Laban

Laban (curiously “Nabal” backwards) is an oily, cheating figure. He seems normal and reasonable at first, but the longer one deals with him, the more one wishes that one didn’t have to. While he does nothing overtly wicked, his actions consistently lack integrity, fairness, or consideration for others. He is out to get the best for himself, only he knows that he needs people around to feed him– so he can’t completely drive them away with undisguised avarice. People must think he is decent. These types flirt with outright cruelty but know that they don’t have the luxury to go there. This toxicity relies heavily upon coercion and manipulation, and the victims most often are closest family. The fronts they present are not at all reality, but just a tall tale designed to get you to buy into a scam. You can be sure that whatever he is trying to sell you will benefit him far more than yourself. (Alas, even if you know this, blood is thicker than water and letting it slide is often the only realistic option. Even if you object, the result generally end up the same.)

Laban gives us a peek at this when he takes charge of family affairs even while his father is still living. He is the one who pursues the servants of the wealthy suitor, even taking credit for making preparations for them personally. (Genesis 24:29-31) Subtle but significant. But it becomes more and more clear later with the loaded bargains and unspoken caveats he presses onto Jacob.

Surely after seven years of living in a culture, Jacob would have keyed in on the “tradition” of marrying the oldest daughter off first. But no such hint was given, Jacob was deceived, fed a shallow excuse which he now felt obligated to keep since he was in too deep to get out without shame, pain, and the risk of losing his beloved Rachel. Undoubtedly Laban knew Jacob, fearing his brother, had no where else to go either. So he took advantage. Not only marrying his daughters off to the heir of a rich relative, but in getting as much cheap labor as he could. Laban makes a generous offer by asking Jacob how he can pay him, agrees to the suggestion, and then immediately hides what Jacob requested among his sons’ possessions. So now, skating out of paying him, Laban (probably more significantly) is in the position to keep Jacob poor and dependent. From what Jacob says later on, this kind of behavior was very typical. Laban was a cheat.

Jacob gradually catches on and responds with shrewdness. When meekness fails, this is what the human nature often resorts to: secret resistance. Jacob, force to accept unfair terms, tries to find a way around the injustice– which is often the case with manipulative relationships. While his methods were questionable, ultimately God’s hand worked some justice for him.

Eventually Jacob is financially stable enough and is told to leave. As with most others under controlling toxic webs of manipulation, Jacob does not feel that he can leave without sneaking out. Anyone struggling to uncover the multiple layers of ulterior motives, false pretense, coy tricks, and smooth talk knows that discussion and appealing to reason get you nowhere. The more warning you give them, the more chance they have to concoct some trap to keep you stuck. They are not interested in helping you achieve anything objectively good; it’s all about entangling you deeper for their own interests. Better to avoid the tangling and leave without warning or explanation!

Even his fears of Esau’s sworn mortal revenge were more promising than dealing with Laban. Jacob faces his fears and breaks free… to his relief, and frankly, to the relief of the reader too. Even hearing about it is disturbing.

But leaving did not solve everything. Jacob and Leah would struggle the rest of their lives with the repercussions of Laban’s meanness. Duty at the hand of deceit is devastating.

Evil has no conscience, no code of conduct, no respect, no limit. It can shamelessly destroy and devour while portraying itself as innocent– compelling the victimized to stay silent. It easily shifts roles, forms, tones just to achieve its own end (viz. to kill, steal, and destroy). Instinctively, it preys on your weakness, and once it has gotten ahold, exploits and exploits and exploits. It is bold, relentlessly cruel, and never satisfied. Stay away or be prepared for a fight!

Ahab and Jezebel

Elijah, another Old Testament powerhouse, balked heads with the toxic rulers of Israel, Ahab and Jezebel. Actually, they had probably crossed the line from toxic to evil long before their inauguration (1 Kings 21:25), but their story does give us some insight into its dangers:

  1. Toxicity often worsens with each generation when no one steps in to stop it. (1 Kings 16:30)
  2. Triumphant evil makes people question what is good. It make us doubt and question what is true. (1 Kings 18:21)
  3. The union of two who are evil is very strong.
  4. Desperation does drive them to pockets of regret (1 Kings 21:27), but these are not enough grounds for any kind of trust.

