Helping Vs Enabling: How To Know Which Is Which

Christians have a dilemma. We are told to help the needy and we are also told to be wise. The challenge is to do both simultaneously. Is it possible that our “help” isn’t actually helping? Could we be enabling instead? How do we know the difference? 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 driving and drinking. 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.

Concluding thoughts

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”.

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17 Comments
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  1. 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.

  2. @Carol,
    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.

    @Melissa,
    I am glad the message was timely for you. God has a way of giving us what we need when we need it.

  3. 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.

  4. @Nate,
    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.

    @Carol,
    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.

  5. Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.

    Great article!

  6. @Lauren,
    Well said. Thanks.

  7. 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.

  8. @Rob,
    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.

  9. 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.

  10. Erik,
    Thanks. My goal is to challenge your thinking, so I appreciate knowing I succeeded.

  11. 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.

    bee blessed
    mary

  12. 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.

  13. @Mary,
    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.

    @TL,
    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.

  14. Very nice article Joe! Giving is good, but so is tough love.

  15. @David,
    Thanks.

  16. Amanda

    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.

  17. @Amanda,
    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.

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