When Toxic People Target You
That is our prayer this morning, that Christ would be magnified as we open his Word.
Let’s turn to Nehemiah 6. I want to begin with our scripture reading in Nehemiah 6 (first part), 1-4. And I encourage you, whether you’re here or you’re at home, to open your Bible. You’ll notice I rarely put the text on the screen. I’ll put other scripture references, cross-references, but generally not the text, because I want us to come with our Bibles open before us. Preaching is not a spectator sport. You’re not here for a performance. We’re all engaging with the Word of God — interacting, pleading, praying, listening. Nehemiah 6:1, this is the Word of the Lord.
“Now when Sanballat and Tobiah and Geshem the Arab and the rest of our enemies heard that I had built the wall and that there was no breach left in it (although up to that time I had not set up the doors in the gates), Sanballat and Geshem sent to me, saying, ‘Come and let us meet together at Hakkephirim in the plain of Ono.’ But they intended to do me harm. And I sent messengers to them, saying, ‘I am doing a great work and I cannot come down. Why should the work stop while I leave it and come down to you?’ And they sent to me four times in this way and I answered them in the same manner.”
Let’s pray. Father, our enemy is a master divide and conqueror. He is doing it today and he’s doing it around the world. Even as we pray for ourselves in our own nation, we also remember our brothers and sisters in Armenia, Azerbaijan in this conflict, that seems like it could lead to another horrible genocide like in 1915. We pray against that and pray that you would protect your people, you would bring about peace. Please, Lord. The enemy loves to move in when people are distracted. Many countries know the United States is distracted right now with COVID and politics, and it seems like it is a prime time to do more damage. And so, Father, we pray. We pray for our leaders — our political leaders, our business leaders — we pray for our parents and teachers, our mission and ministry leaders, our elders and deacons and staff.
Lord, our enemy is on the prowl and he is seeking to devour. His attack is subtle and lethal, and he is wearing us down with things like COVID and elections and constant turmoil. And he is seeking to monopolize these, even the way we respond differently to the pressures, to divide and conquer. And we are tired, Lord. And so, we need to hear from you this morning. Speak, Lord. Your servants listen. We need to see you high and lifted up as we just prayed, because when you are magnified, our hearts are filled with joy, and it puts things back into their proper perspective, when our hearts find their true native cry. In other words, we’re crying what we were originally designed to cry out before sin twisted our cry in on itself. We won’t bow down to idols. We will stand strong and worship you. And if it does put us in the fire, we’ll rejoice because we know you’re there, too. We won’t be formed by our feelings. We will stand, hold fast to what is true. And if the cross brings transformation, which it does, then we’ll be crucified with you and we will rise with you. Jesus, be magnified as we sit under your Word, as you speak to us now. We pray in Jesus’ name, amen.
In my view, one of the more mysterious aspects about Jesus was his tendency to leave people out or let people go. Let me give you kind of a mundane example of that. In Mark 5, the ruler of the synagogue brought Jesus to his home. His daughter had died. And when they arrived at the home, the house was full of people weeping and wailing. Jesus announced that the daughter was not dead but was asleep. Look at the people’s reaction. Mark 5:40.
“And they laughed at him. But he put them all outside [He put them all outside] and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him and went in where the child was.”
Imagine that. He put them all outside. And then he spoke those beautiful words, “‘Talitha cumi’ … ‘Little girl, I say to you, arise.’” And this 12-year-old girl who was dead came back to life. But they were outside. I thought a lot about what would I have done in that situation. I don’t think I would have put them outside. They laughed, for whatever reason. Maybe they were skeptical. Maybe they were just confused. Maybe they thought Jesus was naive enough to think that the girl was not dead. But whatever the motive, I would want them in there. “Okay, watch me raise her from the dead.” Move toward the skeptical, answer the questions, show them, do a miracle in their presence. But he put them outside. Not everybody, but many.
