People can be difficulty – you know this and you don’t have to look far to find an example, just think about your own family. Think about the crowd that gathers at your yearly family reunion. Is there a couple who always shows up wearing matching outfits or someone that always has to be the center of attention? What about the person who has the story that can top everyone else’s story no matter what it is? You know what I mean, you talk about your weekend at Ocean City and they talk about their month in Honolulu. You’re son made the honor roll and their daughter was valedictorian. You had a bad cold last month but they had walking pneumonia. It doesn’t matter if what you say is good or bad, they can always top you. Have a relative like that? Don’t we all?
Think about where you work. Is there that one coworker who never has anything positive to say about anything? You reach all of your goals but they are still critical of how you do your job? Around the water cooler or lunch table they find fault with everyone and everything. I’ve worked with a few people like that, not here of course, but over the years I’ve suffered along with people like that.
What about your circle of friends? Is there that one friend that reminds you of the classic Saturday Night Live character Debbie Downer?
If you never saw those sketches, Debbie Downer is the friend who went on and on about all the tragic events in the world from hurricanes to mad cow disease to the increase in feline aids. The Debbie Downers are those who can throw cold water on any party and ruin even the best events. Now I have to warn you about something, if you can’t think of the family member, coworker or friend who is this challenging to deal with – then maybe it’s you!
I thought about that this week as I was watching a classic sketch of Debbie Downer when she goes to Walt Disney World. It got me laughing until I thought back to my first trip to Disney World with my sister’s family. My sister knows that I am somewhat conservative with my money. That might be an understatement because family and friends might use the word cheap. I don’t like to spend a lot of money and so my sister told me before we went that everything at Disney was going to be expensive and she didn’t want to hear about it. She said, you have the money so just spend it and enjoy it. Don’t complain. I did pretty well until one day I must have said something about the $3 bottle of water or $5 ice cream cone and my sister just looked at me… you know that look. It’s the look that says, keep your mouth shut. At that moment I was the difficult family member that no one wanted to be around. They could have written a SNL sketch called Annoying Andy.
The point is we all have challenging, difficult and at times toxic people in our lives. Sometimes we think we can change them or save them so we keep reaching out to them, but what often ends up happening is we don’t lift them up – they bring us down. The Bible has something to say about this, look at 1 Corinthians 15:33. Paul says, Do not be deceived, bad company ruins good morals.
And 2 Timothy 2:16-17a, Paul says, avoid profane chatter, for it will lead people into more and more impiety and their talk will spread like gangrene. Gangrene- that’s harsh. Have you ever seen gangrene? I hadn’t so I did a google search and all I am going to tell you is – don’t do that! The pictures are horrific! Gangrene is when a portion of your flesh dies and the danger of the disease is that it slowly spreads and your skin turns black and your flesh and muscles decay. It makes my fear of bats seem like nothing. And that is what Paul says happens when we associate with toxic people for too long. Spend too much time around the wrong people and our morals decay, our faith weakens and our spirit dies.
So let’s look at these toxic relationships because we aren’t talking about people who are evil, violent and psychotic, we are talking about the kind of people we interact with every day. In his bookSoul Detox, Craig Groeschel talks about three types of toxic people who can be dangerous to our faith and spirit. The first are those who are chronic critics. These are the people who find fault with everything. The weather is too wet or too dry. The room is too hot or too cold. Their meal at the restaurant is never good enough, the service is never fast enough and the cost is always too high. All they know how to do is pick everything apart.
You might not believe this, but there are a few people like this in the church too – although again, I have to say that there are far fewer in this church than in any other I have ever served. But I have been in churches where all some people could say was that the music was too loud (or too soft), the songs were too slow (or too fast), and room is too cold in the summer and hot in the winter (or too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter) and the preaching is too long (ok that one might be true).
