A few years ago, my daughter and I got to raise a tiny caterpillar. For weeks (or was it months? I can’t remember), we hunted down milkweed to feed it. We watched it grow. And we saw it create its little chrysalis.
We even got the blessing of watching it come out of the chrysalis, and caught most of it on video. It was a beautiful moment.
While our little pet didn’t have any major trouble, we’ve all heard, I’m sure, that if you try to help a struggling butterfly out of its chrysalis, its wings will never be strong enough to fly. Well, there are times when that happens for us humans, too.
When we see someone who is struggling, our first instinct is often to jump in and help, but sometimes we do this to the other person’s detriment. It seems only a seasoned encourager knows when NOT to help. In other words, they know when to let the person do it for themselves.
While it appears heartless, selfish, or insensitive, it is really a deeper love than one might imagine.
Ecclesiastes 3:1 says, “For everything there is a season, a time for every activity under heaven.” It’s followed by several examples. Perhaps the most relevant verses here are: “A time to embrace and a time to turn away… A time to tear and a time to mend. A time to be quiet and a time to speak.”
These things are all good–in their own time.
So, when is it a time to help and when is it a time to refrain from helping?
Carrying Another’s Burdens
To answer this, we’re going to look at a verse from Paul’s letter to the believers in Galatia. He says, “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2, NIV). But then, at the beginning of verse 5, Paul writes, “for each one should carry their own load.”
Well… which is it? Should we carry each other’s burdens or shouldn’t we? How does this help us?
Jay Holland has a word picture that has helped me tremendously here. He writes,
“Every single person in life has a certain amount of responsibilities that constitute our own personal ‘Load’. This is their backpack. When you’re little, your backpack might include tying your own shoes, picking up after yourself, apologizing when you’ve done wrong, and acceptable chores. When you grow up, your backpack includes paying your own bills, processing your emotions, showing up on time, doing your own work. The Bible commands each of us to bear our own load.
“On the other hand, however, we know that if we live long enough, every single person will also have their share of calamity and trial. These burdens can [feel] like boulders. Have you ever tried to carry a boulder? You can’t, at least not for very long at all. What are boulders? It could be a sickness, injury, family death or tragedy, a series of terrible events… there’s no end to the types of boulders people encounter. And the Bible commands us to bear one another’s burdens, their boulders, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”
As Jay points out, and as we’re trying to figure out here, the tricky part is figuring out if the issue is a “backpack” or a “boulder.”
Discerning When to Help
I can’t give you a clear cut answer as to what category a particular issue falls into, whether it is a backpack or a boulder, a burden or a load. As always, this takes prayer and discernment. You are the one who knows your friend, their history, and the situation in which they need encouragement.
But let’s take one act–opening the door for someone– as an example in two different scenarios.
First, say someone is going through physical therapy because of a car accident, and they have trouble opening doors by themselves. The therapist is helping them regain the muscle in their arms. For awhile, it would be kind of you to help them get through doorways. But at some point, they need to put forward the effort to be able to do it on their own. Otherwise, they’ll never be able to open the door again and regain their independence.
However, some situations do require a long-term commitment and, thus, a different response. In his book Being There, Dave Furman shares that due to the physical disability in his arms, he can’t pick up his kids or cut up his food or even open his own car door. He needs people to come alongside him in those things in a long-term kind of way.
Do you see the difference? In one situation (Dave’s), he is physically unable to do it for himself, and he probably never will be. In another situation (physical therapy), your friend should be able to do it again if they put forth the effort to do so, and your helping too long prevents them from doing what they should be able to do on their own.
Questions to Ask
While I can’t give you the answer as to whether to help or not, I’d love to offer you some questions to prayerfully think about.
Is this short-term or long-term? How long has this person needed this particular help? Is it new? Is it ongoing? Are you able to come alongside them in that short-term or long-term way?
Can this individual do it on their own in a healthy way? I didn’t say it would be easy for them, but would it be healthy for them at this point in time? Are they ready to try it for themselves?
Will they become too dependent on you if you do this? In other words, would you be preventing them from doing the work or healing they need to do?
If it were somebody else, what would you do? Obviously, we are connected to the person who is hurting. It is hard to watch someone you love be in pain. Try to take a step back and put someone else into that same situation. What would you do? Would you still be doing as much as you are now? Or do you need to back off a bit?
Bottom line, trust the Holy Spirit to lead you. Stay in the Word and stay close to God in prayer, and you’ll learn to recognize His invitations and leading.
And know that really, in the bigger picture, refraining from a particular act of helping really can be a way of helping your friend in the long run.