Love Should Never Include Disclaimers: Why Christians Need to Stop Trying to “Fix” People

There was a time when I thought it was my Christian duty to point out anything I thought someone was doing wrong.

I called out teachers for being too hard on other kids.

If the pastor said something I disagreed with in a sermon, I informed him of it afterward.

I made sure people on the worship team knew they kept going flat when they hit that G.

I tried to talk my friends, Christian and otherwise, out of committing sins.

Oh, I wasn’t mean about it. I was truly concerned, and wanted to help. And when you’re a perfectionistic eldest child in your late teens and early twenties, I guess that’s what help looks like. Because doesn’t everyone want to know how to be more perfect? And isn’t it my responsibility to make sure they know how?

I don’t think I’m the only Christian who has struggled with this. We have a behavior management problem. Don’t get me wrong: self-control is a fruit of the Spirit, and we are called to make wise, God-honoring choices. But when we try to manage others’ behavior? That leads to all sorts of heartache and trouble.

Here’s why.

First of all, none of us really know what another person is going through. We’re all in process, and none of us are perfect yet. I remember hearing Brennan Manning speak years ago. He pointed out that that runaway teen turning tricks on the street, who falls asleep with the name of Jesus on his lips, may in fact have made a lot more spiritual progress than a milktoast Christian who came from a happy home.

It’s like Paul Hiebert’s evangelism paradigm, bounded sets vs. centered sets. Maybe one person seems closer to Christ than another, but what is their trajectory? Are they moving toward Christ or away from him? Are they stagnant and complacent?

bounded-centered-diagram1

We should be helping people move toward Christ, not shoving them into the position we think they should inhabit.

Second, it’s not our job to change, convict, or transform people. That’s the Holy Spirit’s job.

I think parents can be especially guilty of this mindset, because we want to raise our kids well, instill healthy habits and beliefs. But that wears thin after twenty years or so, and attempting to police someone’s speech, behavior, and lifestyle can push them further away, because who wants to be manipulated and controlled?

We also need to look at our motives for pushing people. While we may worry about destructive choices, oftentimes, a good part of our concern is about how WE want people to live their lives, how their choices make us feel. We’re worried about how their behavior reflects on us, and our attempts to change them are motivated by shame. C O – D E P E N D E N T. We can’t love freely when our self-worth is tangled up in someone else’s free will.

We need to get better at loving people where they are at, no ifs, ands, or buts about it. Love should never include disclaimers.

So should we just let people do whatever they want to do, live however they want to live?

Yes and no.

Yes, because honestly, we have no control over the behavior of adults, and it is deeply offensive to act like we do. Each and every one of us is ultimately accountable to God. We can’t shoulder our way into that relationship and try to mediate between the two of them, haranguing the person and acting as if their behavior is our spiritual responsibility. That’s infantalizing and dehumanizing. We need to allow people the dignity of making their own decisions, even if we’re sure those decisions are wrong and will lead them down a bad path.

And no, because we need to have boundaries. But we can really only set boundaries for ourselves. Telling an adult “you can’t do this” strips them of their dignity, and all too often sets up a cycle of co-dependency as you try to “fix” their behavior. But you can certainly say “you can’t do that to me,” or “you can’t do that in my house.” The only person whose behavior you can control is your own, and that is actually a very good thing.

Here’s the long and short of it. It’s not our job to fix people’s behavior. It is our job to love them, pray for them, and point them toward Christ, in whatever way we can.

In order to do that, we’re going to need to offer a lot of grace. And in order to offer grace, we need to let go of the shame, perfectionism, and fear that drives us and accept that grace for ourselves.

Is your focus on spiritual performance? Or is your focus on Christ?

I wish you all loads and loads of grace!

 

 

 

16 Responses to Love Should Never Include Disclaimers: Why Christians Need to Stop Trying to “Fix” People

  1. Jane Argiero March 31, 2014 at 10:16 am #

    Jenny, I need that right now. I’m such a “fixer.” In my job as a social worker I am always wishing I could fix people. With my husband and adult children I want to fix their problems (help them). With my parents, my young child, my friends… It’s all the same. And with myself, WOW! I am always feeling I need to do more, be more..
    I’m really working on learning to step back and let the Holy Spirit work. My job is only to love.

    • Jenny Rae Armstrong March 31, 2014 at 10:18 am #

      Oh, I hear you! I struggle with wanting to “fix” everything too. Especially myself.

  2. Anne Vyn March 31, 2014 at 10:19 am #

    Such a good and timely word, Jenny!! “It’s not our job to fix people’s behavior. It is our job to love them, pray for them, and point them toward Christ, in whatever way we can.”

  3. Kathy March 31, 2014 at 10:37 am #

    I really resonate with this as we’ve really had to put this into practice as our much loved teenage son has made his own choice to not have a relationship with Christ. We’ve found keeping the relationship with him by just loving him is actually the most important thing. However… and this is where I’m struggling… what about church leadership? I’m part of a the pastoral leadership team and my attitude tends to be more toward “just love them, point them to Christ and let them make their own choices” but the rest of the team feel that as pastors we have ‘spiritual oversight’ so therefore need to be a bit stronger in the ‘giving direction’ side. I do think as pastors we do have a right / responsibility to be more directional but I have trouble knowing how to keep the balance. Any thoughts from you or your wise readers??