While I’ve had a few church members like this through the years, I am thankful that I have never had an entire congregation of them! But there is someone who did – Moses. After God delivered the people of Israel out of slavery you would think they would have been thankful, but instead they became chronic complainers. Right after God parted the Red Sea to save them; they turned around and started complaining about not having good water to drink. Then they started complaining about the food, Exodus 16:2-3. They actually said they would have preferred to die as slaves in Egypt than struggle for food as a free people in God’s Promised Land.
But the criticism wasn’t over, even though God provided for them everywhere they went, every time they arrived in a new location the complaining would start all over again. Look atExodus 17:1-3. Their critical spirit kept them from seeing the hand of God at work among them and their critical spirit began to bring Moses down. He gets frustrated and cries out to God. Bad company was ruining good character.
A second set of toxic people we have to deal with are theconstant controllers. These are the people who want to control every aspect of our lives. They can be that overbearing parent who starts by setting out our clothes for us in kindergarten but then never stops and then before long they are choosing our friends, our college, our career and our spouse. The very first wedding I did had this kind of controlling mother and it was the mother of the groom. In fact, during the wedding I thought it was odd because the only two people in the room who were crying were groom and his mother. It was a toxic relationship and the marriage lasted a total of 6 months.
Now Jesus had some controlling people to deal with, in fact his family was controlling. In Mark 3 Jesus had just begun his ministry and when some negative publicity starts spreading about who Jesus was and what he was doing, his family came and tried to get him to come home. It says they tried to restrain him because people thought he was crazy. Jesus family tried to control his life and ministry and so did his disciples. When Jesus first makes it clear that he was going to go carry a cross and die, Peter said to him, No way Jesus, I will not allow that to happen. Peter was trying to control the direction of Jesus’ ministry and Jesus response to Peter was, get behind me Satan! Jesus was not going to be controlled. Constant controllers can be toxic because they can pull us away from who God wants us to be.
And the last group of toxic people we need to look out for are thetantalizing tempters. These are the people who encourage us to do those things we know we shouldn’t do. These are those friends who encouraged us to drink and smoke when we are young and the ones who tell us we need to have nicer clothes and newer cars as we get older. These are those old high school friends we reconnect with on facebook that haven’t seemed to mature beyond high school and still gossip, bully and make fun of others. It is very tempting to fall into their way of thinking and acting because we still want to fit in and belong even though we know this way of life is wrong and will pull us away from God.
These kinds of relationships can be dangerous because we can find ourselves sliding down that slippery slope. For example, it starts with the person at work who tells the off color joke and at first we laugh because we want to fit in but then we find that we are the ones telling the jokes. Or our circle of friends loves to gossip and while we resist at first and just keep our mouth shut, eventually we find ourselves wanting to share the new that we have just heard. It’s tempting to go along with the crowd so we can feel validated and accepted, but if we are tempted to do things we know are wrong – these relationships are toxic and in time will destroy our faith and lives.
The biblical answer to all these toxic relationships can be summed up in 2 words, good fences. A fence keeps in what is good and keeps out what is bad. When I moved into the parsonage 5 years ago I asked the trustees if we could fence in the backyard. I wanted to keep my greyhound (who was good and loved to run) safely on the inside. They agreed. The fence protected that which was good and kept out that which was bad like the skunks.
If we are dealing with toxic relationships, than we need to learn how to build some good fences, which means setting healthy boundaries. Now let’s be clear, this does NOT mean we dump all the people in our lives who drive us crazy, but we do need to establish healthy boundaries so those who are toxic don’t bring us down and destroy our health and faith. We hear this in Psalm 26:4-5. The psalmist is making it clear that he will not associate with those who are going to bring him down or corrupt his character and he is going to spend time at the altar – or in good places.
