“Managing Toxic Relationships”Categories: M. W. Bassford, Sermons
About three weeks ago, a minor tragedy occurred. Evernote, the program on my phone that I use to keep track of everything, including my sermon and blog-post ideas, crashed. Post-crash, I discovered that Evernote hadn’t synced since June 2019, so all of those ideas are gone forever. That means that if you asked me to preach a sermon on something and you haven’t heard the sermon yet, you probably aren’t going to unless you remind me of the request! For that matter, if you’d like to hear me preach on something and haven’t asked, I’d love to hear your question!
However, since the Great Evernote Crash of 2020, I have had other requests trickle in. This evening’s request actually comes from a sister who lives out-of-state, but because I know that this is relevant to people in this congregation too, I decided to turn it into a sermon. She wanted to know how one should deal with toxic people in one’s life, particularly close relatives who are toxic. Let’s consider, then, how to manage toxic relationships.
Here, I think the first thing that we must do is to RENEW OUR MINDS. Paul makes this point in Romans 12:2. Here, he tells us that there are two ways we can think. We can have a worldly mindset, which will conform us to the world, or we can have a spiritual mindset, which will lead us to be transformed into the image of Christ. Perhaps the most global struggle we engage in is the struggle to renew our minds, to daily think less like the world and more like Christ.
One of the characteristics of our worldly society is its love of labeling people. You’re black, you’re white, you’re straight, you’re gay, you’re rich, you’re poor, and that’s all I need to know about you to know who you are. All of these labels divide and create hostility, and that’s the work of the devil. By contrast, God calls us to be one in Christ Jesus, to love one another and love Him so fully that all these labels recede into insignificance.
When we’re talking about toxic people, or we’re talking about their close cousins, the narcissists, we must recognize that we are labeling others, and we also must recognize how deceptive and dangerous that is. “Toxic” and “narcissist” are worldly labels that people in the world use to dismiss and condemn others. “Narcissist” is at least a clinical diagnosis, but it is widely employed by people who learned all they know about psychology from a Buzzfeed article. I don’t even know what “toxic” means, except maybe, “Here’s somebody who does things I don’t like.”
The thing is, though, that once we have concluded that somebody’s a narcissist, that somebody’s toxic, our society gives us permission to write them off. We no longer have an obligation to try to understand their bad behavior, except maybe by reading more articles on Buzzfeed that tell us how awful toxic people and narcissists are. We don’t have to try to help them because toxic people and narcissists are irredeemably evil. We can shun them with a clear conscience because, well, they’re toxic and narcissistic! Perhaps most of all, we don’t have to examine ourselves and ask how our own unloving hearts and bad behavior have contributed to the breakdown of a relationship. Those labels do a great deal to help people who want to be self-righteous, but they do nothing to help us be more like Christ.
Instead, as Christ’s disciples, we are called to seek to understand others and have compassion. In many cases, we begin by remembering THE POWER OF FEAR. Consider the words of John in 1 John 4:18-19. According to John here, the opposite of love isn’t hatred. The opposite of love is fear. In my life, I can’t think of anybody I know who did awful things because of hatred. However, I can think of plenty who sinned egregiously because they were afraid.
This should transform our understanding of people who tend to get stuck with those labels of toxic and narcissist. Often, they seem very powerful and strong to us. They say shockingly hurtful things to us that we never would say to anyone. They make decisions that seem calculated to make us suffer. Indeed, they make us feel like we’re a helpless animal in a cage, and they’re taking joy in tormenting us.
However, if we could see the world through their eyes, we would see something very different. They don’t feel strong and powerful. They feel vulnerable and weak. All of those behaviors that seem so offensive to us, in every sense of the word, seem defensive to them. They are trying to protect themselves from being hurt, from losing something they love, from appearing as a failure, from becoming valueless.
I don’t say any of this to minimize the evil that fearful people do or the damage that they cause. Make no mistake: those who let fear rule in their lives are letting the devil rule, and they will not inherit eternal life! Instead, I say it so that we can understand them.
Most of us don’t know what it’s like to hurt others because we are feeling strong and powerful. I think all of us, though, if we are honest, will admit that we know what it’s like to hurt others because we are feeling hurt and weak and afraid. We don’t get to write off all those toxic narcissists because, on some level, we are the same as they are.
Ultimately, then, we must deal with the hurtful, destructive people in our lives by CONSIDERING EACH PERSON. For an example of this in action, look at Jude 22-23. Jude knew that people who were wavering in the faith did so for their own individual reasons, so it wasn’t right to treat all of them in the same way.
Likewise, we have to try to understand the flesh-and-blood people who are in front of us rather than cutting them off because their behavior displays the Ten Infallible Signs of Narcissism. If we react to them by striking back, which is what all of us instinctively do, most likely, we are only going to confirm them in their fear and their ungodly behavior, unwittingly confirming our own fears.
Instead, over time, we have to show them that they don’t have to be afraid, so that they will see that the sins they think are defensive really aren’t necessary. We can’t minimize their sin, but we also must make sure that when we speak truth, we do it out of love rather than a selfish desire to elevate ourselves at their expense. Additionally, we need to remember that the ugly coping strategies that they’ve spent years learning will take years to unlearn too—even if they’re working on it.
Sadly, some don’t want to work on it. They are sunk so deep in sin and fear that the pain of confronting the truth about themselves is too great for them to consider. We have to be honest about that too. Helping a sinner is one thing; throwing pearls before swine is another.
Finally, we have to recognize when we’re dealing with someone who isn’t motivated by fear. A couple of years back—let the reader understand—I got to know somebody pretty well who did not hurt people because he was afraid. He hurt people because it was exciting to hurt them, because all the resultant commotion was interesting. Those people also are beyond us. It’s a cliché to say that somebody needs professional help, but those people truly do.