As an intern, I work with a large number of pro bono clients; people who cannot afford to pay for someone who is fully licensed. I have had the privilege to work with the homeless, with former prostitutes, and with former prisoners. If you had asked me a few years ago if I felt any draw toward working with these populations I would have said no. Compassion, yes; but no desire to make them a part of my life’s work.
I remember nearly 20 years ago I was part of a home church where a couple former prisoners came to join us. I wonder if they could tell how much I feared them. These were men with tattoos that I knew from TV meant they had killed people. I was less concerned with what their needs were than I was with my own fear. I judged them terribly. I was suspect of their every word and deed. I imagined the worst, my fears fueled by years of murder mysteries and watching the news. Fast forward to today, where my heart is now fiercely protective of my former prisoner clients. I love them dearly. I feel honored that I get to work with them and desire to be used as an instrument of healing and exhortation in their lives.
One of the things these clients often will mention to me is the confusion they face over figuring out what they are supposed to do for others and what they are not. “I know my family is messed up and keeps trying to bring me back to do things I know I shouldn’t; but as a Christian am I not supposed to be in their lives? Doesn’t that mean I’m meant to be the one to care, to buy them food or diapers for their kids, even if they are spending their money on drugs? Doesn’t being a Christian mean I’m always meant to give if I have it? Shouldn’t I make the time to do everything that someone asks of me, and just forget about taking care of my own needs?”
I often shake my head and smile. I have struggled with the same thing. Scripture so clearly commands us to give openhandedly to our brothers and the poor (Deut. 15:11); but how many of us begrudgingly give to our brothers and make excuses NOT to give to the poor. I know I have. Then there’s the real head smacker: “Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins” (James 4:17). Which makes it sound like you are responsible for every opportunity to do good that crosses your path, but is that really the case? I think the catch here is what we “ought to do”. Is it meant for me specifically to do?
There is a fine line between a loving sacrifice and codependence. If your child is spending all their money on drugs and comes to you asking for money for food, would you go without to give them what they need; or would you say no, even if it meant them going without? If your out-of-work brother goes out and instead of looking for work spends all his money getting drunk and then calls you at 2am to come get him from the bar, should you go get him? What about a “friend” who always expects you to pay for their meals and drive them home an hour across town without giving you gas money, even when it means you won’t have enough money for gas for yourself for the week?
The truth is we are not always meant to rescue someone from the consequences of their own actions. Yes, Christ ultimately did this for us; but Scripture makes it clear that the Lord disciplines those He loves (Prov. 3:12; Heb. 12:6). It is easy for us to confuse natural consequences with a trial, so the first consideration should be to recognize if the consequences are meant by God to accomplish a purpose in their lives. Prayerfully ask if you are meant to intervene; and if so, in what way. Like a butterfly in a cocoon, if you don’t allow it to struggle its own way out and you rip the cocoon open to “help” it, it will never grow strong enough to fly. It will die. God did not mean for our lives to be without struggle. He meant for our struggles to produce great things in us.
Another consideration is your own internal dialogue. If you feel like something should be done, are you the one meant to intervene or should it be someone else? Do you have a heart to do it or are you muttering “here we go again” under your breath? Do you feel convicted you are meant to act out of obedience or do you feel guilt/condemnation if you don’t do something? If you are like me, it can sometimes be hard to tell if it is your own flesh refusing to obey that makes something hard to do, or if is it simply that you were not the one meant to do it at all. Again, it is something that requires prayerful consideration. If we seek to know God, and we ask Him for wisdom, He has promised to give it to us (James 1:5). The better we know Him, the easier it is to recognize His voice when He is calling us to act. If the answer is no and you are not meant to be the one to do this thing, will you trust God to handle it; or will you fret and worry and eventually do what you knew you should not have?
Yes, if it’s a one time thing and you just aren’t sure, I would always err on the side of mercy; but I’ve watched so many people (especially women) who find themselves playing savior in the lives of people, because they helped them once and now find these people constantly comes to them instead of going to the Lord or learning to handle things for themselves. Cycles of behavior in our lives come up because God, in His infinite mercy, is giving us another chance to make the right choice. If we find ourselves in the same bad situation, we need to stop and consider where we went wrong.
A loving sacrifice comes equipped by God with what you need to do it. Codependency says, “I don’t have a choice. I have to bail them out again.” A wise friend recently reminded me that the language in Scripture when we are told to bear one another’s burdens refers to taking one part of it, not removing the entire burden from the other person and trying to carry it for yourself. When we take a part of it, we are not overwhelmed; and their burden is lessened to a degree that will help them move forward. If we try to take it all, we have freed them up only to be weighted down to where we cannot move ourselves. What is more important is that they have not learned that the struggle produces strength. This strength is what we each need to face the trials and tribulations of life.
Somehow, we have incorrectly chosen to believe that there should be no pain in this life. That there is no value or benefit from pain. That pain is wrong. That God is wrong for allowing pain. The truth is that pain has a purpose; it will always teach us something. Look around at the wisest of people in your life. I’d be willing to bet that each of them has been through a significant amount of pain, maybe even the kind of pain you’d wonder if you could ever get through. So before rushing to take away someone’s entire burden, first ask if you should even get involved. Were you meant to step in to help with a portion of the burden? Can you do it with a compassionate heart? Can you say no if the person comes back and asks you for more than you were meant to give? Life is hard; pain is a part of life. We do not help people by removing all pain from their lives. It is learning to struggle and deal with pain that brings us great strength. This is one of the first things a counselor must learn. I cannot save my clients. I cannot make their choices for them. I cannot fix them. I can only help them to see their choices and come alongside them in their struggle. Most important of all, I cannot hand my clients the answers. They need to find them for themselves in order for them to have value. The struggle is part of the process.
For some of us learning to say no can be a painful process. There is nothing wrong with a compassionate and merciful heart; but you must check your own motive. Am I doing this because I feel led to do it or because I will feel guilty if I don’t? Am I doing it because I have to save everyone or because the Savior asked me to? There is only one Savior; and you aren’t Him. It is not your job to save everyone. It is your job to humbly and joyfully go where you are directed, to carry the portion allotted to you; and to walk in the freedom of knowing when something is not yours to bear.