Radioactive relationships are a good topic for this time of year. We pursue relationships around the holidays more than any other time of the year. We go to more parties, call old friends and spend extra time with the same family that drives us crazy the rest of the year! So, it’s a good time to step back and reflect on relationships – on healthy, mutually edifying relationships and on those radioactive ones that leave us wondering what hit us.
We have all types of relationships, from family and long-term friendships to acquaintances, neighbors and co-workers. But there are essentially two categories of relationships: ones that have a big influence on our lives and ones that only casually affect us.
The majority of relationships we have in terms of volume are casual relationships. They are the co-workers or acquaintances we encounter, perhaps frequently, but we have passing conversations of little length or of small importance. They could also be the neighbors we invite over to dinner periodically. They may even be a sibling we call only occasionally.
These relationships add to the diversity and color of our lives. On any given day, these relationships can add to the joy of our day or cause us agitation to no end. And we do the same for them – we either edify their lives or we make the day more difficult for them. We typically don’t think much about these relationships, but by sheer volume they greatly impact our days. How we choose to interact with them can make a difference in our lives.
Who are you yoked to?
The people you are yoked to have the biggest influence on your life. They are people you spend the majority of your time with. Or they could be people you expend a lot of energy thinking and caring about. They could also be people you rely upon for support and advice. They could be family, friends, neighbors or co-workers. Whoever they are, they influence your daily actions and the course of your life.
Think about who you are yoked to and determine if any of those relationships are unhealthy. This is a good time to consider why you remain in the relationship. It is so easy to make excuses for being in close relationship with unhealthy people. Here are some of the more common excuses.
- Their behavior won’t impact me – I’m too strong for that. 1 Corinthians 15:33 says, ‘Do not be misled; bad company corrupts good character.’ Paul starts the verse with ‘do not be misled,’ which implies that we convince ourselves that close communion with others does not impact us. But it does. We are more like clay than we choose to admit. If we start down a particular road, the wheels keep moving in that direction. 2 Timothy 2:16-17 says, ‘avoid godless chatter, because those who indulge in it will become more and more ungodly. Their teaching will spread like gangrene.’ When someone has gangrene, the blood stops flowing to the infected area and then the body rots, slowing eating away at the flesh. If we continually engage in close, ungodly relationships, we also will become polluted and slowly decay morally and spiritually.
- They need a good influence in their lives. If I don’t help them, who will? It is good to desire to help someone change their life to a positive direction. It is loving and kind. But the problem is that we often force our desire for change onto someone else. Ultimately, if someone does not want to change, they won’t change.
At best you are wasting your time. Matthew 7:6 says, ‘Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs.’ We all have areas of sin, so this verse is not meant to be insulting. It simply means that someone who is not open to good advice will never receive it – no matter how hard you try to persuade them. But the verse continues with ‘If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces.’ At worst, your friends will turn on you. Or you will become like them in their behavior.
Another consideration is your motivation for wanting to help them. Our motives are often a mixed bag. Consider what changing the other person brings you – a sense of accomplishment, fulfillment of a perceived Christian duty or perhaps a desire to keep an old relationship even though it is no longer profitable. What are the hidden benefits for you?
- Who am I to judge? They will think I’m ‘holier than thou’ if I stop hanging out with them. After all, Matthew chapter 7 says not to judge! Those verses in chapter 7 talk about looking first at the plank in our own eyes before concerning ourselves with the speck in our brother’s eye. We are called to be alert and discerning. We are to rightly judge behaviors, starting with our own. But what is often overlooked is that chapter 7 does not say, ‘don’t remove the speck in your brother’s eye.’ It says, ‘first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.’ (Matthew 7:5)
God calls us to righteousness in all we do, including in our relationships. If we are truly helping someone and not being negatively influenced, we are doing well. But if we are not positively impacting the other person, chances are extremely good that we will end up in the same position they are in.
Types of Toxic Behaviors
When someone’s behavior is consistently negative, their behavior impacts us whether we are yoked to them or casually acquainted. There are numerous types of toxic behaviors, but here are three examples.
Chronic Critics. The Israelites wandering in the desert fall into this category. Nothing was good enough for them. The chronic critic finds fault with just about everything and everyone. Even if some good is found, there is always a ‘but’ just around the corner. A constant focus on negativity drags down even the most optimistic person. After awhile, you either run from them to find a breath of positive air or you end up seeing the world through the same grey eyes as the critic.
Constant Controller. A controller believes there is a certain way for everything and everything must proceed in that way. They do not make way for other opinions or thoughts. They are right. Period. If you spend much time with a controller, you will soon find your own sense of identity slipping away. The next thing you know, you are asking them how you feel!
Treacherous Tempter. Tempters are folks who habitually engage in unhealthy and unholy behavior. Simply being in their company can be tempting due to our sin nature. On top of that, the tempter is most likely encouraging you to engage. We tend to want others to do as we do because we believe it legitimizes our behavior. Peer pressure does not stop in high school. It follows us throughout our lives – because people feel more comfortable in sinful behavior when others are doing it, too.
