It happened during prayer time in church. The preacher started his prayer like most prayers begin. “Our dear heavenly Father,” he prayed, “thank you for being our Father.”
That’s when everything around her stopped. She sat there, suddenly being transported back into a dark, aching past. Unsolicited memories flooded her mind. She remembered the bruises. She heard again the irrational shouting. She felt the uncontrollable fear. She smelled his alcohol-infused breath as he was closing in on her. She tasted her tears. She remembered the horrible shameful things that happened in the dark.
Father? A wave of nausea swept over her. She knew instinctively that she didn’t want to have anything to do with a heavenly Father. Silently she got to her feet and walked out of the church, tears covering her face.
I recently learned a new word. “Toxicity,” according to Merriam-Webster, refers to “the quality or state of being toxic.”1 It’s the degree to which any substance (or mix of substances) can damage an organism.2 Most of us are aware of such classic toxicants as asbestos, formaldehyde, arsenic, or lead. We may have even heard of the poisoning effects of mercury, BPA in plastic, or chlorine.3 Many of these toxicants appear naturally in our environment, and in small enough amounts do not represent a health hazard. But even good things that we need for our daily survival can become poisonous when consumed in the wrong dose. Human beings die if they do not receive enough hydration. Too much water, however, can also lead to death because of electrolyte imbalance, causing brain cells to swell and block the regular flow of blood.4
Some people have a higher threshold relating to toxicants in their environment, while others have a lower threshold. Chronic toxicity is the development of adverse effects as the result of long-term exposure to a toxicant or other stressor.5 Slowly but surely the toxicant affects our bodies negatively, ultimately leading to death.
Toxicity, the quality or state of being toxic, is not limited to the physical realm. Ideas, values, relationships, or emotions can become part of a “toxic” mix, leading to bad decisions or destructive behavior. Jonestown and Waco have illustrated that toxicity can involve twisted and distorted religious ideas. The way we think about God (theologians call this our Gottesbild, or “image of God”) is another arena where wrong ideas and notions can lead to toxic behavior affecting others. Unfortunately, there is no easily accessible device that can measure “mind toxicity.” We can really see it only in the way we relate to ourselves and others.
The book of Jonah tells us that God called Jonah to deliver a specific message to the people of Nineveh (Jonah 1:2; 3:2). Jonah’s actual sermon was a no-frills, no-mercy message of judgment: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (Jonah 3:4).6 Jonah was one of God’s bona fide card-carrying ninth century B.C. prophets whose ministry in Israel was well known and highly recognized (2 Kings 14:23-25). God had used him in the past; and He was intent on using him again on this special assignment.
Jonah, however, didn’t want to go. His attempt to flee “from the presence of the Lord” (Jonah 1:3; the Hebrew literally reads “from before the face of the Lord”) was ill-fated from the beginning and ended in a dramatic deep sea dive (verses 4-15). Jonah just didn’t want to go to Nineveh. He was not ready to share God’s grace (even in the form of a warning about an impending judgment) with the brutal Assyrians who lived in Nineveh.
After God does not destroy the city at the end of the 40 days thanks to Nineveh’s repentance, we witness a heated discussion between Jonah and his Lord. “Ah, Lord, was not this what I said when I was still in my country? Therefore I fled previously to Tarshish; for I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in loving-kindness, One who relents from doing harm” (Jonah 4:2). Translation: God, I knew Your soft heart and that You wouldn’t follow through. That’s why I wanted to go in the opposite direction in the first place. It’s Your fault.
Jonah’s understanding of God’s goodness was limited to Israel. He could not fathom the possibility of grace for even the enemies of God’s people.
What toxic mind-set does it take that a “man of God” (one of the official titles of prophets in the Old Testament, cf. 1 Sam. 2:27; 9:6) argues with God about His grace being applied to the enemy, the foreigner, and, perhaps, even the neighbor? What hatred needs to bubble maliciously in our hearts so that we cannot even fathom God’s grace for those who have hurt us? We know from the historical records of that period that the Assyrians were cruel overlords. They were no softies. They were abusive and brutal and vicious—all that God is not. Yet they were also the object of God’s love and grace.
Jonah’s story offers a perfect window into a toxic mind-set that retributes evil with evil. God, however, never gives up on His prophet. His dialogical engagement contains rebuke, but it’s a gentle rebuke. His questions are meant to start a conversation, plant a seed, and begin a transformation. The fact that we can read all about Jonah’s misguided attempts to run away from God, and his successful mission to evangelize Nineveh, suggests that Jonah finally got it—and decided to write down his foolishness as a lesson for future generations of God’s children.
Another Old Testament narrative offers an even more in-depth look at toxic mind-sets. Moses had been gone for a long time. People kept looking at Mount Sinai, then at each other, and wondering if and when their leader would return to them. So one day they gathered around Aaron and asked him to make them something more visible. “Come, make us gods that shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him” (Ex. 32:1).
