Is there such a thing as a toxic relationship?
I mean, can a relationship be so tainted by selfishness, abuse, anger – any sin, really – that it has to be abandoned? Does God in extreme circumstances give us the latitude to just edit someone out of our lives?
Several readers asked me to address this idea following my last column about Christians bailing too readily on hard relationships. I contended then, and still do, that we have a tendency to ignore people who irritate us, banish those who offend us and generally avoid the hard work of peacemaking.
In some cases, it’s easier to bail on a relationship than it is to endure it. But that ignores God’s desire that we love our neighbor as ourselves, and selflessly pursue peace with others.
So at times we’re left looking for a loophole in God’s plan. We long to declare a relationship so polluted that it is in fact irreparable. We want out, and we want to feel good about it.
Before I dive into the question of toxic relationships, let me say that we’re wading into dark and deep waters here. I’ve heard from emotionally and physically abused spouses, rejected children and longtime church members who have parted ways over serious doctrinal disagreements.
This is not easy stuff.
As always, God’s word charts a course through uncertain waters.
In the Old Testament account of King David’s life, we learn of his decision to shun his son, Absalom, who vengefully murdered a brother who had raped his sister.
This is not an allegory, but an actual family ripped apart at the seams because of anger, selfishness, revenge and an unforgiving spirit.
Although Absalom fled from his father after killing his brother, he eventually returned, yet was not welcomed into his father’s presence. It seems David simply could not forgive, even though he loved his children desperately.
The Lord gave David a message: “God does not take away a life; but He devises means, so that His banished ones are not expelled from Him” (2 Samuel 14:14 – NKJV).
Incredibly, God asked David to forgive Absalom and restore their relationship, because it is a reflection of the very nature of God. That’s what God has done for us: He has devised a means to restore sinful people to himself through the cross of Jesus Christ.
But here’s the catch: There is a difference between forgiveness and restoration.
By God’s grace, we can forgive those who have wronged us, however severely, and show them the love and mercy that God himself has extended to us.
But if they will not admit their wrongdoing and turn from it, the relationship simply cannot be restored. We cannot fully restore a relationship until the one who offends us owns his or her sin, repents of it and does whatever is possible to make it right.
Absent this, the relationship always will be less than it could be.
In the case of Absalom, he eventually tried to steal the throne from his dad. His repentance clearly was a sham; he and his father were never truly reconciled.
The issue for us, then, is one of our hearts. Even if we must distance ourselves from others because of emotional or physical abuse, or break fellowship over doctrinal truth, we can ask God to keep our hearts soft enough to welcome restoration if it comes.
If God does not banish those who have offended his holy nature, but devises means for restoration, can we not trust him to help us do the same?