Rescuing, also called enabling, happens when a person feels the responsibility to minimize the consequences of someone else’s bad choices. Rescuers have a psychological need to feel needed and tend to attract people who need rescuing. While it is right and good to rescue people who are in dangerous situations and cannot save themselves (Proverbs 24:11), the emotional need to rescue everyone is not healthy.
Rescuing people has the effect of emboldening them in their sin, empowering their ability to sin, or making it easier for them to sin. When we remove or lessen the natural consequences of bad behavior, we encourage and facilitate repeated offenses. Rescuing is often mistakenly called mercy, but how merciful is it, really, to continually bail someone out of jail (for example) and never allow him to learn from his mistakes?
Rescuers often grew up in homes where they gained acceptance and identity by being the family “fixer.” Even as children, some people had to take on responsibility to cover for their parents’ poor choices. Rescuers were often the eldest or most responsible child and learned early that it was their job to keep everybody happy. They gained a sense of belonging and value by rescuing family members, and so they continue doing so as adults. Problems arise when they enter into dysfunctional relationships with irresponsible people who like having someone else bear the brunt of their consequences.
We see examples of rescuing everywhere. Rescuing parents bail their defiant teen out of jail, hoping that at last the delinquent will appreciate them. A rescuing woman marries an irresponsible man who can’t keep a job, hoping that his need for her help will somehow turn into real love. Rescuing friends lend money they don’t have to deadbeats, hoping that it will buy friendship. These are tragic situations, and the misery they engender is prolonged by the rescuers. They may tell themselves that they are being selfless and generous, but, in fact, they may be rescuing in order to gain love and loyalty.
Rescuing others is a way some people try to buy love, but it rarely does so. When we rescue people from just consequences, we remove from them God’s teaching tool. God uses consequences to teach us life lessons (Jeremiah 35:12–15). When a rescuer minimizes those consequences, he or she negates a valuable lesson that the irresponsible person needs to learn. The rescuer becomes frustrated after many rescues because the intended beneficiary has not yet learned anything. The frustration is ironic because one reason the person won’t learn is that the bad choice didn’t cost him anything. There’s always someone there to bail him out. He’s living a consequence-free life.
We can overcome our need to rescue by first recognizing the motive behind it. Rescuing is not truly in the best interests of the other person. Rescuing doesn’t usually happen for the benefit of others but to make the rescuer feel better. “I can’t stand to think of them living in a house without heat,” one rescuer says. “I know they gambled away their paychecks, but it’s cold outside. I paid their electric bill last month, so I guess I can do it again, even though my debts are piling up.” Those sentiments sound noble, but such reasoning is, in fact, enabling the gamblers to continue their sin unchecked. A few nights in the cold may be what they need to learn the importance of responsible spending.
We can also stop our habit of rescuing by setting healthy boundaries for ourselves. As long as we believe it is our job to rescue everyone who comes to us, we will be at the mercy of fools. We should make every decision based on two criteria: obedience to the Lord and the long-term best interests of others. Short-term interests do not always lead to the lifestyle changes people need. For example, Shari’s grades are dropping, and her mother takes her cell phone as a consequence. But Grandma feels sorry for Shari and buys her another phone. Instead of allowing Shari to learn from her consequences, Grandma made herself feel better. By rescuing Shari from her short-term consequences, Grandma minimized Shari’s long-term benefit.
The Bible is a book of boundaries and consequences. From the Garden of Eden (Genesis 1—3) to Revelation, we see many situations of God saying, “Thou shalt not.” But He did not put a fence around the forbidden fruit in the Garden, and He allowed Adam and Eve to make the choices they wished to make; however, there are consequences that came with those choices. All through the Old Testament, we find examples of God clearly instructing His people Israel to walk in His commands. Through His prophets, He warned them what would happen if they disobeyed (Zechariah 1:6; Joshua 23). They disobeyed anyway, so God brought consequences: they wandered in the wilderness for forty years (Numbers 14:28–35), and they spent seventy years of captivity in Babylon (Jeremiah 25:3–11). Although it displeased Him to have to punish His people, the Lord did not rescue them from their justly earned consequences.
We should be eager to rescue widows and orphans who are in distress (James 1:27). We should do our best to rescue unborn children from abortion and innocent people from human trafficking. Helping is always appropriate, but a helper is one who gives a temporary lift so that someone else can make it on their own. Rescuing allows others to manipulate us while they remain on the same foolish course. They do not learn anything and are no better for it. Many times, rescuers find themselves targets of a host of manipulators because they are seen as an easy mark. When we allow others to violate our boundaries and take from us what we cannot afford to give, we have switched from righteous rescuing to unrighteous enabling. Leaping in the way of someone else’s well-earned consequences is not helping; it is participating in their demise.