Embracing Christ as your refuge and cultivating healthy relationships

A conversation with Ellen Mary Dykas about "Toxic Relationships"

July 5, 2021

Loving relationships possess great potential. When healthy and lively, they produce some of the sweetest joys of the human experience. But when they go awry, they can leave us with confusion, disappointment, and deep hurt. 

While “our desire for satisfying and loving relationships is a good one,” given by God, “God never intended for us to turn other people into our primary refuge or home,” says Ellen Mary Dykas. She is the author of a new book titled Toxic Relationships: Taking Refuge in Christ, a 31-day devotional written to help readers “strengthen their relationship with Christ and cultivate godly relationships with others from a place of confidence and peace.” 

If you find yourself in a place where your relationships have gone askew, this book is a resource that will help you set them aright. For more about Toxic Relationships, you can read the conversation we shared with Dykas below.

How would you define a toxic relationship? What is it that makes a relationship toxic or unhealthy?

The idea of something being toxic is that it has become polluted or intruded upon by influences that don’t belong there. In this sense, when sinful dynamics and motivations are the fuel for a relationship, it’s become toxic with sin. My devotional book focuses on relationships that exhibit codependency or idolatrous desires and demand that someone be for us what only God can rightly be. Spouses make wonderful spouses, but lousy mini-messiahs; friends can be a joy and comfort but were never meant to replace Christ in our life. Parent-child relationships are a beautiful way to understand the heart of God for his children, and how children are meant to flourish under a parent’s love, but even family relationships shouldn’t be our source of ultimate identity and worth. 

When we look to a person and what we get from our relationship with them as our source of living water and daily bread, we’re in a danger zone, and idolatry is at play most likely. David said in Psalm 16:1-2, “Preserve me, O God, for in you I take refuge. I say to the Lord, ‘You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you.’” Toxic relationships happen when we insert a person’s name into this beautiful promise, and take God’s out, or move it to the sideline.

In the early pages of the book, you encourage your reader to “engage the journey (toward relational health) with faith-fueled realism.” What do you mean by this? Why is it important?

Faith-fueled realism keeps us grounded in our human frailty and God’s amazing grace and power. Faith in Christ and the transformation, which comes through the gospel, IS our inheritance. Yet, while we continue to contend with our sin nature and the powers of darkness, the process of becoming more like Jesus, and relationally healthy and holy, is a long one — a lifelong trajectory of dependence on God as we look to him rather than his creation for purpose and identity. I need a realistic view of my process, anchored completely in the truth of who God is. That is faith-fueled realism.

The book is very practical. In it, you urge readers to fast, to read Scripture daily, to engage in reflection, and to actually perform certain actions, all of which are intended to help them “grow toward relational wholeness.” Why are all these practices so integral to achieving the relational wholeness that you speak of?

I love this question! We need biblical truth to anchor us and practical application of that truth to send it into our lives. Sometimes when we want to grow as Christians we get started in the right direction: we aim to learn new things, understand our hearts more deeply, discern our motivations and how we’ve been off track through sin or foolishness. However, growth happens as the Spirit changes our hearts and we respond by faith with active repentance. I’m hopeful that my devotional book guides readers in steps of discipleship for the heart and then active steps to take at the street level of life.  

Clearly, you structured your book and its major sections intentionally. Can you talk about that? Why, for instance, do you begin with God as our refuge before you discuss the “how-to’s” of relational health?

Good catch; I did indeed organize the sections very intentionally. Let’s be honest that most of us, when facing a sin struggle, usually look for a quick and easy way out; we want to be fixed and cured. In the intro to my book I wrote, “The first section of devotional readings offers you an opportunity to engage in a weeklong fast from having your thoughts preoccupied by any one person or relational situation. If you really—I mean really—want to grow towards relational wholeness, you need to freshly focus on the one who truly meets your needs: God himself!” (p 12). 

I wanted to invite the reader to focus on God, then go on to Section 2 which leads us to a deeper understanding of how toxic codependency starts; why do some of us wrestle with this? Section 3 follows with practical steps to start taking that lead toward freedom. Then I wanted to finish out the months’ worth of readings with a deep immersion in the person of Jesus, our True Refuge. This is not a devotional that focuses 31 days’ worth of reading on your problems and how to quickly solve them. Rather (I hope!), it gently guides the reader through a process that I’ve found is most helpful in breaking these kinds of patterns in our relationships.

In your section titled “The Foundation of Toxic Relationships,” you cover several “roots” that often lead to unhealthy relationships. What foundations or roots, would you say, are the most common?

Of the several I cover, two rise up as common across the boards: unbelief and pain. Unbelief because we just don’t believe what the scriptures teach about God and how people are meant to be enjoyed, loved, and experienced under the loving lordship of Christ. Perhaps someone has never been taught this, or ever seen it modeled. Desires can be a powerful motivator to believe what we want to about people, and a common temptation is to insist that people effectively be a Jesus-replacement in our lives. 

