Unhealthy relationships and how to find our security in Christ is the subject of Ellen Mary Dykas’s 31 Day Devotional, Toxic Relationships: Taking Refuge in Christ.
People rarely describe fasting as fun or easy. Whether the chosen target of abstinence is food, sex, screen time, entertainment, alcohol, spending, salt, sugar, or caffeine, fasting is uncomfortable. As John Piper explains, “Christian fasting is a test to see what desires control us.”
It’s humbling to admit that desires for something have enslaved us. Our hearts become addicted to what certain gifts do for us, and we slowly slide into idolatry.
Relationships are no exception; people can become idols, too. Fasting—or implementing space in troubling relationships—can help recalibrate our hearts back to Jesus and assist us in removing unhealthy and sinful toxins that influence our ability to love others.
Relationships with fellow image-bearers of God are a beautiful delight of creation. Interactions with neighbors, friends, clients, church family, mentors, and family members provide opportunities to love and be loved—and to know and be known—in ways that God created us to enjoy.
Fasting—or implementing space in troubling relationships—can help recalibrate our hearts back to Jesus.
When sin invades our relational motivations and expectations, the dynamics easily become toxic or unholy. A friend becomes obsessed with you being available 24/7, or vice versa. Your spouse expects you to worship him and pleads with you not to spend time with friends. A mentor becomes a pseudo-spouse, promising to give you everything you’ll ever need, including physical affection that borders on romantic, if not sexual, expression. Your parent can’t stop texting, anxious to know daily details of your life and insinuating that you’re guilty for having your own life.
Just as we shouldn’t permanently abstain from food, we shouldn’t cut ourselves off from human relationships altogether. God created us to enjoy and be nurtured by healthy “nutrients” that help us grow. There are, however, people with whom a messy, even dangerous, dynamic exists. People are a gift, yet relationships can become polluted with the sinful toxins of unhealthy dependency and an unrealistic demand that the other person take the place of God.
When jealousy, insecurity, territorialism, and separation anxiety plague an adult relationship, we must discern the desires and motivations that fuel these troubling dynamics. Fasting—implementing space—from this relationship may be a wise step to take.
Space to Reorient to Jesus
The proper degree of abstinence from a troubled relationship will depend on the relationship. An abusive relationship is like a severe nut allergy: you need to sever all ties. In other, more common dynamics, you may need a temporary relational fast so that your attachment, emotions, and motivations can come under fresh examination and be reoriented back to Jesus.
Like a bit of mold on an otherwise delicious block of cheese, the contaminated parts of a relationship need to be cut out. As with an ice-cream habit that has become excessive, you need to take a break so that the appetites of your heart can be retrained toward what is healthy and good.
Like a bit of mold on an otherwise delicious block of cheese, the contaminated parts of a relationship need to be cut out.
Perhaps you start with limiting communication. Do you need to avoid being in the same social space for a season? Should you disengage from social-media accounts to eliminate the temptation to keep anxious tabs on the person?
Pay attention to your response: what feels threatening about the idea of pulling back, or scary about seeking Jesus (and other relationships) more wholeheartedly?
Fasting leads us to feast elsewhere. We turn from what is unhealthy and unholy and engage healthy, spiritually nurturing steps of faith. Do you need to recommit to a regular diet of Scripture, and opportunities to study and discuss it with believers with whom you have healthy relationships? You may need to pursue a one-on-one counseling relationship to sort through why you got into the relational mess.
Are there books or podcasts that will help you learn more about God’s design for friendships, marriage, and caregiving relationships? You may need to prescribe yourself a diet of these biblically informed resources.
The length and breadth of a relational fast requires discernment. Rather than focusing on “how long,” make your priority your spiritual and relational health. Look for lessened anxiety, mental preoccupation, and insecurity. Take note of increased desires to love others with no strings attached. Evaluate your contentment and security in the goodness of Christ, and give thanks for trusted friends who will speak truthfully to you.
But What About . . . ?
I told my friend that I’d never abandon our relationship; if I step back, won’t that reflect poorly on Jesus? Toxic relationships are often fueled by promises made from painful, sin-poisoned places inside us. Sometimes breaking such promises is a way to honor God’s truth and the other person by humbly acknowledging the foolishness of offering something we couldn’t provide.
Toxic relationships are often fueled by promises made from painful, sin-poisoned places inside us.
Are you telling me to abandon my family member? Absolutely not! Faithfulness to marriage vows, loving our children, and honoring our parents are weighty scriptural calls. However, poisonous dynamics can grow even in these relationships if Christ is not central—if he is not the true refuge in whom you find value, identity, and security. Relational fasting may still be needed, but it will be in the context of establishing new patterns and boundaries with your family member. The sad and sober reality is that family relationships do not always survive the consequences of sin. (Again, abusive relationships need radical intervention, and sometimes even permanent severing.)
I’m terrified. It’s scary to consider change in the terrain of a relationship that has become something you feel you need. Yet as you perceive that relational “waves” are out of control, you have a Savior walking on the waves toward you (see Matt. 14:22–27), drawing near, and assuring you of his power and love.
Jesus is the refuge you truly need. His love is never toxic, threatened, or based on your performance. Fasting from relationships with others can free you to truly taste and see how good he is, as you take refuge uniquely in him (see Ps. 34:8).