And it’s not like Jesus is a private person who doesn’t care about the struggling. That’s what he did. He moved toward the ones everyone else neglected. He left the 99 to go after the 1. He went out of his way for the struggler, the person who felt like no one else saw them — the confused, the sinful, the dirty. He moved toward that. But he also put some outside.
Gary Thomas, in his new book, “When to Walk Away,” tabulated forty-one examples in the Gospels where Jesus walked away or let people walk away. You never see him chasing someone down and saying, “Please, please, please, follow me.” And God’s really convicted me about this for a while. I’ve talked about this before. I don’t like to walk away. And it’s really hard for me to acknowledge that at times we have to step back.
There is a difference between taxing and toxic people, between people who are difficult to love and people who are poisonous. And in the past, I have tended to give so much time at times to people who do not want to change, that I neglect people who do want to change. And I still struggle with that.
This is a difficult message to preach in your own church for a couple reasons. One is, the word “toxic” today is greatly overused. Have you noticed that? If I post something, and you say something negative in the comments about what I just posted, you’re toxic. You need to be cancelled. And even today, in the current atmosphere where everything seems radiating with tension … People are leaving churches over things they would never have before. But we’re raw, we’re separated, we’re vulnerable. And so, it’s very easy to conclude that, “Oh, I need to walk away. I need to get away. They’re toxic. I need a different …” Also, I’ve seen Christian leaders label anyone who questions their authority as toxic. That is scary. And also, when you talk about this, the wrong people think you’re talking about them. And the people who you are talking about have no idea you’re talking about them. But in over 34 years of vocational ministry, there have been several times where I’ve said to my wife, “Hey, babe, if they find my body in a creek bed somewhere, knock on this person’s door first.” There are people who, no matter how much you pour out to them, they will twist it and turn it back on you. No matter how much you love them, they will not interpret it as love. And it doesn’t matter how sincere or how hard you try.
Two weeks ago, we summarized Nehemiah 2-6. We jetted through a huge section, seeing the waves of opposition that met Nehemiah’s waves of progression. I listed seven stages, but I emphasized those aren’t formal stages. But what they are is describing these waves of progression as the wall was being rebuilt, and the people were being regathered. But at each moment, there was a different kind of attack that met the progression. And that’s normal in the ministry of God. And so, today we’re focusing in on stage seven, which is completion. The wall is just about complete. But the most lethal attacks against Nehemiah specifically come in this section. And these are personal attacks under the assumption that if they can take out Nehemiah, it doesn’t matter how high the wall is, the whole thing is contingent on this leader. So, let’s go for the leader. Nehemiah’s enemies attack him in three ways: to deceive, to divide, and to disqualify. Let’s look at each one of those.
First, to deceive (verses 2-4). They invite him to the plain of Ono. At first, this seems to be a reasonable request. The plain is equal distance between Samaria, which is where Sanballat lives, and Jerusalem, which is where Nehemiah is. Seems like a perfect place for an architectural symposium. Let’s talk wall, the remarkable progress. How did you do it? And Sanballat, I’m sure, has some color palettes he wants to bring to the meeting. Let’s add a splash of color to the wall. Let’s make a style statement to take it to the next level. So, let’s meet. Let’s talk.
But Nehemiah Google Maps the trip. It’s about 27 miles on horseback, northwest. That’s about a full day’s journey. And this plain is flanked by Samaria and Ashdod, both of them are enemy territories. Nehemiah’s security detail is giving him the look, “No, no. You’re not going to say yes to this. All the intel is bad. This is a trap.”
Adding to the danger is even more the distraction. Think about what we are called to do. So, Nehemiah sends a message in verse 3, “I am doing a great work and I cannot come down. Why should the work stop while I leave it to come down to you?” And in verse 4, they keep pestering him, four times. They’re trying to deceive him in order to ambush him on the plain of Ono. And that’s just a good lesson to live by. If anybody invites you to a place called “Ono,” just don’t go. No, I’m sorry. I’m swamped. I can’t come.
Second, to divide (verses 5-9). First, they seek to deceive, to set a trap. And now they seek to divide. What do I mean, divide? Look at verse 5.
