The entire Christian faith is built on the concepts of grace, mercy and forgiveness. Therefore, if we’re followers of Christ, we strive to emulate Him. In addition to these “big three”, we’re also called to love unconditionally, speak the truth in love, and to steward our blessings well. These three things are a way of honoring God and showing his love to those around us.
This all sounds pretty straight-forward until it comes to putting philosophy into practice!
A neighbor loses their job for the third time this winter.
A teen gets a speeding ticket he can’t afford to pay.
A friend gets pulled over after a few too many glasses of wine and asks you to come pick her up.
Your child gets caught cheating at school and is given a harsh consequence.
An addict becomes homeless.
Do you offer grace, or is that just enabling their bad behavior? What’s the difference between the two? For most of us, the closer the relationship to the person, the murkier that line becomes. Let’s start with a few definitions.
The entire Christian faith is built on grace, mercy and forgiveness.
So is there really such a thing as "enabling" others?
Grace: Undeserved favor, blessing or restoration
Mercy: Offering forgiveness despite having just cause to prosecute a wrong committed.
Helping: Assisting someone in doing something that they’re unable to do for themselves.
Enabling: Doing something for someone that could do for themselves with effort, sacrifice and determination.
Helping often involves accompanying someone and walking through things together, so they can learn how to do for themselves. This is another place that unconditional love comes in. Love is a verb. It takes action. Sometimes exhausted and frustrated action, because (thankfully) God never gives up on us and tells us anything is possible. Any heart can be changed. Any person can be healed and set free. This is hardest when a person’s actions (such as abusing substances) have created mental illness, leaving them incapable of doing things that they were once able to do. As frustrating as these times may be, we are called to love and help to the extent that is needed in order for them to regain the ability to care for themselves.
The answer is found in the sweet spot where grace and guidance intersect.
This grace is an unconditional love that shows forgiveness and mercy every time they are truly sorry and make serious attempts to change their behavior and circumstances. Sound exhausting? It is! But the eternal view is counter cultural. (See Matthew 18:21-22.)
Jesus was the greatest example of this to ever live. He spoke the (often hard) truth in love, despite how painful it may have been for the person to hear. The conviction we feel in our soul when we‘re living out of alignment with the life God created us for is almost always humbling and uncomfortable. Jesus loved these people enough to allow them to feel discomfort then so they could experience the eternal freedom He offers to all. And when he finished loving on each of them, He clearly stated his expectation: “go and sin no more.” (Not “Keep doing what you’re doing—there’s more forgiveness where that came from!”)
…even though, of course, there is.
Why we enable others
Few who enable others have bad intentions. In fact, the primary reason for enabling someone is to shelter them from the pain and discomfort that their own actions have brought on themselves. Furthermore, we don’t take a stand or say what needs to be lovingly said, because we don’t want them to feel angry, judged or any other negative emotion. So we shut up and answer their requests (often while hating ourselves for doing so!)
This misguided “act of love” fails to recognize that loving someone without setting healthy boundaries in order to nurture growth, responsibility, and the ability to be self-sufficient isn’t love at all. Loving means being willing to do the hard thing so someone else can step into who God created them to be, while enabling may mean we’re interfering with the lesson God is trying to teach, in order to help our loved one out of long term pain!
“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.” ~Hebrews 12:11
The second reason we enable others is surprisingly (and often unconsciously) out of selfish motives.
Just as we don’t want the person we care about to experience negative feelings, we don’t want to feel them either! It can be excruciating watching someone we love repeat a lesson that they haven’t yet learned despite “hitting rock bottom” several times. It’s hard on us! We don’t want to feel the anxiety that accompanies conflict and difficult conversations. We don’t want to risk the person’s anger or damage to the relationship.
But notice, that while completely understandable, these are selfish motives. They put our own desires ahead of the needs of someone else. We allow their future to continue to be at risk, so that we can feel better now.
Unconditional love does not mean blessings without boundaries!
I’ve heard many people use the story of the Prodigal Son to validate enabling others. But notice the order of this story. The father gave his son his inheritance (blessings) before he made poor choices that caused him trouble. Then the son messed up. And finally, Dad’s forgiveness and grace came after the son became remorseful and had changed his behavior. When this irresponsible man-boy returned to his father, apologetic and wanting to change, he was met with open arms. His father never stopped loving him, but this doesn’t mean that he would have dished out money to clean up the mess he’d made. Jesus gives us undeserved rights to his inheritance too. (We’ve done nothing to deserve such a reckless love and blessings.) But not until we acknowledge our mistakes and express our intention to live in alignment with His heart. True-we’re not perfect from that point on. But He knows our hearts and intentions. He corrects us when we go astray and doesn’t allow less from us than He knows we’re capable of.
So that sweet spot of grace and guidance? It’s love and grace.
Grace and guidance…without enabling bad behavior.
Because that one thing that helps separate enabling from grace is whether the person has stopped the behavior and is making a heartfelt effort to improve.
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