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Toxic Love

by Malcolm Smith

Does someone else call the shots in your life ... a husband, wife, teenage child, or perhaps a mother who has not yet let you leave the nest though you have a family of your own?  Does that someone else control whether you feel happy or sad, whether you feel good about yourself or feel that life is not worth living?

Do you belive that you are loving this person, and being to them what God wants you to be? Do you feel that you are living a selfless life that will soon be rewarded by a change that will bring about the coveted happiness you long for?

If you find yourself answering in the affirmative, then it is possible that you have fallen for one of the most despicable lies of the devil - a lie that will keep you from enjoying all that Christ has purchased for you.  It will, in fact, leave you in a state of misery and despair much of the time.  Let me explain.

When God created man, He placed within him certain needs that God alone could fill.  The need for love could only be met by union with God who Himself is love, the source of love in all His creation.  The need for self-worth could only be filled and enjoyed by man as he lived in the realization that he was created by God, in His image and likeness, and was the special object of His love.

The devil called to man with the lie that was to shape human history - that, if he would make a declaration of independence from God, he would reach his fullest potential and be like God, independently of Him.  Man believed the lie ... that in and of himself he can be perfect, self-contained, self-sufficient and totally in control of his destiny type person.  He has reached for the goal of being superhuman, independent of God.  Man’s image of God has been of the One who judged his performance and, hopefully, at the end, would admit that man had achieved his own goal.

Man soon came to the sickening realization that, although he believed the lie, he was unable to make it work in his life.  Added to the true guilt of sin and the lost consciousness of love and self-worth, was the shame brought about by the knowledge that he could not be the person the devil said he would be.

Where shall he now turn for love and the sense of self-worth that he knows he was made for? He turns to his fellow human beings.  He looks to other creatures to give him the assurance that he is loveable, significant, important and valuable.

Understand the path he has chosen.  It is doomed to fail from the start.  If love originates in God alone, another creature cannot give man what his heart is craving.  But worse, in so doing, man has placed a creature in the place reserved for God.  He is an idolater with idols made of flesh, vainly believing that, from the idol, there will come the answer to the emptiness within.

Paul wrote us about this in Romans 1:25 (margin), when he spelled out the downward spiral of the human race:

“For they exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshipped and served the creature rather than the creator..”

How does this work out in our everyday life?  We seek the approval, happiness and the togetherness - you might say salvation - of a significant person in our life.  When we have achieved our goal of making them happy, and they give their smile of approval, their murmur of praise, we feel loveable.  The warm glow of “feeling good about ourselves” flushed through our being.  We feel important - everything is and forever will be wonderful.

Strangely, the person we live to make happy is often he source of all our hurts and pains!  A wife beater, an alcoholic, a drug user, the teenage delinquent, the workaholic who abuses by neglect ...  the list goes on and on.  The craving to make them happy, to save them from all their problems and make everything right, becomes the meaning of life; and a mirage of a day when everything will be perfect draws the captive onward.

We go through like seeking the happiness of others in return for the elusive feeling of self-worth and the sense of being loved ... and we may experience it from time to time.  Of course, most of the time we fail to be everything the other person wants us to be, and failure plunges us into oceans of guilt and shame.  Feelings of worthlessness and rejection flood us when we have failed to please the other person.  Many people live in this kind of guilt most of the time.

Why do such people keep going back for more, even though they will come away saying, “I will never do that again ...  no one appreciates me”?  It is because their identity as a person is wrapped up in being affirmed and made to feel good by the other person.  What they were created to receive only from God, they are searching in the creature.  To give it up, would be to give up their perception of their personhood.

Tragically, this is portrayed in many churches as being humble, a selfless servant of the church.  It is the counterfeit of all those words!  It is born of the same lie that also spawned the false gospel that says we must perform in order to be loveable to God.  It is not loving from a knowledge of personal self-worth, but rather a toxic love that ultimately destroys both the doer and receiver.

This toxic love feels responsible to make the whole world happy!

These are the people who always come through for the family ... a family who always knows where to turn.  The reward is in those warm words, “We knew we could count on you!”  We feel important, significant, because another person needs us.  We feed on the need to be needed.

But when the savior fails to save, and the messiah fails to come through with all that is needed, the guilt is devastating.  The possibility if that happening sends many of these people into a paralysis of fear.  They refuse to get involved ... they know they will not be able to meet all of the needs.  These people live in guilt of what they should and ought to be doing; they berate themselves as worthless and useless.

This counterfeit love walks in darkness and is totally confused.  It shows the reversal of responsibilities.  One who seeks self-worth in the response of someone else, sees every mood of that other person as their responsibility.

If the person you desire to affirm you is angry today, immediately the thought springs to mind, “What have I done?  If they are angry it is my fault!”  If they are silent, guilt floods the toxic lover, “I must have done something to upset them!”  Of course when they are happy, then it is because I have done something to please them.

It works the other way too.  If I am angry, the other person is to blame because of what they did.  If I am sad, it is because the other person will not change.  My happiness is found in the other person’s approval of my actions.

