Breaking Up With Bad Company
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"Do not be misled: ‘Bad company corrupts good character.’"-1 Corinthians 15:33
It is impossible to live a life that is unaffected by other people. Their attitudes and opinions, like pollen, blow into our lives, shaping our perspective and influencing our decisions. When one godly person’s life sharpens another’s, it’s a good thing. It yields a harvest of mature fruit over time.
But I can think of several instances in my life when I allowed the negative influence of others to sway my better judgment. It started when I was young.
In grammar school: "Come on, we can sneak into the classroom without the teacher ever knowing." He knew.
In high school: "Don't be such a drag. The toga party will be a blast!" With so much alcohol available, my friends couldn't remember what kind of party it was.
In college: "Let’s get pizza. It won't hurt to skip class today." Unless, of course, the professor covered topics that weren't in the book. He did.
As a young married woman: "Don't you think your husband is too tight with money?" He wasn't. But I didn't have enough discernment yet to realize how this older woman’s suggestion undermined my marriage.
Like many things in life, the moments in which we’ve been swayed by bad influences are often easier to see with hindsight. I'd like to think that as a "big girl" now, my judgment and perspective would keep me from being led astray. Unfortunately, I still have blind spots. I'm still vulnerable to being influenced toward ungodly attitudes and actions. The process can be so subtle that I don't even notice.
Recently at the gym, for instance, another woman who was working out joked with me about people who overeat and remain obese. It felt gratifying to be counted among the "in crowd." When I got home, however, God’s Spirit convicted me: her "compliment" was really a self-righteous jab at others who struggled—a jab I had agreed with. Our conversation had made me feel good at others' expense. Even if I usually exercised self-control in the kitchen, my critical tongue could stand to lose a few pounds.
Moments of conviction such as the one I had that day have spurred me to think about how other people’s negative influence works in our lives. The Apostle Paul succinctly described this dynamic in our relationships: "Do not be misled: 'Bad company corrupts good character’" (1 Cor. 15:33). Given this reality, how do we recognize and respond to the people in our lives who may indeed be "bad company"?
Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing
Perhaps the first step is to identify the people whom Scripture warns us to beware of. Proverbs, especially, describes a number of foolish behaviors we would do well to avoid when we see them in others: gossip and division (16:28), anger and violence (16:29), lying (12:22), greed (15:27), and lack of compassion (29:7).
Paul instructed us to avoid another form of influence:
But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat.
—1 Cor. 5:11
Paul understood that when people who called themselves Christians surrendered to sinful lifestyles, it dulled their ability to discern right and wrong (1 Tim. 4:1-2). They, in turn, drew others into their folly. For Paul, some of the biggest potential enemies to spiritual growth were not those outside the church who were engaged in blatant sin, but those inside it.
At times I’ve been tempted to believe I could easily spot bad company. But recognizing someone’s negative influence hasn't been automatic for me—just as I realized the day I got home from the gym. Scripture affirms what I’ve experienced: Negative influence isn't always obvious. Again and again, we're warned to be on the lookout for wolves in sheep’s clothing, outwardly "spiritual" people who lead God’s children astray (2 Thess. 2:3, 2 Pet. 3:17, 1 Jn. 4:1).
How do we learn to discern? In addition to keeping an eye open for the characters described above, it’s critical to understand how the corrupting power of bad company works and why we sometimes give in to its influence.
In the Company of Sin
In Hebrews we read, "Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles" (Heb. 12:1). It is the nature of sin to entangle, to trip us up, to drag us down. When we're around those whose lives are enmeshed in sin, we are exposed to its entangling influence in at least three ways: through the appeal of rebellion, through the desire for man’s approval, and through the inherent pleasure of sin.
The appeal of rebellion. If you have raised a child, then you already know rebellion lies at the heart of man. "No" is one of the first words out of most children’s little mouths. Growing up doesn't change that tendency. We don't like anyone telling us what to do—not even God. Submitting our lives to His leadership is hard for us, and it was hard for some of the characters in the Scriptures.
Moses' cousin Korah influenced 250 Israelite men to reject the authority God had given to Moses and Aaron. Korah didn't have to work too hard to rally support; he merely stoked the rebellious fire of the men who disagreed with God’s methods for setting up the priesthood. These men joined Korah’s rebellion and suffered the consequences of God’s judgment for doing so (Num. 16:1-35). Korah’s wicked influence proved to be their doom.
The sinful nature of our hearts predisposes us all to rebellion. Like Eve in the garden, we are easily enticed to disobey God through the snakelike influence of bad company.
The desire for man’s approval. Accolade. Kudos. Respect. We all crave the endorsements we believe will validate our worthiness as a person. But when our desire to please the crowd overshadows our reverence for God, we’ve allowed man’s influence in our lives to supercede His. Sometimes the cost of doing so is far greater than we ever imagined. For Saul, the first king of Israel, the price of man’s approval was ultimately his monarchy.
Saul and his army were stationed at Gilgal waiting for Samuel, the priest, to arrive before the great battle. It was Samuel’s responsibility—his alone—to offer the burnt offering to God. But the prophet was tardy, and Saul grew nervous as his jittery army started to scatter. Their impatience influenced Saul to do what was forbidden: offer the sacrifice himself (1 Sam. 13:1-14).
When Samuel arrived, he pronounced words of judgment upon Saul that foretold his fall and the loss of his kingship: "You have acted foolishly.... Your kingdom will not endure" (vv. 13-14). The influence of Saul’s men compelled him to submit to their fear instead of God’s sovereignty. Saul cared more about his army’s approval that day than He did God’s explicit commands.
