When I start writing a book, I wear the hat of an explorer. I have a general destination in mind, but I don’t always know where I’ll end up until I get there. Sometimes, it’s only until after a book is finished and I start regularly teaching on it that I finally understand the implications of where I tried to point readers to.
Such was the case when I wrote When to Walk Away: Finding Freedom from Toxic People. While I briefly mentioned how important it is to live a “fruitful” life in the book, as I’ve taught on it in live sessions and sermons, I’ve emphasized this issue a whole lot more. One of the primary (though not the only) reason we need to feel free to walk away from toxic people isn’t just because they bug us, abuse us, discourage us, or hurt us (though those can be good reasons). It’s also because they keep us from doing what we are called to do: bear fruit. And bearing fruit is what we were saved to do.
I grew up in a Christian tradition where “being holy” meant not doing a lot of bad things. The mind change we need is that being holy isn’t primarily about not doing sinful things; it’s about being set apart for glorious eternal things. Jesus said, ““My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit” (John 15:8). He didn’t say God is glorified when I manage to not do the sinful things that many others do, but rather when I am faithful to do the holy and good works God has created me to do.
As a boy, I was terrified of being cut off by “sinning away” my faith. Ironically, when Jesus talks about something being “cut off” it’s not because of what someone did, but because of what they didn’t do: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.” John 15:1-2
A similar sentiment of Jesus’ can be found in his famous Sermon on the Mount: “So every tree that does not produce good fruit is chopped down and thrown into the fire.” (Matthew 7:19) I thought the “fire” was reserved for those who said bad words, looked at bad movies, took bad drugs, or did bad things. No one that I can remember ever told me that Jesus’ anger is aroused when we fail to produce good fruit.
The need to create and preserve a fruitful life becomes passionately important when we read of Jesus’ plaintive request for his disciples to pray to the Lord of the Harvest for more workers (Luke 10:2). Why? Obviously, because there aren’t enough! There will be never be enough. Which means all of us who do consider ourselves to be workers need to make the best use of our time, making every minute count. Instead of “spinning our wheels” with toxic people who will never be pleased and never be helped, we can walk away to a situation where God has prepared a person’s heart for a rich harvest.
If we value fruitfulness as much as Jesus does, then all of us—literally, all of us—will need to be more intentional about cutting some less than fruitful encounters and relationships out of our lives from time to time.
It’s not that we don’t want to be bothered; as Christians, we live to be bothered! It’s rather about taking yourself and your calling more seriously. If someone is making you less fruitful than God calls you to be, walk away. That’s what Jesus did, and it’s what we should do.
You were saved for a mission
When Jesus spoke the famous words of Matthew 6:33—“Seek first the Kingdom of God,” he wasn’t talking to people who were paid to do Christian work. He was speaking to farmers, parents, grandparents, carpenters, laborers. He was telling some very seemingly insignificant people that they could and should live a life of profound eternal significance.
In one of his final addresses to his disciples before His ascension to the Father, Jesus helped them understand one of the best ways to seek first God’s Kingdom: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations…teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19). This is an explicit commandment to find people who are willing to learn what it means to live a life of obedience to God. If someone doesn’t want to live such a life, they can’t become a disciple.
This was the clear message of the early church following Jesus’ ascension. The apostle Paul mirrored Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount with this sentence in his letter to the Corinthians: “Christ died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them” (2 Corinthians 5:15). Christ didn’t die just to save us from our sins, but to save us from lives without purpose or passion, self-centered lives of no account.
Paul’s “great commission” that so closely resembles the language of Jesus prior to his ascension can be found in 2 Timothy 2:2: “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.”
Jesus and Paul agree: the focus of Christianity isn’t on not doing bad things; the focus is on investing in good people. Christianity is an endless, persistent and sacrificial pursuit of investing in reliable people
By extension, we are not called to invest in unreliable or toxic people. Instead we should be investing in people who are willing to obey everything Jesus commands.
Here’s the rubric through which you understand whether you need to walk away: what’s keeping you from bearing fruit?
Is it a toxic relative? A toxic co-worker or boss? Satan may tempt you to stay in a situation that is destroying your ability to produce fruit by getting you to think it’s a “sin” to walk away from someone who seems so needy. In fact, what if the sin is staying in a place that is undercutting your self-confidence (so that you don’t believe you have anything to share with anyone), destroying your joy (since the joy of the Lord is our strength, letting someone destroy our joy is to let them make us weak) or destroying your peace so that you are not free to dream of how God wants to use you?
Frequent readers of this blog know I am not saying sin doesn’t matter. I am saying that if you grew up with the same baggage I did, you might want to think less about potentially sinning by not being “nice” to a toxic person, and more about how wasting your time with that toxic person is keeping you from living the life God created you to live.
Follow in the footsteps of Jesus and learn when to walk away.