As members of Christ’s church, we are a service-oriented group, and that is as it should be. Christlike service strengthens the recipient and can dispel dark clouds of discouragement hovering over the hopeless. However, not all service strengthens, and some help hinders.
Rose Anderson (names have been changed) is a faithful, service-oriented woman. She has two adult children living in her home. Her able-bodied son, who holds down a good job, continues to enjoy a rent-free existence and free meals ten years after most young men are on their own. A daughter who lost her husband in a horrific accident, retreats further and further into emotional helplessness as her mother waits on her and makes all her decisions for her.
George Rowe tells of his over-solicitous mom doing his homework for him, saying things like, “This is a really hard assignment. I can’t imagine why the teacher would expect a child your age to do something this difficult.” Her desire to save him from hard things sent a message far different from her intent: “you are too weak and lacking in intelligence to be able to tackle anything hard.” He was never allowed to find out what he could, in fact, handle until he was on his own. He spent his early adulthood trying to work his way out of his mother’s negative programming. To his credit, he eventually learned to relish challenges.
Following Christ’s Example
What is Christ’s pattern for service? He mercifully does for us only what we cannot do for ourselves, he never infringes on our agency, and allows us to suffer the consequences of our own choices. In the Bible dictionary, a portion of the definition of “Grace” is to “receive strength and assistance to do good works that [individuals] otherwise would not be able to maintain if left to their own means. This grace is an enabling power that allows men and women to lay hold on eternal life and exaltation, after they have expended their own best efforts.”
If we follow Christ’s pattern, we will not step in and keep someone from expending their own best efforts. We will not do for others what would strengthen them to do for themselves. To do so sends a powerful crippling message that they aren’t good enough or strong enough to accomplish it on their own.
Learning by Experience
I learned this principle in a painful way. One of my single adult sons had an accident and was in the hospital for five days. He had two intricate operations and no insurance. My first inclination was to “rescue” him. To find ways to raise money for him, to borrow the money and pay the bill myself. I suffered for him, worrying about the terrible financial burden he would carry for years. Then I wanted to take him home and care for him after he got out of the hospital. But he insisted he could handle things himself–and he did. If I had taken over the bill, had talked my son into coming home and being dependent for any length of time, would I have been following Christ’s pattern for service?
Examining the Differences Between Christlike Service and Codependency
Christlike service often teaches others to help themselves and is motivated by the Holy Spirit and by the inner character trait of charity. If I serve to prove my worth, to look good, to feel good, to be seen of men, to prove that I’m needed, to feel important, it proviteth me nothing. If I am dependent on the receiver to act a certain way, to thank me with a certain fervency, or to change their thoughts or actions to suit me, my giving has crossed over the line from Christian service to codependency. The term “codependency” originally referred to wives of alcoholics. It meant that the wife was dependent on the spouse who was dependent on the alcohol. She was addicted to “fixing” him, helping him, covering up for him, serving him in numerous ways that actually weakened him and enabled him to stay stuck in his alcoholic behavior. The codependent title soon became a catch-all for any behavior where a person is focused on changing another person instead of sticking to his or her own stewardship (a typical mote/beam problem) or using service as a way of pleasing and manipulating others .
Colleen Harrison explains the difference between charitable service and codependency in her essay: “Touch Not the Unclean Gift.” With her permission I will quote several paragraphs:
Some people say that it’s hard to tell codependency from charity. Not really, not if you rely on your honest feelings to discern.
Codependency comes with a price tag, every time. I’m doing this for you so that you’ll do or be something I need. Charity has no price tag. Charity is to help someone along their path, according to their plan–not mine.
“Touch not the unclean gift,” could easily be a warning to us all to not fall for the codependent’s offer of binding help. You can tell whether you’re receiving codependent service or charitable service every time by how you feel. If you feel like you’re being bought up, sold out, taken for a ride–especially after seeking the Lord’s counsel in your heart–it is a pretty certain sign that you’re being used while you’re being “served.”
“Give not the unclean gift” could be a way of stating the opposite but equally serious warning to not participate in the other side of the codependent dance. If you can honestly say that you are not trying to control the other person, that you are hoping for no specific result in return for your help or effort for them, then you can know that your gift is clean, freely given, not an act of covert judgment or manipulation. If, however, you find the slightest justification or rationalization in you that indicates that you really do harbor a hope that your act of kindness will get this or that certain response–you are serving out of codependency. You are trying to control, to self-serve–get what you want by being nice to the other person. How can I tell what my motive is? By doing some serious and prayerful counseling with the Lord, willing to inventory (question and examine) my every urge to help another person. What would be His will for this person? If I help them in this way will it be a help to them or just enable them to avoid or postpone the consequences of their own agency?
“Hi, what can I do to help?” if said with the unspoken thought–no matter how subtle, “so that I can impress you, get you in my debt” or “ . . . so that I can fix you, turn your life around, make it/you better” is codependency. It has “strings,” an “ulterior motive,” a hidden agenda.
