The note on the youth pastor’s desk phone reminded, “Your problem is my problem.”
I was wowed. As a college student volunteering with youth, I loved being mentored by this pastor. “Cool!” I thought. “What a great reminder!”
Flash forward ten years. I was in my first urban ministry, working with a young mom who was abused by her husband and facing charges for abusing her infant daughter. We took her into our home when she was homeless. I went with her to meet her attorney. I testified in court for her. And, in this midst of all this, I tossed and turned at night, sleepless as I agonized over how to help Rayetta stay out of jail. I had made her problem my problem.
My pastor friend Dennis was at his wit’s end. A couple he was counseling was about to make a huge mistake. His wise counsel was going in one ear and out the other. Desperate to help this couple avoid tragedy, he met with his own therapist. “I feel like they’re about to drive off the cliff!”
“Maybe you need to let them drive off the cliff,” the therapist said calmly. “Then you can meet them at the bottom, offer to help bandage their wounds, and see if they’re ready to make changes.”
Dennis was shocked. He’d always assumed it was his job to help people avoid serious mistakes. That day was a turning point in Dennis’s ministry. From that day on, when people seemed determined to make bad choices, he found it much easier to let them make mistakes and, hopefully, learn from them.
As Christians, we are called to “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2, ESV). But just three verses later Paul says “each will have to bear his own load.” Is Paul confused?
We are called to support one another, encourage one another, help each other get back up when we fall. But we are all still responsible for our own choices. I’m responsible for my actions; you’re responsible for yours. If I try to control your actions, I’ve become part of the problem.
The twelve steps of CoDependents Anonymous (CoDA) begin with this sentence: “We admitted we were powerless over others and that our lives had become unmanageable.” In my five years with CoDA, as I came to deeply understand that truth, my life changed radically. As we say in CoDA, I learned to “detach with care.” I learned to support others without making their problems my problems.
I fell in love with this powerful version of the Serenity Prayer:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the people I cannot change,
the courage to change the one I can,
and the wisdom to know it’s me.
- Are you in a helping relationship where you are working harder than the person you’re helping?
- While continuing to offer support, are you willing to let others take responsibility for their choices, even if it means let them drive off the cliff?