Let’s go back to the situation with Peter trying to control Jesus. Jesus set a healthy boundary by telling Peter to get behind him, or get out of his way. At that moment, Jesus effectively put Peter on the outside of the fence where he couldn’t control the situation. Now Peter doesn’t stay outside the fence, Jesus didn’t dump Peter as a disciple and Peter didn’t walk away, but Peter did learn that he was not the one who was going to control Jesus’ future. The relationship worked to become healthy again. When Jesus’ family wanted to take him home and keep him quiet, Jesus set another healthy boundary by keeping his family literally on the outside of the house. Jesus didn’t go out to speak to them because he knew there was nothing he could say to them that would change their mind and he was not going to give them the chance to change his mind and the direction of his life.
Sometimes we have to establish healthy boundaries so that the toxic nature of others doesn’t poison our lives. In one of my previous churches I had a very toxic member who loved to get me into conversations that he knew drove me crazy. He would call me on the phone, remain eerily calm and criticize everything going on in the church and he knew all the right buttons to push to get me worked up. I talked to the leaders of the church about it and they said, Andy, don’t you have an answering machine? I said, Yes. So they said, then from now on, screen all your calls. Once I set that boundary and started screening all my calls, that man no longer had the ability to make me crazy. His toxic nature was no longer making me sick because I was able to contact him on my terms and on my schedule and usually with people around me who could encourage and support me. It was a healthy boundary for me to set. It was a good fence.
Setting healthy boundaries with people doesn’t mean we automatically cut them out of our lives, it means we protect ourselves from their toxic words, behaviors and actions. We can still have a relationship with them. I was still the pastor for the man who drove me crazy, but it was a much healthier relationship. But unfortunately there are times when relationships are so toxic and unhealthy that we need to cut them off all together. This needs to be the last resort and it needs to come after all other options like counseling, prayer, honest conversations and gentle but clear confrontation has taken place, but we need to know that there are times when it is ok to walk away from toxic people. Jesus did.
While many people followed Jesus, don’t forget that many people didn’t and Jesus left many people behind. There was a rich man that Jesus said needed to get rid of his wealth if he wanted to follow him. The rich man didn’t want to do that so the Bible says he went away sad and Jesus let the man go. In essence, Jesus walked away and at times we might need to walk away from those whose toxic words, behaviors and actions risk brining us down.
If we come to the conclusion that we need to end a toxic relationship, what we need to do is work to end the relationship with as much grace and peace as possible. The other person may not be at peace or feel much grace, but we don’t have to hold on to their bitterness and anger – we just have to be at peace ourselves. If the other person isn’t willing to change in order to make the relationship healthy or respect the boundaries we have established, then they can become that gangrene that slowly spreads to every other part of our lives and every other relationship we have. In these cases we might need to end the relationship completely in order to remain physically, emotionally and spiritual strong. While it is the last resort, we need to know that this is absolutely ok.
We all have toxic relationships that require us to establish healthy boundaries. We establish these boundaries through prayer, honest conversations with others who can help us and at times walking out of the darkness of a toxic relationship and into the light of Christ. This week we need to take some time to think about the toxic people in our lives and how we can build some good fences. We also need to ask ourselves honestly if we are the toxic person who needs help and who needs to change. If we are, let’s ask God and others to help us so our relationships, all of our relationships, can be strong.
Soul Detox ~ Toxic Relationships
1. Think of your most significant relationship at work, in your family and among your friends.
· Are there Chronic Complainers?
· Constant Controllers?
· Tantalizing Tempters?
· Are these people spiritual assets or liabilities?
2. What kind of boundaries do you need to establish with those who are toxic in order to protect your life, family, faith and other relationships?
3. Who are the people who can help you build these good “fences”?
4. What kind of impact do you make on the people in your life?
· Are you critical, controlling and a tempter?
· To whom are you a spiritual asset?
· To whom are you a spiritual liability?
5. How can you become less toxic in your relationship with others? (A good place to start is by examining the words and messages we share with others to see if they are toxic.)
6. Dealing with difficult relationships requires prayer. Pray for wisdom in knowing how to move forward in all your relationships and pray for those who are toxic in your life.