In contrast, when I’m serving someone in the spirit of charity, I am doing it as a gift given freely. I might hope to see them come closer to the Lord, closer to the truth, let go of self-destructive ways–but none of that can matter in my extension of help to them.
Whether they change or not, my love and respect and enjoyment of them–that they exist and that I feel grateful and blessed to have them in my life–must not change. Only then can I know that I am loving them with Christ’s own love. Only then is my gift truly clean.
How can I–especially in my parental role –express love and concern and give help that lifts instead of hinders? My friend Patricia suggested that I follow the Lord’s example spelled out in the 2nd and 3rd verses of “I Know that My Redeemer Lives” (Hymn 136).
Here’s the way the Lord serves; although we can never begin to match his boundless love and infinite wisdom in meeting our needs, we can learn from his perfect example in
• comforting us when faint . . . Because the Savior descended below all–experiencing worse than any of us will, he knows perfectly how we feel and what kind of comfort we need.The further we go along life’s road, the more experience we gain the closer our perspective should come to His. Patricia’s daughter was experiencing a real low the other night–one of the “everything is going wrong” moments. Patricia rubbed her feet with lotion, listened with patience. Then, since she has been through so much herself and always come out the better for it, she was able to tell her daughter with perfect confidence, “I know how you feel–I’ve been there, done that–but I can promise you that things will get better. Everything will be okay.”
• hearing our soul’s complaint . . . To listen to another person without judging or advising is one of the most helpful of human gifts. In the movie Sarah, Tall and Plain Sarah set a beautiful example. When Jacob was angry, and in great emotional pain after the death of his wife, Sarah listened, cried with him, then spoke just one sentence that let him know she understood his pain. She made a great difference in his life. Really hearing the soul’s complaint of one we love without trying to talk them out of how they are feeling is a gift of the heart that often heals and blesses.
• silencing all our fears . . . Only the Lord can silence all our fears. However, our example of leaning on the Lord, of trusting, of choosing to live in faith can be a huge help to silence a child’s fears. One of Patricia’s grown daughters was very distressed one day–and feeling great fear that she couldn’t make the changes she needed to make. Nothing Patricia said seemed to help. She couldn’t talk her daughter out of any of her fears. Finally, however, she said something that made a difference: “I know you can get through this. I know you can do this. I have faith in you and I know you have faith in the Lord.”
• wiping away our tears . . . Only Jesus can ultimately wipe away all our tears; in His earthly ministry he exemplified ultimate compassion. For example, when Mary told Him of the death of her brother, Lazarus in John 11:32-35: “Then when Mary was come where Jesus was, and saw him, she fell down at his feet, saying unto him, Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died.
When Jesus therefore saw her weeping. . .
Before Jesus astounded the world with the miracle of raising Lazarus from the dead, He validated the importance of the grief of those he loved. He wept with them. He didn’t say, “Don’t waste your tears; come and watch what I’m going to do,” but he showed his humanity, his empathy, his tender caring by shedding tears with them.
Nothing has helped me feel more loved in my life than having someone care enough to weep with me—or to hold me tenderly while I weep. Nothing has helped me less than to be told, “Cut it out. Don’t cry. Do you think that’s going to help anything?” And so, perhaps until the Savior can wipe away all tears, showing compassion and empathy for each other’s grief is one way we can follow His example.
• calming our troubled heart . . . To be a calm in the storm, a safe place, a harbor, is one of the finest things one human being can be to another. From the movie, The Other Side of Heaven comes the profound quote “Sometimes the Lord lets the storm rage, but calms the child.” So many times the billows are tossing high, the sky is o’ershadowed with blackness, and our loved ones feel they are about to sink. Our prayers and example of finding the comfort of the Spirit can help them experience the Lord’s comfort. We can be a conduit for His “peace, be still.”
• imparting blessings . . . The Lord can guide us to know what would be a blessing to our children and what would not. He is all-wise in making the distinction between those things that bless and those things that would hinder or weaken. Codependent parents want to take the place of the Savior–save them, bless them, give them everything. But parents possessed of a Christlike love would pray, “Lord, let my children have the experiences they need to bring them back home to thee. They pray and let go. Say “Thy will be done.”
• leading them to their kind wise, heavenly friend, to He who lives and loves us to the end . . . By setting the example of having the Savior as the center of our lives we can point our children to their best, their heavenly friend. Like Heavenly Father, we can learn to love them unceasingly, no matter what.
When the billowing surge seems to conspire against our children, when we are tempted to rescue, to shield children from consequences, to give help that hinders, may we remember the words of the Lord to Joseph Smith in D&C 122:7-9: “If the very jaws of hell shall gape open the mouth wide after thee, know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good. The Son of Man hath descended below them all. Art thou greater than he? Therefore, hold on thy way . . . For God shall be with you forever and ever.”