I’ve recently been asked how one can determine when to help others, especially when it isn’t clear whether we should or not. It is a difficult question.
As Christians, we are often moved and indeed commanded to help others in need, but we must also consider times and circumstances in which certain help is not help-ful but harm-ful. If we are not wise, we can actually create a handicap in the lives of those we are genuinely trying to help— doing far more harm than good.
The problem is, everyone around us seems to need help with something. Women are especially keen at noticing these needs- especially mothers. We raise completely helpless and dependent infants and nurture them into capable, independent adults- at least that’s the goal! We recognize physical needs first and best. They are easily identified and met. But we don’t always recognize emotional or spiritual needs, so we primarily go-with-what-we-know, focusing on the obvious.
But it’s hard to discern whether we should help someone (especially if it’s our own child, grown or not), and we may be driven by manipulation or unhealthy motives.
One of my kids does a really poor job at keeping track of things. I know, a minor issue, right?
But I have done something wrong— not in the moral sense, but incorrectly. I have made it nearly impossible for this child to remember where things have been left or even how to retrace steps to find misplaced items. How, you might ask?
By moving them! I have often picked up after this particular child in an effort to clear space for the sake of my own sanity. I have a visual threshold, where too much “stuff” suffocates me and hinders my ability to think, like trying to breathe with a handkerchief over my mouth, or trying to read with huge smudges on my glasses.
When my usual requests for tidying went unmet, I became frustrated and did it myself. I would finally organize the chaos, pick up the knick-knacks, and put away the tiny plastic bricks that seem to multiply like bacteria, and aaahhh… relief!
I experienced immediate gratification— a cleaner space for me visually and functionally, but in doing this for myself, I have robbed my child of important lessons in keeping track of one’s belongings and finding lost ones.
This is also what we do to others when we rob them of the opportunity to work at critical life lessons and skills. This is what happens when we do too much, or do it for our own selfish reasons.
This is how we handicap others with our help.
Young children– dressing them when they CAN and WANT do it themselves….or countless other things WE do for them to save time / energy / sanity!
Older children – choosing to nag or help too much with homework rather than allowing them to suffer consequences.
Teens – doing everything / providing everything for them: e.g., laundry, cooking, cleaning their rooms, providing electronics, vehicle, gas, clothes, paying their insurance and cell bills, etc…
College Students – disputing a class, grade, or disciplinary measure when they are capable of advocating for themselves.
As we broaden our relationships and ages, the situations can get more complicated:
- A friend in a struggling marriage confides in you and asks for counseling, but does not have the money for a licensed therapist, drawing you into the midst of sensitive, personal issues with not only your friendship but a marriage on the line.
- A friend or relative with an addiction has lost his job, home, and car and wants to move in with you because everyone else has written him off.
- A neighbor wants you to co-sign a car loan to help them get work.
- Your adult child struggles to manage finances appropriately and needs help to avoid collections, wage garnishments, or bankruptcy.
- You fill in your own:____________________________________________
How do I know about this? Every family has their stories; we have ours, and I’m sure you have yours too! I believe the heart of our question is— how do we help others without shortcutting necessary growth opportunities, creating dependence, or feeling like we’re rewarding destructive habits?
Stated simply: How can we help someone without handicapping him/her?
Because each person and their situation is different, there are no clear guidelines that suit every circumstance. What we do have however, is the ability to discern. And when we need wisdom, it will be given liberally, when we ask God for it! (James 1:5)
To help us discern how, or if we SHOULD help someone, let’s consider 4 important things:
1.Have I been asked to intervene?
If not, STOP here and now. Forcing our assistance on others may give a short term solution, but most often is breeding ground for resentment and bitterness. Jesus never forced his help and healing on others. In fact, Jesus asked blind Bartimaeus “What do you want me to do for you?” even though it was evident that he needed sight. Still, Jesus had him verbally request it (Mark 10:46-52) before He healed him. If our involvement is not requested, we risk expending energy, resources, and emotion in a situation that may be ineffective and ultimately rejected.
2. Is what I am being asked reasonable?
I am not suggesting you play judge here, but that you truly consider if the help you are being asked to provide is actually help-ful in the given context. Is it reasonable for you to provide this assistance? For example, being asked to counsel a friend and her husband in marital crisis because they cannot afford a professional, while you are not one either, is not a reasonable request. Unreasonable requests are asking for what you cannot give, even though you may want to give it. Here, a collaborative effort may be in order- bringing others in to help meet needs that exceed your abilities.
