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).