    • Jenny Rae Armstrong March 31, 2014 at 10:53 am #

      I was thinking about that as I was writing this post. Here are my thoughts. So much depends on the context. Generally speaking, I think church leadership should fall under the “pointing people to Christ” banner. We need to proclaim God’s word as faithfully as we can, and sometimes, that involves having conversations with people whose choices seem to be putting them on the wrong trajectory. However, I think it is really important to acknowledge that we can’t control those decisions, and to be respectful. Also, the focus should be helping people re-orient their lives toward Christ, not just fixing certain behaviors. They may have limited power to change their own behavior, and only the Holy Spirit can fix that. People need inner transformation, not just behavior management.

      Then there’s the issue of church discipline. Different churches have different practices, but personally, I would draw the line at predatory behaviors (and the morality police can be predatory too, causing a lot of damage!). Some churches discipline members for engaging in certain types of sin, which I struggle with. Sometimes it may be appropriate, especially if it is predatory or is having an extremely negative impact on others, but oftentimes it just winds up shaming people who are already hurting and in trouble, and need support, not condemnation. Some very deep wounds have been inflicted by church discipline that frankly, to me, just seems like a way for the church to distance itself from certain people and voice their disapproval of their behavior. That said, none of this is simple, especially in smaller churches where everybody knows everybody. Our behavior does impact other people.

      I think the question of whether we’re performance-oriented or Jesus-oriented clears up a lot of those issues. Discipleship is not simple, and neither is life together. We all just need a lot of grace and courage.

    • Jenny Rae Armstrong March 31, 2014 at 11:39 am #

      P.S Just read this in Out of the Salt Shaker: “Moral reformation, for example, looks at rules and how to conform. It focuses on our behavior when what is needed is the reformation of our hearts. Spiritual transformation looks at Jesus and how to be transformed into his likeness! That’s why moralism and legalism as solutions to sin are woefully inadequate. They may make us nice, but they don’t make us new.”

      “(Moralism and legalism) may make us nice, but they don’t make us new.” LOVE that, and it seems especially relevant for pastoral discipleship.

      • Kathy April 1, 2014 at 2:39 am #

        Thanks for your well-thought-out, wise words Jenny. I’m going to copy this out and have a think through it. I think overall we are on the right track (we don’t really ‘do’ church discipline thank goodness!) but it seems easy to stray into behaviour management rather than encouraging inner transformation sometimes.

  4. Don Johnson March 31, 2014 at 11:42 am #

    I think a part of it is abandoning our arrogance and being humble. As you say, some of this is basic boundary stuff, what/who is in your own sphere of control and what/who is not. Parents are to control their children, but this is supposed to be diminishing over time with a goal of them becoming a fully functioning adult from the start of being a fully dependent baby.

    All of us can have hidden motives, some not so good and/or some hidden from ourselves; and can deceive ourselves about this. Lord, help me, a sinner.

  5. Callie Glorioso-Mays March 31, 2014 at 12:05 pm #

    Jenny, I am so glad you shared this! It reminded me of the article I wrote at RELEVANT this week on shame and some of the comments I received. Some people thought that since I encouraged people to be honest, I was saying that they should be let off the hook for their sin. But I loved this line that you wrote: “It’s not our job to fix people’s behavior. It is our job to love them, pray for them, and point them toward Christ, in whatever way we can.” I couldn’t agree more!

    • Jenny Rae Armstrong April 1, 2014 at 7:45 am #

      Thanks Callie! And I thought your article was great. I didn’t read the comments–how bizarre! “No, no, just stuff all your feelings deep down inside and smile.” :-/

  6. Lacey March 31, 2014 at 8:34 pm #

    This comes at a good time for me as well, although I find myself on the “being fixed” side rather than the “trying to fix” side right now. What I’m reflecting on is boundaries, and how to lovingly set them. I think the good news in all of this is that it is a much more FREEING way to live. It is SO stressful to try to fix/change someone else, not to mention damaging to the relationship (because yes, I’ve been on THAT side, too). I can never have too many reminders to go back to love when the “right” thing to do gets too fraught and confusing. I return to Jesus’ clear directive that loving God and neighbor were the MOST important things he had to teach us whenever my mind finds itself tied in theological knots, sometimes involving other people!

    • Jenny Rae Armstrong April 1, 2014 at 7:48 am #

      Those theological knots can be something else! Yes, though, it is a much more freeing to live with healthy, loving boundaries than to feel held hostage by another individuals choices and behavior. And much easier to love when we are able to disentangle our self-worth from other people’s thoughts, comments, and behavior.

  7. Caroline June 10, 2014 at 6:21 am #

    Blessed words Sister Jenny
    Some years ago He said to me
    “I didn’t tell you to fix people
    I did say to love them” I ‘ll
    do the fixing”
    What a wonderful way to live
    Thank You Lord

  8. Elena August 18, 2014 at 12:21 pm #

    I grew up in a church where everything was performance based–you talk a certain way, you think a certain way, you dress a certain way, and then you become the “perfect” christian that God hears. If you don’t…well, God cannot hear or answer you.

    Through years I’ve learned that if that was the God I were to follow, I would rather be godless. Thankfully I then discovered my God, who was about a relationship first. Who can tolerate my mad behavior, bad mood, and less than perfect humanity, to guide me, lovingly and patiently, into becoming more like him, but not out of duty, rather, out of love.

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