Bruce Ashford

Biblical-Theological Categories for Understanding Toxic People and Responding to Them

Toxic people are much better at being toxic than we are at knowing how to deal with them. Toxic people enjoy conflict like a pig enjoys mud. They don’t want us to act like Christians; instead, they want us to do what they want us to do and and they revel in our desperate attempts to engage with them. As Jesus demonstrated, there comes a time to walk away. As Jesus said, “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces” (Mt 7:6). Spiritually dead people don’t recognize truth or love for what they are, and they derail us from our mission. Thus, we must determine not to waste our time on toxic people.

Now that we have explored the concept of toxicity and delved into how we can identify people who are toxic to us, we can explore the concept theologically, employing biblical-theological categories to understand the phenomenon and to craft a faithfully Christian posture toward toxic people.
As Gary Thomas writes in When to Walk Away, Scripture reveals at least three traits of toxic people: a murderous spirit, a desire for control, and a love for hatred. To Thomas’ three points we will add a fourth: an addiction to heart-theft. Taken together, these four traits provide Christians with a helpful theological categorization of the types of characteristics (Toxic People 102) and styles (Toxic People 103) we outlined previously.
A Murderous Spirit
The first category to be noted is a “murderous spirit.” Toxic people want to take you down and derail your mission. They want you cause you to feel shame, guilt, and discouragement. They enjoy making self-righteous and rash judgments and intend to discourage you with them. And, if you let them, they will systematically diminish, and finally destroy, your inner life. You cannot allow this to happen. Ultimately, Satan is the one manipulating toxic people to do his bidding. In essence, he is a murderer, and quite skillful at what he does (Jn 8:44).
A Desire for Control
The second category is a “desire for control.” Toxic people want to control you in some manner, if not entirely. If they can’t control you overtly, they will do so covertly through skillful manipulation. In so doing, they have become a tool of the Evil One. God doesn’t control us; this is seen clearly in the life of Jesus, who did not attempt to control those around him. Thus, when toxic people attempt to control us, they are assuming the authority of God but using the tools of Satan. They want you to bow to them, to be directed by them, instead of focusing on God’s will for your life.
A Love for Hatred
The third category is “a love for hatred.” People who love God are wired for humility, gentleness, and kindness (Col 3:12,14). Toxic people, however, are wired for anger, rage, malice, and deceit (Col 3:8-9). In fact, people who love God have a very difficult time understanding how a person claiming to be a Christian can be so hateful. Thus, we must realize that toxic people have an entirely different set of motivations and fears than healthy people, and that “normal” methods of interacting with them are ineffective and, in fact, counterproductive.
An Addiction to Heart-Theft
The fourth category is “heart-theft.” When a toxic person realizes he can’t control you overtly, he will seek to bully you covertly through manipulation. When a person engages in manipulation, she is trying to control you without your permission, and thus infringes on your autonomy.
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Seven “Subspecies” of Toxic Wildlife in the Human Kingdom

They come in varieties. Further, while some toxic people seem to have mastered holistically the dark art of toxicity, most toxic people are not quite so skilled; they have mastered selected aspects of toxicity and combined them with their natural personalities. Thus, here we profile seven notable subspecies who can be spotted on the terrain of our lives.

Author Robert Tew once wrote, “Don’t let negative and toxic people rent space in your head. Raise the rent and kick them out.” And he’s right; his modern proverb expresses well the way Jesus and other biblical exemplars such as Nehemiah treated toxic people. Thus, the first installment of this series focused briefly on the life of Jesus and revealed that Jesus walked away from toxic people. He refused to entrust himself to people who could not be trusted.
So if, like Jesus, we determine to walk away when necessary, we must be able to identify who is toxic to us and who is not. After all, we are not omniscient as Jesus was. Yet, there are some clear and identifiable signs of toxicity. Indeed, in the last installment, we enumerated ten signs that a given person behaving in a toxic manner toward us. Building on that post, this installment will make an analogy between toxic people and exotic species of wildlife. We will draw upon the ten signs from the last post, and for amusement’s sake, will compare each type of toxic profile to a “subspecies” of wildlife.
Not every subspecies of toxic wildlife is created equally. They come in varieties. Further, while some toxic people seem to have mastered holistically the dark art of toxicity, most toxic people are not quite so skilled; they have mastered selected aspects of toxicity and combined them with their natural personalities. Thus, here we profile seven notable subspecies who can be spotted on the terrain of our lives:
1. The Palavering Peacock: Have you ever met somebody who manages to turn any conversation toward himself or herself, sucking any available “air” out of the room? And if he is unable to get people to talk him or his chosen topic, he gets bored with the conversation and walks away? If so, you’ve encountered a distinctive sub-species of TP—the Palavering Peacock. These conversational hijackers prefer to feed on Large Group Lillies and Small Group Spruce, although when starved they have been known to graze on Single Person Sunflowers.
2. The Micromanaging Malapert: Do you know somebody who wants to control everybody and everything around them, even down to the small stuff? Somebody who suffocates you? If so, you have probably gotten a whiff or two of these control freaks—the Micromanaging Malapert—a TP sub-species whose preferred habitat is the Passive Person Plains but who is known to migrate quickly toward prey in any environment.
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Laughter 101: Why Humor Matters for the Christian Life

