Helping Vs Enabling: How to Know the Difference

by Joe Plemon on April 20, 2011

You have two noble goals: to help the needy and to be wise.  Unfortunately, it is not always easy to do both simultaneously.  Why?  Because it is quite possible that your “help” isn’t actually helping…you might be enabling instead.   Wisdom is being able to discern the difference…but how is that done?

First, some definitions:

  • Helping is doing something for someone else that they are not capable of doing for themselves.
  • Enabling is doing things for someone else that they can and should be doing for themselves.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Yet we all too often find ourselves enabling instead of helping.

Why does this happen?

Knowing the difference is hard work.

We could be simply too lazy to discern whether we are really helping or not. It is easy to throw money at an issue and pat ourselves on the back, thinking, “Well, I have done my part. How the gift is received is not my problem.” Maybe not, but continually giving without following up on how it was used is your problem. Yes, doing so is a hassle, but if you continually buy groceries for a friend who doesn’t know how to manage his money you are not helping.

We perceive suffering as always bad.

None of us likes to see others suffer, but intervening isn’t always wise.  I have a 40 year old friend who recalls vividly the time when, as a teenager, he was arrested for driving and drinking. Upon being notified by the police, his father chose to leave him in jail overnight instead of bailing him out. Furthermore, the dad sold his son’s truck. I know this father and am absolutely convinced that he was deeply empathetic of his son’s plight. But I admire him for allowing his son to suffer the consequences of his actions. He knew his son was suffering, but he also knew that this suffering was beneficial, not bad. By the way, the son never drove after drinking again.

We might like the feeling of control.

This one is more prevalent with enabling parents, but it works like this: mom or dad just can’t allow those apron strings to be cut, so they will allow a grown child to continue to live at home, often paying their bills, and letting the adult child get by with doing little to improve himself. The parent, in a perverted way, is training his child to be co-dependent so he/she can feel needed and in control.

We can’t deal with the strife.

Again, this one is specific to parents. The child needs to be told “no’, but the parent would rather enable the child than deal with the ensuing strife that “no” brings. Whether it be a toddler who throws a tantrum in the grocery store aisle or the adult child who begs for rent money, mom or dad will too often acquiesce because they can’t handle the consequences of tough love.

What should you do?

Realize that God expects us to be good stewards of his resources.

Simply giving without requiring accountability is irresponsible. We need to develop discernment to help us know the difference between helping and enabling.

Allow God to work.

When you intervene by not allowing someone to suffer the consequences of his actions, you are effectively limiting how God can work in that situation. Galatians 6:7 tells us, “Don’t be misled—you cannot mock the justice of God. You will always harvest what you plant”. Allowing another to suffer the consequences of her actions is, in effect, partnering with God. Remember: comfortable people have zero motivation to change their behavior. Hebrews 12:11 is an apt reminder: “No discipline is enjoyable while it is happening—it’s painful! But afterward there will be a peaceful harvest of right living for those who are trained in this way”.

Guard your heart.

It would be easy to smugly say, “He is getting what is owed to him.” While this may be true, we need to continue to pray for this person, encourage them and wish them the best.

Grow a backbone.

It all boils down to saying “no” when we find ourselves doing things for someone else that they can and should be doing for themselves. With friends and family it is a tough thing, but that “no” can be the best help we could ever offer.

Concluding thoughts

God expects us to be both helpful and wise. Part of that wisdom involves monitoring our help to make sure we are not doing what the recipient can and should be doing himself. At that point, we are enabling instead of helping.

Readers: does your “help” sometimes become “enabling”?  How do you recognize that difference and what do you do to correct it?

This post is a rewrite of a previous staff post for Christian PF.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Cassie April 20, 2011 at 7:11 am

This is such an important topic. So many of us will not allow our children the struggles necessary to become strong and independent thinkers. We can cause great harm to both the children and our own financial futures with our acts of “kindness”.


joeplemon April 20, 2011 at 9:19 am

Yes, strength comes through struggle. We parents have learned this in our own lives, but somehow think we are being kind by shielding our children of those same struggles.


optionsdude April 21, 2011 at 6:18 pm

This is a great topic for discussion and not just on an individual level but also on a societal level. Is the financial plight of the country occurring because government has enabled individuals to avoid saving for retirement through social security and other programs? There are some who can’t help themselves and they would assuredly need help. But I think that many of the entitlements have enabled some individuals to abdicate personal responsibility for certain aspects of their lives.


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