The Battle Begins

Thanks for joining me! Together we can find the strength to fight against the chaos-makers of our lives. We can say “Enough!” to the disguised deceit, unfairness, selfish ambition, manipulation, and subtle lies that have kept us paralyzed for far too long. Our principles do not have to remain at odds with our preferences. We need to learn to speak out against injustice with boldness and truth. Human dignity is at stake, and it likely is not only your own.

The law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails. The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted. ~Habakkuk 1:4

The Dilemma

Mercy. Compassion. Patience. Long-suffering. Kindness. Gentleness. As Christians, there is a lofty standard. Our attitudes and dispositions must be carefully molded towards holiness. The calling is high; the Lord’s reputation is at stake. So we must learn to bear injustice, love our enemies, do good to those who hate us, turn the other cheek. It is not easy and it requires a tremendous amount of strength. Sometimes, in faith, we must override our instincts, desires, will, or common sense to do what we are called to do. And even if it doesn’t end happily, at least we know that we have done what is good and right.

And then: enter the toxic individual. A gentle answer no longer turns away wrath. Showing kindness does not heap burning coals on his head. The measure you use is not measured back to you. The respect you offer is not returned– ever, at least not in any genuine way. You may persevere, trusting you are accomplishing some good, somehow. Months may turn into years, without significant benefit or blessing. Obediently, considering others better than ourselves, we may keep giving anyway. And our lives are sucked dry. It certainly does not feel either good or right.

And so we are faced with a moral dilemma: on one hand, we can deny reality and insist on following our principles, or we can abandon our principles and enter into the ugly fray. Neither option is very attractive, and as it turns out, neither is very effective. So we live torn, alternately suffering in silence and lashing out, ever dreading interacting with the toxic presence. And the more you must, the more miserable you are.

Hence the modern label “toxic” was coined. But surely this has been an issue throughout the ages? Though the “tolerance” philosophy of the 1990’s has bred far more rampant toxicity, this is not new. And God is not one to neglect any major life issue. So what does Scripture really have to say about it? As it turns out, quite a lot. Some by word, more by example.

Many of the biggest Biblical figures had to face their toxic people. David– obligated to Saul and devoted to Absalom– was actively hunted by both for years. Moses– simply being obedient– got the very people he was trying to save caught in the crossfire with Pharaoh. Abigail– living under the thumb of Nabal for years– learned to navigate around him, despite the risk to herself. And even Christ– with His infinite wisdom– was still constantly hounded by the Pharisees and could not keep them silent for long. Knowing His disciples would face the same trouble, He advised them to do the incredibly difficult “do what they say but not what they do.” It is living the proverbial “‘I dare not’ waiting upon ‘I would’,” indefinitely. Silent and endless misery, with you always losing. It tears up the human spirit. That’s why Christian and secular advice alike shout, “Steer clear!”

…but what if you just can’t?!

Identifying Toxicity

In all fairness, we do need to be certain of toxic dynamics before we take extreme measures. After all, we have all made our share of mistakes and bad judgments. More importantly, if there arises opposition (which resistance will), we need our convictions strong enough to stand. Though the line is usually grey and intensionally blurred, patterns do tell. Regardless of how convincing your arguments may or may not be to others, be convinced yourself.

Characteristics of Toxic Individuals

  1. No Reciprocity

There is no genuine give-and-take of healthy relationships. The benefit (however dressed up otherwise) is one-sided. And neither are the burdens fairly shared. Symptoms include forgotten promises, hypocrisy, stolen credit, demands, and unrealistic expectations.

2. No Empathy

There might be honeyed words, but they are not acted upon. There really is no genuine concern. You are left handling your own struggles on your own- and often even humiliated for it. Tell-tale signs include unhelpful criticism, indifference, manipulation, offensive/insulting comments, and a consistent lack of support.

