[I was originally going to call this post “Character is King.” Well after writing it, I will amend that to this: “Character is king, but pursuing Christlikeness or [The King] is everything!”]
Well I’ve just read yet another of those posts, that purports to give you X red flags, to show you that someone is not worthy of your time. I read so many of these posts, relating to romantic partners, or friends, or work colleagues, or flatmates, or bosses, or even workplaces. A common word used in these post titles is “toxic” – sometimes the idea is how to know someone is “toxic” before investing too much time in the relationship; at other times the idea is to finally acknowledge that a situation has been toxic, and to walk away.
For anyone else who reads many similar posts, does this question ever occur to you, as it occurs to me: “Could it be possible that you (as the reader) are the toxic factor in a friendship, relationship, or flat-sharing situation?” The implication that each post creates is that the reader will be “normal”, or “healthy”, and that toxicity is something to be recognised or avoided in another party. But then it seems to be rare to acknowledge how the reader could be contributing to the “toxicity” in an interaction between people. When dealing specifically with romantic relationships, there will often be an acknowledgement that no relationship will be perfect, and that the reader will equally not be perfect, but the assumption is that they will be “decent”; however when dealing specifically with “toxicity”, then the implication will often be that a “decent” reader is dealing with toxicity introduced by other parties. I wonder whether that is a reflection of the people writing the articles, and the way they reflect their interactions with other parties; the assumption that they as the writers are the decent parties, and that other people are toxic. That said, I myself have written no end of articles where I make it clear that my behaviour was fantastic, and the other parties were definitely toxic – and to be candid they were! However don’t worry, I’m going to refrain from going off on one of my familiar rants in this post. With me however, I have also identified occasions where I was definitely the one acting with toxicity and where sometimes this was even completely one-sided! Actually there has been one article that I read recently where the writer suggested that the reader could indeed be the toxic party in a work situation. However this article was rare in my experience. I must have read fewer than five such articles in perhaps 10 years of reading online articles, where I would typically read 5 “other people are toxic” articles in a week, if not a day.
Recognising our own toxicity
One of the problems with the way so many writers talk about toxicity, that you as an upstanding reader are of course “normal” and “healthy” and toxicity is from other people is this: they give the impression that “normal” human beings are decent, if imperfect; that ordinary human beings behave well, that “toxicity” is something strange and unusual. They act as if decent behaviour is something that most human beings just effortlessly demonstrate, without having to work on it. They never, ever, ever talk about working on your character. And yet the Bible teaches that as human beings we all have a sinful nature. If you look around you, listen to the world at large, even esteemed people in authority are constantly having to apologise for their lapses of judgement or integrity. Many people, even “good” people, will hide and deny their mistakes until the evidence against them is overwhelming, and then and only then will they finally admit that they “may” have erred. And then they always try to make it sound as if any misstep is utterly uncharacteristic. And yet if we take all these scandals in aggregate, it is easy to work out that people in authority are often cutting corners, or lying, or giving lucrative contracts to their friends, even sometimes at the expense of other people’s lives. To actually expect that some kind of sustained malpractice is not happening at the top echelons of many big organisations or UK Government Departments at any given time to me increasingly seems to be an expression of considerable naïveté.
From my own personal experience even with the loveliest people toxicity is always there, lurking behind the scenes, waiting to rear its head. Long story short: we all tend towards our sinful nature, or toxicity. Yes, thankfully, most of us are capable of loving and kind behaviour. However when we are pushed or under stress we all have a tendency to act in our own self interests. We all have the capacity to be mean, or to say hurtful things. Outstanding behaviour is not the consistent, defacto way of behaving unless we work on it – very very hard. There are so many ways that negative behaviour could be expressed. To be consistently excellent in everything through a wide variety of situations will not come unless someone actively invests solid ongoing effort in working on their character.
Character v Christlikeness
You know, on my blog, I have often used “character” as a synonym for “pursuing Christlikeness”. However, when thinking about this particular post, I realised, for perhaps the first time ever, that they are not actually the same thing. “Character” is something that is perhaps open and available to everyone, regardless of their religious or faith background. Character is about basic integrity, telling the truth, recognising the humanity of poor people, the homeless, or people from different ethnic backgrounds. Character is excellent. If everyone on earth merely pursued great character, then the world would be resoundingly better. And yet, pursuing Christlikeness goes so much further. There is a sacrificial nature to the character of Christ which is not present in the definition of mere “Character”. Christlikeness puts other people first, even over and above our own legitimate needs. Christlikeness is also about telling ourselves the truth, according to what the Bible says which often transcends even the most powerful conscience. For instance, “character” might tell us that all human beings are deeply valuable because they are human beings. However, the Bible tells us that human beings are deeply valuable specifically because we are all made in the image of God. “Character” might tell us that our actions are important because of the way they impact on other people. However Christlikeness tells us that we have to deeply monitor the contents of our heart, even if they never surface to actually touch other people. This is because God can see our hearts, and He cares about what we cultivate in our hearts. Furthermore, invariably, what we cultivate on the inside will find a way to seep out to be reflected on the outside. Sometimes we don’t know this and we only realise when it is too late. “Character” might inform us that we should try to be the best people we can be. However, “Christlikeness” explains that because of our inherent sinful nature, we actually have to pursue this, aggressively, every day.
From my personal experience, real pursuit of Christlikeness is what makes the difference in absolutely all our interactions with other people. Whether we are talking about romantic interactions, and by extension spouses and marriage, or parents, or siblings, or wider family, or work colleagues or flatmates or churches and pastors. I have had friendships with people who are nice and genuinely decent. However invariably I have had to end or downgrade these friendships because even in their niceness these people would not seem to be able to control how they responded to me. Sometimes snide sentiments would seep out, or unwarranted sarcasm, or…other negative things. These are character issues, and they would demonstrate that these people probably relied on their “niceness”, without making the time to aggresively pursue true Christlikeness. From my personal experience, I cannot overstate the importance of true pursuit of Christlikeness. The thing is that this happens in secret. We spend time in secret before God, with our Bibles, pouring out our hearts to him. Because no-one is there to see how seriously someone takes this, or otherwise, many people, that is many Christians, think that no-one can tell how seriously they take it. This is so wrong. Trust me, it is extremely easy to tell!
To conclude then, I would urge people reading this to not look primarily for the signs of other people’s toxicity. Rather I would urge them to grab their own Bibles and sit before God, and make this an ongoing habit. Examine your heart before God. Whenever you have an argument or other conflict with someone else, bring your heart before God. Admit your pride or stubborness or whatever else it may have been. Ask Him how you may have contributed to the conflict, if you do not already know. Recognise your tendency to destructive thought patterns, and drop them right there, before God. Humble yourself before God, and ask Him to reveal to you the things that you cannot even perceive about yourself, the secret impetuses that make you act in ways that you might not even recognise are wrong. Ask God to make you like Jesus. And recognise that this is an ongoing thing. As Christians, we will never “arrive” in terms of pursuing Christlikeness. We will always need to keep pushing. When a destructive thought flickers in your mind, learn to quell it at source.
You know what? There are so many people who claim to be Christians, or followers of Christ, in this world. If we would all invest our utmost to be like Jesus – truly, then we could truly make a beautiful impact on this world.