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Are we helping or enabling?

Updated: Feb 4, 2022

He has shown you, O man, what is good;

And what does the Lord require of you

But to do justly,

To love mercy,

And to walk humbly with your God? Michah 6:8

As a therapist, I work with people all the time that in the name of love and helping others, find that instead they are enabling them. In the mental health field we see the term of enabling as doing something for someone that they should do for themselves in order to grow or become unstuck from unhealthy habits or ways.

Enable according to Merriam-Webster dictionary means to make someone able to do something. It all sounds so helpful and good, and well ....Christian. However, when we enable someone to do something that they should do themselves or enabling them to continue in destructive behavior, we are actually disabling them and holding them back. And I think it is one of the hardest things for people to do, to evaluate a situation, set boundaries and to say "No, I am not going to tolerate this behavior." especially if we see that our loved one is in pain or will be in pain if we set boundaries or limits. It's hard to watch a loved one suffer from their own consequences rather than allow them to learn and grow from them. It takes a lot of wisdom to find the sweet balance between justice and mercy. Because Christians are saved by grace, we should extend grace, but not when the grace we extend hurts or disables others. Sometimes there is good and sometimes there is greater good.

This problem of enabling is often seen with addictions. Family members can often engage in behaviors that enable the addict to continue with their addiction often in the guise of grace and forgiveness at the expense of accountability.

So if it is good to offer grace and mercy and forgiveness, why would anyone find it right to withhold those things? I think it comes down to separating the person from their behavior. Because when we can hold an indivual and their behavior separately, we can offer the grace, and forgiveness as well as adminster justice. And I see justice as accountability.

Here are a few questions to ask if you are making decisions regarding helping someone and trying to sort out helping from enabling.

  1. Will the help allow or give the opportunity for the person to become their best self?

2. Does the help protect reputation more than it promotes growth?

3. Does the help make you feel safe or protected from fear, embarrassment, scandel at the expense of the others growth?

4. Does the help give you a sense of control over the other person, or the situation rather than trusting the person or situation to God?

5. Will the help perhaps aid the individual in continuing to avoid their own fears and challenges of dealing with their own issues and be a roadblock to potential growth or healing?

6. Are our motives more in line to protect ourselves from pain or consequences than sending the messseges to the other that "we believe in their ability to handle difficult circumstances. In other words can we send the message "You are better than that."

7. Do we make decisions out of our own sense of guilt that we somehow contributed to the problem.If so, that needs to be dealt with separately.

These are questions that I explore as I work with people to help them make important and difficult decision re helping those they love. The answers are often complex and need to be untangled and sometimes there is no one right answer, because we can't control how others will respond to our decisions and boundaries therefore we can't always know the outcome of our decisions for certain. We just need to be thoughtful and wise, seek the other's highest good, seek counsel if we need, pray and ask for wisdom and sometimes we need to give up perceived control of the situation as an act of trust in One who sees things much clearer and loves more deeply than we can truly understand.

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1 Comment

Barb Hegreberg
Barb Hegreberg
Feb 26, 2021

GREAT advice - Thanks!!

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