3. No Personal Responsibility

Mature individuals understand that they are not flawless, that life is a series of lessons and we must grow by learning from them. Not so for the toxic individual. While they might admit to being wrong on occasion, nothing is done to correct either the behavior or the rift it has caused in the relationship. They really expect to have a free pass to behave however they please, and everyone who doesn’t accept that is wrong. Signs include blame, excuses, long justifications, no genuine apologies, double standards, negligence, whining, or creating distractions.

4. Inconsistency

In one sense, toxic people are the most consistent people there are because they will invariably side with their own best interest and see no need to change. It’s just that they dress their self-interest up in other garbs that makes them seem completely unreliable. There is no need to uphold a principle they don’t really have when it ceases to be of any benefit. A refusal to provide a needed home improvement may be dismissed as too expensive while equivalent funds are being frittered away on some needless hobby. It appears economy is a valued principle, when it only disguises control. So a boundary or ideal established at one time may or may not be upheld another. And this is chaos, because you never really know where you stand or what the true motivation is.

5. Abuse of Social Cues

Toxic people are often completely unresponsive to social cues, particularly on an individual basis. Your discomfort, hesitation, or even blatant hints may be completely ignored, dismissed- or worse, exploited. Yet toxic people freely pour out their social cues: their opinions and feelings command the scene. By dominating the emotional climate, they can more easily sway support to their own agenda. Warning signs are drama, attention seeking, domination, and avoidance of situations that they cannot use to their benefit.

But ultimately, toxicity must be determined by you. Like exposure to toxic fumes, the effect of exposure to toxic people varies somewhat from person to person. Those who have more distant contact, greater resistance/stamina, lower frequency of interaction, strong outside support, or less at stake may not even notice the poison. But if you are getting sick from it (even if no one else is), the relationship is toxic. Do as much as you can to get out and go somewhere where you can breathe!


To Judge or Not to Judge

Possibly our first obstacle to overcome is our reluctance to judge. There are Biblical imperatives such as “Do not judge or you too will be judged.” There’s the uncertainty of true motivations and perhaps confusion about what is actually happening in the first place. There’s the very real possibility of becoming a hypocrite, and there’s generally a noticeable lack of clear, concrete evidence. Any one of these could prove enough reason to ride out the unpleasantness… There just isn’t enough to raise a fuss and be believed.

But we are told,”Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you.” (Matthew 7:6) We cannot determine when and where to invest our pearls if we cannot first identify the dogs and swine. Paul advises, “Test everything. Hold onto what is good. Avoid every evil.” (1 Thessalonians 5:21) Proverbs is full of advice on how to deal with the foolish and wicked. But how can we even begin if were are forbidden to judge?! Clearly that is not what we are called to. We are called to judge. We need to know who to trust, where we should be on our guard, what can be believed. We do not judge to condemn but judge to protect (Is this a threat to what is good, right, and true?) or judge to evaluate (How can this be made better?). It needs to be done with fairness, wisdom, objectivity, and without a personal agenda. But judge we must.

As for the hidden dynamics and true motivation, we are not omniscient and cannot know. But as a tree is known by its fruit, we can measure general goodness by general outcomes. What is the behavior producing: fear or joy, burdens or blessings? Humanly, we cannot see why, but we can see what and how. This is where we need to pay attention and take heed to what we find. A bad road inevitably leads to a bad end and reveals bad roots.

The tactics toxic people use are generally innocent in themselves. It’s when they are misused that they become harmful. But then hypocrisy becomes a sticking point. “What right do I have to point out something he’s doing when I do do the same thing?” Only it usually isn’t to the same measure– persistence versus harassment, explanations versus excuses, persuasion versus coercion. You enter the dangerous waters of splitting hairs. Where exactly the line is is confusing and gives good cause for doubt, even if our gut is screaming that something is not right. It’s worth a look. Only if you are continually questioning this with an individual, there are likely deeper issues– and they are not with you. There are not so many grey areas naturally in life. Someone is muddying the waters.