Ahab and Jezebel ruled for a long time. Their tyranny weighed heavily on the people, who had to suffer both in mind and body for the wickedness of their leaders. Elijah was one of the few who dared to speak up against them, and even his success-though dramatic and hugely miraculous- was but tepid.

Evil is a hard nut to crack and it always costs much. That’s why it is easier to leave it well alone. But that will lead to a very dark future indeed. In fighting it though, there are a few keys to remember from Elijah’s experience:

  1. You need to stay in careful step with the leadings of the Holy Spirit. (You’re not going to be able to do this alone.)
  2. You will have to resort to shrew measures. (1 Kings 18:3-4)
  3. Focus on the pocket miracles. They are personal reassurances of God’s continued attention. (1 Kings 17) You need them, so do not dismiss them.
  4. Tremendous demonstrations of truth will likely still be ignored. Hard hearts will find a way to dismiss the clearest of truths. If you’re expecting a change of heart from the source by your climatic demonstration, you will be disappointed. Maybe even depressed. The demonstration is for those who honestly want to find truth, not for those who have already shamelessly rejected it.

Toxicity left to itself will grow into a monstrous evil, until death is its only cure. Dare to rise up to resist it instead!

Evil has no conscience, no code of conduct, no respect, no limit. It can shamelessly destroy and devour while portraying itself as innocent– compelling the victimized to stay silent. It easily shifts roles, forms, tones just to achieve its own end (viz. to kill, steal, and destroy). Instinctively, it preys on your weakness, and once it has gotten ahold, exploits and exploits and exploits. It is bold, relentlessly cruel, and never satisfied. Stay away or be prepared for a fight!

Other Toxic Individuals

Gibeonites

Relying on lies and deceit, they trick Joshua into believing that they live far away. Joshua, happy to extend mercy in the midst of steady decimation, readily agrees– only too readily. And so he makes a pledge, which he is now bond to keep, even though it was gained under false pretenses.

Toxic people, void of a healthy conscience, have no problem playing off of yours. Though Joshua scrambles to control some of the damage by establishing firm boundaries, he is still stuck. The harm has been done. Torn between keeping his word and keeping Israel free and pure, he ultimately chooses faithfulness. He is divided and likely tormented while the true villains sail along happily, taking full advantage of their stolen privileges, and oblivious to the tension and mistrust they have created. Misplaced mercy wrecks havoc.

Haman

Again, an illustration of a toxic person who is shrewd and ambitious. (Their plots are well-planned and purposeful.) Using his influence and trust of the king, Haman procures the power to enact a horrific massacre of all Jews just to satisfy his personal resentment of one man’s attitude. Yet the madness is ever-dressed in more reasonable justifications. It is vital that no one of significance looks any deeper into the situation, so he keeps those over him preoccupied with other things. Then they will not guess his true motivation.

Meanwhile, his opinion of himself grows into an oblivious blindness. In this case, his foolishness weakens his shrewdness, and through the courage of Esther’s speaking up, truth was revealed and believed. (Not always the case…) His plans were undone. And he meets his end justly, but not without fair warning either. The humiliation of parading Mordecai around with high praise strengthens his resolve to get revenge rather than alerting him to his obsessive behavior. What was offered as a merciful warning was rejected in disgust. And that rejection cost him everything. If all such immovable toxicity ended so happily!

Herod

Herod illustrates the root of insecurity behind most toxic behavior. On the throne, precariously ruling by permission of the ruthless Roman Empire, he wants to keep his power. So even the rumor of another king being born arouses his fears, and he does his research. (There is nothing impulsive about his behavior.) Ironically, his faith in the veracity of Scripture drives him to try to foil God’s plan. (Toxic people frequently display this confusing inconsistency of virtue mixed with vice. They recognize truth, but it terrifies them, so they resort to trying to destroy it.) It threatens his control enough for him to deceive the Magi, claiming loyalty while harboring hatred in his heart.