This is a total reversal of Scriptures which teaches throughout that we each are responsible for our own emotions and actions.  Even if you do wrong to me, I am responsible for my anger and bitterness.  I cannot blame you.  Toxic love reverses all responsibilities, and calls this normal.

When Jesus spoke of love He did not simply say, “LOVE ONE ANOTHER,” but specified the kind of love - “AS I HAVE LOVED YOU!”  Jesus loved as man was intended to love-out of fullness ... not out of a need to evoke love from another person.

God’s love AGAPE is not driven; it is not compulsive.  God CHOSE to love us; He did not need us to complete Himself.  Grace, by definition, is that of choice on God’s part to love the undeserving.  Love which is driven, needed love, does not have its origin in God.

The last twenty-four hours that Jesus spent on earth, in the company of His disciples, shows the roots of agape.  After three years of public and private teaching, the disciples are going to the upper room to eat the Last Supper.  They are in a state of angry comparison ... arguing as to who is the greatest.

How does Jesus react?  If He had operated from the toxic counterfeit form of love, He would have had thoughts something like; “They are very upset tonight; it must be my fault!  If I had been all they needed me to be, they would be smiling and happy.  I will have to take responsibility and do the job myself!”  Or, “I can’t stand arguing tonight - not tonight!  Everything has got to be just right and perfect on a night like this.  I will wash their feet, and maybe that will make them happy.”

Instead the scripture takes time to tell us exactly where Jesus was coming from.

He loved and served out of the fullness of knowing the love the Father had for Him (John 13:1-4).  Knowing His eternal worth, He did not do what He did in order to give Himself a sense of self-being or significance, or to make Himself more loveable to the disciples.  He acted out of who He knew Himself to be.

Observe how He deals with the problem person in the group.  Peter is known for his mindless prattle, and the ability to say the wrong thing at the wrong time.  Now he is boasting of how he will never forsake Jesus, even though everyone else will undoubtedly will.

Jesus loves Peter and knows that Satan often seeks to sift him as wheat on the thrashing floor.  How does Agape express Himself?

If He loved with the toxic counterfeit, He would want everything to be under control, everyone to be happy, and they would all thank Him for it.  He might have said, “Peter, its been a long day, I want you to stay home tonight.  There might be some trouble later on, and I think you would be better getting a good night’s sleep!”  He would have fixed Peter’s problem by taking responsibility to shield Peter.

Instead, Jesus simply informed Peter of the way things were going to go, told him that he was being prayed for and then left Peter to grow up by being forced to see himself and make his own decisions as a responsible adult.  When he fell, Jesus did not reject him, or heap condemnation, or say, “I told you so.”  Rather, He was there to move him into a new life of responsibility.

Is the sense of well being that comes from truly loving a person sin?  No!  Jesus taught that it would be there.  In Luke 15, He tells of the gathering of the neighbors and friends to celebrate the finding of the lost; the return of the lost son calls for the killing of the fatted calf and dancing and rejoicing.  But the shepherd didn’t go looking for sheep in order to get dinner that night!  The father did not welcome home the rebel son because he desperately needed the eat the calf.

The overflowing joy that comes when agape acts is the bonus that is thrown in, not the reason for the act.

How do we move from toxic love to agape?  First, we must face the serious nature of this type of idolatry and open our hearts to the Holy Spirit.  We must ask Him to show us if this is the problem which has been strangling our spiritual life since we came to Christ.  We must call it by its name, idolatry-placing the creature in the place that belongs only to God.

Then, we must ask the Holy Spirit to show us we are loved unconditionally by God ... that He has both revealed His love for us and our value to Him in that Jesus died and rose again for us.  Let the Spirit show you; “He loved ME and gave Himself for ME.”  I make emphasis on the Spirit teaching us this.  This is not something one learns in a lecture, but only from the One who IS the Teacher and Counselor himself.

Finally, pray the prayer of Ephesians 1:17-19; 3:14-21; Colossians 1:9-12; Philippians 1:9-11; and 1 Thessalonians 3:12-13.

As you meditate on the love of God shown you in the Lord Jesus, and the value placed upon you in that you are purchased with the blood of Jesus Christ, you will begin to live out of who you are ... not from what another person’s approval or disapproval can make you.

Out of that sense of acceptance by God, you will begin to take responsibility for your emotions and actions.  You are not a poor worthless piece of garbage blown by everyone else’s wind; you are a child of God, and Christ lives His life in you.  You act within life, not react to it.

This will not happen overnight, and there will be failures along the way.  But as you yield to the Spirit, He will renew you to the love of God as your lifestyle.

It is true freedom to live by His smiling approval, rather than the smile that seldom comes from the people you are struggling to please.  It is freedom to stop feverishly worrying and fretting; stop trying to make everything work out right.  Instead, you will find yourself happy to commit the other people to God and allow Him to do what is needed to bring them to the full life that He has for them in Christ.

It is a load off your shoulders, as well as idolatry out of your heart, to stop playing the role of savior.  Put people in the hands of the only Savior, and rest, knowing that He does all things well.