What are some guidelines?
First, some definitions:
- Helping is doing something for someone else that they are not capable of doing for themselves.
- Enabling is doing things for someone else that they can and should be doing for themselves.
Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Yet we all too often find ourselves enabling instead of helping.
Why does this happen?
Knowing the difference is hard work.
We could simply be too lazy to discern whether we are really helping or not. It is easy to throw money at an issue and pat ourselves on the back, thinking, “Well, I have done my part. How the gift is received is not my problem.”
Maybe not, but continually giving without following up on how the gift was used is your problem. Yes, doing so is a hassle, but if you continually buy groceries for a friend who doesn’t know how to manage his money, you are not helping.
We think suffering is always bad.
None of us like to see someone suffer, but preventing suffering is often not wise. I have a 40 year old friend who vividly recalls the time when, as a teenager, he was arrested for drinking and driving. Upon being notified by the police, his father chose to leave him in jail overnight instead of bailing him out. Furthermore, the dad sold his son’s truck.
I know this father and am absolutely convinced that he was deeply empathetic of his son’s plight. I doubt if this father slept much knowing his son was in jail, but he wisely allowed his son to suffer the consequences of his actions. By the way, the son never drove after drinking again.
We might like the feeling of control.
This one is more prevalent with enabling parents, but it works like this: mom or dad just can’t allow those apron strings to be cut, so they will allow a grown child to continue to live at home, often paying Junior’s bills and letting him get by with doing little to improve himself.
The parent, in a perverted way, allows his son or daughter to become co-dependent so he can maintain control over the child.
We can’t deal with the strife.
Again, this one is specific to parents. The child needs to be told “no”, but the parent would rather enable the child than deal with the ensuing strife that “no” brings.
Whether it be a toddler who throws a tantrum in the grocery store aisle or the adult child who begs for rent money, mom or dad will too often acquiesce because they can’t handle the consequences of tough love.
What should we do?
Realize that God expects us to be good managers of his resources.
Simply giving without requiring accountability is irresponsible. We need to develop discernment to help us know the difference between helping and enabling.
Allow God to work.
When you intervene by not allowing someone to suffer the consequences of his actions, you are limiting how God can work in that situation. Galatians 6:7 tells us, “Don’t be misled—you cannot mock the justice of God. You will always harvest what you plant”. Allowing another to suffer those consequences is, in effect, partnering with God.
Remember: comfortable people have zero motivation to change their behavior. Hebrews 12:11 is an apt reminder: “No discipline is enjoyable while it is happening—it’s painful! But afterward there will be a peaceful harvest of right living for those who are trained in this way”.
Guard your heart.
It would be easy to smugly say, “He is getting what is owed to him.” While this may be true, we need to continue to pray for this person, encourage him and wish him the best.
Grow a backbone.
It all boils down to saying “no” when we find ourselves doing things for someone who could and should be doing it for himself. This is especially tough with friends and family, but that “no” can be the best help we could ever offer.
God expects us to be both helpful and wise. Part of that wisdom involves monitoring our help to make sure we are not enabling. Sometimes the very best help is a loving and firm “no”.
If you enjoyed this article, be sure to check out 5 Bible verses about money!
[email protected] says
As the wife, daughter, sister, and friends of alcoholics this is a very difficult challenge and requires daily prayer. If I write another book this will probably be the subject. One thing that really bothers me about the current thinking is even the word “enabler”. It implies that the “enabler” is somehow the participant and responsible for the choices of another. It’s a daily battle and often a no win situation for even bringing income into a home where an alcoholic resides gives them a more comfortable home than they may have on their own. My dad took five times in rehab before finally completely quitting. My bother died of an overdose. And, when the police, church, doctors, and mental health professionals told me I had done all I could do and urged me to leave my husband after he had lost his mind it was done under police observation. There are no easy answers for those in these situations that’s for sure but God will guide a persons steps daily. The battle between good and evil will go on and those on the front lines have a challenging life.
