Finding a greeting card for someone you love can be tough! Have you noticed how the messages in cards are often exaggerated, lofty, and unattainable?
“You make life complete and worth living for!”
“Mom and Dad, you are my unfailing rock and support. Without you, I would have failed to accomplish anything of worth.”
“You’re the friend I’ve always longed for, the other half of my heart living in another person.”
Movies and music also frequently touch upon deep longings for unfailing love and commitment. As image bearers of God, desiring intimate relationships is in our spiritual DNA—yet God alone can offer us unfailing love. We can taste love like this in human relationships, but spouses, parents, children, friends, siblings, and mentors are supposed to point us to God’s love, not hijack our heart’s devotion to him.
Codependency: Worldly Wisdom vs. Scriptural Truth
In the 1980s, self-help books popularized the term “codependent” to describe dysfunctional relationships in which an individual excessively relies upon others for worth, approval, and self-identity. Professional organizations made diagnoses for personality and relationship-based disorders. One example was dependent personality disorder, described as an “excessive and pervasive need to be taken care of; submissive, clinging, needy behavior due to fear of abandonment.”¹ Tragically, the American Psychiatric Association offers little hope because “personality disorders are resistant to treatment!”²
The word “codependent” isn’t in the Bible, and yet Scripture addresses unholy relationship patterns. What the world calls codependency, God’s Word calls “idolatry,” the worship of anything or anyone other than him. When we displace God with human relationships, relational idolatry happens.
God’s explicit command is that we have no other gods, including people, before him in our lives (Exodus 20:2–3). The sin is subtle, but the idolatry that causes codependency happens when relationships entice us away from the Lord, and we selfishly demand that someone give us, or receive from us, love, attention, and affirmation.
Our closest relationships can present the fiercest temptation to turn from the Giver to his gifts. Codependent relationships are idolatrous because they usurp Jesus’s rightful place. Instead of yielding to the Lord who loves us, we yield our sense of well-being to a person. Even though these connections at first feel emotionally intoxicating or comforting, a painful harvest of discontentment, anxiety, and insecurity eventually develops because people can’t fill, heal, or satisfy our hearts!
Delighting In, Rather Than Running After, People
Codependency, or relational idolatry, is something I personally know well. God used Psalm 16, particularly verses 1–4, to help me step away from broken patterns of relating to people.
“Preserve me, O God, for in you I take refuge. I say to the LORD, ’You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you.’ As for the saints in the land, they are the excellent ones, in whom is all my delight. The sorrows of those who run after another god shall multiply.”
David looks to God as his refuge, the One apart from whom there is “no good!” This echoes Jesus teaching his disciples that the truest intimacy and security could only be found in relationship with him: “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). When we abide in Jesus alone, he will bear good fruit in our relationships.
Having proclaimed God as his true refuge and Lord, David expresses a godly heart posture towards people: a holy delight in and affection for them. He cautions that when we desperately run after anyone to feel good about ourselves, devastating consequences will result: sorrow, pain, and grief.
When you “watch” Jesus relate to people in the Gospels, he is never aloof or selfishly distant. His relationships weren’t fueled by flattery, people-pleasing, or demands that people make him feel good about himself. John 2:24–25 explains how Jesus lived out Psalm 16:1–4: “But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.”
Jesus loved, served, and enjoyed people without “entrusting” himself to them in the same way that he entrusted himself to his Father. He compassionately and selflessly loved people and obeyed the command to love God alone with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength. For all of the Bible’s commands regarding marriage, friendship, parenting, and neighbors, God never said to place our trust in people with our whole being—yet we are to love as he has loved us (John 15:12). That kind of love and trust is rightly focused on our Savior, who refused to allow people to capture his heart’s focus and “sideline” God.
God-dependency Displaces Codependency
If you struggle with idolatry in your relationships and recognize the symptoms of codependency in your life, take heart! Worldly wisdom cannot offer effective treatment for a spiritual matter, but the gospel can through Jesus. He offers all that we need to grow into healthy and holy people. Jesus offers you himself! Our Savior makes a home in us through an eternal union based on his grace. This is the most intimate, satisfying, and healthy relationship anyone could ever enjoy!
Jesus also forgives us when we sin in our relationships, and he heals our broken hearts. Many people were never taught what healthy relationships look like, much less how to cultivate relationships and friendships fueled by rightly ordered love. Pray that God would guide you to love that abounds with knowledge and discernment.
Finally—though so much more could be said—Jesus came to transform your heart so that you would be captivated by his love and freed to move towards people with God-honoring motives rather than selfish demands. With Jesus in his rightful place as our loving Lord, other people will increasingly take their proper place as gifts to be enjoyed.
¹ https://www.theravive.com/therapedia/dependent-personality-disorder-dsm–5-301.6-(f60.7), accessed by author May 29, 2020.
You can also watch the video, “Once Codependent, Always Codependent?“, which corresponds to this blog.
Ellen Mary Dykas
Director of Equipping for Ministry to Women
Ellen joined Harvest USA in 2007 as our first full-time women’s ministry staff. Ellen received her MA from Covenant Theological Seminary and a graduate certificate in biblical counseling from Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation (CCEF).More from Ellen Mary Dykas