Empathy. Compassion. Mercy. Servanthood.
These are the sorts of traits that Jesus perfectly embodied. They’re the qualities that Scripture calls Christians to exhibit as they walk in the character of Christ and his kingdom. They’re the attributes that God promises to progressively work in his people as he cultivates their hearts by his Holy Spirit. Indeed, the church is to be the community where such impulses are normal as brothers and sisters in the Lord lay down their lives to care for each other and to love their neighbors.
It’s a cause for celebration, an evidence of God’s grace, when our heart reaction to a request for counsel, service, or help of some sort is to selflessly say, “Because of the love Christ has shown me, I am joyfully willing and ready to love this person by meeting their needs.” Whether it’s helping another person fight a particular temptation, mortify a specific sin, navigate the dynamics of a tricky relationship, apply the gospel to a dimension of life, or exercise wisdom in an approach to a problem, the opportunities for us to serve one another in the give and take of everyday life are manifold. And it’s a sweet blessing when we can gladly participate in bringing resolution and put someone else’s concerns above our own.
But just because we embrace a readiness to serve others, that doesn’t mean that we’re suddenly free from the dangers of selfishness. Even our best desires, our best intentions, our external obedience to God’s commands, can become masks for idolatry. Even love of neighbor can become a pursuit motivated by love of self. That happens when we cross the line from saying, “I’m willing to help this person,” to saying, “I need to fix this person.” Our empathetic, compassionate, merciful servanthood morphs into a destructive desire to make everything perfect.
What does this destructive desire look like? It looks like a husband whose entire identity is wrapped up in his ability to solve his wife’s problems, a wife who can’t admit she doesn’t have all the answers to her husband’s questions or pain or conflict, a friend who feels the urge to micromanage all the details of another person’s life in an effort to eliminate all of their issues.
The effects of this destructive desire aren’t pretty. When our whole self-understanding depends on our capacity to fix people, then when our counsel doesn’t work, we’ll either get violently angry at the very people we’re trying to help and blame them for being so difficult to work with, or we’ll despair at our failure because we can’t handle the possibility that we aren’t Messiahs. We suffocate people with suggestions, manipulate them in order to see tangible results, and turn them into puppets and projects rather than recognizing their humanity, seeking change according to the gospel, and patiently bearing with them as we wait on the Lord to do his sanctifying work on the heart. We become graceless, intolerant of the fact that people are still sinners who continue to deal with all kinds of problems. We become proud, blind to our own consistent battles against sin and to our need for counsel in various circumstances. We become the kind of people that can’t be approached for help, and we may even begin to hate the whole idea of serving others because investing in people feels like a miserable bondage.
There are a whole host of idols that can drive us to help in such harmful ways. And we have to be ready to preach the truth of God to our hearts when these idols begin to emerge.
Our need to fix people can be rooted in the idol of control. Our satisfaction and security get tied to our ability to completely manage another person’s heart and situation. The only times we feel safe or productive are when we’re exercising unchallenged authority over our lives and the lives of others. But God is the sovereign king who’s in control of all things. He promises to work by his Spirit to conform his children to the image of Christ, and we know that he’ll only do what is good for his people because he gave his Son to make us his. So we can trust the Lord and give up control.
Our need to fix people can be rooted in the fear of man. It’s not so much about serving others with knowledge as it is about being recognized as knowledgable. It’s not so much about loving others for their good as it is about being seen as a loving person for our own good. We live for the approval of others, and in order to attain that approval, we’ll do whatever it takes even if that means smothering people in our efforts to develop a reputation. But the approval of God is worth far more than the approval of man, and God has graciously granted his approval to everyone who trusts the gospel of Christ. He’s declared his favor over all who are united to Jesus, so we can trust the Lord and give up the fight for the praise of people.
Our need to fix people can be rooted in self-justification. We have to make everything better because that’s how we prove to ourselves that we’re a good spouse, a capable counselor, a wise pastor, an able friend. In order to validate ourselves, in order to live up to our own expectations, we have to bring this other person to a place of complete perfection where they no longer experience the slightest symptom of their former problems. Our actions aren’t actually about helping a loved one; they’re about establishing our identity and justifying ourselves. But “while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:6) so that we who deserve condemnation could be justified—declared spotlessly righteous—by God himself, the only judge that matters. God is the justifier of his people, so we can trust the Lord and stop trying to prove ourselves through other people.
Whenever these (and other) idols are dominating our hearts, we try to live as functional saviors for other people, replacing the only Savior who can truly bring change, healing, and hope. But when we’re resting in the promises of God to us and to all of his children, we can bear one another’s burdens and offer assistance with gladness while still ultimately depending on God to take care of everyone involved.
Selfish service says, “I can’t rest until I’ve solved all of your problems.” Selfless service—the kind that the gospel empowers—says, “I’ll do everything I can to help while recognizing my limitations and leaving space for the Holy Spirit to do his sovereign work.” Only when our hope for ourselves and our hope for other people are firmly grounded in the cross and resurrection of Jesus will we be free to lay down our lives in selflessness and truly walk with others down the long, taxing, and often bumpy road of sanctification.