The Gospel of Triangulation

Then the men stepped forward, seized Jesus and arrested him. With that, one of Jesus’ companions reached for his sword, drew it out and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear.

“Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?”

Matthew 26:50-54

This wasn’t the first time that Peter tried to rescue Jesus from the cross. The first time was with words instead of a sword. Jesus asked the disciples who people said that He was. Then Jesus asked them who they thought He was, and Peter correctly stated, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” But when Jesus then went on to explain that He must suffer and be killed in Jerusalem, Peter said, “Never Lord…This shall never happen to you!” Famously, Jesus responds to Peter by saying, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns” (Matthew 16:13-23).

We can find ourselves making the same mistake as Peter, especially when we seek to help others. Jesus wasn’t just rejecting the temptation to abandon His mission for the sake of personal comfort. There is a human pattern that Jesus was rejecting. Jesus was refusing to be painted as the victim.

The unhealthy pattern that Jesus rejected (which often emerges in human relational dynamics) is called triangulation. This is where one person or group plays the victim, another person or group plays the bad guy, and the final piece of the triangle is the person or group playing the rescuer. We see this unhealthy pattern everywhere. We see it happen in marriages, in families, in organizations involved in social justice, and in politics.

Here’s how it works. Each player plays their role and uses that role to control one of the other players. The victim acts helpless and manipulates and guilts the rescuer into saving them from the bad guy. So the victim controls the rescuer. Indignant, the rescuer sets about to save the victim by controlling the bad guy. The bad guy, of course, is controlling the victim. You see this pattern all the time in human relationships.

Here’s what’s interesting. Not only is the victim controlling the rescuer, but the victim is also depending on the bad guy for their identity. Likewise, the bad guy is depending on the rescuer for their identity and the rescuer is depending on the victim for their identity. So everyone involved in the triangulation has unhealthy, codependent connections with the other players in this psychological game.

For instance, politicians make their party the victims, the other party the bad guys, and make themselves the rescuers. Social justice warriors make “those people” the bad guys, the group they want to rescue the victims, and themselves the rescuers. In unhealthy marriages, usually a pattern emerges where one person is the bad guy and another person is the perpetual victim. All they need now is a rescuer to sweep in and complete the triangulation. Once we are aware of this toxic pattern, we start to see it everywhere.

But Jesus rejected triangulation even when Peter kept offering it. Peter kept trying to paint Jesus as the victim, the chief priests and elders as the bad guys, and himself as the rescuer. It’s funny now to think of Peter trying to frame himself as Jesus’s rescuer. But this was part of satan’s temptation, both of Peter and of Jesus. This is partly why Jesus said to Peter, “Get behind me Satan!” Jesus could hear in Peter’s words the enemy’s offer of triangulation.

Jesus was not the victim. He could have called on His Father to send twelve legions of angels. Jesus, speaking about His own life, said, “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord“(John 10:18). Jesus was not a victim.

Likewise, Peter was definitely not Jesus’s rescuer. And hanging from the cross, Jesus would say of the bad guys, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Jesus rejected triangulation all the way around.

This may be hard for some to believe, but Jesus also did not intend to recreate a new triangulation where He is the rescuer, we are the victims, and sin or satan is the bad guy. This unhealthy pattern requires that everyone stay in their role and no one gets healthy. If Jesus came simply to be our rescuer, we would have to remain the victims or the bad guys. Some churches preach a gospel that sounds very similar to this. But Jesus came to do so much more than that!

A real hero is not someone who rescues but someone who empowers!

Jesus didn’t just want to rescue us from sin and death (which He did), He also rose from the grave to give us new life. He empowered us to have victory over sin and death in our new life with Him. This is why we were given the Holy Spirit to dwell within us. We were empowered to live victorious rather than as perpetual victims or perpetual bad guys.

This means we must take responsibility for our life, our decisions, and the consequences of our decisions. We must take responsibility for our sin, the boundaries that we set, and the health of our relationships. Before we make someone else a bad guy, we must forgive them, just as we have been forgiven, and release grace to them. Forgiveness keeps us from falling into the trap of triangulation.

When we seek to help people, we need to be mindful not to view ourselves as the rescuer. When we slip into the rescuer role, we inevitably force someone else to be either the bad guy or the victim. While our intensions are good, we are unwittingly perpetuating a toxic pattern.

Instead, imitating Jesus, we need to help people by empowering them, not rescuing them. Rescuing people communicates that they are incapable of being anything other than a victim of their own life. Instead, empowering people tells them that they are fully capable of solving their own problems and being responsible for their own life.

Have you fallen into the trap of triangulation? Jesus rejected this toxic pattern and it’s time we do the same.

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