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Mable is a professional counselee. During the past four years, she has been to four counselors, two churches, and three stints in rehab.
She has also gone through three best friends, and now she is meeting with Marge, her latest best friend. Though Marge knows how many people, institutions, and facilities Mable has frequented over the past four years, she is optimistic she will be different now. Marge does not believe she knows better than the other counselors in Mable’s life, but she is hoping against hope that the Lord will change her.
Index forward – Marge has been working with Mable for nine months. It has been a roller coaster ride emotionally.
Mable has repeatedly lied, “repented,” manipulated, expressed remorse, gotten angry, regretted again, gone on three-day drunks, confessed her sin, and rolled through this list of behaviors again and again.
Marge is exhausted. She is also hurt, confused, frustrated, and about ready to pull out her hair. She started out with hope, but within a few weeks, she realized a simple thing like repentance was not something Mable was willing to do. Marge has been losing faith in the process of change almost from day one.
To complicate matters, Marge is a caring soul. She loves people. She has always been “for the underdog” and no doubt Mable is an underdog. In college, Marge started an outreach to the homeless in her city. She also volunteered at the local rescue mission.
Marge understands the gospel, in the sense that she has been affected by it and she wants to share the same love with others that God has given to her (Matthew 18:33). Her passion for others is genuine, and her desire to help is the natural outflow of her regenerate heart.
But then there is Mable.
What I’m writing is to all of those who care for others and are, at times, tempted to over-care. There are many Christians, who love people and try hard to help others change. Sometimes these Christians over-try, to the point of becoming frustrated or fearful when the people they care for do not change.
One of the things Marge is doing is interpreting Mable through how she–Marge–looks at and thinks about life. For Marge, it makes sense: if you are in sin, you repent. If you are on a path of self-destruction, you get off the road. If you are heading down, you stop, turn, and begin an upward progression.
Marge is using Bible logic: you sin; you stop sinning. Makes sense, right? The problem is that Bible logic or biblical common sense is not how everybody chooses to live their lives. If so, everyone would be born again, but we know that everybody is not going to make it to heaven.
Choose this day whom you will serve, but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD. – Joshua 24:15
Some people will choose to reject the way of Christ, which is a truth that every Christian knows, though there are times when we do not want to accept this reality.
We are tempted to lose track of how everybody will not follow Jesus when it comes to those who are close to us–the people we love the most, like our family members or close friends who persist in selfish choices.
Some people will choose their path to destruction, which should sober us into a better way of thinking about them. Life on earth is not primarily about the here and now. Life on earth is the time when people choose between heaven and hell. Life is warfare where there are real winners and real losers.
Some people choose life, and other people choose death. Mable is in the war, and she is making eternal choices. Marge is in the fight with her, battling beside her friend. She is watching her make decisions, which up to this point have been burying her deeper into earthly dysfunction.
Sphere of Responsibility – Sphere of Concern
Marge’s heart aches for her friend. She prays, pleads, and begs–always hoping Mable will stop, change, and go the other way. Until now, Mable has chosen death over life.
Marge is learning how Mable is defining the kind of relationship she is going to have with her. Mable’s choices are real lines in the sand. She is establishing herself clearly on the side of death, and because of her decision, Marge can only be a beckoning onlooker.
It is not possible to have the kind of relationship she desires with Mable because Mable is choosing a path, that no matter how many times Marge pleads with her, from which she will not change.
Marge needs to guard her heart while she is engaging her friend. She must guard her heart against loving Mable the wrong way. What I mean is that sometimes our love can become sub-biblical (not unbiblical, but sub-biblical).
There is only so much you can do for a person who has made it objectively clear that they are not going to change, at least not at this time. Sometimes we can want something so much that we can try too hard to make it happen.
Marge is leaning heavily on Mable to choose life, as though there were no other options for her. What she is not considering is how there is another option. Mable can reject Christ. She can deny the way of the cross. It is her choice.
I am not suggesting Marge walk away from the relationship, but when the relationship begins to tempt you to sin, you must adjust to how the other person is defining the association, which could mean that you create space from the unchanging person. The issue here is not Marge under-caring for Mable; she is caring too much.
