Responding to Toxic People

We all have one of those people in our lives: the kind the world brands toxic with permission to cut out. Are you picturing someone? The one you need 24 hour advance notice before seeing. In route you psych and pray in turn: I’m not going to lose it. Lord, help me not to lose it. I’m not going to sin with my words. Lord, help me to keep a muzzle on it. You hesitate at the door to plaster a smile and steady your breath. In their presence, you initially manage to be deaf and mute, but to no avail. Very quickly the asides and arched eyebrows rack your nerves. Your distress grows. Your thoughts swirl. Your heart burns. You speak up . . .

King David offers his royal commiseration. The above italics, paraphrased from Psalm 39, showcase his mounting distress and anger in the presence of toxic people. Certainly David possessed the power to flick his finger or his sword and watch his problems disappear. Yet unsurprisingly, David offers a radically different approach to dealing with difficult people. He does not cut them out (even though it feels justified) nor does he fly into an irate defense. He simply speaks up: “As I mused, the fire burned; then I spoke with my tongue.” But not to the offender. He literally speaks UP to the One able to change not only the heart of the wicked but also his own. He speaks directly to the King of Kings diverting his conversation from the living room to the throne room.

O LORD, make me know my end and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting I am!

David humbles himself before God. It’s easy to grow proud when resisting the obvious attack of a fellow man. But David recognizes that all men, both offender and offended, amount to nothing when compared to an eternal God: “My lifetime is as nothing before you.” By comparison, man is but a few handfuls of life, a mere breath or a passing shadow. We all desperately need this eternal God. There are simply those who know it and those who don’t. The ones who fail to see their need, work and fight and gather for nothing. But those who place their trust in Christ possess an inextinguishable hope and security. A hope that enables us to respond to difficult people with compassion and humility.

And now, O LORD, for what do I wait? My hope is in you.

David submits to God’s authority. David humbly recognizes his own sin and God’s sovereignty. “Deliver me from all my transgressions. Do not make me the scorn of the fool.” It’s incredibly easy to repay foolishness with foolishness. David confesses his anger and prays for God’s deliverance and protection. After all, God’s authority never falters, “For it is you who have done it.” David also senses God’s purifying purpose: “When you discipline a man with rebukes for sin, you consume like a moth what is dear to him.” God uses loss and difficulty to loosen our grip on this world, so that we may more easily cling to what’s best: Himself. He paradoxically transforms our seeming loss into gain. As we bow to God’s sovereignty, we discover grace for difficult people.

Hear my prayer, O LORD, and give ear to my cry; hold not your peace at my tears! For I am a sojourner with you . . .

David pleas for God’s intervention while recognizing that Christ already eternally intervened on his behalf. We know that God hears us when we call, for we are His, and He delights to save. We know this because God has sealed our ultimate salvation with His blood and Spirit welcoming us into His family. As His children, God responds to our prayers with protection and provision with an eye to our soul. Even as we suffer and wrestle with sin in a fallen world, we rejoice that we are but sojourners like Christ with a secured position in His kingdom. Our inheritance grants the perspective we need to respond with grace to difficult people.

So what’s the mantra when preparing to interact with an unbearable person?

Humility. Submission. Perspective.

Humility: we are but a breath before an eternal God. Submission: God allows and uses difficulty to draw us to Himself. Perspective: because of Christ’s humiliation, we press toward an eternal weight of glory. What’s more, God hears our cries and gives ample grace to the humble. So speak up and drink up. Cry out to the Father who never sleeps nor lacks. Drink up His grace and lavishly pour it out on even the most unworthy. Why? Because we are the most unworthy. Because Christ bled at the hands of toxic sinners for toxic sinners. Because the Father forgives and redeems even you.

Read Psalm 39 for deeper study.

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