The redemption theory holds that humor’s essence is found in humanity’s amused perception of ambiguity and incongruence, but also in God’s provision of humor as something that helps us deal with disorder, ambiguity, and pain that exist in a fallen world.

How many philosophers does it take to explain a joke? Quite a few, as it turns out. And not only philosophers. Psychologists, sociologists, and anthropologists have exerted themselves to explain exactly what makes people laugh. Although everybody understands intuitively what humor is, the concept of humor is still elusive, being difficult to define in a way that encompasses all of its facets.
Humor may evoke a sly grin or it may detonate explosive laughter. It might be conveyed through words or images or actions. We find it in in a vast array of situations, including photos, interpersonal encounters, articles, and skits. It takes on a wide range of forms, from knock-knock jokes to slapstick physical comedy to puns to double entendre.
There is humor in which the joker deprecates himself or herself, such as Oscar Levant’s quip, “Under this flabby exterior is an enormous lack of character” or British politician Boris Johnson’s statement after having been demoted in Parliament: “My friends, as I have discovered myself, there are no disasters, only opportunities. And, indeed, opportunities for fresh disasters.”
Conversely, there is humor that deprecates other persons or social groupings. Consider Dorothy Parker’s wit directed against one of her contemporaries: “The affair between Margot Asquith and Margot Asquith will live as one of the prettiest love stories in all literature.” Or, Roger Kimball’s wit directed against America’s scholarly class who consider themselves independent minds but are “huddled together in bovine complacency, mooing ankle-deep in its own effluvia, safe within its gated enclosure.”
In thus recognizing the considerable diversity on offer when it comes to humor, many intellectuals and comedians have drawn conclusions about the essence of humor. With that in mind, this post will explore seven of those theories, offering examples that confirm the theory and examples that call that theory in question. Finally, it will offer an alternative—theological—explanation of the essence of humor.
Here are seven of the most prominent theories about humor:
1. The Superiority Theory
Some theorists, including philosophers Plato, Thomas Hobbes, and Roger Scruton, believe the essence of humor is its ability to bring laughter to the masses but shame for whoever is the butt of the joke. Thus, according to this theory humor rides on its ability to make a portion of the audience feel superior to another person or group of people. For example: “If you were any dumber, you’d have to be watered twice a week.”
However, this theory doesn’t quite work because, just as we are able to win competitions without necessarily gaining a feeling of superiority, we are able to tell and hear jokes without necessarily feeling superior to the person who is the butt of the jokes. For example: “Police were called to a daycare, where a three-year-old was resisting a rest.”
2. The Incongruity-Resolution Theory
Some theorists, including philosophers Immanuel Kant, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Soren Kierkegaard, believed that the essence of humor is found in pointing out incongruities. Other philosophers have revised the theory to say that the essence of humor is the resolution of an incongruity. For example: “I want to die peacefully in my sleep like my grandfather. Not screaming in terror like his passengers.” Or, Groucho Marx’s quip: “Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.”
Yet, not all reinterpreted incongruities are humorous; conversely there are good examples of humor that doesn’t involve the resolution of an incongruity. For example: “A man at the dinner table dipped his hands in the mayonnaise and then ran them through his hair. When his friend looked astonished, the man apologized: “I’m so sorry. I’m quite embarrassed. I thought it was spinach.’”
3. The Benign Violation Theory
Some recent theorists, such as Thomas Veatch, argue that the essence of humor is the non-threatening violation of some type of norm—moral law, social codes, linguistic norms, or similar. For example: As Demitri Martin once quipped: “I’m sorry’ and ‘I apologize’ mean the same thing. Unless you’re at a funeral.”

