It's a tension we feel every time we see someone panhandling for money, every time a dear friend wants us to rescue them from a situation they got themselves into, or every time we think to pray for someone suffering from disease. It is a constant question when interacting with individuals struggling in residential treatment. What should we do in these situations? What are they responsible to do? And of course, what part of this is God doing? It has become a common occurrence for kids on campus to complain to me about consequences they are facing due to a particular staff's proclivity for giving them a hard time. I don't have to dig very deep into the situation to uncover that the child was told the expectation and given multiple warnings before the dreaded consequence was administered. But often, both of these things are true - the staff are especially hard on this kid and the kid has been given adequate warning. The challenge then becomes empathizing and continuing to build trust with the young person while refusing to excuse their behavior or agree with the victim narrative they are playing out. Navigating a scenario where someone is suffering real pain and yet is partially responsible for their pain is not easy.
Whether we are parents, pastors, teachers, or business owners, we've experienced this interpersonal tension of responsibilities. Often, in the anxiety of these moments we think back to Bible verses we know. Perhaps we help the hurting person because we recall the parable of the Good Samaritan. Perhaps we try to hold them responsible for their actions because we recall the parable of the Talents. No matter how carefully one searches the Scriptures there is no easy answer to these questions. Rather than point to a scripture reference that clears up the matter, I think that the entirety of the Biblical narrative reveals the depth of this mystery and invites us deeper into it.
Early in Scripture, we see God interact with the people of Israel in an ongoing relationship of love and discipline. Yahweh lays out the path for them continually and they are able to choose for themselves which one they will take. Yet, at the same time there is ongoing act of mercy and redemption when the children of Israel rebel and choose the path of destruction.
They are instructed to remember through feast days and weekly Sabbath that it is God who created them, delivered them out of Egypt, and provides for them as foreigners in strange lands. But the tension only rises as we see that Israel does not take hold of God's promises due to their "unfaithfulness." The interplay between what God is doing for Israel and was they must do within the covenant is ongoing and never seems to resolve.
The life of Christ Himself reveals this tension between His acting on the behalf of others and allowing them to encounter the consequences of their own decisions. His intentional actions of traveling throughout Galilee, choosing twelve disciples, healing the sick, and proclaiming the Kingdom to outcasts are evident. Simultaneously, he seems altogether detached from outcomes and the response of those to whom he ministers. Without hesitation, Jesus allows whole crowds to walk away when they don't like or understand his teachings. He refuses to do many miracles in his hometown because of the people's unbelief. Unlike earthly kings, Jesus does not force his hearers into submission but leaves room for their own free choice, even if that choice is ultimately destructive to the chooser. Jesus demonstrates a paradoxical wisdom that makes room for both His intervention and His detachment.
The Apostle Paul muddies the waters for us even more when he urges us to live holy lives that are worthy of the Gospel but then reminds us that our salvation is in no way connected to our good works but is the work of God. Paul writes to the Galatians that each that they should "carry each other's burdens" but also that, "each one should carry their own load." For Paul, there is an unexplained paradox between what God does for us and what we do in relationship with God, as well as between what we do for others and what they must do themselves.
At the height of this tension, we are given no clear answers. There is only a pattern that can be realized throughout the Scriptural narrative. The pattern is that God consistently pursues an intimate union with us. He is interested in a dynamic fellowship with us in which we are not given black and white answers, but wisdom for the difficult situations that life brings us. The Bible does not provide a set of different lists, explaining what is in our control and what is not, when to help and when to encourage responsibility, when to rest in God's grace and when to grow in virtue. Perhaps this is because the satisfaction that such questions demand can only be met with Divine wisdom. Such wisdom is only found by engaging with the Father in conversation and trust.
This is frustrating for us, because we could lead our lives successfully on our own if God just gave us the map and sent us on our way. But instead, He becomes our trail guide, leading us through the unknown. We only need to walk beside Him to go where He leads and do as He would have us. When faced with a situation in which He calls us to help another, we help. When faced with a situation that He calls us to lovingly detach, we do so. The ambiguity of Scripture on the whens and hows of such situations leads us back to fellowship with and surrender to the Spirit who knows all people perfectly. The original Serenity prayer written by Reinhold Niebuhr that is used widely by 12 Step recovery groups captures this idea well:
"God, give me grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other..."
This is not the same as knowing theological principals or extrapolating answers through Bible study. Scripture itself attests that "in Christ... are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge" (Colossians 2:3). It is by our continual relating and conversing with Him that we see what He would have us do as well as what he would have us abstain from doing.
And so, as I engage with kids in residential each week, I sometimes need to respond with ‘tough love.’ Other times I need to demonstrate empathy and support. Often the best response is a mixture of both. Our resolution of these tensions does not lie in well-thought out methods for ever situation, but by the wisdom that might come from living in conversation with God from moment to moment.
Though we attempt to live by lists and laws, God seeks to give us the fruit of communion with Himself; wisdom.