Once he realizes that he has been thwarted though, all restraint is abandoned. (“Letting things go” is unnatural to toxic people.) He orders a massacre, indifferent to the inhumanity or irrationality of such an action. And so innocent families are devastated.

It is well to note that even God’s answer to this madness was to stay far away from Herod’s dominion until he was dead. A fact we too should take to heart.

Pharisees

Intelligent. Educated. Powerful. Revered. They knew the law (and by implication, supposedly God’s will). The Pharisees had studied; they had answers for nearly everything; they exuded an air of confidence and piety. They knew they had influence, both over the people, and by extension, with the government. And they were fully prepared to use it as necessary.

In Scripture, Jesus has no bones to pick with anyone else. Adulterers, prostitutes, Roman officials, tax collectors, “cursed” invalids, “impure” Samaritans, even Judas His betrayer- He reaches His heart out to them all. But not to the Pharisees. Outwardly it would seem that they, of all people, ought to be extolled by God for honoring His Word, yet they are the ones repeatedly and thoroughly rebuked. Why?

Because “There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.” (Prov. 14:12) Jesus saw beyond the surface and it was ugly. Arrogance, pride, indulgence, abuse, yet they were using God’s Word to cover or even justify it. And that was an intolerable slander of the Lord’s reputation and all that His sheep were trying to understand of the Father. God is not good only superficially; He is good through and through.

The Pharisees do offer something positive (which is how they can maintain the illusion). They did know the law and had put considerable study into its implications. They endeavored to preserve a culture, a religion, and a people in the midst of Roman indoctrination and domination. By comparison to their immoral and polytheistic rulers, they were a pillar. But they were not quite good. The mentality of holding fast, playing shrewdly, and being suspicious of change may have been working to survive the Roman occupation, but it did not leave them open to God Incarnate. Their ideas– set and reaffirmed over years of effectiveness– were not prepared to be shaken, no matter how many proofs might attest to their error. Anyone not conforming to their ways was a threat to be “handled”. And so they carefully observe (but not to see), question (but not to understand), and scheme against (but not for justice) Jesus. Full of superficial excuses and explanations to dismiss Jesus’ popularity and miracles, they hammer away at their own agenda without considering what might be true. Blinded, they would use everything in their power to protect their own interests and ideas. If fighting for good, it is noble. But when fighting against it, it is certainly toxic, if not outright evil.

And towards the Jewish masses, they is no real partiality either. They burden them with spurious laws and rituals- not because they were useful for upholding the Scripture, but to make themselves look holier by comparison to everyone else’s “failures”. Already oppressed and many struggling with poverty, the average Jew was additionally overloaded with the emotional weight of guilt and shame. The blame was not always spoken but it was always felt- turning health into sickness, enthusiasm into obligation, mercy into judgment – until every Jew was either pathetically inadequate or grossly rebellious. (Unless, of course, they joined the elitist Pharisees to dish out the judgment.) When the people needed the support and guidance of their religious leaders, those very leaders were only using them for their own ends.

Toxicity is cruelty disguised by mental games, played off of trust or ignorance or weakness, and always costing the emotional well-being of its victims. No wonder Jesus left no room for it. Tolerating it only feeds the problem. The only way is to root it out and condemn it.

No Shortage of Toxicity

So toxic people are rampant and have been for a very long time. From our examples, the main thrust is to watch out and avoid them as much as possible– the more powerful and unreasonable, the more imperative it is to keep your distance. But when you can’t, they need to be investigated, exposed, and rebuked in no uncertain terms. Ugly motivation deserves no respect.

While seemingly contrary to our command to love one another and to love our enemies, boundaries are in no way unbiblical. They are necessary. Walls secure what is precious and vulnerable from dangers on the outside–dangers that need to stay positively on the outside. Be suspicious of Trojan Horses, ask the necessary questions (however much it may “cause offense”), require proof of trustworthiness, uphold the standard.