She has spoken the truth in love. She has confronted her friend. She has given her wise counsel and many opportunities to change, but Mable has chosen to be stubborn, selfish, and proud.
Though it makes perfect sense to Marge for her friend to choose life, she must release her to make her own choices. There is a time to back off from people who have made it clear they do not want to change.
Marge has to come to a place in her heart to where the dumb choices that some people make do not control her–namely Mable. This tension, again, is the life of a caring Christian. I typically draw attention to this truth with those I train to be counselors. Without question, it is the hardest part about counseling.
Every story a counselor encounters is a sad story. The view is always the same from the counselor’s chair. Counselors do not help people who are struggling with excessive joy. They help people who are struggling in sin–whether it is a sin of their own making or the sin that has come upon them.
Counselors are in the trenches of life, shoveling the manure of humanity. If they do not carefully adjust their hearts according to the life and death reality of what they are called to do, they will not make it as a counselor. They will become overwhelmed, even trying to manipulate others to change.
Many years ago I asked the Lord to give me the grace to hear the sad stories from those who come to me for care, while helping me not to be controlled by them, especially for those who choose to live waywardly. This challenge has been my hardest lesson to apply personally.
There are times when a person will repent of their sin, and there are other times when no matter what you do, the person will not change, which is why I pray this way when it comes to the tough situations.
Father, give me the grace to know where to draw the lines. I do not want to care too little, but I also do not want to be overcome by people problems. I want to be controlled by you, not other people. Teach me the wisdom of saying, “Yes” and teach me the grace to say, “No.” It is not my job to change people. It is yours. I am the water-giver and the seed-spreader. Only you can bring change.
People like Marge have to learn how to rest in “divine mystery.” It is not for us to know everything the Lord is up to in the lives of others. His ways are mysterious. Sometimes He raises people up to live sinfully, to fulfill His glorious purposes (Exodus 9:16).
Even people’s sin can be used for God’s glory, which I think we are okay with when the people we are talking about are Pharaoh or Judas. It is harder for us to accept when the sin is someone we know and love.
This reality is not a call to acceptance or resignation regarding our friends, but it is a call to wisdom and discernment. Sometimes the Lord’s plans are higher than our hopes and wishes. We should never give up on people, but we must never be controlled by what people do, especially those who will not change.
Not discerning the fuller work of the Lord was the mistake the apostles made. Somehow they got it into their heads that Jesus was going to take over the world (Mark 8:32). What they did not realize was how the Lord was going to “use sin sinlessly” in a way that would blow their minds. The Father permitted sinful men to sin, which led to the sinful crushing of His Son on a cross (Isaiah 53:10).
Jesus dying on a cross became a stumbling block for His friends, but for God, it was power and wisdom at work (1 Corinthians 1:18-25). There are times when we can forget the counter-intuitive nature of the gospel. We see death and destruction–or in the case of Marge: dumb choices her friend is making–and no longer remember how God is in these messes.
God is in all your messes, though He may not bring those messes to a conclusion that suits your wishes. The gospel reminds you what may seem like a disaster, no matter what it is, will eventually bring glory to the Lord. All things will bring glory to God, even the God-rejectors.
My advice to Marge is to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15) to her friend and rest in the higher purposes of God, fully confident He is working His plan. If you do not get everything you want or if God does not answer all of your prayers according to how you prayed for them, you can still count on the Lord. He is working for your good and His glory. Regardless of what Mable chooses, one way or the other, she will bring glory to God.
The way you know if you are over-caring or over-concerned for your friends or family members is by how you think about them. If you are frustrated with them, you are over-concerned about what they are doing. If you are fearful because they are not changing, you are over-caring, while not trusting the Lord.
In either case, there is something you want from them that you are not getting. Because of this thing, you are pressing too hard to get the person to change, or you are worrying too much because they are not changing. The first thing for you to do is repent of this mini-messiah complex that you have. It is not your job to change people.
The way you know you are acting like a mini-messiah is if you are not trusting and resting in the Lord during the time the person is not changing. It is your job to water and plant (1 Corinthians 3:6). The only question you need to be thinking about is if you have done an adequate job in helping the person to change. If you have, God is calling you to rest while trusting Him to manage this situation.