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How do I know if I’m helping or enabling?

By: alane zlotnicki

It is heartbreaking to watch someone throw away their life by refusing to take responsibility for their choices. I know because I’ve watched it. 

My close friend is an alcoholic. She has lost numerous jobs and would be homeless if her dad didn’t keep paying her bills. When she gets kicked out of yet another apartment, he always lets her move back in. 

When my friend’s mother suggests that some time on the street might do her daughter good, the dad accuses his wife of being a bad Christian and bails his daughter out of her predicament once again. My friend’s dad, who is not a believer, thinks Christians are heartless and not worth listening to. Is he right, or is he partly responsible for my friend’s inability to act like an adult?

There’s a big difference between helping and enabling someone. Helping is doing something for someone that they are not capable of doing for themselves. Enabling is doing something for someone that they can and should be doing for themselves. But how do you determine whether you are helping someone or enabling them? And is enabling them always bad?

Christians are supposed to be known for our love for one another. Jesus tells us in John 13:34-35, “A new command I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know you are my disciples, if you love one another.”  But what does biblical love look like? Can I love without enabling?

What Love Looks Like 

1. Love seeks the other person’s highest good.

The Bible says a person reaps what he sows (Galatians 6:7). A bad choice almost always leads to a bad consequence. When we want what’s best for someone, we’ll help them avoid bad choices, but that’s not the same as taking away the consequences. 

One of the best examples of the difference is the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15:11-32. When the son demanded his share of the inheritance so he could live the way he chose, it was painful for the father to give him the money and let him go his own way. But the father was willing to fight through his own pain and let his son go. Eventually, the son hit rock bottom and realized he was wrong. He did come home, and the father welcomed him back with open arms. The father never stopped caring, but he was willing to let God discipline the son’s rebelliousness in His own way.

Truly loving someone means wanting what is best for them in the long run. The ultimate good is to have a relationship with Jesus Christ. A change in behavior will never last without a change in our hearts and minds. And that’s the kind of transformation Jesus provides (1 Corinthians 6:10-11).

2. Love seeks the things God values.

God wants us to love Him, revere Him, serve Him and obey His commands — all for our own good (Deuteronomy 10:12-13). God extols the virtues of hard work throughout the Bible and chastises those who refuse to carry their own weight (Proverbs 28:19 and Proverbs 26:14-16). 

When we want the best for someone, we’ll encourage them to please God with their choices. They can't please God if we continually excuse their bad behavior.

3. Love doesn’t avoid speaking the truth just to avoid conflict.

Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth (1 Corinthians 13:6). Jesus didn’t avoid telling people what they were doing was wrong, but He did do so in a way that showed He truly cared about what happened to them. When we speak the truth in love, we are being like Jesus (Ephesians 4:15).

4. Love recognizes that suffering the consequences of our actions isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

We tend to think that suffering is always bad, and we want to help those we love avoid it at all costs. Parents, in particular, hate to see their children suffer, no matter what caused the pain. But when we intervene and don’t allow someone to experience the consequences of their actions, we prevent them from experiencing the power of God’s forgiveness, mercy, and grace. 

Sometimes, allowing someone to suffer those consequences is a way of partnering with God to free them from the power of sin. Hebrews 12:11 says, “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.”

As followers of Jesus, we are to be both helpful and wise. We need to make sure we are truly helping and not enabling someone to continue on a self-destructive path. If we aren’t sure what to do, we can ask God to guide us. James 1:5 says, “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.”

When Jesus sent His disciples out into the world, He told them, “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). 

God wants us to be ready and willing to help whoever crosses our path, but He also expects us to be wise with our resources. The difference between helping and enabling all comes down to having the strength to say no when we find ourselves doing things they should be doing for themselves. 

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