“Life is too short to spend time with people who suck the happiness out of you,” says the girl, photographed in black and white, looking off into the horizon. Shared thousands of times on social media, the meme is meant to empower: You deserve to feel good all the time, so make it happen.
Anyone with a difficult friend, neighbor, or coworker has faced this temptation to sever ties. And it’s an enticing bonus that, if we do, we’ll be called “brave” for shutting out difficult people.
But when the persons affecting our happiness are simply awkward or annoying, this popular meme spirals into sin and foolishness. If the people we should dismiss from our lives are just those who have let us down, well, haven’t we failed often too? If a friend is genuinely trying to call out our sin, but it makes us uncomfortable or ashamed, is that the sort of relationship we don’t deserve?
For Christians, the issue is especially complicated. Christ’s body on earth is made of human bodies. It’s inevitable that we’ll encounter people we find annoying or depressing or weird or clingy or even downright mean in our small groups or pews. So what’s our prescription? Do we take the path of the meme? The Bible, as ever, offers a better way.
Prescription 1: Love One Another
When it comes to fellow believers, God’s instruction tends toward forbearance and away from escape. “[Bear] with one another in love,” Paul tells the Ephesians (4:2). He sends a similar message to the Philippians: “Look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others” (2:4).
Paul also wrote to the Corinthians about love. Here he describes love in a way that guts the self-interested: “Love bears all things” (13:7). Love bears with a chronically mopey friend, a perpetual ailment-listing mother, a pessimistic coworker. It is patient with the repeat offender and the depressed and the lazy.
Real love scandalizes the meme.
It also costs us something. Through Isaiah, God prods his people to spend themselves on behalf of others: “If you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday” (Isa. 58:10).
Exhaust yourselves, God says. Don’t throw away the ones who make you tired.
Prescription 2: Forgive One Another
We sin, and sin has serious consequences. “Christians can never sin cheaply,” Charles Spurgeon wrote. Our hearts and our relationships pay the heavy price of every unkind word and thoughtless action. Thankfully, our all-wise God tells us what to do. He commands us repeatedly to forgive, implying an obvious premise: We shouldn’t automatically turn away from someone who hurts us.
Jesus’s command to forgive is jaw-dropping. In Matthew 18, Peter asks the Lord how many times he should forgive one who wrongs him. Jesus’s response is radical, leaving no room for grudge-holding: You must forgive your brother many, many more times than you think (18:22).
Though difficult to hear for the wronged, this is cause for great celebration for the wrongdoer: God forgives us many, many more times than we deserve. We ought to do the same for each other.
Also in Matthew 18, Jesus offers a plan for believers who fall into conflict. It starts with confrontation (uncomfortable), escalates to involving others (especially uncomfortable), and culminates in involving the whole church (almost unbearable).
This stressful prescription is proof that casual withdrawal from a difficult relationship without first working for peace is simply not an option for believers.
Prescription 3: Welcome One Another
This cultural philosophy of avoiding difficult people has an underlying worldview that should alarm any Christian. Such memes suggest that we should curate our circle of relationships until the only ones left are those who make us happy all the time. Not only is this unrealistic, it’s also unbiblical.
Because before we can love or forgive others, we have to first welcome them into our spheres—knowing full well they will let us down at some point and we them.
God doesn’t command us to call everyone an intimate friend or to uncritically give every person we meet equal influence over our lives. But he does command that we engage everyone with love:
For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? . . . And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? (Matt. 5:46–47)
In other words: Get behind me, meme.
Questions to Consider
There are clear circumstances that call for avoidance, distance, or even permanent severance from a relationship: cases of abuse, for example. And the Scriptures we’ve looked at here aren’t exhaustive—there are also plenty of commands that command us to avoid the “path of the wicked” so as not to synchronize our steps.
So, which is it? It’s tempting to appeal to Proverbs when we’d rather bail and Corinthians when we’d like to stay, but it’s just not that simple. Deciding whether to “cut someone out” is weighty. It calls for self-reflection before flipping the switch.
We should ask ourselves:
- Am I self-aware enough to make this decision? Could I be at all responsible for some of the difficulty I’m sensing in this relationship?
- Does this person entice me to sin in a way that I can’t healthily address while remaining in proximity to him/her?
- Is there a way to maintain this relationship in order to minister to this person while also withdrawing some of my intimacy?
- Am I considering this relationship as something that should bless me instead of asking how I can first be a blessing?
Our triune God is a God of relationship. Community with others—though becoming a lost art—is a cornerstone of the Christian life, and should be handled with great care. Beware the memes that entice you to do otherwise.