Being Merciful to the Toxic

Christ calls us to love our enemies, to act with mercy. We should not as a knee-jerk reaction insist on our rights. We yield to the weak in faith and attempt to win a brother. There is a sense, however, in which that mercy has limits. Jesus does not command that we suffer abuse and injustice passively. He does not teach that our forgiveness means we completely forget what has been done to us nor does it eliminate boundaries. Stewards guard their resources to fulfill their vocations.

Boundaries with the toxic

There are times when Christians need to set extreme boundaries for their relationships and there can even be times to separate from others. Jesus instructs us to separate from those who refuse to hear godly rebuke from the church and amend their ways (Matt. 18:17). They aren’t to be indulged forever. Jesus commands us to leave those who won’t hear His Word (Matt. 10:14), to be shrewd as serpents in the world (Matt. 10:16) and even not to love father and mother above Him (Matt. 10:37). In a similar way, St. Paul warns Timothy that some wicked people might claim to be learning, but if they never come to any actual knowledge and continue in their wickedness, they are liars who resist the truth. Timothy is to have nothing to do with them (2 Tim. 3:2–9).

Those are extreme situations. We pray that they are rare. We do not jump to extreme reactions or label people as toxic too quickly. At the same time, we should not pretend as though these things never happen. The world is wicked. We must be careful of the company that we keep. Solomon teaches us that “whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm” (Prov. 13:20). St. Paul also scolds the Corinthians for letting themselves continually be abused by false teachers and sectarians. He writes: “For you gladly bear with fools, being wise yourselves! For you bear it if someone makes slaves of you, or devours you, or takes advantage of you, or puts on airs, or strikes you in the face. To my shame, I must say, we were too weak for that” (2 Cor. 11:19–21).

We do not jump to extreme reactions or label people as toxic too quickly.

All this is context for Jesus’ command that we turn the other cheek (Matt. 5:38–40). That statement is a figure of speech called a hyperbole. A hyperbole is an exaggerated statement used to make a point in a dramatic way. If we don’t recognize this, we might find ourselves cutting off body parts (Matt. 5:29) or not calling our biological fathers “Dad” (Matt. 23:9) or, when it comes to dealing with chronic abusers, thinking that Jesus demands we let them walk all over us. It is, of course, possible that we will be handed over to the magistrates and others who will abuse and kill us because of the name of Christ, but that is not what Jesus is talking about with His command to turn the other cheek.

In Matthew 5, Jesus is talking primarily to His children. He is telling them how they are to get along with one another. Our fallen nature’s desire for vengeance must be curbed by mercy. We should not jump to our rights or seek vengeance. We should seek to reconcile and to win over our enemies with gentleness. In this, Jesus’ teaching is not much different than the godly admonition of parents to their children not to tattle. If my sister bumps into me in the hall on the way to the bathroom and bruises my shoulder, my passions might immediately rise and demand vengeance. But if I hold them in check and attempt to put the best construction on her actions, I might discover that it was an accident. Even if she acted with malice, by refusing to retaliate and “turning the other cheek,” the situation might be defused. My kind words could well lead to her repentance.

Escaping violence

At the same time, if my gentleness is met with violence, I should seek to escape it. I should not strike back as a private citizen, but I should take action to protect myself and report it to the proper authorities. Such reporting is not tattling nor is it driven by desire for vengeance. Rather, it is driven by a desire for safety. If my sister does this to me, she is likely to do it to others and I should not enable it. St. Paul teaches us that this is one of the chief purposes of earthly authorities.

For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.

(Rom. 13:3–4)

As Luther teaches in the Large Catechism, if you do not fear God, fear at least the hangman (LC I 135).

If true repentance will not come and earthly authorities are no help, then, in love, set boundaries and limits for interaction with abusers. You should do this not simply for the sake of your own health, that you might carry out your vocation and serve your neighbor, but also for the good of the abuser. Doing so not only limits his ability to abuse, which is good for him, but can also teach him about healthy interaction and self-control.

The Bible doesn’t give advice about how to set boundaries, but the concept fits with a biblical worldview that recognizes how truly evil the world is, with biblical ethics and with a Lutheran understanding of vocation. While this is not from a Lutheran perspective, I have found the article “How Setting Boundaries Can Save Your Relationship” from Tacoma Christian Counseling to be helpful in thinking about and setting up boundaries with friends and family while staying true to God’s call to mercy.

Photo: LCMS Communications/Erik M. Lunsford

7 thoughts on “Being Merciful to the Toxic”

  1. Hi David, great article and love your insight here. Proverbs 22:24-25 says “Make no friendship with a man given to anger, nor go with a wrathful man, lest you learn his ways and entangle yourself in a snare.” You know everyone says that you are the average of 5 people and it’s true. Being around good individuals will help you to be merciful to toxic people or conversely, it’ll make you be toxic as well. God bless you David!

  2. Rev. D. Timothy Brandt

    Not labeling people is a good reminder. Too often we do this in more subtle ways by throwing around clinical terms or even diagnoses (i.e., “narcissist,” “personality disorder,” etc.) even though many of us are not trained or credentialed to do so.

  3. This is very timely to me. I struggled with forgiveness, yet needing to protect myself from toxicity.

  4. I want to thank you for this article and the affirmation that separating from abuse can be a good thing even for the abuser. It was very difficult to separate myself and my children from my abuser (my sibling) and I had some people who were accusing me of “ruining the family” because they viewed my insistence on separation & boundaries as me being unforgiving to my abuser rather than viewing it as the healthiest thing I could do for me and my children.

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