Helping Is More Than Good Intentions

Several years ago, when our children were small, I suffered a back injury that meant unexpected surgery and a long, miserable recovery period. Like many people experiencing a family crisis of one kind or another, we had trouble keeping up with the basic demands of life. I was working for a Christian publisher at the time, and my family and I were so thankful when my co-workers organized a plan to bring us meals while I was out of commission. I was laid up and my husband was handling all the responsibilities of home, hearth, and caregiver, and we knew that no matter how the day unfolded, someone would show up with dinner and make sure we were fed. And each day, we were grateful.

Some of the meals were more elaborate than others, of course, and one day a family dropped off a marvelous home-cooked meal complete with a delicious-looking cobbler for dessert. We put it in the oven and kept it warm while we ate, and we talked about how we couldn’t wait to enjoy it with a little ice cream on top.

Unfortunately, our anticipation only served to heighten our disappointment–shock, even–when we finally took our first bites of dessert. It tasted nothing like we had imagined it would; in fact, it tasted awful. And it didn’t take us long to figure out why–the baker had mistakenly substituted salt for sugar. Every bit of sweetness in the recipe had been replaced with an overpowering salty flavor that almost burned in its intensity. The result was inedible.

We weren’t mad at these wonderful servant-hearted friends. In fact, they realized their mistake and apologized, and we all had a good laugh over the experience. And they had served us well. They had provided what we needed, at their own expense and under no obligation. They had spent all the effort necessary to offer us an extra treat. One little mistake had made it funny instead of delicious, but their intentions were good and much-appreciated, even if the execution was literally hard to swallow.

Like these friends, you and I don’t always get it right when we try to help other people. Sometimes when we seek to offer kindness, we just get in the way. We try to speak the truth and mistakenly open old wounds. We may offer solutions and get it totally wrong. This isn’t a reason to stop trying; when we help well, we can be the answer to someone else’s prayers. And we can’t always foresee the results our efforts will produce.

At the same time, it’s always worth considering what will be palatable to the people we are trying to serve. It’s always worth knowing more about what they actually need. It’s critical that we learn from our experiences and grow in our understanding of what people are likely to receive well, rather than give in to the temptation simply to offer what will make us feel we have done our duty by them.

How can we know what people need? Sometimes we have to make our best guesses. But in many cases, a simple Google search or a trip to the library can enlighten us. And no matter how much we think we know, it’s critical that we ask ourselves whether our offer is really designed to help them or only to make us feel better. Another tried-and-true starting point is asking. People often know what they need, and when they don’t, they usually can say yes or know if you ask them whether your ideas would be helpful.

So if you want to help, by all means, help. But please exercise diligence in asking yourself–and perhaps the people you want to help–whether your offering will be sweet or salty.

© 2018 Amy Simpson.