I can a lot out of what you say let me know when you write the next book Margy
Joe Plemon says
Let me know when you write that next book – I want to read it. You have certainly had the life experiences to do so. This being said, I agree that the “enabler” (as I pointed out in the post) is not responsible for the actions of another. But I still think that those who enable are doing a disservice to others by doing things for them that they can and should be doing for themselves. I, of course, have not walked in your shoes but I would like your thoughts on what constitutes enabling or if you believe there is such a thing.
I am glad the message was timely for you. God has a way of giving us what we need when we need it.
[email protected] says
I realized after I wrote my comment that I probably came on too strong and my apologizes for that. People who are users and abusers are generally manipulative and perfectly willing to use others to perpetuate their choices and they often do this the most with those who have a family or marital tie with them. This happens not only with alcohol but with many kinds of behavior.
It is good, right and acceptable to set boundries and act upon them. This can be in regards to money, time, or any other type of favor. I think that is what you are saying. Set your boundry and don’t back down. I agree.
Joe Plemon says
Perhaps the toughest aspect of saying “no” is the realization that you are allowing someone else to suffer. An empathetic person will suffer simultaneously. But, as you said, giving help CAN be a form of selfishness because we can’t handle it. Great insights.
I still want to read that book that you haven’t written yet. Your life experiences bring vivid reality to this entire discussion. Yes, your second paragraph summarizes what I am trying to say.
Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.
I love that quote ‘Give a man a fish….etc.’ And I think that when we ‘enable’ someone by giving, it is because we don’t see what the giving is doing to the person at first. Shining the light on this really helps people realize someone in their life needs the ‘tough love’ approach instead of the ‘loving hand’ approach.
I am a giver by nature. I have been an enabler. But growing up means that we can’t always be moved to action by what we feel. A better place to pour out our love for someone is sometimes on our knees.
Joe Plemon says
Well said. Thanks.
Rob Ward says
Great points joe! This has been a struggle in our own lives from time to time when family has asked for help with various financial issues. From borrowing money to co-signing on a loan (which we did not do by the way), we’ve seen quite a bit! But many of those needs were a result of poor decisions beforehand so we did our best to help where appropriate.
Joe Plemon says
I think the key word you used is “appropriate”. You help where appropriate. My wife and I encountered that very same challenge recently with a family member, and we used the definition of help vs enable to decided what was appropriate. It really helped!
By the way, we have a policy on co-signing loans: we simply don’t do it – no exceptions.
Great post. In praying over 1 John 3:17 and the early church in Acts 4, I find myself wanting to help others in our spiritual family. At the same time, its challenging knowing whether it is helping or enabling. This was good food for thought.
Joe Plemon says
Thanks. My goal is to challenge your thinking, so I appreciate knowing I succeeded.
Mary Glidden says
We are trying to get a food and clothing pantry started in one of the poorest areas of Colorado. WE do not want to be part of enabling but really helping people and would love to know if you would have any resources or know of other ministries like the one we are starting that guidelines or do things differently then just handing things out to people. WE have been in prayer about this and would love wise council from others who have gone before us in this area.
Conley Manning says
Check out CAPS, Christian Appalachian Project. Wonderful Organization that works through schools and churches to reach Thousands. They have a Center in Corbin, Ky near us!
I’ve been thinking a lot about this subject for a few months. About two months ago my sister moved in with me in my apartment in city after quitting her job and calling off her wedding. She wanted to start over and start a business but since she moved in I’ve noticed that she’d be out partying a lot and living the high life despite having practically no savings. She also wasn’t moving on her new business. I didn’t think it was good for her to live for free and enjoy the life she wants without “paying for it or earning it”. I felt that allowing her to stay (and live her high life) while she was starting up was more enabling than it was helping.
