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The Wisdom of Knowing Who, When, and How to Help - Part I

One of the many challenging things about living in a networked global society is that we can now experience community and worldwide catastrophic events in real time.

A tsunami hits the coast of Japan, and we stand in shock and amazement before our large screened TV wondering, how can I help? Within hours, people in local and global communities begin organizing ways to deliver food, water, and medical attention.

For many of us, a natural disaster, though tragic enough, requires a less personal response. We can quickly text a donation to the Red Cross, offer up some clothes or quietly say a prayer for those in distress.

Most of us know how to respond on a global scale when all that is required of us is a financial donation. But, if you’re like me, the notion of helping gets far more complicated when the person on the other end is a family member or someone you love and care about.

The Wisdom of Discernment

I remember my Pastor saying once that even Jesus didn't heal everyone.

Excuse me?

I had never even considered this reality. As a good Catholic girl (okay, well, maybe not all the time), I was brought up believing that if it was to be, it was up to me. You either helped others—and that pretty much meant everyone—or you confessed why not.

I’m a grown-up Christian now. Still perfectly imperfect. But, I have to admit, my Pastor is right.

Jesus was discerning about who, when, and how He helped. He used His resources of time, energy, and power wisely. He didn’t waste time preaching to deaf ears (those who refused to listen). He didn’t change water into wine every day. He didn’t insist that the Pharisees follow.

He helped those in need via acts of compassion and empathy, but He did so with intention, purpose, and passion. I’m thinking maybe this is a model I should follow.

Whether you believe the accounts of Jesus’ ministry to be fact or fiction is irrelevant. The model of compassionate, unconditional love and empathy is timeless. It’s a matter of the spirit no matter what your religious persuasion.

We are wired for goodness. When we fail to step into that goodness, we become broken and fragmented. The greatest danger is not that we serve too many but that we might become self-serving.

How, then, do we discern who, when, and how to help?

The Who?

• Help Those Who are Willing

Through the years, I've learned that you can’t be all things to all people. On a personal level, it’s important to pay attention to how the person responds to your assistance. It’s not your job to fix them or their lives. And, you certainly don’t want to belittle them or make them dependent on your care.

Empowerment is about helping people recognize their strengths such that they can step into a better life. It’s a complicated matter when basic needs aren’t being met.

I have found it useful to listen to what people are saying when you offer them help. You are not to judge their situation, but if you find that no matter how hard you try to help, the person has excuses or reasons about why this, that, or the other can’t work for them, you may find it useful to refer them elsewhere and move on.

Think of it this way. Your compassionate heart may be just the thing that plants the seed of change. When that next person comes along and offers help and support, the person in need may be more willing.

You want to be an interruption to their circumstances but not to their journey. It’s about timing. Too much intervention on your part, at the wrong time, may prevent the person from a far deeper realization than you are able to offer.

The When?

• Accept the Seasons of Life

A few years ago, my husband and I considered being involved in the disaster response team at our church. Because my husband was a cook in the military, he thought he’d be of use on kitchen detail.

We quickly learned, however, that as independent business owners, we did not have the capacity to respond to a disaster at a moment’s notice.

It’s important to be realistic about when you can help. Examine the realities of your life and what you are able to do. Life is seasonal. Sometimes you have more time to offer. Sometimes you have more financial resources to offer.

It is wise to extend the grace we offer to others to ourselves. Helping requires a level of self-sacrifice, but it also requires balance. Even Jesus took time for rest, prayer, and fasting. He was discerning about when to preach, when to heal, and when to rest and recover.

• Make a Point of Choosing

For many of us, our heart will be moved by something that resonates with the very core of who we are or by an event or situation that has impacted our own lives. For example, maybe your mom had breast cancer or you have a brother who suffers from drug addiction.

Pick the top three areas where you believe you can make the biggest impact. Focus your helping and giving there. You may be called or inspired to respond to other situations, people, and events, but if you have a focus to start, it will enable you to be more discerning in how you offer up your time and resources.

The how of helping is perhaps the most complex of all. Stay tuned for that discussion next time.

Q: How do you discern who and when to help? You may leave a comment here.

Published by Sharon Spano, Ph.D. March 4, 2014