“In the same way Sanballat for the fifth time sent his servant to me with an open letter in his hand. In it was written, ‘It is reported among the nations, and Geshem also says it, that you and the Jews intend to rebel; that is why you are building the wall. And according to these reports you wish to become their king. And you have also set up prophets to proclaim concerning you in Jerusalem, ‘There is a king in Judah.’ And now the king will hear these reports. [That king, he is talking about King Artaxerxes, the king of Persia, will hear these reports.] So now come and let us take counsel together.”
So, here’s an open letter boiling over with all these toxic rumors. “Nehemiah, you wish to become king. You’ve even got prophets ready to declare you king of Judah.” And notice these rumors. When you read this carefully, you’ll notice they’re crafted with an awareness of Jewish messianic hopes. They sound very realistic. If Artaxerxes hears about these rumors … I mean, here’s the goal Sanballat is thinking. If Artaxerxes hears about these rumors, he’s going to shut the whole thing down in a moment. So, when I say divide, what I mean by that is King Artaxerxes sent Nehemiah to Jerusalem. They’re in this together. What Sanballat is trying to do is drive a wedge in that relationship by lying about Nehemiah’s true intentions. And if he can do that, then Artaxerxes will turn on Nehemiah and shut the whole thing down. That’s how toxic people work — divide and conquer. In verse 8 Nehemiah’s response is quite straightforward. “No such things as you say have been done, for you are inventing them out of your own mind.” Trying to intimidate us to make us afraid so we will give up. Verse 9, “O God, strengthen my hand.”
The third attack is to disqualify him. So, the first, deceive, and then divide, separate the mission. And the third is to disqualify. Look at verse 10.
“Now, when I went into the house of Shemaiah, the son of Delaiah, the son of Mehetabel, who was confined to his home, he said, ‘Let us meet together in the house of God, within the temple. Let us close the doors of the temple, for they are coming to kill you. They are coming to kill you by night.’ But I said, ‘Should such a man as I run away? And what man such as I could go into the temple and live? I will not go in.’ And I understood and saw that God had not sent him, but he had pronounced the prophecy against me because Tobiah and Sanballat had hired him. For this purpose he was hired, that I should be afraid and act in this way and sin, and so they could give me a bad name in order to taunt me. Remember Tobiah and Sanballat, O my God, according to these things that they did, and also the prophetess Noadiah and the rest of the prophets who wanted to make me afraid.”
Shemaiah apparently was a man that Nehemiah trusted, because he went to his home. But he quickly realized that he had been hired to feign a disability and then warn Nehemiah of these threats, and then lead him into the temple for safety, which would do two things. It would send a clear message that the work is in danger. Nehemiah is afraid, which would shut things down. Secondly, it could disqualify Nehemiah not only out of fear, but out of a ritual defilement. Remember, Nehemiah is a layman, not a priest. He was most likely a eunuch. Remember, he was a cupbearer for King Artaxerxes. And as a eunuch (in Leviticus 21) he was not allowed to go into the holy place in the temple. So, what Shemaiah is trying to do is disqualify him as a leader. “See, you’re afraid. See, you’re ritually defiled.” And shut down the work that way. And again, Nehemiah’s response is decisive. I’m not going to run away, and I’m not going to tempt God. Verse 11, “What man such as I could go into the temple and live? I will not go in.” And then he prays that brief imprecatory prayer in verse 14, which also reveals the volume. Don’t miss the fact that there are a lot of visionary religious leaders in this day, as there are today, who are not tuned in to the will or work of God. We can never forget that. So, these are the three ways Nehemiah was targeted.
Let’s see if we can summarize a few side lessons we learned about toxicity from this passage. First of all, toxic people can be superficially friendly. Notice Sanballat and his friends invited Nehemiah. “Come on, let us meet together.”