As for the evidence, it will always be unclear. If it weren’t, toxic people would be obvious, and there would come to be some restraint established to curb their damage. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t very real. Trust the proddings of the Holy Spirit over the persuasive arguments and strong emotions. Dig a little deeper if your gut is telling you that something is not right. This is not something you need to justify to anyone else just now, even if they think you should. With toxicity: Better safe than sorry.

Judge we should, judge we must– justly and for good cause.

David and Saul

This is the ultimate toxic person story: David– well-meaning, honorable, upright, and good– versus Saul– impulsive, unstable, insecure, and jealous.

David has a strong faith and understanding of God. He has been anointed and the Holy Spirit clearly works through him. His heartfelt psalms and victories over the Philistines attest to his sincere devotion to the Lord. And he is commended as being one after God’s own heart. Yet despite all that, toxicity thoroughly invades his life.

He is first introduced to Saul as his king. The position Saul has over David is one of authority– Saul deserves respect because he has been anointed by God Almighty and he has power over the people of Israel. David is obligated to being his subject, a role he undertakes with all that is in him. He gives up everything he has known for the greater good of serving Israel (and hence God) by serving the king. His whole-hearted devotion is widely recognized and respected. People notice that he is serving sincerely and well. This begins as just playing the harp and then continues by endangering his life time and time again in risky battles against the Philistines. David is all-in.

Not so Saul. He meets David when he’s looking for relief from his own torment. And David’s devotion, energy, and power of the Holy Spirit do offer some relief. So he keeps him around. Though not great, the soothing mechanism offers Saul just enough relief to remain unmotivated to change, despite the glaring warning signs. Then David proves valuable in another way: military leadership. So Saul uses him against his external enemies also. Battle after impossible battle, David return victorious. And the people rejoice. This attention then excites another beast inside of Saul: jealousy. Now Saul is torn– David is both an asset and a liability. Saul wants to keep him for the good he does and wants him dead for how he makes Saul feel.

So for years, David teeter-totters between loyal patriot/son-in-law/mighty hero and traitor/outlaw/vagabond. How he is, where he stands, what he is able to do are all dictated by the unpredictable, irrational whims of Saul. And it is maddening.

Every minor misjudgment, David (and those who help him) suffer serious consequences (1 Samuel 21-22). So he has to alienate himself from his family for their own protection (1 Samuel 22:1). He has the strongest human advocate defending his innocence, to no avail (1 Samuel 20:32). And every tremendous act of faith and courage might offer a temporary truce but does nothing in the long-run (1 Samuel 24). His life, his skills, his investments are all sucked dry.

Saul is a powerful man. David has done nothing wrong, except perhaps inadvertently link his lot to a toxic man and excite his hatred. (Far more, it is a hatred of Saul for himself, yet it manifests itself as a relentless manhunt for not only an innocent man but also his most loyal subject.) His intensions were pure. There is no reason, no sense, no justice about it. It is madness shielded by power, and that is terrorizing.

Ultimately David is not freed from the terror until Saul is dead. Yet even then, David morns his loss. The good that could have been was never embraced, the snippets of regret never went anywhere, the potential was completely wasted on an unreasonable obsession. Despite Saul’s cruelty, David loved him still, and that is the sharpest sting of toxic people.

The Exodus, Part I: Moses

Moses’ experience with toxicity was different from David’s. He was raised in an atmosphere that encouraged the development of an entitlement mentality. If he didn’t experience it directly growing up, he was certainly exposed to the attitudes that laid the foundation for the toxicity of Pharaoh. In such an upbringing, it is normal that there are “special people” who are above, if not law and justice, fairness and reason. Additionally, the Egyptian belief that Pharaoh was a god-type reconfirmed this. It was understood that those who were not special would be expected to adjust to those who were. Backed by power, tradition, religious beliefs, and success, their philosophy appeared very solid. It was just the way it was.

