What do you do when someone you love refuses to change or seems incapable of change? When their life seems hopeless or helpless and they seem utterly incapable of doing anything about it? If you love them you want to ‘fix them’, right?
But here’s the thing: love isn’t enough to fix anybody. Or is it?
The nature of my job means that I spend alot of time listening to the messiness of people’s lives and many of them express a desire for ‘life to be different’. And as I listen to them I echo that longing: I’d much prefer to see them happy, pain-free, confident, unafraid.
But how to get them there?
Love isn’t enough… at least that’s how it feels sometimes.
The other day I read a definition of social work.
“Social work is all about leaning into the discomfort of ambiguity and uncertainty, and holding open an empathic space so people can find their own way.”
(Brené Brown Daring Greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent and lead)
And I thought “oh wow! that’s what I do!” I lean into the ‘mess’ that people tell me about their lives and by listening and loving them I try the best that I can to hold open a non-judgemental space of unconditional love around them. And in this space I hope and I pray that that person will find the courage to change, to grow, to be transformed.
I’m not alone in doing this, nor is it is a uniquely Christian thing to do. I see many other people doing this same thing for people they love: parents for children who are struggling, partners and friends or even children of alcoholics or addicts or anyone really whose personal difficulties seem to hold them trapped in a deep dark place. I see other pastors doing this same work of leaning into the mess in people’s lives and holding open a safe space around vulnerable people. It’s not a chore, it’s a choice and it’s not something I resent. But sometimes it just doesn’t seem to make any difference.
Here is the picture that came to mind, forgive my limited drawing skills,
The person I care about is sat down beside the path near to where the pathway divides. They don’t know which way to turn, the woods represent the darkness and confusion around them and the arms stand for whoever it is who is attempting to lean in and create an open empathic space.
Social workers do not use the phrase “unconditional love“- however they do talk about unconditional positive regard, and about having a non-judgemental attitude. Either way we are talking about the same thing: creating a loving space in which we hope the person we care for can find the courage to move forward in their life.
So why doesn’t this work?
I appreciate that my love is imperfect, sometimes badly expressed and maybe even inconsistent but I am doing the best I can and my desire to see change, transformation, or improvement for that person is a genuine desire. I would love to see things different for them.
So why IS love not enough?
Because to change is a choice that only that person sitting by the path can make. Transformation will only begin for them when they (and they alone) decide to make the first step on a journey towards that transformation. I cannot make that decision for them nor can I even take the first step for them. It is their journey not mine.
No matter how much or how well I love them I cannot change things for them.
It is incredibly difficult and uncomfortable to see someone in a place of pain and not be able to do anything about them, other than to love them, which seems like its ‘not enough’.
They are usually stuck because they are too frightened to change. Change doesn’t seem to be in their best interests. Sometimes they might even ‘scream’ at you or otherwise kick off, shifting the blame onto you, making it your fault that they haven’t changed: implying that ‘you haven’t loved them enough’, ‘you haven’t done what they needed you to do’ , ‘you haven’t been trustworthy’ or ‘you haven’t been there for them’ and so on and on.
I’ve heard it all, not all of it said out loud of course. Sometimes it is said simply by the shutting down and turning away. Sometimes you can literally see the mask drop over the other person’s face as they choose to close off from you.
Watching that happen is the saddest feeling ever.
Jesus knew that feeling. Some of those he challenged to change walked away and he let them go. For others, who came to him poised with readiness for transformation, he was willing to stop in his tracks.
Jesus Heals a Man with Leprosy Mark 1:40-41
40 A man with leprosy came and knelt in front of Jesus, begging to be healed. “If you are willing, you can heal me and make me clean,” he said.
41 Moved with compassion,Jesus reached out and touched him. “I am willing,” he said. “Be healed!”
I’ve had a long discussion/argument with God about this passage for over a week already. It began last Monday morning after I’d read the social work quote on the Sunday evening. In the middle of the night I was literally woken by this thought:
“But you are NOT a social worker”.
Thanks God, could you not have just kept that to yourself until a decent hour of the morning?
“You are a disciple maker” .