I’m sure you can add to the list of toxic behaviors as you consider your own toxic relationships. The bottom line is that some people are safe to be around and some are not. Here is a list of characteristics of safe people:
- Admits their faults, takes responsibility and changes behavior
- Open to feedback; humble
- Earns trust and lets a relationship develop naturally
- Deals with issues as they surface; speaks the truth in love
- Appropriate emotional connecting
- Concerned about ‘we’, not ‘I’
- Asks for forgiveness and forgives
- Consistent and stable
- Relates as an equal
We are not necessarily to disengage with people that fall short at times. None of us rate 100% on the healthy and safe scale. But being aware of these characteristics can help us identify why the relationship is – or is not – going well. This is also a good time for self-evaluation. Are you safe for others? To what degree do you need to strengthen your own character?
God has given us a wonderful tool to engage with people in a healthy manner: boundaries. Boundaries keeps the good in and the bad out. They are doors, not walls. They can be opened and closed, allowing us to associate with people when it is healthy to do so or we are truly helping them, and then to close the door when their behavior becomes toxic to our lives.
God has boundaries – he often defines it with words like ‘sin’ and ‘holiness.’ God has clearly stated that those remaining in sin are not in relationship with him, but those who have been freed from sin are in intimate communion with him. And Jesus had varying degrees of friends. Only twelve were in his inner circle and within that, an even smaller group shared special times with him. He was on earth as we are – with only so much time to spend. Who are you letting into your inner circle?
God not only has boundaries, he also set boundaries for us. Psalm 16:6 says, ‘The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; surely I have a delightful inheritance.’ God has given us our families, places to live and a point in time to live. He has also given us our genders, looks, personalities and abilities. Sin is often born from trying to live outside of our boundaries.
His boundaries include boundaries within relationships. As each person in the trinity has their special place, so we have our role within our various relationships. We are to live and let others live as God directs them. Many boundaries are crossed or not enforced because someone thinks they know what we ought to do – and we believe them! But having healthy boundaries means having a clear identity and allowing others the same.
Standing your ground
Practicing healthy boundaries can be difficult at first because people want you to engage in their behavior and act according to their desires. But you can set your own standards. If you don’t, someone else will. Healthy detachment allows us to grow and flourish according to God’s standards for our lives.
Detachment is something we do each day. Often times, it does not does not mean cutting off the relationship. It means not letting the other person control our behavior. And keeping healthy boundaries does not necessarily require an aggressive confrontation. You can start by simply saying ‘no’ without adding explanations. You may have to say no over and over again. People who infringe on boundaries do not easily give up. But, remember, no one can force us to do anything – we have choices. For example, when people gossip, you can excuse yourself or impart something positive about the person.
But sometimes the healthiest thing to do is to disengage with someone. Although drastic, it is sometimes in our best interests to do so. If someone continually causes chaos and upheaval in your life and your best efforts to change the situation are to no avail, it could be time to move on. Pastor Craig Groeschel says it this way in his book, Soul Detox: “We should befriend people who don’t know Christ – until they begin undermining our faith and hurting us spiritually. Then if we can’t redefine the relationship and it becomes increasingly dangerous, we must cut off the relationship.” That statement also applies to Christian friends who are engaging in ungodly behavior on a consistent basis with no sign of change. Keep in mind, though, that there are varying degrees of detachment. In extreme circumstances you may need to cut off all contact. Most often, however, you can decrease your interaction with someone and achieve the same effect.
Boundaries – whether saying ‘no’ or disengaging from a toxic relationship – are not only good for you, but they are also good for the other person. When you apply healthy boundaries, you give the other person an opportunity to change their behavior and their lives for the better. Applying Godly principles is always the right thing to do – it rubs off on others without them realizing it. It may also show them a different way – options they had never considered before. And it is quite likely that when they are ready to change, they will come to you for help because they know you are healthy and will be concerned their best interests. What better gift could you give a friend than that?
Above all, though, Pastor Craig Groeschel reminds us why it is important to protect ourselves within our closest relationships: “protect yourself so you can be spiritually strong, know God intimately and share his love. You must be spiritually healthy if you want to bring God’s healing love to a world of sick people.”
- What are your family gatherings like? Are they primarily healthy, toxic or a combination of both? Are you looking forward to them this year or dreading them or somewhere in between?
- Discuss boundaries. Can you identify when someone is invading your boundaries or you are invading theirs?
- Is there a specific boundary you need to set with someone this Christmas?
- Discuss the concept of safe people.
- What is your most challenging relationship this Christmas? Is that person unsafe? Describe their behavior toward you and what you can do to change the situation.
- Are you a safe person for others? Do you invade their boundaries? Is there an area of conduct God is calling you to change?