What Is Toxic?
I’ve seen and heard a word floating around increasingly the past couple of years describing others: toxic. It is used to describe friendships and romantic relationships and family dynamics. In essence, it’s another way of saying a relationship is really unhealthy or dangerous.
But here’s the problem: the definition of what a toxic person is varies wildly. There are actions—like abuse and manipulation—that everyone can agree are obvious outflows of a toxic heart, while the toxicity level of other traits is debatable. With so many different definitions of toxic people, the Word of God must be our standard for defining toxic relationships.
We’re All Toxic
The root of all toxic behavior is sin, which entered the world when the first man and woman rebelled against God (Genesis 3). Because we all come from them, we are born in sin with its poison infiltrating us to the core: anger, selfishness, pride, and so much more (Romans 3:23). In and of ourselves we are stuck in these with no hope of escape (Romans 7:24).
The only hope any of us have of being free from the toxin of sin is Jesus Christ. He shed his blood so that we could be saved from the power of sin and death (Romans 5:8). When we trust in him as our Savior, his righteousness becomes our righteousness, and God begins sanctifying us by his grace to become more and more like him (Romans 8:2). We have the ability to overcome these toxic attitudes and behaviors because of the indwelling Holy Spirit who is given to all God’s redeemed people.
Even though believers will be refined and changed in this life and we fight sin from a place of victory in Jesus, we won’t be completely rid of sin until we reach eternity with him. We’re stuck inside these “bodies of death” as Paul says in Romans 7:24, though toxic sin no longer rules over us if we are in Christ.
Those Not Fighting their Sin:
However, Scripture contains warnings about people who allow sin to have full reign in their lives. These are the kinds of people that will be extremely detrimental if we allow them to counsel and influence us. I believe they can truly be described as toxic, and we must be on guard against the influence of such people, even as we pray for them to turn in repentance to the truth.
God’s Word gives us helpful guidelines to identify people under the dangerous rule of sin’s toxicity:
A Heart Turning Away from the Lord
“Beware lest there be among you a man or woman or clan or tribe whose heart is turning away today from the LORD our God to go and serve the gods of those nations. Beware lest there be among you a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit.” (Deuteronomy 29:18)
Someone is questioning God or the validity of Scripture, and turning to philosophies of the world should raise a red flag in our minds. Their opinions may begin to affect us if we are willingly exposing ourselves to them over the course of time (see 1 Corinthians 15:33).
A Worldly Life
“But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler—not even to eat with such a one.…” (1 Corinthians 5:11)
The traits Paul mentions here are ones that we would expect to find in those who are not believers. But for those who truly claim the name of Christ, it should be our goal to battle sin instead of revel in it. If we are allowing people who love their sin to be speaking into our lives, truth will become hazy in our view, maybe enticing us to turn away altogether.
“Now I urge you, brethren, keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them.” (Romans 16:17)
Make note when someone’s life is marked by causing dissension and division, always wanting to argue about something and constantly in conflict with others. If this person is a believer, it’s usually an evidence that their focus and priority has been put on something other than Christ and will likely distract others, too. Christians are called to seek unity and peace with one another (Romans 12:18), and this is what should mark us.
A Prideful Heart
“In the pride of his face the wicked does not seek him; all his thoughts are, ‘There is no God.’” (Psalm 10:4)
Pride is the foundational, defining character trait of those who have hardened their hearts against God. In essence, they are saying, “I know better than God.” You can usually spot a prideful heart when someone begins questioning what is very clear in Scripture, or is unwilling to hear any other point of view than their own. They don’t submit to godly authority or allow others to speak into their lives.
The prideful person isn’t content to live in her pride alone, and will try to convince others of why her way is best. That is exactly why we need to be careful not to give such people a voice in our lives.
A Deceptive Speaker
“See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.” (Colossians 2:8)
Deception comes when people begin taking counsel from sources that contradict the Word of God, or from people who are not following him. If there is a person in your life who is continually seeking to get you to believe something that is not in accordance with Scripture—even in part—this is dangerous. It’s important for us to be grounded in the Word so we know how to discern right from wrong and truth from error.
“For there is no truth in their mouth; their inmost self is destruction; their throat is an open grave; they flatter with their tongue.” (Psalm 5:9)
This toxic trait often goes along with many of the previous traits. A flatterer is “a person who lavishes praise, often insincerely.” Have you ever been around a person who is oddly complementary to the point of excess? Toxic flatterers start off with smooth, feel-good words that end up drawing people into deceit.
How Do We Respond?
- Search the Scriptures. The more our minds and hearts are saturated in truth, the more quickly we will be able to spot spiritual danger and flee from it.
- Pray. Ask the Lord for wisdom in how to move forward in a way that will be best for you and most loving toward the other person (which may mean taking a step back). And pray for their eyes to be opened to the truth so that they will return to the straight and narrow path that leads to life (Matthew 7:14).
- Seek wise counsel. Ask a mature, godly person whether the things you are noticing are of concern, and if so, how to handle the relationship in a manner that is pleasing to the Lord.
- Confront with love and humility. If you are concerned about a brother or sister who is living in a way that is clearly toxic according to God’s Word, plead with them to repent.
- Be careful. If we know that someone is going down a destructive path, we have to listen to God’s Word over our emotions, be on guard, and set prudent boundaries. This needs to be done with wisdom and in love, but at times it must be done.
God has our very best in mind, and as we seek him he will lead us in the way we should go. He will give us insight into our relationships and will continually weed out the roots of toxicity in us as we submit ourselves to him. No one is beyond his ability to transform.
*For what a Toxic Relationship is not, read Part 2 available on Thursday.
Meet the Author:
Heather Cofer lives in Windsor, CO with her husband and four little kiddos. She is a writer for the ministry of Set Apart Girl and loves spending time doing life-on-life discipleship with other women. Her book Expectant: Cultivating a Vision for Christ-Centered Pregnancy released this year. She enjoys playing piano, modern calligraphy, sipping coffee with her husband, frost-covered trees, and laughter with friends. She has a heart for overseas missions, having grown up on the mission field (where she met her husband), and where both their parents still serve.