Back in our village lives a man whom we can call Philippe. Phillippe lives in a broken-down, one-room shack and, although he is in poor health, he always manages to walk out to the bush each day to find something to eat. Philippe does not really contribute anything to his family nor to his community. In fact, because of some mental problems Phillippe is a pretty difficult person to be around. He drinks heavily, screams irrationally, and often asks of the people around him more than they are willing to give. He is seen as a social outsider and the village kids are, honestly, afraid of him.
And yet, Philippe does have a place in our village. One day he had some some sort of conflict in the bush and came home with a black eye. When his family became aware of this, they called a meeting to determine how they would retaliate. In their minds, Philippe was one of their own, regardless of his limited mental capacity. To ostracize him from their lives would be unthinkable. Rather, they see it as their responsibility to protect him.
Contrast this loyalty with American culture. In her book The Self-Love Revolution, Virgie Tovar gives advice to girls of color, especially as it regards body positivity. In it, she specifically addresses difficult people, including what she refers to as “trolls” and “jerks.” At one point she says,
I wish I could wave a magic wand and protect you from jerks forever and ever. Unfortunately, no one has that power…You can’t change them. You can’t spend your precious time giving them troll-rehab. Your only job is to keep yourself far away and safe from them. The best thing you can do for them and yourself is to learn to stand up for yourself, create boundaries, and have a plan of action when you’re hurt by others’ words or behavior (Tovar 2020 p.88).
In application of this principle, Tovar says she had to cut her grandparents out of her life because they often made comments about her clothes and weight. Now, Tovar is not a Christian, but hers is the message that American culture is currently promoting to us: you need to cut difficult people out of your life. But do we have that right? Is it OK to keep difficult people at arm’s length? Is it OK to put signs up on our front doors that say, “Go away”? Is it OK that adult children “ghost” their parents or grandparents once they realize all their imperfections?
Now in considering this incredible difference between the African and American culture, I have become persuaded that seeking to control who is in and out of our lives is in large part more American than it is Christian. I believe this for three main reasons.
1. The Example of Christ
One of the most relationally remarkable scenes in Jesus’ life is seen in John 13. I am sure you are familiar with the story. Before his last meal with the disciples, Jesus kneels down and washes their feet. Peter is understandably shocked by his condescension, even at first refusing to allow Jesus to wash his feet. This story is remarkable at this level, where Jesus (who is God incarnate) washes the feet of sinful and often complaining fishermen. But before Jesus knelt down to serve, the passage tells us, “the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him” (v 2). Both Judas and Jesus knew what was in store for Jesus. And yet, Jesus washed Judas’ feet. This is only the culmination of years of Jesus leading and discipling Judas, whom he always knew would betray him.
I think we would all probably agree that Judas embodied the essence of a “toxic” relationship, and yet Jesus shared his life with him. In reading this, you might be thinking, “Jesus’ friendship with Judas was unique in that he intended to use Judas to bring about his crucifixion.” The truth is, Judas was a part of a bigger plan: his betrayal lead to the sacrifice of Christ, and the salvation of many. And, that bigger plan is still in progress today. I am persuaded that the ways of the Lord have not changed–just as he used Judas to bring about ultimate good for mankind, so God uses ill-willed people to bring about good today. When the Bible tells us to think like Christ (Philippians 2:1-11), it is a call to self-sacrifice, not self-protection.
2. God Gets to Set up Boundaries
Christ’s example is not the only reason to reject the American value of creating boundaries for the purposes of self-protection. When I read the Bible, I see that the Lord is the one who determines our boundaries. That is, he determines where we live and for how long, the families that we are in, and even the languages that we speak (Acts 17:26). And who can forget the words of the Psalmist who rejoices in saying, “All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be” (Psalm 139:16b).
That is, God chooses the difficult boss I have, the cubicle I sit in, and the neighbors I live beside. Now, you might be thinking, “But I can technically set up boundaries and make it so that I no longer talk to people that bring me psychological harm.” Though I concede that the Lord does grant us some autonomy in our choices of who we interact with, he nevertheless calls us to “bear with the failings of the weak” (Rom 15:1), “love our enemies” (Matt 5:44), and “bear all things” (1 Cor 13:7). In giving these commands, God assumes that difficult people are simply a part of life.
3. It’s Not all About Us
At the end of the day, following Christ’s example is others-centric. Consider the story of Joseph. His jealous brothers sold him into slavery, which led to prison, and then finally to the position of second-in-command to the king of Egypt. At the end of the story Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt, hungry and asking for help. Joseph agrees to help in saying that God orchestrated their cruelty in order to save many people’s lives, including their own (Genesis 37-50).
I think we would all understand if Joseph chose not to reveal himself to his brothers. He could have taken revenge. He could have ghosted them. In a more generous moment, he could have helped them even: let them bow to him and send them home with food when they needed it. But he didn’t do any of these things.
Why? Because he knew that there was something greater at stake than his own personal well-being, namely, the well-being of others. In reflecting on this story, I have to ask myself if we miss incredible, world-changing opportunities when we prematurely cut people out of our lives.
Love, the Vulnerable Alternative
We as Americans have much to learn from Scripture and from my Kwakum neighbors. Namely, we are called to welcome sinners as Christ has welcomed us (Rom 15:7). This heart attitude is in direct opposition to ghosting people and determining who we will allow to be in our “social lists.” After all, Jesus tolerated bickering disciples and walked with a man who would inflict on him great personal harm. Furthermore, God is the one who determines our families, boundaries, and relationships. Finally, when we ghost people for one reason or another, we are mainly considering the impact they have on us when God may be wanting to use them in our lives for the good of others.
Now you might be thinking, “But you don’t know what people have done to me.” You’re right, I don’t know the specifics of your life. But God does, and yet he calls us all to move towards difficult people with hearts of forgiveness. And, ironically, if we close our hearts to people, we inflict harm upon ourselves. CS Lewis eloquently calls us to be vulnerable in our relationships in saying,
To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable. (Lewis 1960, The Four Loves)
Love comes with a cost and yet it is a Christ-like posture to love vulnerably. American culture calls us to protect ourselves by cutting out difficult people from our lives. The Bible calls us to follow Christ, which is a call to lean in to difficult relationships. To self-sacrifice instead of self-protect takes faith. It is a faith that believes that God purposes pain, and plans for good things to come from it. And it is a faith that says, “I am willing to be hurt in order to honor the Lord.” It is a kind of faith that can only come from God himself.