Help. Don’t Help.
I’m a list maker. A doer. A problem solver. A fixer. A helper.
I like to make things better.
Can you relate?
Unfortunately, some attempts to make things better, tend to make them much, much worse. There are some things that not only are not fixable by us, they aren’t fixable at all! And a lot of times, even if we can help, even if we can make it better, it doesn’t mean it’s our place to do so—nor does it mean the other people involved want us to try to solve their challenges.
In these cases, our efforts to help only serve the purpose of making us feel better. We really can have a tendency to pat ourselves on the back for thinking we had all the answers, or knew exactly which Scriptures to say, or took the best casserole in the meal train. There is a time and place for each of these efforts to help, but we need to be sure they are wanted and that they are done with the right motives.
So, in the situations where our version of “help” is neither wanted nor needed, what should people like us do? My teenage boys tell me the only thing to be done is to say, “That sucks!” (To which I quickly respond, “You know I don’t like that word!”) Language aside, their point is well-taken. Most of the time, when someone shares their burden with us—however small or large it may be—they simply want us to hear them. They aren’t asking for answers or action; they’re asking us to care. Just knowing someone else cares about them and the issue they are dealing with is enough to help carry their load. But too often we’re, perhaps unintentionally, like the “fools” in Proverbs 18:2 who “have no interest in understanding; they only want to air their own opinions.”
Even adding a comment as seemingly innocuous as, “I understand what you’re going through,” can often add a level of frustration and misundertanding that undermines our efforts at being compassionate. The truth is, no one, not one single person, can truly understand what another is going through. We often see this at the passing of a loved one. When I lost my dad to Alzheimer’s at 59, I recoiled every time someone mentioned their grandparent who had passed in their 80s with it. While they were making an effort at solidarily, instead of helping ease my grief, it made me feel even more cheated. Financial difficulty, job challenges, parenting issues, whatever the challenge may be, we can’t ever really put ourselves in another’s shoes, no matter how hard we may try. In these times, as difficult as it may be for us, I challenge us to limit our responses to the following three statements.
- “That stinks!” (Or some variation thereof: How awful! I’m so sorry! What a pain!)
- “May I pray for you?” Not just saying, “thoughts and prayers,” but actually praying for them right then and there, and continuing to do so after the conversation has ended.
- “Is there anything I can do to help?” If the answer is, “No,” then that just has to be okay. We simply cannot try to solve problems we haven’t been asked to solve. However, if we ask this question, we’d better be prepared to fulfill the need should the answer be, “Yes.” Even if the help they ask for is not the kind of help we are accustomed to giving, we need to be willing to give the help they need. Galatians 6:3 actually chastises us if we do not help others: “If you think you are too important to help someone, you are only fooling yourself. You are not that important.” Let’s just be sure to take this verse with the one before it, “Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ.” If the best way to share each other’s burdens is is listening, then let’s listen! If it’s prayer, then let’s pray! If it’s tangible help, then let’s babysit, bake a casserole, give them a ride—but not unless it’s the help they need, and not what we think will fix it.
So next time someone is telling us about a challenge they are dealing with, let’s step outside of ourselves and really hear what they are saying and care for them the way they need to be cared for.