However, I want to quickly address that pain is a common foundation as well. Suffering in this world wounds, breaks, and shapes us. Abandonment, abuse, betrayal, and loss are ‘educators’ which influence what we believe about life, people, and ourselves. When a biblical worldview isn’t in the mix it would be expected that we develop thinking and patterns of life based on what feels good to us, what seems to protect and provide for us. Our world of relationships is a common target for misguided hopes, desires, and the deep healing of heartache that only Christ can accomplish.

Can our poor foundation be repaired? How?

Yes, through the heart transformation and healing that only Christ can bring! When Jesus began his public ministry (see Luke 4:16-20), he quoted Isaiah 61, a messianic passage, and claims to be the Messiah. Jesus alone can do more than “repair” but radically remake our hearts into something new, whole, forgiven, and free. The process of faith + humility + dependence + active steps of change leads to new fruit bearing out of our lives, including in our world of relationships. 

What role does/should the spiritual family, the church, play in our pursuit of relational health?

I’ll quote from my book as this is an important topic for me: 

“Relationships within the body of Christ, through local churches, are crucial for our growth as followers of Jesus. God has no only children; you have many brothers and sisters, and it’s important to proactively pursue relationships centered on the gospel through a community of faith” (p. 49). 

A family of believers with whom we ‘do life’ allows us to be known, loved, and encouraged in specific ways. The process of disentangling yourself from a codependent relationship is not only painful and messy, but a long process (usually). God has provided others to guide and support us as we seek to grow new patterns of relationship; it’s crucial to have ‘on the ground’ journey companions to keep us moving forward.

When pursuing relational health, one of your encouragements for the reader is to “live hidden in plain sight.” What do you mean by that?

Colossians 3:1-4 says that through our union with Jesus we are in fact “hidden” in him. I’ve pondered recently how our relationship with him can’t be posted on social media, or made visible in and of itself. It’s mysterious, spiritual, and hidden as Christ has made his home in us and we abide in him through the power of the Spirit (see John 15:1-11). Our common temptation is to seek to hide ‘in’ a person, rather than in Christ, effectively attempting to make that person our home. 

As rich and deep as our relationships with people can be, the closest friendship and the most intimate and one-flesh marriage relationship are only a shadow or taste of our union with Jesus. The fruits of our oneness with Christ are indeed visible as the life of Christ bears out of us in loving deeds and a lifestyle of faith. To live hidden in plain sight, then, is to actively engage relationships with people through our close relationship with Jesus. We let people off the hook for being our life source and draw from the hidden, yet very real, intimacy we share with Christ.

The book’s final section centers on the person of Jesus and who he is for the believer. What role does meditating on Jesus play in our pursuit of relational health?

Meditating on Jesus is a way we not only think about Jesus (with the mind of Christ! 1 Cor 2:16) but a pathway with which we commune with him. Isn’t this amazing?! We can meditate, fantasize, or daydream about a person but we’re not communing with a person through those practices. We are separate from people but united through Christ alone. Like the branches in John 15 making a home in the True Vine of Christ, we are knit together through the life of Christ in all of us. Codependent relationships seek a direct union with a person, which depends on what we get or give in the relationship, rather than “Christ between us.” So, as we meditate on Christ, we allow his truth to have a home in us (Col. 3:16), and we set him apart as Lord over all of our relationships. Jesus is then central and supreme (Col. 1:16-18) over the relationship, rather than the relationship being our lord.

For readers who find themselves in a toxic relationship, what do you hope this book accomplishes for them? How would you encourage them moving forward?

My hope is that any reader who is in the throes of a toxic mess will be comforted, coached, and challenged through this devotional. Truly, as I have experienced the anguish of these messy entanglements, I know how much shame and hopelessness can overwhelm a person’s heart. Christ does not shame you for your relationship struggles but invites you to take a bold step away and out of what is not of him. God’s Word may not have the exact vocabulary for what we call things now, like ‘codependency,’ but his wisdom touches all areas of our human life. He knows we are prone to make idols of his greatest gifts, including people. For this Christ came, to set you free and call you to let go, surrender, and to pray Phillippians 2:13, that you would be willing to have your desires and will changed. You may feel terrified to let go of a relationship as it is; Jesus is with you in it and will not disappoint or fail you. Take a step to look to him, ask a fellow believer for help, and trust that your obedience will bear fruit. You can trust him to carry and bear this burden for you (Psa. 68:19-20).

Jordan Wootten

Jordan Wootten serves as a News and Culture Channel Editor at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and a writer/editor at RightNow Media. He's a board member at The LoveX2 Project, an organization seeking to make the world a better place for moms and babies. Jordan is a graduate of … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24