Dr Henry Cloud and Dr John Townsend — Safe People: Book review

Book review by Debbie Hemmens

Renowned authors, Cloud and Townsend have written an all-time classic here, something for everyone’s bookshelf.

I have been amazed throughout this book at how relevant and necessary their advice is. A timely word in season for our world to hear.

It speaks into so many of the societal ills we live with, like toxic and abusive relationships, intimate partner deaths, co-dependency, dysfunctional families and also addresses difficult relationships, divorce, consent and more.

A comment towards the end of the book says this: “Relationships are the most important aspect of the spiritual life. God defines it this way – ‘Love God and love your neighbour!’”

You are taken on a journey of understanding what an unsafe person is, why you maybe choose unsafe relationships all the way to understanding what safe people are, why we need them and learning how to be a safe person yourself.

The idea of changing our own character first is really what this book is about. Change starts with us and we can only be personally responsible for changing ourselves.

In order to have safe people in this world, we must first become safe people ourselves. When one person changes, the relationship changes, but we are not responsible for changing other people, neither should we be trying. Let’s focus on ourselves.

God created us for relationship with both Him and with each other. When at creation God declared: “It is not good for man to be alone” — Genesis 2:18, He was not only talking about marriage but the importance of all relationships. Part of being made in God’s image is having a need to be in relationship.

We need to get to the point where we can easily discern between good and bad character traits in people. This takes time, mistakes and maturity.

1 Corinthians 13:4-7 provides us with a very basic grid to discern if a person is safe for us. Put the person’s name in each trait and see the results. Love seeks the good of the other.

Jesus taught us about empathy when He said we should love and treat others the way that we want to be loved and treated. Give them what you are also needing. Enter their world and see what they need. It makes the relationship real, and safe.

Safe relationships are also about truth, righteousness and honesty. Not all easy, but very necessary. We need people who will speak the truth in love, have loving confrontations about character issues or self-destructiveness.

Safe relationships are centred and grounded in forgiveness. Forgiveness and apologising take humility and vulnerability. When we are made aware of how we have hurt a loved one, then we can be reconciled.

Dependence says I can’t do this on my own. Independence says I can do this on my own. Interdependence is what we need and it says: “Although I could do this on my own, I choose to need and include you.” We need each other to see all there is to see.

Time is important in giving us the ability to see the person in a variety of circumstances. Consistency of character is a key positive character trait. Too many relationships get caught up in the infatuation of the moment and trouble often hits down the line, but you have already declared undying love and get caught up in a web that you cannot escape. Take things slowly.

Unsafety finds its origin in sin – something that is everyone’s problem. We were created for a harmonious and unending love relationship with God. Adam and Eve’s fall from grace changed the nature of relationships forever.

Some of this is our fault but not all of this is our fault. There is sin by us, sin against us, sin in the world and Satan’s strategies that all play a part.

The devil delights in keeping people away from other people. He knows that the power of love is in relationship. And he is dedicated to our being cut off from God and each other.

Sometimes people think there are no good people in the world but the real problem is that they are unable to choose safe people.

When people find themselves in destructive relationship after destructive relationship, they need to take a hard and brave look inside themselves and realise the common denominator is themselves.

We like to see the problem as outside of ourselves, but we have to look at our own character issues because we are responsible for our own change, not to try and change others. Many of our poor relationships are our fault. Ouch!!

The great thing is that the authors provide a way forward for people to figure out their character flaws and work towards better and healthier choices to being a safe person and choosing safe people.

Many of the issues that don’t help us are things that the Bible deals with very directly and tells us to face as part of our sanctification process. God wants us to have good relationships and He provides us with the framework for them. “You make known to me the path of life.” — Psalm 16:11

Sometimes, once armed with information about unsafe people, some people think they need to rid themselves of the unsafe people in their lives. We need to remember that we only have control over changing ourselves and if we change in a relationship, it will change the dynamic of the relationship.

We don’t get to walk away unless we have given it our best shot and emulated the way God works with difficult relationships which involves acting righteously, giving change a chance, forgiveness and being long-suffering. (A comment about abusive relationships – God’s ideal will always be redemption, but this does not mean that someone in a destructive, abusive situation is obliged to remain passive and be hurt.)

Love does not exist outside of risk and it’s always worth the risk to love. Keep trying, keep working on yourself to become safe and realise that safe people are out there.

God did not create us to be relationally self-sufficient. He loves us to need each other. Our needs teach us about love and keep us humble. God created in us a longing to be known and loved. His love for us is unending and unconditional and we need to learn from Him.

The best example of a safe person is found in Jesus. He connects with us. He dwells with us. He is full of grace and truth. (John 1:14) He is on our side. We are accepted as we are. He is honest about our faults without condemning us. He is real with us.

We need to follow by example and dwell with each other in grace and truth.

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