Our perfect example, Christ, illustrate this well. Though this aspect of His character is often down-played or disregarded (and not likely something He would demonstrate in heaven), it is very much a part of Who He is. The Gospel of John, the love gospel, is chock full of such confrontations of Jesus rising in battle against distorted truth and its purveyors. And Matthew 23 specifically addresses their underlying corruption in no uncertain terms.

Nehemiah (and Ezra) also leave us good principles to follow in facing opposition– sneaky, subtle, mean-spirited but fine-sounding or powerful attacks. Faced with difficult tasks and then bombarded with mind games and power plays, happily in the end, good won out for them. We have the advantage there because we know the ending. The present reality is not so certain. As discouraging as the journey is of standing steadily against the continual jibes of toxicity, stay the course. Eventually the ugliness will be revealed for what it is. But keep on your knees and linked to your healthy relationships, because the battle will take its toll. Alas, there is no other way to disarm emotional havoc-makers.

Identify them. Pray against it. Engage the fight. Act with purpose. Retreat to breathe. Return to stand.

Nehemiah’s Strategy

Nehemiah (& Ezra) give us good insight into the nature of toxic opposition and what our wise responses might look like. The attacks occur on two fronts: external and internal. The external, being more obvious, attack you from the outside, generally with threats. Nehemiah, armed with solid confidence, faces each of them well.

Nehemiah’s Opposition

1. Psychological Threats: mocking & ridicule (2:19) This brings your motives into question and is usually the first line of attack. Nehemiah appeals to God’s authority and essentially says “go away.”

2. Emotional Threats: criticism & insults (4:3-4) Nehemiah prays about it.

3. Social Threats: rallying support against you (4:1-3) Nehemiah keeps going.

4. Physical Threats: plots to fight & stir up trouble (4:8) Nehemiah prayed about it and posted guards, and formed a plan of aggressive offense, if needed.

5. Legal Threats: formal complaints to authorities. (Ezra 4-6) Ezra respectfully engages the debate.

These are perhaps the easy ones to face. They are external. But then evil becomes more sinister when the overt methods fail. They begin covert attacks on truth:

6. Diplomatic Deceit: appearing to be seeking peace (6:1-7) Nehemiah did not entertain their claims and eventually boldly denounced their lies.

7. Religious Deceit: seemingly good religious advice (6:10) Nehemiah came up with an excuse, but did not reveal his true suspicions.

8. Playing off of Others: using others people to unknowingly undermine you (6:17-19) Though there is no explicit statement of how Nehemiah dealt with this, undoubtedly he had to spend a good deal of time in thought and prayer sorting out the truth from the lies.

And then there are those internal attacks. The ones that penetrate into your spirit and begin to destroy from within:

9. Discouragement: waning strength & fear (4:10-12) Nehemiah reminds the people of God’s character, gives them a plan, and demonstrates it with his own faith and determination.

10. Corruption: internal injustices (5:1-6) Nehemiah stopped everything and addressed the issues directly & emphatically, revealing the gross hypocrisy, and required legal assurance of their new promises

In the end, God’s purposes won, but it didn’t seem likely along the journey. Evil will unashamedly attack you, your purpose, the truth, your motivations, your thoughts, your support– anything at all in any way at all to try to derail what good you are doing. In the face of such adversity, strategy and conviction are essential. Invest into them both!

Seven Woes

Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for seven hidden sins. They are by no means insignificant just because they are disguise or justified, but rather they are uglier because they are purposely guarded from the purifying sting of shame. The Pharisees had enthroned themselves as judges and insulated themselves from the very same judgment they freely doled out. Which makes them hypocritical– one of the main criticisms Jesus offers. The other main criticism has to do with creating illusions of their own goodness while harboring evil within. These two characteristics embody the very essence of narcissism.

Interestingly enough, Sandy Hotchkiss’s book, Why Is It Always About You?, talks about the seven deadly sins of narcissism: shamelessness, magical thinking, arrogance, envy, entitlement, exploitation, and bad boundaries. By-and-large, these parallel nearly perfectly to the rebukes of Matthew 23.

