So before I love someone else, I’ve got to love myself. - Ed SheeranThere is a practical and simple principle that is featured in both aeroplane safety and swimming. On a plane, flight attendants will tell you that in the event of an emergency where the oxygen masks are dispensed, you must first put your own mask on before assisting others. The philosophy being, you are only in the position to help somebody if you are secure yourself.
Similarly with swimming and lifesaving, unless you know how to swim well and understand the dangers of panic, you will not be able to save a drowning person. They will grab you in a frenzy of fear to save themselves and pull you under, drowning you both. You are only able to assist a drowning person from a secure position, else you risk your own demise.
This is a concept that could well be adopted into the way we relate to helping one another.
I was recently asked by a friend of mine my thoughts on this whole ideology of "saving ourselves first". On face value, it looks sketchily self-serving. To withhold help from someone in dire need goes against every grain of a compassionate heart. How can we stand by and do nothing for them? We must do something. Especially in the case of Christians, this need to do in order to save comes laced with a heavy dose of guilt. "We're Christians, we're strong, we know the truth, and we have Christ—in Whom we can do all things!—how can we stand by?"
It's a valid point, one I have often experienced myself. The hurt and suffering of our fellow man causes our heart to ache so that we must give. Compassion flows as we pour ourselves out on behalf of others, bringing comforting words, a hug, hours of listening, and carefully phrased advice so as not to break the trust given to us. We give, and give, and give; seemingly limitlessly. Until...
...you feel completely done. Empty. Now the thought of spending time with that person is a dread, and you despair that there has been no change, and you beat yourself up for being such a failure of a friend; seemingly unable to transmit the strength and hope they so desperately need. Inadequacy weighs on you and sadness is strangling you before you even realize you've been pulled beneath the surface of the troubled water. How did you get here?
Here are three things I have learned through hard experiences and wise counsel that have helped me identify the difference between selfish self-preservation, unhealthy generosity, and loving in wisdom and truth.
- Identify emotionally healthy people and unhealthy people.
Let's face it: we all need help. At some points in all of our lives, no matter what kind of person we are, we're going to need help. It's a fact. Having said that, there are some people who want help, and others who don't (regardless of how badly they need it). A common phrase my Mum has reiterated to me many times is full of wisdom: you cannot help someone who does not want help. It's true. All the time and effort you can give is wasted on a person who has chosen—intentionally or not!—to suffer. An emotionally unhealthy person wants your sympathy, not your assistance. They want to be the victim, not an overcomer. They will shy away from being challenged to do new things, and will reject any encouragement to make changes. They may entertain a fresh perspective for a while, but you will eventually see a pattern of attempting to rise, before settling back into the comfort of the doldrums—whatever they may be. These kinds of people are unteachable because they don't want help, and they will suck you dry quicker than a kid with a Slurpee.
Emotionally healthy people are teachable. They can get just as low as those who are emotionally unhealthy, yet they desperately do not wish to stay there. They are willing to see where they could be wrong, and open to new ideas. They still want to be heard, and feel compassion, however they don't wish to exploit the person giving it. Even when they are weak, there is a strength to them that does not wish to remain as they are. Emotionally healthy people have willing spirits even if "their flesh is weak" (Matt. 26:41). Though tough love may hurt them, they will not walk away from you licking their wounds. They may flinch, but they will dare to look at themselves and face what they see. They truly desire help, and you can see over the course of time that the wisdom they receive, they begin to practise. These are the people we should invest our energies in. These souls are good soil that will yield a harvest if we take the time to plant.
"But what of the others?" You may say. "Don't we owe them our compassion too, regardless of whether they heed our counsel?"
Interestingly enough, the Prodigal Son in Jesus' parable was deserving of compassion as soon as he left home. He had broken with his Father, stolen away his inheritance early, and was in desperate need of tough love in the midst of his fancy spendthrift lifestyle. Yet the Father only ran towards him once he "came to himself" (Lk. 15:17). It was only when the son woke up in the morning, looked at himself in the mirror and said, "what on earth am I doing? I need help!" that help came. Not even Jesus went after those who were to be pitied, but were too proud or too comfortable in their squalor to receive help. Only to those who had the humility to ask did He give to freely. If this is Jesus' example, we should do no different.
- Identify your own need.