Despite this indoctrination and the bonus lure of wealth and importance, Moses’ real mother managed to help awaken his conscience. Moses began to see the injustice behind the pomp. Righteous indignation roused him to do something about it– which was quite a feat in itself. He would be defying his adoptive family, the ingrained mentality of those around him (if not his own), and a major world power. Defiance not only looked pretty futile but all the internal obstacles he must have had to overcome to commit to it were no less impressive. If he thought he could rally the support of the oppressed Israelites, he quickly learned otherwise. So his own attempt at heroism ended in fleeing for his life. The tremendous internal struggle did end in complete futility. Good did not triumph over evil.

Defeated and disenchanted, Moses settled into a new life– eventually becoming contented with his own relief and convinced that he was helpless to do more. His attitude is a common one for those who have been raised in toxicity: “It’s no use fighting it, just endure what you must and keep your distance.” So when Moses is recruited by God to free the Israelites, he resists. He knows all too well that no amount of eloquence, reason, or appeal will break Pharoah’s will…and he is right.

But going back to Egypt strictly in obedience, Moses approaches the problem with more strategy and support the second time. Somewhere between the burning bush and his reunion with Pharaoh, Moses’s confidence in God and himself is completely transformed. (Time away from the attitude that “cruelty is normal”, committed support, and reconfirmations of God’s will likely all contributed to his heightened boldness– which is a good lesson for us.) This turned out to be vital because opposition was about to awaken with violent tenacity. And by first appearances, God had sent him on a fool’s errand. Pharaoh didn’t listen, and then there was his wrath to pay: same quota of bricks without straw. The unbearable became impossible. Things were not going well, just as Moses had foreseen.

Boldness, appeal to God’s authority, and a toned-down request would not break Pharaoh’s will. He was determined to have his way. Going back after such defeat, with further demands and ultimatums, must have been a remarkable act of faith for Moses. Even the powerful signs God sent to prove His power seemed weak indeed: The rod into a serpent was matched, the water into blood was too. Pharaoh still would not listen, not to the words and not to the signs. Moses wasn’t really gaining any ground at this point.

But gradually after that, God’s power came through. The plagues began to take their toll. Real damage was being done, directly because of Pharaoh’s stubbornness and clearly by God’s doing. Though it broke the will of nearly every other Egyptian, Pharaoh’s heart remained hard. Tremendous suffering would not break his will. As long as Pharaoh got back to his point of control, it did not matter what means he had used to get there. Moses had not been mistaken in the least by the nature of the man.

Pharaoh would continue to openly defy God’s greatest, predicted, and repeated demonstrations of His sovereignty. Yet with reality playing out so obviously, the truth was clear (at least to everyone else). Moses’ fear turned to frustration. He came back to his original conclusion: this man was best avoided entirely.

Even with the death of his son, Pharaoh’s submission was but short-lived. God had done tremendous miracles to open a brief gap of time to free His people… after all that struggle, they still had to flee in hasty trepidation. And Moses, a great man of God, was left with tremendous responsibility, no significant honor, and plenty of undeserved blame. I’m sure there were times when he wished that he had never encountered that burning bush… but at least they were free from the toxicity.

The Exodus, Part II: Pharaoh

Pharaoh falls into the narcissistic category of toxic people. Basically that means they have a mental bent towards rewriting reality. They are determined to make truth something else than what it really is. They are illusionists. Done poorly, it is absurd. Done well, it is paralyzing.

Studying Pharaoh can give us some good insight into narcissistic behavior, and later (what we really want to know), how God-fearing people ought to deal with it. In general, they hold a position of authority. Usually they charm/talk their way there, but in Pharaoh’s case, it was likely handed to him. Once there, there is a growing ruthlessness in the use of their authority– overtly or covertly. People serve him out of conscious or subconscious fear. This then means power, which is unashamedly used to promote his own version of reality. Hitler and the Holocaust depicts this all too clearly.

In the end (where they really are heading you), there are no scruples. Any means to his end are perfectly acceptable. Integrity and dignity are not issues, though he likely led you to believe they were the entire reason for you to join the fight. You are a pawn to uphold the illusion that his reality is alright (just ignore the indignities and suffering).