Ten Words for a Broken Society (Afterword: Law & Gospel)

God’s ten words provide a framework for understanding the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus, our Christ. They are the words to which Jesus conformed his life perfectly, living as he did the life that we have proven unwilling and unable to live. Further, they are the words that condemn us because of our law-breaking, and therefore are the impetus for Christ’s atoning death and liberating resurrection. Because of Christ Jesus, our law-breaking is forgiven and we are set free for an entirely new way of living, a life in which we lean on his grace to conform our lives to his law, and pursue his Face, for the rest of our lives.

God spoke the Ten Commandments to Israel after rescuing them from slavery in Egypt. Yet, these Ten Words apply not only to Ancient Near Eastern Israel but also to God’s people today and even to those people who are not “his” in the sense that they have not embraced God through Christ Jesus. God’s ten words are intended for his people today and, to be more specific, for American Christians living in a secular age.
For Israel, the Ten Words informed them of their mission to the world. Israel was called to be a “light to the nations” and God’s intention for his people to fulfill his law in such a way that the pagan nations would be jealous of their God and his law which, if obeyed, would cause them to flourish. When Israel obeyed his law, their common life would be a communal witness to the nations. In other words, his Ten Words applied not only to the lives of individuals but to the combined witness of many individuals that would coalesce at the societal level to be a much more powerful “light” to the pagan nations.
God’s law is not enslaving but liberating. According to Scripture, his law is the “perfect law of liberty” (Jas 1:25; 2:12). When a community is dominated by false gods, false worship, disrespect for parents, unlawful killing, theft, workaholism, sex addictions, and covetousness, it finds itself enslaved. By way of contrast, when a community conforms to God’s law, it will flourish and be “free” in the deepest meaning of the word. The freedom God offers is not merely a freedom “from” but a freedom “for.”
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Ten Words for a Broken Society (#2: No False Worship of the True God)

We must guard ourselves against false worship of the true God. We must guard ourselves the same way bank tellers guard themselves against counterfeit bills. Tellers expose themselves continually to genuine currency and thus are able easily to spot the “feel” and “look” of a counterfeit bill. Similarly, we must expose ourselves to God—as revealed in nature and Scripture—repeatedly until we are quick to spot counterfeit images of God. We study our Bible and listen to good Bible-teaching until we are full to the brim with truth about God.

Imagine if a woman’s husband found out that his wife routinely told her friends, “I like to see my husband as a 6’2” Antonio Banderas who lifts weights, whose perfect idea of date night is perusing the aisles at TJ Maxx, who drinks froufrou smoothies made out of strawberry, and who delights in talking about fashion trends and home furnishing ideas.”
If she kept saying that, her real husband, 5’6” Frank, who likes to work on his truck, wears Wrangler jeans, whose idea of the perfect date is to shoot deer together, and who drinks his coffee black, might get a little upset at being misrepresented so badly. He would have the   right to ask her why she has to re-imagine him in order to love him.
In the same way, it’s an insult to God when we have to reshape him into something else in order for us to love him. That is God’s point when he issues the second commandment:
4 “You shall not make for yourself a carved image—any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; 5 you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting] the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, 6 but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.
With this commandment, God is saying that we shouldn’t imagine him differently than he is, differently than he has revealed himself in nature and in Scripture.
To summarize the points of the first two commandments, therefore, the first commandment exhorts us to worship the true God, while the second commandment instructs us about how to worship the true God. In reverse, the first commandment commands us not to worship the wrong gods, while the second commandment tells us not worship the right God in the wrong way. As we are turning out backs to false gods, we must turn our face to the true God as he actually is.
That is the point being made about not making images of God.
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Ten Words for a Broken Society (#1: No Other Gods)

Elite and powerful people have conspired to sever our society and culture from its religious moorings—from God and the transcendent moral framework that flows from his nature and is revealed both in nature and Scripture.