So a few weeks ago, I told her that her free stay would expire at the end of September then she’s need to pay rent and her share of the utilities. I told her that though I respect the lifestyle she likes living, she has to support her lifestyle on her own. Curtly I told her: “No rent, no stay” and “either you pay for the lifestyle you want or live the life you can afford”. As her older brother it broke my heart to say that and practically kick her out of the house. I was so anxious the last few days because the deadline was drawing near and I hadn’t hear a word from her. Then I read your article–it was so affirming.
Yesterday my sister told me she was moving out to a smaller place, one that she could afford and she thanked me for “the extra push” that will her get her started on the business she’s always wanted. And then she told me she loved me. What a great ending. In the end, I believe act of loving is not always “warm and fuzzy” but God sees the heart and He repays in wondrous measure.
Thanks for the article.
Joe Plemon says
I congratulate you on not only your vision of ministering to the poor community, but seeking a way to keep people accountable. I can’t think of any similar ministries or resources to help you. Sorry. One thought I have is to set a limit to how many times people can get free food or clothes. Once they reach that limit, they should pay a nominal amount or volunteer their time. Tell me what you think.
What a personal and moving story. I am so glad that you drew the line for your sister even if it broke your heart. I am also thrilled that she thanked you and told you she loves you. Not all siblings would respond that way, but my hunch is that she knew it wasn’t easy for you to kick her out. Thanks again for sharing a real life instance how deciding to no longer enable had good results.
David Newby says
Very nice article Joe! Giving is good, but so is tough love.
Joe Plemon says
Thanks so much for this article, Joe. I know it was posted a while back, but sometimes God has us read things at jsut the right time!
As leaders of a home group, we have been faced with this situation on enabling one family in our group, and figuring out how to stop doing so, but not knowing what the Bible calls us to do. Your article summed it all up and made us feel so much more comfortable with the decision we’ve made! I even included a quote from your article in my email, explaining it to them. I want them to know we are doing what God expects us to do, which is also giving THEM the opportunity to do what God expects THEM to do!
Thank you for the scripture and practical experiences… we know now that we are following God’s wisdom.
Joe Plemon says
I am thrilled that something written months ago is just what you need now. I hope this family in your home group receives your stance with grace, but even if they don’t, you will know that you are doing the right thing.
My niece (11) has an eating disorder (she controls people and/or situations with food) which has led to being a very sickly/weak child. This has led to extended stays in the hospital recently. If my sister would control my niece’s eating habits (or the lack of it) she could regain her health. I’m not enabling the situation but our parents and her church family are. I try to show them I love them but never offer services. I don’t buy balloons or flowers. I rarely speak directly to my niece. She does this all for attention. When the gifts, phone calls and visits stop, she goes back to the hospital. My parents get frustrated with me for now being there for my sister. It makes me look terrible, like I don’t love or care. Even worse, I’ve been accused of being judgmental. I’m at my wits end. I’ve been shunned for doing what I feel is right. Am I being too harsh or judgemental?
Wow! Tell me God doesn’t give you exactly what you need to hear at just the right time and I will tell you that you are crazy!
I received a phone call from our oldest daughter’s husband telling me about another close call with death (TWO car accidents within ten days!) due to drug addiction and checked my email to find this blog!
Thank you, Bob.
Please pray for our children, we have three who are dealing with addiction. The devil is attacking but God is in control. He will provide.
Lauren (SeedTime Editor) says
Thanks for sharing, Brenda! Your children are in our prayers – take care!
It may just be that it is God who is attacking and the devil who is in control. God seems to give the “devil” a little wiggle room in all things, and every challenge is an opportunity for introspection and to step outside our boxes long enough to see how we are all equal in every aspect of our lives. Where we point a finger at “addiction” we can not do so without looking within to identify our own addictions, because there isn’t one of us who are exempt.
To think otherwise is not only fooling ourselves, but blasphemy.
A very good book titled “Boundaries” by Dr. Henry Cloud sheds some light on our collective complicity in promulgating addiction, or, our collective responsibility helping to heal it. This comes only from our realization that it is through humility alone that we are truly able to realize empathy and compassion — in other words, to put ourselves in the moccasins of another. If we fail to do this, we fall into the snares of the devil and the worship of money and materialism, instead of the soul and well being of our neighbor(s).