NARCISSISTIC NATURE OF PHARAOH

  1. Finds reasons to dismiss the miracles (Ex. 7:11, 7:22, 8:7)
  2. Asks for favors under pretense of honoring/fearing God (Ex. 8:8, 10:16)
  3. Does not keep his word (Ex. 8:14, 8:32, 9:35)
  4. Ignores experienced opinions (Ex. 8:19, 10:7)
  5. Makes bargains he doesn’t intend to keep (Ex. 8:28)
  6. Looks for evidence only to support his own stand (Ex. 9:7)
  7. Replaces what he lost without concern (likely at the expense of the Israelites) (Ex. 9:19)
  8. Makes a pretense of repentance (Ex. 9:27)
  9. Surrounds himself with people who tell him what he wants to hear (Ex. 9:34)
  10. Tries bargaining, hair-spliitting, and bold claims (Ex. 8:25, 8:28, 10:10, 10:24)
  11. Accuses Moses of the evil and deceit (Ex. 10:11)
  12. Refuses to humble himself (Ex. 10:3)
  13. Runs hot and cold (Ex. 10:16-20)
  14. Makes empty ultimatums/threats (Ex. 10:28)
  15. Ignores the increasing severity of consequences (Ex. 11:9)
  16. Begs (Ex. 12:32)
  17. Changes his mind (Ex. 12:31, 14:5)

He lives in a reality of his own creation, where the force of facts and reason do not reach without tremendous lose, almost always at the greater expense of others. Offering mercy (more for the sake of everyone else) just gives him relief to boomerang back to cruel control. Impossible toxicity! No wonder injustice can prevail for so long: it’s easier to appease him than oppose him.

For look, the wicked bend their bows; they set their arrows against the strings to shoot from the shadows at the upright in heart. When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do? ~Psalm 11:2-3

Nabal and Abigail

Nabal represents another type of toxic person: the unwise master. Again thriving in his authority by generating fear, his decisions are based more on his mood than on reason (good or bad). Unlike the nature of wickedness, which is purposely destructive, this is the nature of foolishness, whose thoughts are but shallow. The wake of chaos this creates is then left for others to remedy.

Abigail must have been well-accustomed to this, for she acts immediately, without hesitation in averting the crisis with the angry David. A few things to note:

  1. She relied on her own judgment based on a reliable report. (She knew there was no point in trying to reason with her husband beforehand.)
  2. She was generous with the resources she had, though she could not give them exactly what they wanted.
  3. She humbled herself and was grateful (Which Nabal refused to do.)
  4. She did not cover up Nabal’s foolish nature once he had clearly revealed it himself.

Abigail acts with swiftness and prudence to prevent a disaster, likely more for the sake of the servants. While Nabal himself might fully deserve the punishment David and his men were going to dole out, the rest of them did not. By protecting the servants from harm, she was also shielding Nabal. In the long run (which had likely been the case here), the unwise master can begin to believe that his behavior is entirely acceptable because he never has to suffer any painful consequences personally. Abigail’s heroic protection of the innocent then enables the fool and allows him to become even more ingrained in his ways.

While prevention of one disaster is a great blessing, the source of the ongoing problem still remains. Those under the arbitrary dictates of an unwise master live in fear of the unforeseeable consequences because someday, they will not be able to divert the disaster in time. Prevention will fail, and they will suffer harsh consequences caused by a foolish leader. Not only is this anticipation agonizing, knowing that the protecting/enabling dynamics are only heightening the severity of the inevitable terror is even worse.

Toxic people shamelessly feed off of the nobel sacrifices of those around them.

Abigail does attempt to address this, but Nabal is too engrossed in his own self-indulgence to understand or care. If God had not intervened the way He did, Abigail might have been forced to pull out as many innocents as she could and then allow the natural consequences to fall justly where they were deserved. Sometimes God rescues swiftly, but like Moses, sometimes we must initiate the withdrawal. Distance or death are often the only hope of relief. Either way, it will still be messy and we’ll need supernatural help every step.