3. Who is this (really) for; what is my motivation?
Am I trying to exert control, feeding a need for purpose, or avoiding anything personally by providing this help? We often handicap others because our motivation is personal. We want to be needed, feel guilt for past failures, may feel shame by this situation, or are fearful of what will happen to them (or our relationship) if we do NOT do what has been asked. Parents especially struggle to watch (grown) children suffer painful consequences of their mistakes and failures.
We often see consequences as punishment rather than as a tool for discipline (or correction). We anticipate the hardship of bankruptcy, so we “help” out a grown child, paying his debts, usually without requiring anything in return. This stems from guilt over past parenting failures, shame over the circumstances, or fear of the outcome should we not rescue them.
We may also buy into the belief that rescue is evidence of our love and compassion, but Scripture teaches that discipline instead, is evidence of love:
“My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline, and do not resent his rebuke, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in.” Prov 3:11-12
4. Would I be embarrassed for others to know how I’m ‘helping’?
Most of us do not announce when we are helping others out. In fact, our example in giving to the needy was that it be secretive, not allowing the left hand to know what the right hand was doing (Matt 6:3-5). But sometimes, we overcommit, lose perspective, or our emotions cloud our judgment.
If we know everyone around us would be alarmed to hear that just before retirement, we have taken out a second mortgage on our home to fund a business for someone who could take on that risk personally, then we must stop and revisit questions 2 and 3! We risk handicapping someone by doing for them what they can and should be doing for themselves.
Each of the above questions should alert us to red flags warning of dangerous territory or motives which might handicap the one we are trying to help.
If there are no red flags, then here are some easy steps for moving forward in a truly beneficial way:
- Specify the help we will give.
- Agree on terms (i.e, in finances, is this a gift or will repayment be expected? If services, what boundaries will be necessary to make it through to the desired goal?)
- “Teach them to fish”– is this help going to empower them in the future? The adage goes, “Give a man a fish, feed him for a day, teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime.”
- Practice Patience– expect setbacks, delays, and even failures. This is a process and we often stumble, swerve, and fall many times as we learn to walk, ride a bike, balance a budget, or break an addiction.
- Do not take outcomes personally. We are not God- we can’t see everything or anticipate the next obstacle. Just as we would never assume credit for another person’s success, we cannot take responsibility for their failures either.
- Encourage / celebrate progress! Recognize the gains and headway being made and celebrate it together!
- Pray, pray, pray! Ask God to guide, protect, and grow us (all) from this experience!
ONE FINAL RISK TO CONSIDER
There is one final risk we must consider when helping others.
Remember the needs we readily identify? They’re usually physical. But emotional and spiritual needs can be concealed, ignored, or masked. However, God sees them and is always working to meet those needs in His children, which sometimes involves lessons in loss and re-establishing trust in Him.
If we are too swift to help others avoid uncomfortable circumstances, we risk jeopardizing valuable faith-building experiences designed by God to strengthen them from within.
I know of no one who actually wants to handicap others with their help. I certainly do not want to see my kid hindered by disorganization or grow up to be lax and irresponsible. And I have work to do NOW to correct the bearing that we’re on so that it doesn’t become a handicap when the stakes are higher and the consequences more painful. I must stop putting my personal needs (for control) first and consider what will help us (all) better in the long run.
Again, our desire is to benefit others, especially our family, close friends, or children.
We all want to be confident that the help we give others is constructive. And there is no guaranteed test for knowing when our help will actually benefit another in the long run. Proverbs reminds us over and over that the wise man listen and learns from a rebuke, but the fool spurns wisdom.
We may provide help and it not change their life. We may not even be thanked! Jesus Himself healed 10 lepers, but only 1 came back to the thank him. Only 1!! (Luke 17:11-19)
And yet to deny help (support, guidance, or aid) can be isolating and further distress the one facing dire circumstances.
This is why we need to know why we do what we do. This is why we need to know how to help others without handicapping them.
Wisdom helps us to discern not only the superficial needs of others, but the emotional and potentially spiritual component. Wisdom guides us to helping others without robbing them of lessons from one of the greatest “teachers” of all time – experience.
I want to be careful not to let my earnest desire to help, circumvent the work God wants to do in a given situation- especially the difficult ones.
It is not good to have zeal without knowledge, not to be hasty and miss the way. Prov 19:2
I pray this post encourages you and provides a framework towards approaching the difficulties in determining how to help others without hindering their personal growth. If you found this helpful, I would greatly appreciate your sharing it with others! And please tell me if you have found this helpful!
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