My Mum has often wisely said to me, you cannot give what you don't have. It's true at the most fundamental level, yet one we often fail to recognize. When we are floundering in our own griefs and troubles, we simply are not in a position to pour out on behalf of others. I have often fallen prey to the idea that investing in others whilst I myself was not doing well is the best way to get your mind off yourself. There is some truth to that, however if it is a consistent habit to deny your own needs by putting the needs of others first, you are setting yourself up for a fall. It can become a form of escapism: becoming so focused on serving others you deny your own struggles even exist. This hinders you from the soul work God would long to do in you, and limits His strength and wisdom from flowing in your life. You are essentially making yourself emotionally unhealthy by repressing your own feelings and focusing on the feelings of others.
Newsflash: only you can live your life. We are called to love God before we love others. We are also called to love others only as we first love ourselves (Gal. 5:14). It is not loving yourself to cut your soul off from its source of life. It is not loving yourself to stuff all of your struggles and bury your hurts in an effort to somehow be strong enough to help someone else. It's only as you bring your heartache to the Lord, and face your own troubles that you can be in any sort of place to offer comfort to another in theirs. It is only as we receive from God that we have anything at all to give (Matt. 10:8). Unless you have the security of knowing your heart is safe in the hands of your heavenly Father, and you are not running from your circumstances but are found confident that your identity and worth is in Christ alone, your feet will not be on firm and secure ground to pull someone else from the water.
- Identify the difference between sympathy and compassion.
Sympathy is a feeling invoked by witnessing the suffering of another. It is a feeling of sadness and helplessness, of wanting better for someone, and the expression of that sentiment. Sympathy requires very little effort to feel, yet it also requires zero action to be sympathetic.
Compassion however, is not merely the feeling of sympathy, but the drive and the will to do something about it. Compassion motivates a person to action: to help, to do, to bring about change in another's life for the better. Where sympathy is not a boat-rocker and desires not to make waves, compassion will do whatever it takes to better the circumstances of another, often at a cost.
It is important to recognize the difference because it will determine the way you approach investing in a person. Sympathy has the potential for keeping a person locked in their circumstance. Sympathy feels good! It's nice to have someone crooning over you, and stroking your hurt (and your ego). Yet it does a person very little good in the end. If you are truly desirous of investing something worthwhile in a loved one, you must be compassionate. Compassion won't shy away from speaking the truth, even if it's hard. Compassion will lance a boil, not kiss it better. Compassion will see the best in a person and call them out on it, or call them up to it. Sympathy would rather sit and mope along with their friends in an effort to make them feel less alone. Compassion will say "get up! Keep going! You can do this!" rather than, "there there, poor you, it's so sad". Whilst compassion can and often does listen, comfort, and share a silent presence, it cannot stay there. It loves too much. Compassion is love with boots on and a 'get 'er done' attitude. It desires to empower, not deprive.
Not everyone likes compassion. However if you spend the majority of your time investing in emotionally healthy people (or perhaps I should say 'humble people'), you will be planting in fertile soil. If someone rejects your compassion, it's a good indication that that individual is not ready to receive help in the first place.
"Isn't that how it works? We take turns in saving one another. I think they call it fellowship." — Dorcas Lane, Lark Rise to Candleford
There is one more crucially important point I have left out of all this, and that is: you cannot save people in the way Christ does. For the longest time, I would lie awake at night thinking of so many friends going through trying times, and attempting to figure out just what I could say or do to help them; to offer them salvation. It took me a long time to realize that it wasn't my job to save them in that way. I couldn't. I still can't! And when it comes to the idea of saving ourselves, that too is a fallacy. In fact, it was because we couldn't save ourselves that Jesus came. Jesus is the One that saves both us, and others. What is more, He doesn't expect us to save another. We may rescue someone from the fire (Jude 1:23) or save a willing person from drowning, however we cannot save someone's soul. We may share His love and show His compassion for others, but ultimately, their salvation is between them and their Saviour. It has nothing to do with you. The humble do indeed take in turns at saving one another in life, but salvation from death belongs solely to Christ.
I understand the idea Ed Sheeran is trying to convey in the song I quoted at the beginning. If God were to answer it, I think it'd probably sound something like this:
See, I have come to save you. Trust in Me, and not be afraid. I am your strength and your song; I have given you victory. (Is. 12:2)
I am the door. If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved. (Jn. 10:9)
Give, and it will be given to you: good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over will be put into your bosom. For with the same measure that you use, it will be measured back to you. (Lk. 6:38).
By his divine power, God has given us everything we need for living a godly life. We have received all of this by coming to know him, the one who called us to himself by means of his marvelous glory and excellence. (2 Pet. 1:3)