I went back to sleep but this passage was waiting for me as if to follow up the midnight dialogue when I turned up my reading for the day in the morning.
My argument went along the lines of “it’s not fair God, Jesus just reached out his hand and changed everything for that guy”. Pointing to the long list of people who have asked me to pray for them who presumably would like a similarly dramatic change it deeply frustrates me that I don’t get to hold out my hands and see instant transformation (or very rarely does that happen).
So here I am over a week later and God and I are still discussing this passage. Here is what ‘God’ has said so far:
1. “What makes you so sure you know what is good or bad or best for a person? Who are you to judge whether the instant miracle of healing will bring the deep inner transformation that I’m longing to work in that person’s life or whether or not in fact the path of suffering and struggling is a more effective way of bringing about that process of growing up? I’m aiming for maturity, depth of self-awareness, resilience, courage and the capacity to love. These are all the qualities that I am far more interested in. Mere comfort and freedom from pain or appearing to be a success doesn’t produce any of those qualities. The slow miracle of inner transformation is more often wrought by suffering and patient endurance and almost never by instant gratification or relief”.
That’s a bummer of a paragraph for most of us.
2. The man in this story was ready to change, he asked Jesus for himself and he was ready to take the consequences of his healing (presumably going back to work, giving up begging, ceasing to live a dependent lifestyle). Jesus always stopped for people who had reached this point of being ready to say yes to change, even if on one occasion (the pool of Bethsaida) he had to draw the person to this point.
3. The REAL miracle is NOT what happens to the man. The REAL miracle is NOT the outcome. The REAL miracle is the compassion: the deep, powerfully moving, “yes” of God who says “yes, I do choose”. Different translations of this passage describe Jesus having different emotions. Some say ‘pity’ others say ‘indignant’ or ‘deeply moved’ and one even says ‘anger’.
Whichever it is, the real miracle is the depth of feeling from God’s side of the transaction. God longs for change in us, much more than we do. But he has a longer term agenda, and he requires to be met from our side with an “as good as we can manage” desire for change ourselves.
So to go back to the title of this blog ” when love isn’t enough…”
Love is only enough to hold open that space, the person by the side of the path has to make their own choice to stand up and walk forward in the hope of lasting transformation.
A nurturing space can help them do this. But I am not a social worker I am a disciple maker. I’ve been asking God what that means.
It means that I am not only helping to hold open the space in the picture above but I am also in that space as an interested other and my job in that space is to hold up a sign post.
And what does it say on my signpost? “This way > God”.
“Here, hold this for me can you?” That was the last instruction Jesus gave me, personally and to all his would-be followers. “Hold up this signpost, don’t give up holding it up, don’t get discouraged when people aren’t interested. Don’t try to be the answer to every person’s need or problem, just hold up the signpost. Point them to me. And if they really want change/hope/transformation they will follow the sign and find me.”
There is both comfort and challenge in this commission that I’ve been given. The comfort is that I am not God (thank goodness) I am just someone holding a signpost. People do not need me but they do need a connection with the Divine being who created them and loves them unconditionally.
Therefore I hold up my signpost.
I’m allowed to point it in different directions for different people. Sometimes I might say ‘join our faith community’, or ‘read God’s Word’ or ‘here’s a great book’ or ‘try this practise’ but essentially the sign basically says the same thing: “this way > God”. In other words I don’t mind how you find your way forward only that you do find your way forward.
But it is a reality of ministry, and possibly for social workers as well, that some people just don’t like the signpost. They love the nurturing space, they love being listened to or being unconditionally accepted but when they get close enough to read the signpost they find it’s not what they want to hear, they either sit down by the path and have a strop or they walk away.
They do this because they do not believe that change or transformation is possible for them; for other people may be, but not for them: “I can’t change”, “this is just how I am”.
Wholesale transformation is just too risky. Many of us do not have the courage for that we just want a little bit of help here and there, nothing too challenging please.
“Put down the signpost and pat me on the head” say some and, to be honest, it’s a great temptation to do just that. It’s a heck of a lot easier for a start. It doesn’t get us anywhere though, except perhaps an increase in solidarity.
I have to remind myself that I have also often turned away from the signpost.
