In his recent interview with Oprah on her show, Super Soul Sunday, W. Paul Young told the story of how he penned The Shack in the aftermath of financial ruin. With no money to buy Christmas presents for his children, he decided to write them a novel during his train commutes to the multiple jobs he was working to make ends meet.
One of the most remarkable things about this story is that Paul willingly chose to walk through this difficult financial season. In fact, when it became clear that he and his family were about to lose their home and most of their possessions, he called his closest friends to tell them what was about to happen and said, “Please don’t rescue me from this, because you are probably going to be interfering with what God is doing in my heart.” Though several of his friends could have written him checks and bailed him out of his situation in a moment, he knew that would remove the opportunity for him to learn the lesson he had been trying to learn for many years: how to truly trust God. His powerful choice to walk through the pain of loss not only allowed him to learn this lesson more deeply; it ended up producing a story that has revealed a good God to millions of people.
When someone we care about is hurting and in crisis, both we and the person we want to help typically assume that fixing the problem means taking it away, or at least taking the pain away. Paul’s story shows us that our fixes often aren’t fixes at all. Rather, we must see every painful problem as an opportunity for people to grow in their identity and connection with God and others.
So how do we avoid being a fix-it friend? Here are four guidelines for helping people walk through their pain and problems instead of taking them away:
1) Recognize that pain can be a positive motivator to change.
People only really change when they choose to change. You can get someone to modify their behavior through external control, but they’ll only transform when it comes from the inside out. And basically, people are internally motivated by two things: pain or vision. When people change because of pain, it is usually because, as someone once said, “their misery has become greater than their fear.”
Paul’s choice to walk through financial ruin was motivated by a vision for who he wanted to be in his relationship with God. But eleven years before, he had faced a different crisis. His wife found out he was having an affair with her best friend and confronted him. In the painful years that followed, Paul came to grips with the fact that running from the pain of his childhood wounds had only led him to make choices that caused devastating pain to himself and those he loved. At that point, he decided to stop running from pain, and started using it as a motivation to seek healing for himself and his family. That marked the beginning of his journey to learn trust.
Helping people in pain reach a similar turning point–where their pain becomes a motivation to change–should be our goal.
2) Be present with the person as they feel their pain.
Those of us who want to solve problems for other people usually have a high sense of compassion–we can’t stand to see someone else in pain. But true compassion does not take away pain. In fact, the word compassion comes from the Latin meaning to “suffer with.” The thing that actually helps people in pain is for us to be with them and let them know they’re not alone.
Paul experienced this from his friends–the ones he asked not to rescue him from his financial crisis. Though they didn’t bail him out, they didn’t leave him alone either. They sat with him and his family and wept as their home and possessions were auctioned off. They gave him strength and support as he walked through the process of fixing the trust problem that had contributed to his losses. These are the kind of friends we need to be.
3) Let the pain motivate them to find the problem.
I talk a lot about how important it is to help people who have made a mess find the real problem–the broken spot inside–that led them to make the mess in the first place. The process of helping someone look inside and ask the hard questions about their heart is not an easy one, and classically, it’s something most people avoid. In fact, it’s amazing how many people create epic messes, yet still refuse to face the root of their problems. As helpers, we need to be those who encourage them to decide, “You know what? I am hurting enough that I am willing to get to the root of the problem and change.”
4) Encourage them to develop a vision on the other side of pain.
Vision is a superior motivator to pain. As Paul demonstrated, vision actually gives us the courage to walk through painful situations because we see how they will enable us to become who we want to be.
One of the beautiful things about helping people walk through the process of identifying the root of their problems is that it removes lies they’ve been believing about themselves and reveals their true identity. As helpers, we get front-row seats to help them discover the amazing person they are, encourage them to hold on to that vision of themselves as they move forward, and cheer them on as they begin to dream great dreams for their future.
It’s time to stop being the fix-it friends. Let’s recognize that we have the amazing privilege of coming alongside people who have an opportunity, just as Paul did, to become whole and ultimately bless the world around them.
PS) This blog was inspired by the message found in our new track in the Life Academy called People Helping People. If you want to learn more about helping people in your life, join us here.
PPS) Sometimes when we want to help others, we don’t realize that our help isn’t really helping. To find out if your help is really helping, take our new FREE assessment here.