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Book review: When to Walk Away: Finding Freedom from Toxic People by Gary Thomas

By Marshall Eizenga

“If someone is getting in the way of you becoming the person God created you to be or is frustrating the work God has called you to do, for you that person is toxic.”

This quote is taken from Gary Thomas’ book When to Walk Away: Finding Freedom from Toxic People. He wrote this book to help the reader understand the impact of toxic people in their lives. He underscores this by adding, “This book is about protecting our mission from toxic attacks even more than it’s about protecting ourselves from toxic people.”

Thomas has authored more than twenty books, has appeared on national radio and television programs, and has been privileged to speak across the U.S. and around the world. He writes in an easy-to-read, easy-to-apply format, which comes across clearly in this, his latest bestseller.

This book is full of real-life stories, practical illustrations and biblically founded principles. Thomas weaves them together to help the reader not only identify toxic people and toxic situations, but also to clarify how to set appropriate boundaries.

I found it helpful that Thomas assists the reader in knowing how to incorporate the principles of each chapter by providing insightful takeaways that reinforce the information found in each chapter. Here are a few to pique your interest:

“Sometimes Jesus walked away for personal refreshment, prayer or the need to reach others.”

“Nehemiah’s experience offers a great example of how to complete a task without being distracted by toxic people.”

“When someone is using Christian language, it doesn’t mean they are operating with Christian motives.”

“Some toxic people will seem to be repentant, not because they want to change, but because they want to preserve the platform of abuse.”

“Don’t make reliable children pay for the distraction of the unreliable one(s). Keep your focus on investing in the reliable ones.”

“Anything we wouldn’t say to someone else is something we shouldn’t say to ourselves.”

Thomas reminds us that we will likely encounter toxic people in every sphere of our lives. They may be our co-workers, family members or those that we consider as friends. He also includes an interesting, thought-provoking chapter entitled, “Don’t be toxic to yourself.”

The following concepts were just a few of the ones that stood out to me in this book.

Play spiritual defense while you build your offense

Playing defense is defined as understanding “what a toxic person looks like, smells like, talks like and acts like.” Additionally, Thomas advises, “When the situation calls for it, follow the steps of Jesus and walk away from the toxicity and toward a healthy life, a pure mind, focused service and genuine love.”

Thomas suggests that “building your offense” is a combination of studying God’s Word, praying, surrendering to God in obedience and direction, learning what it means to be filled with and guided by the Holy Spirit, seeking first the Kingdom of God in all things, and investing generously and enthusiastically in the lives of reliable people who are qualified to reach others.

Sounds like a challenging pursuit, doesn’t it? But he explains what can happen if we don’t: “To play offense without any defense is to make ourselves unnecessarily vulnerable and severely diminish our impact. I believe future years of ministry can be even more fruitful if we learn to also play a little defense along the way.”

Walkaway Jesus

One of the concepts which really caught my attention was found in chapter two, entitled, “Walkaway Jesus.” Although I knew Jesus didn’t embrace everyone, the concept of walking away from toxicity as Jesus did brought greater understanding to some of the interactions Jesus had with people. Thomas identifies 41 instances in all four gospels representing “more than two dozen distinct times when Jesus demonstrated walking away or letting someone else walk away” (these biblical references are included in the appendix of the book.) He does note that not all these instances were encounters where there was conflict; sometimes people wanted more of his time, but to give more of his time would keep him from fulfilling the call of God on his life.

If you have trouble with the concept of turning people away, this is must-read for you. As Thomas says, “You won’t be able to reach or influence everyone you meet.”

Finally, his chapter entitled, “Looking like Jesus when working with Judas” was also very insightful. This chapter alone is worth the price of the book.

Let me provide you with some quotes that speak about the impact toxic people can have on our souls:

“Toxic people drain us of joy, energy and peace.”

“Toxic people . . . tend to have an inordinately negative effect on families, churches, relationships and ministries.”

“They are masters at eliciting shame, guilt and discouragement.”

“Three common elements of toxic opposition: murderous spirit (murderous relationships turn people against people), a controlling nature (rebellion, gossip, slander, sowing division) and a heart that loves hate (negative, poisonous effect on others).”

“Just as an experienced hiker wants to know what poisoned oak, poisoned ivy and nettles look like in order to avoid touching them, God’s servants need to know toxic people so they can avoid being spiritually assaulted by them.”

As you read each chapter you will come away with a greater understanding of toxic people. You will also find a number of key learning outcomes. These will give you the ability to:

  • Learn the difference between toxic people and difficult people.
  • Find refuge in God when you feel under attack.
  • Discern when to walk away from a toxic situation.
  • Keep a tender heart even in unhealthy relationships.
  • Gain new vision and enthusiasm for seeking the kingdom of God and investing in reliable people.

I first read this book a few months ago and found it to be a worthwhile read. In rereading it again for this report, I’m increasingly convinced that every Christian leader and pastor should take the time and read it. It’s relevant, biblical, practical, and addresses an issue that all of us at one time or another will face. When to Walk Away: Finding Freedom from Toxic People gets a solid two thumbs up from me.


To get your own copy of When to Walk Away: Finding Freedom from Toxic People by Gary Thomas, visit our online bookstore.


Marshall Eizenga and his wife, Merrie, are the program directors at the Alberta Kerith Retreats location. For more information about our retreats, visit KerithRetreats.ca.


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