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Tuesday, August 14, 2012

When Is Helping Not?

I remember a story I heard of a group of tourists who were watching the hatching of some sea turtles. They were overjoyed when one little turtle emerged from the sand and started hurrying toward the safety of the sea. Suddenly, a sea gull swooped down on the poor little thing. Well, one of the watchers leapt to her feet and yelled at the attacker who dropped its prey and fled. The little one scurried on into the waves and the beach erupted with more of these turtles angling for the water. They didn't make it. A swarm of sea birds descended, feeding off the defenseless babies in a horrible massacre. The guide then told them, "In nature, that first one out is an indicator. If he makes it, the coast is clear, so to speak, and it's safe for the rest to go. In this case, it wasn't. But because that first one made it, the rest thought it was safe." So, when is helping not helping?

You remember that classic parable of Jesus, the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). A glorious story of a father's love. A great story of revelry, repentance, and restoration. Even a warning against "the good son", the self-righteous who think "I never did anything like that; I deserve better." Good stuff, all. But I got to thinking about that prodigal who ran off to do what he wanted and really messed up his life.

The text says "he squandered his property in reckless living" (Luke 15:13). Then "a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need" (Luke 15:14). My, my, even God was against him, it seemed. The story tells how he hired himself out to a pig farmer, a horrible thing for a good Jewish kid. He was so hungry that he longed to eat pig food. Really, really bad. But there is an interesting phrase there. "No one gave him anything" (Luke 15:16).

Now, you know the rest of the story. He "came to himself" (I love that phrase), repented, and returned to his father to become his father's hired servant. His father, apparently waiting for him, ran to him "while he was still a long way off" and embraced and kissed him. He brushed aside his son's apology returned him to the family (Luke 15:22-24), and threw a party. And, then, there was the older brother's complaint which you should examine on your own.

I got to thinking. What would have happened to this kid if he was living today? Well, there would be a segment of society that would have been up in arms over his plight. "Eating is a human right. No one should go without food. We need to take money from the rich people and feed this poor soul." And the charitable Christian organizations would have put him on their commercials. "See this poor fellow who is in dire need? Won't you give some to feed him and others like him?" The soup kitchens would have provided him a meal and the homeless shelters would have given him a place to sleep. And he never would have hit bottom, repented, and been restored to his father.

Now, I am not advocating non-charity. I am not opposing giving to the poor or helping people in need. I am not opposed to taxes being used to help people in trouble. Not the point. In fact, since the story is a parable, not an actual event, and since we don't really know what would have happened to this fictional character in other circumstances, my conjecture is merely that -- conjecture. People who end up homeless, fed by soup kitchens, housed by shelters, helped by strangers can certainly hit bottom anyway. Not my point.

What's my point, then? My point is that we don't know. Sometimes doing for people is the best thing to do. Other times doing nothing is much, much better. Being nice to people is often the right thing to do, but sometimes being stern with them is much, much better. Sometimes meeting with people is the right thing to do, but the Bible indicates (as an example) that there are indeed people with whom we should not even eat (1 Cor 5:9-11). Sometimes embracing people is the right thing to do, but Jesus told us that there are times that we must shun (Matt 18:15-17). Feeding the hungry is often the right thing to do, but Paul said, "If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat" (2 Thess 3:10).

When is helping not helping? It is not helpful when our "help" gets in the way of God's work in bringing someone to the point of repentance. It is not helpful when our "help" prevents people from learning what they need to learn. Sometimes pain is necessary. Sometimes hard times teach us valuable lessons. Sometimes hitting bottom is essential to further growth. Getting in the way of that by "helping" is not helpful. At the end of the day, preventing people from getting to the best by giving them help they shouldn't have is not love. Knowing when those times are, on the other hand, isn't always easy. But there are biblical instructions for some of these circumstances. Perhaps that would be a good place to start?


Craig said...

Great book on this subject called When Helping Hurts. Should be required reading for all the social gospel types. As you pointed out it's not the help that is a potential problem, but we need to be very aware of how we help and what the longer term ramifications are.

Stan said...

Yes, the problem of "unintended consequences" ... coupled with today's perspective that nothing should ever be painful.

Craig said...

As someone who is involved in this type of thing both with my work, as well as annual trips to Haiti with a surgery team I find this a fascinating topic and one that probably needs to explored more ddeply by a lot of folks.

For example our homebuyers have a number of state programs that will provide assistance with utility bills. While I will concede that this kind of assistance is probably needed (it gets really cold up here), there is a active effort to help folks stay on these programs more or less permenantly.

I don't necessarily agree that this is a matter of "unintended consequences" at this point. I think, based on the reasearch outlined in the book I mentioned, that we can pretty accurately predict what wil happen with different kinds of aid if not done correctly.

Stan said...

Having lived in a state with a large Native American population, I have seen first hand what our "help" has accomplished. People that were once hard working, self-sufficient, proud folk are now reduced to collecting the government check and not bothering with a job because "Why work when the government will pay you?" Not helping. Not helping at all. (Note: That characterization does not represent all Native Americans. Please, no one take it as a blanket statement.)

Craig said...

My concern is that our significant immigrant populations Hmong and east African are being indoctrinated into that exact same mindset. In our case we seem to be taking people who showed a significant amount of initiative just to get to the US and get established, and telling them "take whatever free stuff you can get for as long as you can get it". Essentially teaching them that the initiative that got them here is not valuable. It's almost like certain groups would rather these immigrant communities become and remain dependent, rather than encouraging independence and self reliance. It is encouraging when you see the folks determine to succed. (

Stan said...

That's when helping is not.

Steve Martin said...

"My point is that we don't know."


We can't know. We step out in faith and act...or not...realizing that God will use even our sin for His purposes.

(not that we intentionally sin...well sometimes we do)

Stan said...


Does that leave room for folks who say, "I don't know ... I think in this case providing assistance would not be helping and I'm going to choose, out of love, not to help"? Can not helping someone be an act of love?