Aaron was quick to comply—perhaps out of concern for his own life. This was not one of Aaron’s most glorious moments. After receiving jewelry from the people, he fashioned a golden calf and declared: “This is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt” (verse 4).
We wonder why Aaron was so easily swayed. We also wonder why Israel was so transfixed on a visual representation of a god that fit their needs and their expectations. “Only a few days had passed since the Hebrews had made a solemn covenant with God to obey His voice,” writes Ellen White. “They had stood trembling with terror before the mount, listening to the words of the Lord. . . . The glory of God still hovered above Sinai in the sight of the congregation; but they turned away, and asked for other gods.”7
We wonder about depth of convictions in this story. What we see is not faith-based trust in divine leadership, but deep-seated underlying doubt leading ultimately to blatant idolatry. Israel was intellectually and emotionally still in Egypt. They had known the myriads of Egyptian deities. They had experienced the intoxicating emotions of Egyptian worship and rituals. A golden calf meant a mental and a physical shortcut back to Egypt. Worship could become a vehicle to the familiar. Instead of the radical worldview change implied in God’s covenant with His people, they opted to “stay put.”
Most of us cherish the familiar. We enjoy walking on known paths. We feel safe when we can order and understand our world. Israel experienced that as well, and again and again they yearned to return to Egypt (cf. Num. 14:4). But the call to follow God out of Egypt, the invitation to follow Jesus spoken directly by Him to His disciples, is not only a call to move geographically, it’s an invitation to radical change and radical discipleship. Our toxic self-centered mindset and values need to disappear because they are diametrically opposed to God’s values and world-view. We grab—God gives. We crave power—God offers humility. We demand authority—God emphasizes servanthood.
Both stories share a common denominator. Israel and Jonah struggled with their understanding of who God really was. Israel had seen God’s mighty signs and wonders. They had witnessed the theophany at Mount Sinai—and shrunk back in fear (Ex. 19:18, 19). For them Yahweh was just the Israelite version of another powerful Egyptian deity that was to be feared. They seemed to have never understood that He was not only their Creator and Redeemer, but also their Sustainer, their Healer (Ex. 15:26), their Father—and their Friend (John 15:15). Intriguingly, it is right after the golden calf episode that God reveals Himself to Moses as “the Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the father upon the children and the children’s children to the third and the fourth generation” (Ex. 34:6, 7).
Jonah’s understanding of God’s goodness was limited to Israel. He could not fathom the possibility of grace for even the enemies of God’s people. He would rather die than offer forgiveness to a hated enemy. His theology informed his relationships and his actions. That’s why the idea that we are God’s “ambassadors” (2 Cor. 5:20) can be thoroughly disconcerting. How can I represent Him in a way that will draw others toward Him—instead of repelling them? Paul gives us a clue: “We implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God” (verse 20). Reconciliation stands right at the beginning of healing.
I don’t like snakes. I have lived in parts of the world where snakes were plentiful. Many of these snakes were venomous. When a snake with neurotoxins bites there is only a limited window of opportunity to administer antivenomous serum. If not applied in time, the victim will die as a result of heart failure or breathing failure.
When our notion of God is full of toxins, we will espouse toxic waste that will affect people around us. We will represent Him in ways that may be distracting, discouraging, or even disturbing. In fact, toxic theological waste has been one of Satan’s favorite tools in history. What does the idea of an eternal purgatory say about God? What did the emphasis on the wrath of God with little reference to His grace do for the way people related to God?
Ellen White offers some intriguing insights on this: “It is the work of Satan to represent the Lord as lacking in compassion and pity. He misstates the truth in regard to Him. He fills the imagination with false ideas concerning God; and instead of dwelling upon the truth in regard to our heavenly Father, we too often fix our minds upon the misrepresentations of Satan and dishonor God by distrusting Him and murmuring against Him.”8
On another occasion she wrote: “The inhumanity of man toward man is our greatest sin. Many think that they are representing the justice of God while they wholly fail of representing His tenderness and His great love. Often the ones whom they meet with sternness and severity are under the stress of temptation. Satan is wrestling with these souls, and harsh, unsympathetic words discourage them and cause them to fall a prey to the tempter’s power.”9
When we recognize our great responsibility as we represent Christ to those around us, we fall at the feet of Jesus. We grasp His grace personally; we become reconciled with God, then are transformed into reconcilers. We focus on God’s goodness and let God do the transforming and healing in His time—in us and in those with whom we rub shoulders day to day.
Then, perhaps, instead of revulsion, perplexity, or heartache, our words, our touch, even the mention of our names, will offer a winning glimpse of Him who is invisible.
Gerald A. Klingbeil is an associate editor of Adventist Review who yearns for the deep cleansing power of the Spirit scrubbing all toxicity from his life.