“Perverse and foolish oft I stray” is a line from a hymn and I know it applies to me. Often I have reached the signpost that says “this way > God” (usually held up for me by a faithful friend or a good writer) and I say,
“Nah! You know what, I prefer my own way”
“Nah! I’ve got this, I can handle this on my own”
“Nah! I know your way, your way is the way of vulnerability and honesty and that sucks. I’d rather look like I’m a ‘successful person’ then go your way if it means admitting my failures and weaknesses”.
I’ve said all of these things at key junctures in my life and so it’s hardly surprising that other people say the same thing. But every time we fail to follow the sign any real hope of lasting change withers. And it’s hard to watch people we love do that. It’s tragic to watch them make self-destructive choices: to numb out, to close down or to put themselves a safe distance away by distracting themselves with busyness, work or self indulgent pleasure. (Nothing wrong with those three things in themselves except when they are used to keep God or growing/changing at arms length).
The challenge for me is that I’ve only been given one job to do and it is to hold up this signpost. I do get disheartened when people approach me expecting the social worker and when they get closer into that circle of nurturing acceptance they discover I’m a disciple maker. It’s not like I’ve tricked them, the dog collar is a pretty big giveaway. The moment I challenge them by suggesting routes that involve more vulnerability, more honesty, or more willingness to engage with their own, excuse my French, ‘crap’ below the surface of their lives, they switch off. Their eyes glaze over. They look away or they drop the visor of their helmet and retreat. I get it. They are not being stubborn or difficult, they/we/me, we are all just scared of all that stuff.
Jesus says “follow me” and many people respond with “only if I get what I’m looking for”
Jesus has said “follow me” to me over and over again and the yes answers I have given have varied from:
yes, I’ll be baptised (age 13)
yes, I’ll drop that destructive relationship (age 18)
yes, I’ll use this gift (age 30)
yes I’ll be ordained (age 50)
There have been way more ‘no’ responses along the way and also a fair few “you’ve got to be kidding” so I’ve still got a long way to go. But every yes response has led to a deeper transformation and a new responsibility, the latest one being ‘hold this blinking signpost’.
I have to learn not to mind, or at least not to invest my ego, when people turn away or reject my proffered methods. I accept that we all come draw closer to God and become more fully our authentic selves via different routes. “Ongoing change is the central progamme for yourself, once you accept this you will keep growing all your life” (Richard Rohr).
The massive challenge for me is to stay holding open that space for others in a non-judgemental way and to keep holding up that sign. It helps me to remember that Jesus walked the way of suffering and rejection; people saw him and turned away. Some were repelled, others were indifferent.
They wanted him powerful and resurrected. Oh yes, they want some of that in their lives please. But being weak? Vulnerable? Rejected? Self-sacrificing? Allowing ourselves to be misunderstood? Suffering? No thanks, I’d rather that wasn’t part of the plan. And yet perhaps this was what Paul meant when he wrote that he wanted to share in Christ’s sufferings?
I do want to ‘grow up’ into mature faith, by which I mean becoming a more deeply authentic loving, wise human being but I’d prefer to do it by skipping the class on suffering. No one gets to do this. There are no shortcuts. It never works. The fact is we are going to suffer anyway, life is just like that it throws us all so many opportunities. But suffering is wasted on us if all we do is rail at God and rebel over it with an indignant sense of our own entitlement: “I’m your follower this should NOT be happening”.
“Take up your cross and follow me” said Jesus.
Is love enough? Actually it is. So long as the love in question is the love of God. The REAL miracle is that it is God who holds open a safe, accepting, non-judgemental space for all of us, it’s not me at all. God holds this space open for you and for me and for those we love and he will keep holding it open, willing us to get back on to our feet and put one foot in front of the other, willing us to walk the way of suffering if necessary (and it will be), willing us to become all that we were created to be. Only this perfect love is enough to cast out our fear. Refusal to trust in the truth of this love is to effectively say ‘God’s love isn’t enough… for me.
Lord, give me the grace to accept the things I cannot change, the faith to believe that you are always alongside me to walk with me through whatever painful experience comes my way and the courage to keep following you. Amen.