Practicing Boundaries: Love vs Enabling

Boundaries | John Townsend and Henry Cloud

Practicing Boundaries: Love vs Enabling

We all want to care and help those in need. But how do you know when you are being loving with someone, or are actually enabling them? When you are faced with a request for your time, energy or money, how do you know if the right response is to say “yes” and provide it, or “no” and decline?

The Bible teaches, over and over again, that we are to help others:

And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased. — Hebrews 13:16

We are designed to love others in word and deed. Also, for most of us, it’s much easier to say “yes” than “no”, for a number of reasons:

• We feel compassion for the person’s struggle
• We remember our own difficult situations
• We don’t want them to feel disappointed and discouraged
• We wonder if God has placed us in their life for this situation
• We think we may be the only solution for them

At the same time, however, our provision for someone can actually make the situation worse for them, because we may be preventing them from experiencing some consequence for their behaviors, and not learning to change how they operate in life. This is the process of God’s disciplining us, so that we grow up and mature:

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 12:7

The process of experiencing consequences is key:

• A child in a 5-minute time out begs to get out in 3 minutes
• A teen asks not to be grounded for bad grades
• A friend who has had several failing jobs asks for a loan
• A spouse with a drinking problem asks their spouse to give them one more chance before requiring counseling

In all of these examples, it’s unsure what the right thing to do might be. There is just not enough information here. So back to the question: how to tell if you’re being loving, or if you’re enabling? Here are 5 questions to ask yourself as a sort of filter, and you will find the answer to the issue when you engage with them. You will probably answer some as a “yes” and some as a “no”, and don’t worry that the answers for all agree. You’ll see the balance to help your decision.

#1. Are they unable? We are called to have compassion and help those who have not, and also can not. They simply do not have the capability or resources to solve their problem. For example, a tribe in a developing country has no water wells. Or a homeless man has nowhere to sleep but under a freeway. Or a young businesswoman needs a mentor to help her grow in her leadership. We all are to be mindful to

carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. — Galatians 6:2

However, to be unable is very different than to be unwilling. Something may be difficult or inconvenient, and that’s just life. For example, a young adult who is living at home and doesn’t want to work, go to school, or do house chores, is more unwilling than unable.

#2. Are you resourced? Do you possess what the person is asking for? That might include the finances, or the time, or energy required. So often, I see people giving what they can’t afford to give, and then not being able to meet the demands of their lives. I have had to work with pastors whose families suffered because while Dad was helping everyone in the church, he wasn’t around to be a parent and husband. Here are some sobering words:

Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. — I Timothy 5:8

We need to make sure we are resourcing ourselves for the priorities we have been tasked to do.

There is certainly always a case for sacrificial giving, as in the example of the woman who gave her last two coins (Mark 12:41-44). So pray, and make sure you consider if the sacrifice is one that God has surely called you to do.

#3. Do they have skin in the game? In other words, are they also putting significant effort into solving the problem? This might involve going to job interviews, starting one’s own microbusiness, putting a small percentage of money into an initiative and doing homework after a coaching session:

The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat. — 2 Thessalonians 3:10

When a person who is struggling simply receives that help passively, it tends to foster increased passivity and what psychologists call “learned helplessness.” Learned helplessness is a sense that we don’t have choices that matter, so we simply give up and don’t take initiative or agency to solve our challenges. But when our efforts are part of the solution, we are strengthened and grow.

#4. Will you feel cheerful or will you feel reluctant or under compulsion? This question is based on Paul’s words about giving:

Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. — 2 Corinthians 9:7

Our emotions provide information for us. If we feel cheerful, then that’s a sign that you are happy you made a good choice. If we feel reluctant (grudging) or under compulsion (guilt-ridden), that’s a sign that you might need to rethink all of this.

#5. Is the outcome gratitude and autonomy, or entitlement and dependency? This last question is based on your history with the person. What have been the results of your providing for them? Are they thankful and able to bear their burdens more? That’s a good thing, and a positive sign that you may be doing the right thing. Or do they become entitled and demanding for more of your resource, and is their dependency on you increased? Not a good sign. Pay attention to the outcomes, or the fruit:

A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. — Matthew 7:18

If you have no giving history with the person, ask others who know them for their feedback.

Use these questions to clarify what the loving, but not enabling, path should be for yourself in your situation. Be sure to pray and ask safe friends what they think.

Finally, finally finally: if, after you have used this system, it’s still murky, and you’re unsure, then it might be best, in this particular situation, to default to grace. It’s always the best place to be.

For more information, read the Updated and Expanded edition of Boundaries, published by Zondervan, and written Henry Cloud and myself, which has just been released. It also has a fresh new chapter on how to set boundaries in today’s digital age! God bless you.

Original devotion for Devotionals Daily by John Townsend, Ph.D.

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Your Turn

It’s easy for some of us to slip into enabling those that we love instead of practicing appropriate, biblical boundaries. How are you stewarding your time, energy and money when others ask you for more than expected? Come share with us on our blog. We want to hear from you! ~ Devotionals Daily

John Townsend

Dr. John Townsend is a psychologist, popular speaker, and cohost of the nationally broadcast New Life Live! radio program, and a cofounder of Cloud-Townsend clinic and Cloud-Townsend Resources. He is coauthor of the bestselling Boundaries and author of Boundaries with Teens and Hiding from Love.

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