You shall have no other gods before Me.(Exodus 20:3)
The first commandment is absolutely foundational, utterly basic, to individual and societal flourishing. The truly good life starts with accepting this command as the rule of life. In Israel’s day, the nations were thoroughly committed polytheists. They viewed their own gods as finite and limited in their knowledge and power, and thought that they could manipulate or appease those gods by means of incantations and rituals. In our day, also we are polytheistic. Although we don’t tend to make statues of our gods and bow before them in a literal manner, we do build metaphorical shrines to our gods—gods such as sex, money, power, and the approval of other people.
How do we identify the “gods” that individuals and even entire communities of people worship? We identify what individuals or communities absolutize or ascribe ultimacy to. Every human being is religious; each of us ascribe ultimacy to something. Further, Scripture teaches that our worship of these gods is done from the “heart.” More than 800 times, Scripture relates religion to the heart and, in Scripture, the heart is the central organizer of our lives. Thus, what or who we worship becomes our life-planner an organizer. Religion begins in the heart but radiates outward into everything we say and do.
This commandment exhorts us to choose decisively for the Lord. This point is repeated throughout the Scriptures. Joshua instructed Israel, “Now therefore, fear the Lord, serve him in sincerity and truth, and put away the gods which your fathers served…” (Josh 24:14). Through Moses, God told Israel, “The Lord our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength” (Deut 6:1-9). Likewise, Jesus instructed his disciples to love God more than any other person or thing we are tempted to love (Lk 14:25-33).
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What Hath Christianity To Do with Politics? (Part 2): Augustine and the Roman Empire

A truly good political leader, [Augustine] argues, is one who views himself as a repentant sinner and who prefers to see God praised instead of himself. Similarly, a truly good citizen is one who refuses to flatter his political leaders or treat them as gods. Thus, both political leaders and citizens should lean heavily on God’s grace if they wish to cultivate true political virtue and true patriotism.

The early church forged its thinking about politics from Scripture and in the context of a decadent pagan Roman Empire. It grappled with how best to further the Christian mission in such a context. Should it withdraw from the political sphere, given its persecuted minority status within the empire? Conversely, should it expend the majority of its energies to political activism? Or, is it best to make a third way between these two extreme ends of the “religion and politics” spectrum?
As the early church grappled with this tangle of questions, it began to form some conclusions. Those conclusions found their fruition in the writings of Augustine of Hippo, especially from his book, City of God. Thus, given the fact that Bible-believing Americans inhabit a minority position in our own increasingly pagan nation, it is helpful for us to reflect on Augustin’s conclusions.
Augustine’s writings are the last flowering of the ancient period and the first blossoming of the medieval era. During this transitional era, Augustine wrote often about politics and public life. Early on, he embraced a Platonic view in which society was hierarchically ordered and in which individuals could attain “the good” through their own moral striving. Eventually, and especially in the wake of the Pelagian controversy, he rejected this view and revised his view of politics. No longer was social order meant to embody an overarching cosmic order, thus leading the good citizen on an ascent to the good life. Instead, it was meant, more minimally, to minimize disruptive forces and keep society from disintegrating. His mature political theology stressed the havoc that sin and idolatry wreaks on the individual and on society. Fallen individuals are possessed of inordinate love—they worship created goods rather than the God who created those goods. Moreover, the individual idolatries of a society coalesce at the political level to corrupt and misdirect the political realm.
Indeed, the backdrop for Augustine’s most significant treatment of politics—City of God—is not only the sacking of Rome but also Augustine’s emphasis on depravity and corresponding rejection of the Pelagian view. In the aftermath of Rome’s sacking, certain pagan intellectuals blamed Rome’s fall on its adoption of Christianity and its subsequent rejection of the Roman religion, politics, and philosophy. In City of God, Augustine responded to the religious objection by arguing that the Roman gods were immoral and even laughable; not even the famous historian of religion, Marcus Varro, believed in their divinity. He responded to the political objection by showing that Rome’s boasting about its political justice was a mask for its real love which was raw power and domination. Third, he responded to the philosophical objection by arguing that Rome’s philosophers, brilliant as they were, were inhibited by their pride from believing in Christ’s incarnation and resurrection, and thus were incapable of understanding the deepest truths of the world. Thus, if Roman society wished to be healthy politically, it should more fully embrace Christ and more fully reject the pagan founding narrative along with its gods and philosophies. In embracing Christ rather than idols, a person becomes a member of the eternal city of God rather than the city of man, and thus engages in the political realm with his affection set on God rather than on idols.
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