The Dilemma of Helpfulness

dilemma of helpfulnessThis week at the grocery store, I noticed a mom who seemed to be in trouble. She had a child strapped to her chest, crying, and a little one underfoot she was trying to corral with her legs. With one hand she was tossing groceries from the cart to the bagging table; with the other patting the tired baby. All of this was done with a lot of speed, and she didn’t look happy.

I offered to help her bag. She made it clear that my offer was not acceptable, that she was fine, that even though I might have needed help when my children were little, she did not.

It hurt. In my attempt to help her, I had offended and upset her. All kinds of thoughts went through my head. Was it the way I asked? Did I somehow express that I thought she was failing? Did I break some sort of taboo by noticing her distress? I am not good at social cues, so there was a good chance I did something wrong by even asking.

It was a simple exchange. Took less than a minute, but for the rest of the day I felt dark and sad, like I’d failed. What you need to understand is that I’m not comfortable with people. I have been trying hard to be loving and compassionate toward people, because it doesn’t come naturally to me. People scare me. They upset me. I’m supposed to love them, but I don’t. Sometimes I don’t even like them. But I’ve been praying for eyes to see them as Jesus does, worthy of love and compassion regardless of circumstance. I want to be sweet and kind, but it’s hard to get past fears and hurts to do it. I’ve had people be really unkind to me, and so I was stepping hugely outside my comfort zone even to approach this woman. And I hit unkindness again.

Eventually I had to let myself off the hook. People in the world aren’t especially kind. I knew my intention was simply to help her get home faster so her tired baby could rest or eat or play. That was it. If she chose to get upset, that was on her.

Without realizing it, sometimes we do this in the church. I bet all of us remember moments when someone in our church bodies offered to help us with something, and we quickly told them No, I’m fine. I don’t need anything. I don’t want to put you out.

It hurts, doesn’t it? Makes you question asking again? Makes you wonder what value you have if simple offers of help are turned away?

Long ago I knew a woman who felt her calling was to help people in church. If a problem arose, she was the first to offer food, counsel, whatever was necessary. But then when life went back to normal, she wasn’t around. She wasn’t developing friendships or relationships; she was simply filling needs.

This same woman refused to accept help. I invited her to a cookie exchange. She said she didn’t have time to bake cookies. I explained that I had overbaked. I had a ton of cookies at my house. (This was in my pre-diabetes years.) She insisted it was unfair to eat my cookies and would not accept my offer. In the end, I had to throw them away. They went stale before anyone got to them. And we didn’t get her company at the exchange.

After that day, I didn’t accept help from that woman again. Bearing burdens needs to be a two-way street. God didn’t tell us to help one another to show the world we are good people. We’re not doing it to the check the Obedience or Good Deeds boxes in our spiritual checklist. He did it because we need to be intimate. We need to have friendships and relationships. Life is hard. The world is mean. We need to have people around us who don’t only help us in time of need but also love us in times of good and joy. It isn’t about tasks done; it’s about hearts woven together in an unbreakable tapestry.

I call people like my old friend the foul-weather friends. The lady at the grocery store turned around and offered her cart to someone when she left the store. She wanted to be kind to strangers, but it offended her to accept kindness. That was weakness. I think we do that in church, too. Many of us jump to help, but we don’t accept help. We don’t want to be vulnerable. We pat ourselves on the back for doing a good deed and forget about anything deeper.

Again, I’m working on this. I’m trying to be helpful, but I also want to build friendships and relationships. I’m the kind of person who could live on a deserted island for a decade before I started talking to volleyballs, but God wants me to interact, so I’m trying to interact. It’s not easy. It’s not easy for any of us. Our society is about independence. Our society isn’t God’s society, and that’s clearer every day.

If someone offers to help you, maybe it’s not a sign of weakness to accept. Maybe it’s as much part of being a good disciple of Christ as offering. Maybe that help won’t only aid your life, but it will build up the one who offered. It’s a two-way street. The world is rough, and we are called to comfort each other, laugh with each other, enjoy each other, weep with each other, and walk each other to Heaven’s doors.






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