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.

Victim Mentality

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written:
“For your sake we face death all day long;
    we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”[Psalm 44:22]
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

Romans 8:35-37

Notice in the verse above that the apostle Paul has been through some things. We know he was imprisoned multiple times. He was beaten and almost killed. He faced hunger and famine. He faced poverty and ridicule. He endured severe persecution. Yet, when it came time to make a statement about his identity in Christ, he used the phrase, “more than conquerors.” Though in many ways Paul was a victim, he did not use that label to define his identity. “More than conquerors” is a label given to the victorious, not victims. Paul was able to look beyond his victimization and to the victory that he had in Christ.

There are a couple phrases floating around out there that we need to clarify when it comes to victimhood.

Playing the Victim: when someone is “playing the victim” they are acting like they have been victimized when they really haven’t been. They are attempting to gain victim status to garner people’s sympathy. This is a manipulation tactic that some people use to get the upper hand in their workplace or in a conversation.

According to an article in Psychology Today, a new study led by Ekin Ok at the University of British Columbia has found people who signal virtue and victimhood are more likely to have dark triad personality traits (narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy). The study states, “contemporary Western democracies have become particularly hospitable environments for victim signalers to execute a strategy of nonreciprocal resource extraction.” In other words, if you play the victim–in particular a virtuous victim–you can get social and material resources.

Victim Mentality: when someone has a victim mentality, they view their entire identity through the lens of being a victim. Someone with a victim mentality could just be “playing the victim” (see above) or they could have been legitimately victimized. A person with a victim mentality tends to immediately view themselves as a victim in nearly all of their interactions with others. As we see with the apostle Paul, being legitimately victimized doesn’t have to lead to a victim mentality. Though we may have been victimized, we don’t have to let that reality control our identity and how we view ourselves.

At Araminta Freedom Initiative, a nonprofit that fights child trafficking in the Baltimore area, we intentionally didn’t call young girls who had been trafficked “victims.” Clearly they had been victimized, but we wanted them to know that they were so much more than a victim. We didn’t want them living with a victim mentality because it is so disempowering. We wanted language that empowered them to live full lives. So instead of “trafficking victim” we called them what they really were, “trafficking survivors.”

No one will get through this life without some level of victimization. Some people will experience severe victimization and others will experience more mild forms. This world is broken and sinful. People are broken and sinful. The question is not whether we will be hurt or harmed in some way. Of course we will. This should not surprise us. Jesus warned us, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). The question is whether we will allow these hardships to establish a victim mentality within us, or whether we will choose to see ourselves not only as “survivors” but as “more than conquerors through Him who loves us.”

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 8:38-39

Open Doors

But the Israelites were unfaithful in regard to the devoted things; Achan son of Karmi, the son of Zimri, the son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, took some of them.

…So about three thousand went up; but they were routed by the men of Ai…

…Then Joshua tore his clothes and fell facedown to the ground before the ark of the Lord, remaining there till evening. The elders of Israel did the same, and sprinkled dust on their heads. And Joshua said, “Alas, Sovereign Lord, why did you ever bring this people across the Jordan to deliver us into the hands of the Amorites to destroy us? 

…The Lord said to Joshua, “Stand up! What are you doing down on your face?Israel has sinned; they have violated my covenant, which I commanded them to keep. They have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen, they have lied, they have put them with their own possessions. That is why the Israelites cannot stand against their enemies

Joshua 7:1, 4, 6-7, 10-12

This is a truth that still applies today but so few understand. Sin in our lives is an open door for the enemy to attack us. If we choose to live in sin, we choose to be a piñata for Satan as he steals, kills and destroys (John 10:10).

One person in Israel’s army kept treasures for themselves. Then Israel went up against an enemy that should have been no match for them, and yet they lost. The Lord was not with them. The sin had separated the people from God.

In response to their defeat, they cried out to the Lord as if to say, “Why did this happen to us? How could you let this happen to us God?” Sound familiar?

God immediately corrects their assumption. The people were grieving and mourning as if they were victims. God tells Joshua, “Stand up!” They were not victims. They invited this defeat because of their own sin. God did not do this to them. Their enemy did this to them because they hadn’t yet dealt with the sin in their camp. While they were on their face grieving as victims they should have been on their face repenting of their own sin.

This applies to our lives in so many ways. We often think that if there is sin in one part of our lives, it will only affect that part of our life. Wrong. Sin in one part of our life gives the enemy access to other parts of our life, and He may bring destruction in other parts of our life that have little to do with our sin (just as the men in Israel’s army who died had little to do with Achan’s sin).

We also tend to blame God when bad things happen instead of recognizing that it was the enemy at work. God did not defeat Israel’s army, their enemy did. And the distance created between Israel and God was not something God created. It was the sin of Israel that separated the people from God’s presence.

So often we grieve as victims when we should be on our face in repentance. Self-pity has become a national past-time in America, but self-pity is demonic. It turns the focus and the blame on others and on God instead of allowing the light of conviction to shine on our own hearts.

Once we repent of our sin, the door to the enemy is shut. But so long as we pridefully refuse to admit our sin, that door is wide open. We need to allow the Holy Spirit to shine the spotlight of conviction on our hearts. And when sin is exposed, we need to be ruthless about eliminating it from our life. We need to ask for forgiveness, from God and others, and we need to eradicate that sin in all its forms.

Jesus is the one who recommended a ruthless approach to sin in our life. He said:

If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.

Matthew 5:29-30

The apostle Paul said, “do not give the devil a foothold“(Ephesians 4:27).

To be sure, not every hardship we face in life is a result of sin. But we’ll never know the open doors to the enemy in our own life unless we allow the Holy Spirit to show us. Too many Christians walk around looking like Swiss cheese in the spirit rather than a fortress. Too many followers of Jesus are play toys of the enemy because their chronic unrepented sin leaves them open to all manner of attack.

Pray this simple prayer below from Psalm 139 and ask the Holy Spirit to show you where you might be unnecessarily vulnerable to the enemy’s attack. And if He shows you something, repent, ask for forgiveness and eradicated it from your life.

Search me, God, and know my heart;
    test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting.

Psalm 139:23-24