Shamelessness is laced throughout but particularly apparent in verses 29-32. They were not ashamed of what happened to the prophets, but rather made a production to draw attention to themselves. These claims are also just ungrounded conjecture, or magical thinking, as seen also in verses 16-22. Their way is right because of their methodology, regardless of any objective reasoning. Arrogance is found in verses 5-12 and again in 23-28, where they parade their own position and “purity”. Envy is shown by their behavior in verses 13-14. Narcissists will not hesitate to destroy others if they feel threatened by them being somehow “better”. Exploitation is in verses 4 and 15. They use others to make themselves look better. And bad boundaries are shown in verses 33-34. They freely take authority and make judgments that are beyond their jurisdiction.

In an effort to look good and maintain power, these people prey on others’ weaknesses. It is never really about objective goodness for all, strengthening the weak so that life can be universally better. It’s only about playing the system to stay on top, and keeping others feeding their power to keep them there. Ugly, evil hearts disguised in piety. Yet Jesus tells his disciples one of the hardest commands in facing this evil: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.” (v. 2-3) We are commanded to support them because of their role, while rejecting them because of their behavior. Which brings us back to the dilemma: how to separate the man from his actions?… Only piece by piece, case by case, with keen attention to the Holy Spirit.

The good news is that God is a God of justice. He sees all the underhanded tricks, even when no one else does. He hates His people being misused, and He despises one person exploiting another for their own gain. Justice is His passion and He promises, “Such men will be punished most severely.” (Mark 12:40) They are racking up a hefty judgment, worse than for a heinous crime. They will not go unpunished, but it is also not our place to punish. Until then, we must suffer from their blows, erect firm boundaries, and pray for justice to come swiftly.

Wheat & Tares

Jesus knew well the ugliness of deceit and toxic people. He had his share hunting him ever since he was an toddler. And He does not leave us without guidance, albeit perhaps not very satisfying.

In Matthew 13:24-33, we find the familiar parable of the wheat and weeds. Digging a little deeper, we find that the weeds in this parable are commonly known as bearded darnel. Living in farm country, I know there are other weeds that grow in a wheat field: ragweed, chicory, milkweed, etc. These other weeds look distinctly different from the wheat, even from early on. They can easily be recognized and pulled. They are not pretending to be anything other than the leeches that they are– so they are at least frank. Darnel is of another nature entirely.

Darnel looks like wheat, acts like wheat, intertwines its roots among the wheat. Growing and thriving amongst the wheat, it is nearly impossible to tell the difference, at first. So it peacefully lives, usurping the nutrients from the good crop, surviving only because it is masquerading as something good. While, in fact, it is really evil. Toxic in fact– literally. It is poisonous. But no one knows any difference until it fruits. The seeds are small and black, not plump and rich. And enough of them can make you very sick. In the end, they are separated only at harvest and thoroughly burnt so they do not propagate. Their purpose is to sneak their seeds in with the wheat again, so great care is taken to burn every seed. The evil must be checked.

Jesus’ message is clear: once they are established, leave the toxic people be. Yes, they will usurp your resources, they will waste your time, they will make a fool of you. Yes, it is unjust. Yes, it should not be. Yes, if it were another type of weed, it would have been pulled a long time ago. But it isn’t and now its roots are interlaced with our own, and separation would wreck so much havoc, there would be too much damage done. So they are left alone. Not nurtured, not wanted, not by any means good. Only tolerated to help protect what is good.

But we must remember, they are by nature evil and in the end, destined to be destroyed. Not by us, but by the Sovereign Judge. But they are eventually shown by their fruit– toxic fruit we must be aware or, watch out for, and meticulously keep separated from our lives before it can take root. Because once they are established, it is too late. We must only leave them be.

In practice, this is of course more of a challenge. When are we sifting out seeds and when are we trying to uproot whole plants? And sometimes, indeed we do need to pull up the weeds because there is almost no wheat there at all. But I think the key is that it is not ours to destroy, only to be alert. Alas, we are to do no more. Know the evil is there, do everything in your power to keep it out, and keep growing despite the ones that got through your watchful vigilance. You are not to blame because they got through, but you still must grow strong despite their efforts to weaken you. With God, all things are possible.