When Helping is Really Hurting

How can our attempts to help a hurting person actually hurt them?

Lately, I have been thinking quite a bit about the Apostle Paul’s admonition to the Galatians and how it relates to those of us who are reaching out to addicts and other troubled people. “Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted.”  (Gal. 6:1 NIV)

This passage and the verses that follow have some important principles to keep in mind as we seek to be people helpers and not “enablers”.

A. “Fixing?” vs. “Empowering” – When we work with troubled people, from the very beginning of our efforts we should be “working ourselves out of a job” with them. Paul says, “Each person must bear his own load.”  In other words, we must be discerning so that we focus on our own part and not do their part for them.  Real helpers impart “tools” that assist those we help to make good decisions about their lives.  Taking up those tools and learning to live sober and godly by applying them to “real life” situations is totally their part.  People recover from addiction when they learn to take responsibility (with God’s help) for their own actions and lives. We cannot do this for them.

B. The Principle of “Sowing & Reaping” –People persist in destructive behaviors as long as they feel the benefits outweigh the costs.  For most of us, pain is a powerful motivation to change unhealthy and unwise behaviors.  Abuse of alcohol or drugs always leads to painful consequences.  One thing we know, drugs and alcohol dull the uncomfortable emotions that signal the need to change.  This contributes to the denial of alcoholics and drug addicts. They have real difficulty in connecting their actions and decisions with the negative consequences they experience.  Instead, they intellectualize and rationalize behavior and shift blame to other people and circumstances.  That’s why Paul’s exhortation to the Galatians is a message they need too – “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.” (Gal.6:7)

For addicts and alcoholics, sometimes experiencing consequences and understanding where they came from is the key to their salvation! When it comes to these sorts of consequences, I have a mental picture of God sending along a gigantic spiritual fist designed to knock them over. It’s one way He can make them stop and take a real look at their lives.  The problem is that I see people stepping in front of that fist and taking the blow themselves.  In other words, they experience the pain and grief intended for the addict.  Meanwhile, the person it was intended for experiences nothing and keeps on going down their destructive path.  Sometimes, our main job may be to get the other people in the addict’s life to stop bailing him or her out so that real change might have a chance to occur.

C. “Give heed to yourself” –For urban mission workers, there are a few temptations embodied in Paul’s words.  On one hand there is the temptation to be sucked into taking up the responsibility that belongs to the client.  It is all too easy to over identify with him or her resulting in a failure to be objective and to confront what needs to be confronted, when it needs to be confronted.  We can easily become angry and frustrated when people we try to help keep rejecting our advice.  We too often take this personally and become hurt and offended; closing our hearts to the people God has called us to help.

Restoring gently, I think, implies approaching all counseling and confrontation in a prayerful manner.  It’s important to see beyond that individual and his or her behavior.  We need to remember that we have another adversary who is at work to keep those we seek to help bound and confused.  Here is where the notion of being “spiritual” comes in; we need to recognize that rescue mission counseling is actually spiritual warfare.

We need to be continually asking God to help us to be aware of our own attitudes and to give us the special wisdom needed to really meet the need in the other person’s life.

 

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