Secondly, they can be seemingly clairvoyant. What do we mean, clairvoyant? They have powers to see what other people can’t see. They believe they know your real thoughts. “I know why you’re doing that, Nehemiah.” And they know your intentions better than you know your intentions. And there is a delusional aspect to their thoughts. This is why Nehemiah said in verse 8, “You were inventing them out of your own mind.” Toxic people think things that don’t mirror reality. Their insecurities are like a giant magnet that pull together shards of truth and untruth into a distorted image of what is so. Their reality filter is warped. So, messages that come in to them get garbled.
Now, don’t misunderstand me. All of our brains are fiction factories. But toxic people lack the humility to doubt their own thoughts. Right? All of us think crazy things. You guys are looking at me like I’m alone. Assure me, please. All of us have crazy thoughts. But by God’s grace, our humility says, “No, that might not be true. I probably should check on that.” But toxic people assume that what they’re thinking is what is so.
Number 3, relationally disruptive. Toxic people have an amazing ability to continue to pursue what they want even if they don’t get what they want, as long as you don’t get what you want. And we see this through this whole section of Nehemiah. The enemy will do anything they can do as long as they keep Nehemiah from doing what God has called him to do. Often their minds and their lives are so chaotic (especially relationally chaotic), and the chaos is never their responsibility. It’s always someone else’s.
Number 4, subtly controlling. Because toxic people are intensely insecure, they seek to control other people. They feel more in control when other people are being controlled. And this is why Sanballat refused to take no for an answer five times. “Come, let us meet together. Come, let us meet together. Come …” Relentless.
And that leads to number 5, they are creatively relentless. They don’t pick up clues to back down. Gary Thomas writes,
“Here’s how warped toxic opposition is. When a toxic person directs you and distracts you, they are seeking to become your god with a little ‘g’ (once again, it’s about control). They want you to be directed and motivated by them! ‘I will plead with your good nature. If that doesn’t work, I will threaten you; if that doesn’t work, I will pretend I am your friend and try to trick you; I will enlist others, both civic and religious authorities, to back me up, but I am determined that you will eventually do what I want you to do!’”
And they will wear you down. So, what should we do? First, don’t be toxic. No. First, refuse to be distracted. Refuse to be distracted. When Nehemiah … And I believe this is the big idea here in this passage. Nehemiah says, “I’m doing a great work and I cannot come down.” Well, when he prayed, “O God, strengthen my [notice, his] hands.” Communicating, help me keep doing what you’ve called me to do. Because when I’m spinning around with this manipulation, my hands are not at work doing what you called me to do. So, Nehemiah was realigning himself to the call and work of God. Like Jesus, he put them outside because he knew what he was called to do inside.
This is where we have to keep going back to chapter 1. If Nehemiah had not spent, remember, months praying the promises of God, he would have been far more vulnerable when the enemy sought to refocus his attention in a different direction, to distract him. No. He was riveted to the redemptive purposes of God. The whole movement of Nehemiah was tied into this grand redemption plan of God that culminates in Jesus Christ, and Nehemiah would not be distracted!
But that doesn’t happen automatically. When we get barrage after barrage after barrage, and everybody around us seemingly saying the same thing, it wears us down. It would … Even Jesus saw the need to constantly realign his focus. Look at the beginning of Mark. Mark 1:35, everybody wanted a piece of Jesus. His ministry was exploding.
“And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went to out to a desolate place, and there he prayed.”
Aldous Huxley writes:
“Those who crusade not for God in themselves, but against the devil in others, never succeed in making the world better, but leave it either as it was, or sometimes even perceptibly worse than it was before the crusade began. By thinking primarily of evil, we tend, however excellent our intentions, to create occasions for evil to manifest itself … To be more against the devil than for God is exceedingly dangerous. Every crusader is apt to go mad. He is haunted by the wickedness which he attributes to his enemies; it becomes in some sort a part of him.”
