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While walking downtown Main Street, I met a beggar coming my way. My mind hit a momentary pause button, and then I re-indexed and ran a few thoughts through my head about how I should respond to this man. As he came closer to me, he popped the question. “Mister, can you spare a dollar or two. I haven’t had anything to eat since yesterday.” I told him it would be a privilege to help him.
I pointed to the local Subway restaurant with a glance to my right and told him I’d love to buy him a sandwich. He said he didn’t want my offer but preferred my giving him a couple of dollars to help him out. I declined to provide him with cash and attempted to explain my reasoning to him carefully. He was disinterested in my perspective but continued to ask for money.
I let him know that I could not help him the way he wanted but would love to serve him. He declined and continued to his next prospect. Within minutes of that encounter, he became a fading event of my past, one of a million things I have done in my life that I hardly remember anymore. I was not perturbed, bothered, upset, or annoyed that he was “working me.”
When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” But when he heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich (Luke 18:22-23).
It was just one of those events that happened to all of us. It was a quick opportunity to discern the Spirit and ask, “What would the Savior do in a moment like this?” You deal with it the way you believe God would want you to deal with it, and you move on to the next thing that He has prepared for your day. I did not dismiss this man or show a lack of care for him.
It could be analogous to the rich young ruler who wanted something from the Savior. Jesus encountered him and sought to serve him but believed it would not be wise to give the young ruler what he wanted the way he wanted it. The rich young ruler did not like what Jesus was offering. He had other ideas. I’m not sure if this young man ever became a Christian. Minimally, he became a Bible illustration regarding salvation.
I don’t think I was unkind to the beggar. The man asked for money for food. I offered him food instead. He decided that he did not want the food. He wanted the money. I believed I did what I was supposed to do. And I went on with my day. I cared, but I did not over-care.
Biff has been my friend for many years. We went to high school together and separated shortly after that as marriage, family, and work took us to different places around the country. Years later, we reconnected. During the intervening years, Biff’s life went from good to bad. His wife was about to leave him, his children did not love God, and Biff immersed himself in the worldly cares of this life.
He wanted to meet with me to work through some of these problems. We met. And then again. And again. On and on, we met for nearly six months. During this time, Biff proved to be stubborn and disinterested in the change necessary to bring reconciliation to his family. He said he wanted to change, but he was not willing to do what it took to change.
I prayed and pondered many hours about how to help this man change. I would present things one way and talk about them another way. It didn’t seem to matter. Nothing worked for Biff. Not being deterred, I would redouble my efforts and start all over again with an entirely new approach. That new-fangled approach did not work either.
Over time I started to become critical of Biff. Initially, I never said anything but sensed my heart growing frustrated with him. After a while, I began to go home and tell my wife about how difficult he was being—about how rough and challenging the counseling was going. As the weeks went by and my investment in his life continued, I began to grow impatient with him. It wasn’t long before I became harsh and unkind toward Biff.
Sadly, I had a growing disinterest in helping him. He was not listening, and I was over-caring. My investment was extensive, but the change was not happening according to my expectations. Have you ever over-cared for someone? If you are a Christian with the love of God in your heart, I suspect you have. Have you ever over-worried? Have you ever been over-anxious? Let me ask the questions this way:
What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth (1 Corinthians 3:5-6).
It is one thing to be concerned for someone regarding whether they change or not. It is a whole other matter to be responsible for people—including your children. I’ve illustrated these two perspectives with my stories of the beggar and Biff. I was concerned for the beggar on the street, but I did not sense a responsibility to change him. I wanted him to change. I even thought about how I could serve him before he popped the question. But I did not feel like it was my job to make him change.
I did not act disinterested by showing any concern, and I did not cross the line as though his change was my responsibility. I offered him some food and hoped to continue the conversation by introducing Christ to him. He wanted money only. I was responsible with Biff; he was a different story. I crossed the line from being concerned about the beggar to thinking it was my responsibility to change Biff. I treated him much differently from the beggar in the street or the way Christ interacted with the rich young ruler.
