One of the most important truths I have learnt from the last 25 years of working with people is this:
Nobody can change anyone else. People must want to change.
Its important that we remember this truth because helping people with complex problems is in itself complex. Accepting this reality helps us avoid the twin problems of naivety and cynicism. Neither of these actually help people much at all.
Chapter 6 of Paul’s letter to the Galatians contains ancient wisdom on the balance of grace and truth that truly helps others.
1. Carrying other people’s burdens
Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ. (Gal 6:2)
The Bible is clear: helping others is right at the heart of the Christian message. As Jesus teaches, loving our neighbours (and especially those hardest to love) is right alongside loving God. Jesus embodies this teaching in countless examples of how he cares for those on the margins of society.
Supporting and loving others is so central that Paul describes carrying each other’s burdens as ‘fulfilling the law of Christ’. It is this ‘law’ which has inspired the church for centuries to show grace to those affected by issues of poverty and homelessness. This is what underpins the contemporary church’s commitment to practical action such as foodbanks, debt advice and homeless shelters.
2. But each should carry their own load
Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else, for each one should carry their own load. (Gal 6:4-5)
As so often in the Bible, there is a tension illustrated in this passage between grace and truth. Grace is shown in the injunction to help carry each other’s burdens. But, the truth is that each should carry their own load. What does this tension look like in practice?
I think it means that we should provide help to people when they need it – food, shelter and debt advice. But the aim of all these forms of help is to empower people affected to look after themselves. Rather than foster dependency on what we offer, our aim is that they carry their own loads.
Often the biggest challenge in helping people is how to do it without reducing the agency that they have. Increasing dependency often entrenches problems further.
This is complex and requires careful thought and wisdom. It will look different with people affected by different issues. But the principle should remain the same – how does our help empower people to carry their own loads?
3. Not becoming weary in doing good
‘Let us not become weary in doing good’ (Gal 6:9)
Over the years, I have met a lot of people who have burnt out from their efforts to help people. Combinations of middle-class guilt, radical aspirations and naivety combine to draw kind people into highly difficult and messy situations. Not only do people ‘become weary in doing good’, they can often become cynical about helping anyone.
Recently, I have had to give urgent advice to a Christian who had invited a homeless man, with a serious alcohol problem, to stay in his flat. The situation was threatening his own tenancy because of the behaviour of the man who he was trying to help. It was essential that he enforced boundaries so that he himself did not become homeless.
Boundaries, around our use of money, time and personal space, are an essential way of managing and focusing the help we give. They help us avoid unhelpful naivety and cynicism. Rather than limiting grace, they actually help sustain and maintain a graceful attitude.
And, most importantly, boundaries help the people we are aiming to help. They model an appropriate form of respect and mutual relationship which can build trust, confidence and dignity. This is far more helpful and humanising to those in need than allowing yourself to used as a doormat.
There is a fundamental humility in maintaining boundaries. We cannot save or change others alone. But we can be there for them and seek to offer help which really helps.
This sentiment is summed up in a prayer made famous by Oscar Romero:
We cannot do everything,
and there is a sense of liberation in realising that.
This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning,
a step along the way,
an opportunity for the Lord’s grace
to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results,
but that is the difference
between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders,
ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.