I was recently ministering at a Convention in Panama City, Panama with a group of men who had a profound impact on my life. As I listened to Dr. René Peñalba from Honduras teach a morning session, he made mention of “toxic relationships”, the phrase stuck with me and I have since done a little research into the subject for my own benefit. Dr. Peñalba and I spoke with each other from time to time during the conference and were able to share thoughts on different topics. He is a gifted speaker and shares with a sincerity and compassion that stirred my soul.
I have found quite a bit of secular material written on the subject and after some research, I have come to the conclusion that many of us have been either the victim or the victimizer of a toxic relationship at one point or another in our lives.
Dr. Lillian Glass, author of the book “Toxic People”, describes a toxic person as “anyone who manages to drag you down, make you feel angry, worn out, deflated, belittled or confused.” These are the people who will stress you out, use you, be overly demanding, and won’t reciprocate the good you do for them. They deplete you in every way possible; they take up your time, resources and always seem to be in need of some service they feel you can render. They seem to need you, but oftentimes end up being critical of you.
It would seem that the church should be free from this type of behavior, but over the years I have found that it is precisely the place where toxic people find it easy to express themselves. For example, they can be found in the ranks of leadership as the authoritarian who presents a judgmental rather than a redemptive gospel. Their punitive message specializes in instilling the fear of Divine judgment instead of the comfort of God’s eternal love. They could also be concealed in the congregation, looking for an opportunity to attach themselves to others who can meet their emotional or financial need.
I was a victim of a toxic church for twelve years. The leadership was very authoritarian, extremely legalistic and judgmental, but I was young and got caught up following the personality of a man who was intelligent, dedicated to the gospel and extremely humble. I was blindsided by the errors that legalism always brings because I was looking at the persona of a leader who I admired. As a result, when I became a pastor at the age of 24, many who were members of my church were in some way affected by my own toxic faith. I broke away from that organization in 1988 and spent years being healed of my wounds and restructuring the church that I founded.
I also suffered the consequences of the toxic relationship my parents had before their bitter divorce. The poison of their fighting and subsequent behavior had a tremendous effect on our family. I chose to forgive them and move on with my life, using the emotional intelligence gained in those years so that I don’t make the same mistakes with my children.
It was not easy, but I am a testimony to the fact that we can overcome toxic relationships, regardless of their origin.
Many people believe that being a Christian means that one has to tolerate a toxic relationship at all cost, but that is not the case. God never intended us to remain in servitude to people who continually use us, deplete our energy or resources and leave us feeling like we haven’t done enough for them. We should not remain the victims of verbal, psychological, or physical abuse, nor should we tolerate the demanding relationship that offers nothing in return. (Please don’t use that statement as an excuse to divorce your spouse! You should work through a marriage that is less than perfect. This article is not meant to be a guideline for marriages – rather for the relationships that we have with acquaintances outside of our immediate circle of our spouse and children).
At the same time, the Word of God calls upon us to render forgiveness, to accept the repentant to give help to the needy and to go the extra mile for those who ask of us. The love of Christ knows no boundaries and it is kind to all.
So how do you free yourself from a toxic relationship and yet obey the law of Christ? This is where we need good discernment, humility and clear understanding of the Word of God. Allow me to state a few of my own convictions; maybe they will help you to define yours:
- It is my responsibility to be aware of those people who are following my personality rather than Christ and not allow them to depend on me or trust in me as a person.
- I must discern when an irresponsible or unmotivated person is attempting to use my resources for their personal gain. I am not responsible for carrying the weight of a lazy person who refuses to work. (I will go the extra mile for a person in need until I find that they are abusing my goodness and plan to keep doing so)
- If my immediate family is negatively affected by an acquaintance or someone continually seeking my help, I must start to distance myself from that person.
- If I start becoming depressed or negative because of my interaction with one particular person I must do whatever necessary to get back to normal.
The Spirit of Christ in the midst of His church does not entertain toxic people, He offers them the opportunity to change and become a blessing for others. His church only incorporates members who are being changed into His likeness. The body of Christ is a spiritual living organism of givers and receivers, but those who would seek to take advantage of others cannot belong to His Body. That should cause all of us to do a little introspecting!
When I have fellowship with people, I can usually discern whether or not I am being edified or defiled, encouraged or beaten down, empowered or weakened by them. Once I become aware that a person in the church is “toxic” I can make an effort to influence them through the gospel. If the Word of God doesn’t change their behavior, then I must be careful to not let them influence me! The truth is that some are content with their toxicity and reject the transforming power of the gospel.
The cross of Jesus Christ has the power to change the embittered soul and to convert the toxic person into one who can bring healing to others. If we expect to enjoy the life that God has intended for us, we must not only go to the lost world and live as lights in the midst of it, but we must also surround ourselves with people who impart encouragement and edification to our own spiritual walk.
According to the writer of Hebrews, a believer can become toxic if they fail to live by the grace that God has offered them. A person who becomes bitter will be toxic to all those who relate to them.
See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springing up causes trouble, and by it many be defiled; (Hebrews 12:15)
This verse clearly states that living within the grace of God is essential for a believer to avoid becoming toxic. A person “falls short of the grace of God” when they choose to live by their own standards rather than by the favor that God provides. God’s favor requires the receiver to exercise a certain amount of faith and obedience, which in turn often requires some sort of self sacrifice. The term “falling short” simply means “fails to comply” the result is destructive to the one who fails and others in close proximity.
In a perfect world, that kind of spirit would not be present within the ranks of Christianity, but that is not the world we live in. There are many professing Christians who are toxic because they are unproductive, demanding, critical and egocentric. I have lost count of the people I have ministered to over the years who were intent on using the church as their launching pad for some sort of self gain and became angry when they didn’t get what they thought they deserved. Some of them were souls who were spiritually immature and were eventually steered in the right direction, but others became toxic people who spread their poison to others.
For me, the greatest blessing of becoming a Christian was being healed from the bitterness that sin introduced into my life. To know God is to know pure love, acceptance, mercy and holiness. Fellowship with Him through the Holy Spirit brings a joy that is beyond words – it is the experience of having that inner peace and security that come from the realization that I am in Him and He is in me.
When a person becomes a born again Christian, there is an immediate infusion with God’s love and healing from the toxicity of the world. The change is so drastic and complete that the person becomes a “new creature” in Christ. That new life causes the recipient to do everything possible to distance themselves from disturbing influences in order to guard their new found peace.
As I stated in the beginning of this article: “many of us have been either the victim or the victimizer of a toxic relationship at one point or another in our lives”. Thankfully, all of that can change when we live in Christ. We can have an effect on the world without the world affecting us, and enjoy living a life free from the burdens that used weigh us down.
Every so often my doctor suggests that I go for blood testing. The results of those tests let him know if there are any toxins, possible cancers, or other irregularities going on in my body. In the same way, it is good for each of us to examine our faith on a regular basis. Is our faith positive and growing? Are we able to keep focused on the Jesus and His kingdom? Are we suffering depression because of the influence of toxic people? Is someone causing us undue stress by making demands that we cannot deliver?
The Bible teaches that the kingdom of God is within us and that the evidence of that kingdom is righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (Luke 17:21 / Rom 14:17). When I examine myself, those are the first things I look for. If they are missing, I begin searching for the reason and take the necessary steps to get them back so that I can live in the power and blessing that God has promised.
Copyright © 2011, Pastor David A. Barlock, All rights reserved.