I forgot what my role was with Biff. It’s simple: my “part” for all people at all times is to be concerned for them, but I am not to be responsible for anyone. I cannot make people change. Righteousness is not something that you can force on anyone. It is a personal choice between the person and God. This worldview has been my story regarding how I have changed over the years. No one could make me turn to God except for God.
I am forever grateful for the people who have loved me enough to speak into my life. I love all those “water boys” and “seed throwers” who served me on behalf of Jesus. But I do not hold any of them responsible for my transformation. Sometimes I can forget this fundamental truth about the gospel when I’m the water boy or seed planter.
Sometimes I can cross the line from being God’s water boy and seed thrower to trying to make a person grow—to change them, or what the Bible calls repentance. When I forget my role in God’s garden, it is as though I believe I am responsible for their change. There is a world of difference between being concerned for someone and being responsible for them. If I cross that line, it won’t be long before I’m sinning against them.
You may ask, “How do I know when I have crossed the line from being concerned for those I help versus feeling responsible for them changing?” That is the million-dollar question, and it’s easy to answer. When I begin to over-care for a person, certain things start to happen in my soul. Initially, these things are not discernible to the human eye, but if I don’t take them to God, they will soon manifest in behavioral sins that are discernible.
I try to keep an eye on my heart by sensing when I am caring too much for the unchanging person. If these sins begin to rear up, I know I have crossed the line from being appropriately concerned for someone to caring too much for them. Here is a nonexhaustive list of heart attitudes and behaviors I commit when I’ve crossed the line. If any of these things happen to you, may I suggest that you are caring too much—that you have forgotten your role in the change process:
When I sense these sinful temptations in my soul, I know that my trust is slipping from the Messiah of the universe to my abilities, agendas, and preferences for this particular individual.
And when I cross that line, I have become a “mini-Messiah.” In those moments, I have become a functional atheist—a man who believes the change process rests more on me and my opinion of how things should be than whatever God may be thinking or doing in the unchanging person’s life. This posture is hardcore pride that needs my immediate repentance. I have to reposition myself within the framework of God’s mysterious purposes for that individual’s life.
If I do repent of my pride and realize that my primary purpose is to water and plant the seed while trusting God to bring the growth, my human ability to serve my friend will no longer impede what God is doing in his life. But when I begin to feel more responsible than God wants me to, I will typically sin against the person, according to the items on the above list. Those sins disrupt the helping process.
My “faith for change” and the timing for change must be entirely in God’s will, especially when I’m helping a seemingly unchangeable person. For me, a tipping point is usually a person I have spent more time with than a person I meet briefly, like the beggar. That is why it was easier for me not to become emotionally attached to the beggar. He was a brief encounter. That is also the reason I crossed the line with Biff. He was a long-term investment.
Typically people will sin against a person they have spent a long time praying for, pulling for, and generally helping and hoping that they will change. That is normal. The more time you put into somebody’s life, the more you expect them to change. A lot of parents are this way with their children. They are tempted to cross the line from being concerned and helping to taking it personally and getting in the way or becoming a distraction regarding what God might be doing in their child’s life.
It is one of the most challenging lessons for a parent to learn. Can you discern and obey your role in the change process, especially with your children? One of the triggers to let you know if you have crossed the line is when you begin to sin. And if you’re sinning against the person, you’re not helping them. If you are more anxious, worried, fearful, fretful, impatient, frustrated, or some other sin, you’re out of line and in the way. You must repent and trust God.
This ability is one of the most remarkable things about Jesus. He was cool in all contexts. He shared His Word and went on His way. He was not uncaring, and He would not force His righteousness on anyone. How about you? Is there someone in your life who tempts you to overcare for them? How do you know? How do you need to respond to this article?
Rick launched the Life Over Coffee global training network in 2008 to bring hope and help for you and others by creating resources that spark conversations for transformation. His primary responsibilities are resource creation and leadership development, which he does through speaking, writing, podcasting, and educating.
In 1990 he earned a BA in Theology and, in 1991, a BS in Education. In 1993, he received his ordination into Christian ministry, and in 2000 he graduated with an MA in Counseling from The Master’s University. In 2006 he was recognized as a Fellow of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).