I am a serial headline-reader. I am a fan of thick books and intriguing articles, but I'd say 50% of the words I read are headlines. When I browse through Medium or any other blog source, I always see at least one article with the word "toxic" in the title. Even in biblical-based content, this one word runs rampant. It seems like the term became wildly popular in the last five years, so I can't blame it on the Britney Spears song. In fact, Oxford Dictionary chose "toxic" as Word of the Year in 2018. But what does it even mean anymore? When did a word that literally means "lethally poisonous" turn into the go-to name for imperfection? I'm no psychologist, but I think it's a sign of a significant issue in how we look at each other. My biggest pet peeve with the "toxic" movement is that it blurs the lines between annoying behavior and actual mistreatment. This is something I've thought a lot about, and I'm here to share a few reasons why.
When I look at how the word "toxic" has expanded throughout the years, it's apparent that the shock-value nature of internet trends is what drives its popularity. We want to use words that grab attention and convey a definitive message. The problem is, real life isn't that black and white. When I see headlines like "How to Deal With Toxic People" or "10 Toxic Traits to Look Out For," I genuinely feel frustrated. When I read those articles or hear someone say, "that person was just too toxic for my life," I can't help but wonder what's going on from the "toxic" person's perspective. And if we look at those “toxic” traits individually, most of them are bad habits that we all engage in at some point.
People aren't toxic; sin is toxic. No matter what word we use, it's in our nature to judge the way other people sin. But Jesus died to redeem every one of us, even with the worst of our transgressions. We can't divide people into good and bad because we all have a little of both. It's through God's love that we receive forgiveness, not through our actions. We can acknowledge how other people's choices affect us, but we shouldn't define people by habits that can change.
"For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast." - Ephesians 2:8-9
When we follow Jesus, we love our neighbors and even our enemies. Most of the time, when someone tells me that another person is toxic, they describe someone they barely know. Their conclusion is to write the other person off as an unhealthy connection for anyone. On the other side, there are reasons why people act out in a hurtful way. Sometimes we are the ones who are disrespectful, and we blame the other person for not responding in a better way. Or maybe that person has struggles we don't see and is full of remorse. Either way, we create enemies when we don't stop to ask why someone has a negative attitude. We are all tempted by bitterness and selfishness. When we reach out to each other and offer the same grace that Jesus does, we encourage change and reflection.
"Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you." - Ephesians 4:31-32
Of course, there is completely unacceptable behavior. When someone is abusive or refuses to listen to boundaries, we need to cut off contact. It doesn't help anyone when we don't care for ourselves. We shouldn't disregard people for their flaws, but we also have a right to choose who we invite into our lives. How can we identify if we should make the hard decision to remove someone from our lives? When the "signs you are dating a narcissist" include "need for attention" and "fear of rejection," could it be you are just dating a human? Abuse is real, and it's not only physical. If someone displays a pattern of disrespect toward you, it's best for you both if you step far away from that relationship. But we don't have to hold hatred for abusive people in our hearts. As difficult as it can be, we need to believe in redemption, even for our worst enemies.
The world tells us all sorts of ideas about how we should treat people. God tells us to love. There is no black and white set of rules that tells us how to solve every issue. Every person and scenario is different, and we must use wisdom and prayer to determine the boundaries to apply. No matter the case, we follow Jesus when we act with love. Love does not condemn people as "toxic." Love acknowledges that we all can change. Even when we need to disconnect from certain people, we shouldn't deem their future based on their current behavior. We find freedom in forgiveness and hope in grace. We are all God's children, and we are all complex in how we react to the world. Let's stop the labels and focus on how to lift each other up.
Written Content Coordinator at Sun Valley Community Church. An avid writer since the age of 5, who loves to explore new ideas and places. Inspired by Jesus, books, and travel.