Putting Love Into Action - Practical Tips on Offering Assistance
When I invited Eric, who was homeless, to lunch I realized later how an act of kindness could turn into an awkward event. What I failed to do is ask what would happen after the lunch. Did he want to be dropped off back downtown on the same street corner? Did he need a ride to the homeless shelter? After lunch and some great conversation, I was getting more and more nervous wondering how I could transition the conversation because I needed to get back to work. That was just one of many failed or awkward interactions with people who I have had the pleasure to meet and try to help. To be honest, my greatest failure for much of my life was not helping others at all and believing others would provide services and needs and that my “extra effort” would be wasted.
What happens when you want to help others but you're uncertain how to start? What boundaries to put in place? What boundaries did Jesus put in place? Did Jesus have boundaries?
Boundaries have become almost a buzz word where people try to put up guardrails to protect and preserve all sorts of things - their time, their money, or even their safety. Most people want to be part of a solution to a problem but don’t really know where to begin, or how to start. I don’t have the perfect answer to the question "should I help" if someone asks. I usually answer something like “I’ve done both - I’ve given money and time away and I’ve also withheld support. You’ll just have to figure it out yourself. You should pray about it.” It’s probably not the most helpful answer but it’s the best I have.
I’m not perfect at helping. Each time my wife and I extend even further to inviting people into our lives and helping them out I think…. “Wow, I’ve stunk at this” and learn even more. Instead of boundaries, I’d rather think through some practical tips when you are considering helping others who are significantly disadvantaged. I’ve failed too many times throughout the years to be an expert but I think we have learned some things as well.
When I encounter someone who is disadvantaged and in need of some type of assistance here are some practical tips to consider:
Pray about the opportunity - Taking an “I’m not going to help” approach every time is bad because you will miss any opportunity you should have engaged in. I think I’ve missed countless opportunities God wanted me to engage in just by ignoring them or thinking they could get help elsewhere. I have denied giving homeless a few dollars or a warm smile. I've not taken people into my own home thinking that other agencies and services will help. Too many times I have just walked past and not helped at all. Alternatively, if you run to every opportunity likely you will find yourself exhausted and in the middle of situations that you likely should not have gone to.
Both the “I’ll never help” and the “I’ll always help” are not the answer. Jesus likely had a much better approach and engaged at times, and other times didn't engage. When I read the New Testament I see times that Jesus put some boundaries in place. The lame beggar outlined in the book of Acts chapter 4 that Paul interacted with and who was healed was there “every day” begging for alms. This means that Jesus must have walked past this lame beggar without interacting with him and without healing him. Jesus also told people to leave when he was ministering to a girl who had died (Mark 5:40)
Instead of never and always, try the approach that I see in Jesus and CONSIDER and PRAY about the situation. When you see or hear about a need do you feel pulled to it? Does something stand out? Is your heart racing? Do you sense that you are supposed to jump in? I have had more successful interactions when I stop to consider what God is doing, rather than an always or never answer. Pausing and praying also helps in determining what I am going to give up. If a homeless person is asking for money I usually don’t stop at just giving them money, but go beyond that and ask them questions and interact with them in a meaningful way. I never saw Jesus do a drive-by drop a few bucks and walk away, which brings me to the next practical tip.
Prepare to engage deeper than you expected - This is an area that I am still growing in, but an area that is incredibly rewarding. I recall one homeless individual who was looking for money and during a brief conversation I asked what he was planning to purchase. He looked down at his feet and said “I need boots - my feet are freezing”. When I saw his tattered shoes I agreed and immediately invited him on a trip to the local Wal-Mart with me. He was surprised, but the trip, which took all of 45 minutes, provided great discussion about his life, some of the things he was battling and details about his family. He got his boots and we both connected at a much deeper level. On another occasion I interacted with a young woman by accident via text by texting a wrong number. In the midst of an awkward interaction my wife and I ended up inviting her to stay in our home. These deeper interactions are not every time, in fact they are only a small fraction of the interactions we have with others, but we are trying to be obedient to what God might be doing in a moment. Bob Goff has written some fantastic books on the fact that “Love Does” in which he outlines that love is an action. Love is great, but when you are called to love your neighbor, love looks like something.
Be quick to bring up God - If I do end up engaging I as quickly as practical I bring up God in some way. Normally I ask them if I can pray for them, even before I consider whether I give them money, more time, or food. In every situation I have come across the problem is deeper than the money or food they are asking for now. I now consider that at the moment I am God’s plan “A” and so I engage deeper. Here is a message where I described what this looks like.
Communicate transitions clearly - I had to learn this the hard way as you could tell from my initial story with Eric. What I’ve learned through many conversations and interactions that were awkward, is to communicate transitions early. Now if we have an encounter with someone I try, with as much love as possible, to communicate what a transition might look like. For example, if I take a homeless person to lunch or to the store I’ll ask them where they want to be dropped off after. We invited a woman who was in distress and homeless into our home, but instead of having an open-ended commitment we asked her to stay 4 days and then we could regroup and see what was working and what wasn’t. She ended up staying much longer, but the transition discussion helped ease fears on both sides. We both were thinking “What if this doesn’t work out” and bringing up what a transition might look like helped immensely.
My wife and I are still learning about learning to love people well and put love into action and while we haven’t been anywhere close to perfect, we sure have learned a lot. I hope that this helps motivate you to take the next steps instead of thinking some other person or agency will take care of the problem.