Forest & trees or 20-20 backward. I always look back and kick myself for buying into the excuse/reason/emergency when lack of foresight leads to “I can’t”.
Users don’t feel like users… they feel like victims and, as such, can be very convincing.
Thanks for your insightful comments.
Lauren (SeedTime Editor) says
Thank you Bob, believe it or not my wife and I deal with issue a great deal. This was a good post and great biblical truths for us to discuss. Again, thank you.
Jane Barrett says
My husband and I loat our home that we bought at peak so it was worth $147000 after paying our mortgage for 10 years. We paid $225,000. We also lost the bread winners salary. We are in our 50’s and have a tween. We moved to California’s Bay Area because my multi-millionare M-I-L said ahe would help us.
Well., she utilized the tough love on us and the dark night ofthr soul sufferring has in no way helped me to find even a minimum wage job and she thinks the economy is that of 30 years ago. She was a tenured school and aling with her 2 million in property enjoys a six figure retirement guaranteed. We asked for help and after losing a per firm job took miney from her checking account to avoid being on the street. She had him atrested so now he has a record of theft and still paid everything back to her. She continued with the prosecution.
We are now homeless and I do not think anyone can know the extent of what we have suffered. Expecially how hard one must work to get food and find somewhere to sleep.
So I feel this prevalence of “tough love” and enabling spoilt adult plain wrong. Her friends told her she was a victem and she alao charged him with elder abuse. 97% of employers check background and sometimes credit scores which is also 95% checked for rent. We had the cash except for renting a truck. My M-I-L knew this but still would alleviate us from losing a place to live. She thinks if my 12 year old lived with her that it would be temporary. She cannot conceive the downward pull homelessness has on you or the trauma my poor daughter has sufferred. I said, no, it may be linger than temporary.
Have any of you experienced poverty? Is it privilidge or selfishness on your part your real motive? Then to bring God into it is really going too far. You don’t know how the Lord really feels because I don’t think your interpretation if sufferring different if you had to go through what suffering the way my beautiful little family iis. We do have love, but we still need money
Ashley Zappe says
Jane, I’m so sorry for what you are going through. Clearly your situation is not one of a long-term pattern of abusing people who help you. There are people who do abuse help, whose problems are self-inflicted, and in those cases it IS best to let them pick themselves up and learn for the future. But you are right to point out that not every situation where someone needs help is enabling bad habits. Sometimes people just need a leg up, and once they get that they can function just fine on their own two feet again. I do hope you get your leg up again soon!
I think using scripture to justify not being charitable is an excuse to be greedy. Luke 6:30 says “Give to everyone that asks you, and if they take something from you don’t expect it back” The term enabling has been a alcoholic recovery term to help those understand boundaries and the damage of giving to a sick person deep in their addiction who is obviously not using it for a healthy benefit. Sadly Christians will tithe their 10% or more in hopes to get a good seat at the table but will judge whether or not to be charitable to a relative they have labeled lazy or non productive by their standards. Churches have notoriously used tithe money for their own gain to take lavish vacations and a better lifestyle and what have they ACTUALLY done??? One to two hour sermon once a week? Seems pretty lazy to me. But our own flesh and blood need to be taught a lesson in tough love so they get off their ass and do something productive? Hmmm seems very selfish but I get the point your trying to make.Maybe we should encourage the lazy black sheep of the family to go into the ministry?!
Let’s be tougher on our own family members so they won’t take advantage of us, but not worry about what the church is doing with our money because God will use it for good somehow!!!!! Because we trust the church more than our own family members!! LOL Yeah that’s a loving thing to do….
Dilemma on gift to son. Read your post on enabling vs. helping. Helpful for me. Comment on section that teaches suffering is not always bad: In my younger days, my parents bailed me out of jail. More than once. Took me years and years to learn. I am accountable. I am responsible. Thank God I finally learned from Him.