Likewise, when someone influences us to make a choice we know is wrong, we have, in effect, decided that person’s approval is more important to us than God’s.
The pleasure of sin. Let’s face it: Sin is pleasurable, at least in the beginning. Whether it’s the excessive use of something that we could be thankful for in moderation or the tantalizing allure of illicit pursuits, sin promises to satisfy our deepest longings. Eventually, however, everyone who indulges in sin will pay the price.
Take chocolate for example.
If I were to eat as much chocolate as I wanted (which is a lot), whenever I wanted (which is often), I would be enjoying the sinful pleasure of gluttony. Eating chocolate is not sin in and of itself; my overconsumption of it is. In my case, sin finds me out when I step on the scale.
Usually, sin’s siren song is most tempting when I'm struggling to cope with life. During such times, I must be aware of those who would have me believe the pleasures of sin aren't worth worrying about. If I comment to a friend that I need to restrain my appetite in this area, and she responds, "Oh come on, it’s not that big a deal," I need to pay attention to her negative influence upon me.
Sometimes negative influence is obvious because it encourages us to indulge a known weakness. At other times, however, corrupting influence is more subtle. It may not lead to blatantly sinful decisions. Instead, we may have little more than a troubling sense that something isn't quite right in this relationship.
How can we tell when we're being influenced negatively? Here are some telltale signs:
- if we feel consistently heavyhearted, agitated, or depressed after spending time with someone
- if we're violating areas of conviction
- if we're making questionable decisions that were never options before
- if we're more lax regarding areas of weakness
- if we're rationalizing behavior or thoughts that we previously avoided
These neon signs alert us to the possibility that someone’s effect on our lives is pulling us the wrong way.
Once we’ve identified someone as a negative influence, the next step is to decide what to do about it. Broadly speaking, I think there are two important parts to our response. First, we need to decide how much to limit our exposure to the person in question. Second, we should seek the protective influence of healthy relationships with other believers and place ourselves under the influence of God’s Word and His Spirit.
Limiting exposure. The first step in dealing with a negative influence is to reduce the amount of exposure we have to that person. I don't think there’s a set formula for discerning where to establish protective boundaries. Just because someone influences us negatively in one area doesn't mean she can't make a positive contribution in another. Because of that, I’ve found it best to ask God how He wants me respond. He has promised that He'll give me wisdom when I ask for it (Jas. 1:5).
I’ve also learned that limiting a negative influence usually involves one or more of the following steps:
- Setting parameters. We might not have a problem spending time with this person in the office, but we may need to forgo having a drink together after work.
- Distancing yourself. We may need some space for a time in order to decide how to handle the situation.
- Fleeing. Sometimes drastic measures are necessary, and we must flee unrighteousness (1 Cor. 6:18, 10:14; 2 Tim. 2:22). When our soul is in immediate peril because we're tempted to sin by someone’s bad influence, we simply need to get out—just as Joseph did when he fled the advances of Potiphar’s wife (Gen. 39:1-12).
Another decision we'll have to make is whether or not to communicate with this person about our reasons for limiting contact or ending the relationship.
I once had a coworker whose outlook on life was consistently negative. Because I, too, had struggled with pessimism, I knew that spending time with her could drag me down. At first, I chose to avoid her. Eventually, I decided I could spend time with her if others were present to offset her negativity. Relating to her in a group protected me from being overly swayed by her gloom.
In retrospect, I wonder if telling her about my struggle with her pessimism might have been a better solution. Sometimes talking openly with someone about her influence can open the door to a deeper relationship. It might also encourage her to take inventory of her own vulnerabilities.
However, there are also times when it’s best to act without explanation. For example, if we have concerns about a person’s trustworthiness, it’s probably better to limit our vulnerability.
Submitting to positive influences. In addition to limiting negative input, we also need to submit our lives to the positive influences that will protect us.
- Submission to other believers. Who are the good influencers in our lives? Jesus prayed for His disciples to be one just as He and the Father are one (Jn. 17:20-23). He knew that the temptation to follow the crowd would be great; I believe that’s one reason He emphasized unity with other believers. Being in relationship with like-minded friends shields us from the corrupting power of bad company.
- Confession. One way we can express our submission to other believers is to confess our sin (Jas. 5:16). If we’ve repeatedly been drawn into another person’s entangling influence, we may need help to break free.
Confession is an important first step; it frees us from false guilt and gives us an opportunity to recommit to pursuing a holy life. Confession also paves the way for others to protect us where we're vulnerable through their ongoing encouragement and support.
- Submission to God through His Word and prayer. Joshua 1:8 commands us, "Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it."
When I focus on God’s truth, it transforms my thinking (Ro. 12:2). The Word inoculates my mind against the lies and deception of sin, and I am less likely to make choices that fly in the face of God’s commands.
As we encounter Scriptures that address our temptations and struggles, our response is to submit ourselves to God in prayer. Through prayer, we allow our hearts, minds, and wills to be influenced by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Bad company does indeed corrupt good character. But if we remain vigilant, if we're honest about our own weaknesses, and if we seek out the protective, positive resources God has graciously given us, we do not have to be drawn into the destructive power of sin.
By God’s grace, we'll grow in exercising the kind of Christlike influence He wants us to embody in our relationships.
About this article, Lynne writes, "I do not live in a vacuum. I need to ask myself who’s influencing me, and to consider whether that influence is moving me closer to or further from the cross."
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