdering your reputation. They’re murdering your joy. They’re murdering your peace. They’re murdering your schedule. They’re murdering your peace of mind. They’re basically destroying your life and your sense of happiness.

[Read the Bible Gateway Blog post, Scripture’s Skeleton and the Reality of Evil]

They also tend to be control mongers. They just want to control. One of the things that’s so astonishing is that, as powerful as God is and as sovereign as God is, he’s not a controlling God in Scripture. He gives people the choice and then he lets them make that choice. A famous quote from Joshua is, “Choose you this day, whom you will serve.” That’s sort of a pattern throughout Scripture.

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The third mark of a very toxic person is that they tend to love hate. Colossians contrasts a life of gentleness, patience, long suffering, and whatnot, with people who love anger, rage, malice, slander and lying.

[Read the Bible Gateway Blog post, Sacred Marriage: An Interview with Gary Thomas]

And while all of us at times are tempted to control people or show a little bit of malice (sometimes out of a good concern if you’re trying to help somebody that’s going the wrong way), a toxic person lives to control; they live to bring disruption and they actually enjoy those aspects of anger, rage, slander, and malice.

[Read the Bible Gateway Blog post, The Spiritual Effect Raising Children Has On Parents: An Interview with Gary L. Thomas]

But, I say it’s more like a stew than a soup. A stew has different elements that you can take out and add in. And with toxicity, you can have somebody that’s controlling but they don’t seem to be so murderous, or murderous but they don’t seem to be so controlling. So it’s learning to understand the markers and then figure out, “In this situation, is it best for me to just walk away? They’re not going to change. The interaction isn’t going to be a productive one and I think, for both our sakes, it’s best if we just go our own ways.”

Here are the other questions Gary answers in the video:

  • 3:54 — What do you mean toxic personalities feed off misunderstood piety and are enabled by false Christian guilt?
  • 5:54 — Why is it important to have a spiritual defense (and what is spiritual defense)?
  • 7:36 — From your research for this book, how much of the Bible did you discover offers guidance in assuming a defensive posture?
  • 9:31 — Have you come to a conclusion how Jesus was feeling when he allowed people to walk away?
  • 11:42 — How does the idea of “turning the other cheek” mesh with having a spiritual defense?
  • 13:39 — How crucial is it for Christians to be active servants? And how can they protect their mission from toxic people?
  • 15:48 — How is the Old Testament Nehemiah a good example for the points you’re making?
  • 18:45 — How can a person “look like Jesus while working with Judas”?
  • 22:37 — How can a person use self-examination to determine if he or she is the toxic one being talked about in your book?
  • 26:03 — What’s a favorite Bible passage of yours and why?
    Matthew 6:33 – Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
    Galatians 2:20 – I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
  • 28:09 — What are your thoughts about Bible Gateway and the Bible Gateway App and Bible Audio App?

When to Walk Away is published by HarperCollins Christian Publishing, Inc., the parent company of Bible Gateway.

Bio: Gary 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 19 books, including Sacred Marriage, Sacred Pathways, Cherish: The One Word That Changes Everything for Your Marriage, Sacred Parenting: How Raising Children Shapes Our Souls, and the Gold Medallion Award-winning Authentic Faith. He has a master’s degree from Regent College, where he studied under Dr. J.I. Packer, and was awarded an honorary doctorate in divinity from Western Seminary. Gary has spoken in 49 states and 10 different countries. He has appeared numerous times on various national radio and television programs, including CBN, Focus on the Family, and Family Life Today.

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