That’s a key statement, that last one. “He is haunted by the wickedness which he attributes to his enemies; it becomes in some sort a part of him.” I believe many of us today (and I’m thinking especially of leaders), are discouraged at this time because we have allowed a lot of voices that are constantly flooding our minds and hearts with what is wrong, and we have lost sight of who God is and what he’s doing that’s right. And I want to challenge you this week, because I believe one of the biggest culprits of this is social media and the news media. And I want to challenge you this week, doesn’t have to be forever, put them outside. Put them outside for a week. Fast from those things for a week, and see if it makes a difference in your heart, in your understanding of who God is and what has he called us to do? I’m not saying put your head in the sand. I’m not saying ignore the big issues that need to be addressed in our day. I’m saying you can’t address them properly if you’re listening to a cacophony of voices, many of which are not helpful at all. Refuse to be distracted.
Secondly, learn the difference between difficult and toxic people. Difficult and toxic people. Difficult people need help; toxic people make demands. Difficult people can be hard to love. Anybody in here not fall into that category? If you don’t think you fall into that category, you’re probably in the toxic category. Toxic people are allergic to love. Difficult people expect you to be who God made you to be; toxic people expect you to be who they expect you to be. Difficult people will give you space, emotional relational space. Toxic people will not respect life space. They suffocate you because they’re most often driven by their own needs.
So, in summary, we are called to love everyone, care for the difficult, but invest in the teachable. Love everyone, even toxic. Love everyone. We give a lot of care and attention to the difficult, the struggling. But we invest in the teachable. Proverbs 9:7,
“Whoever corrects a scoffer gets himself abuse, and he who reproves a wicked man incurs injury. Do not reprove a scoffer, or he will hate you; reprove a wise man, and he will love you. Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be still wiser; teach a righteous man, and he will increase in learning.”
This week, someone shared a Mark Twain quote with me.
“Never argue with stupid people, they will drag you down to their level and then beat you with experience.”
Thank you, Adam. You will never succeed at arguing with a manipulator. You have to love them enough to refuse to play the game on their terms.
Number 3, live in the gospel. When the room is spinning and everything seems chaotic, you move to what you know is true. We are great sinners; God is a great Savior. Notice this poem. This was written in the 1700s by William Cowper. It’s called “Jehovah Our Righteousness.” It’s based on Jeremiah 23:6. But notice the humility, the way it takes us down in order to lift us up in a completely different way than we ourselves would do. “My God, how perfect are thy ways!” And I’d encourage you, as I read it, you pray.
“My God, how perfect are thy ways!
But mine polluted are;
Sin twines itself about my praise,
And slides into my prayer.
“When I would speak what Thou has done
To save me from my sin,
I cannot make Thy mercies known,
But self-applause creeps in.
[I can’t even preach … Left to myself apart from his grace, I cannot even preach without sin.]
“Divine desire, that holy flame
Thy grace creates in me;
Alas! Impatience is its name,
When it returns to Thee.
[Even these holy desires degenerate into impatience and frustration.]
“This heart, a fountain of vile thoughts.
How does it overflow,
While self upon the surface floats
Still bubbling from below.
“Let others in their gaudy dress
Of fancied merit shine;
The Lord shall be my righteousness,
The Lord forever mine.”
Father, we cannot talk about toxic people without looking in the mirror and seeing where we would be but by your grace. So, we’re not coming this morning, we’re not sitting under your Word dressed in our own gaudy dress, trying to present a merit of our own. But we preach, we sing, we pray, we live in Jesus’ name, in the righteousness that only can be found in you, Jesus. You were put outside, labeled toxic so we would not be. I pray that there would not be one person in this room or at home or wherever they are listening to this Lord, not one person who simply points a finger at others. But in the end, Lord draw us to yourself. Let us just be filled with an overwhelming gratefulness that you saw us in our toxicity. You took our place. You rescued us. You are our righteousness. Thank you. Thank you. And thank you for giving us this time now just to soak in gratefulness for what you’ve done. So, fill us with that empowering favor. We are saved by faith in Jesus Christ alone. And that straightens up our warped filters, helps us to see others differently. Give us wisdom as we live this out in Jesus’ name, amen.