When Love Becomes Codependent Enabling
One day when we lived in New York City, I was in a hurry to get from one meeting to the next. The first step to getting there was to descend to the lobby from the twenty-eighth floor of the building where my first meeting took place. I was joined on the elevator by a mother and her young daughter, who smiled at me and said, “Watch this!” Then, with a mischievous look on her face she proceeded to press every single button on the elevator wall like Buddy the Elf.
Needless to say, I was late to my next meeting. Thirty-five minutes late, to be exact. But even worse than being late was when the girl’s mother looked at me, after her little cherub punched the buttons that would cause the elevator to stop at every floor between us and the lobby, one by one—and said to me, “Isn’t she just the cutest thing you’ve ever seen?”
Everything in me wanted to say, “Truthfully, ma’am, right now your daughter is the furthest thing from that.” Instead, I held my tongue and offered a weak, disingenuous smile.
Several years later, I am still mystified by the mother’s response to her daughter’s act. Why didn’t the mother stop the little girl from pushing all those buttons? Why didn’t she treat it as an opportunity to teach her child about self-control, sensitivity to others, and the value of time? Furthermore, why didn’t I—though a stranger to both of them—do the mother a small kindness by responding honestly, “Well, since you asked, I wonder if you might think differently about her actions if you knew that as a result, I’m now going to be very late to an important meeting.”
I passed up this opportunity to help a young mother parent her (possibly spoiled) daughter in a healthier way in the same way we all pass up such opportunities on a regular basis: We don’t see them as opportunities. Truth be told, most of us don’t value this kind of redemptive truth-telling because we are cowardly. The drive to be liked compels us to not rock the boat, even when rocking the boat can potentially keep the boat from sinking.
I wonder if this is why so many Christians don’t regularly tell others about the good news of the gospel. We have such good news in our possession of grace, truth, beauty, and everlasting Paradise offered to all who anchor their trust in the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. Is it because we don’t think it will be received as good news? Are we afraid it will offend someone and rock the boat? Consider, however, the following words from atheist, illusionist, and comedian, Penn Jillette:
I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize. I don’t respect that at all. If you believe that there’s a heaven and hell and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life or whatever, and you think that it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward… How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?
If an outspoken atheist would take issue with the lack of courage that prevents many Christians from speaking the truth about God and about life, how much more should those of us who are Christians take issue with the same? And yet, this isn’t always the case.
While none of us wants to run around telling other people what’s wrong with them, it is a mistake to think that never offering critique—especially a humble one—is a loving thing. In fact, sometimes love requires that we stand up and in humble boldness speak hard words to those whom we love. I believe this is what David and Paul both meant—at least in part—when they said that believers should be angry, but sin not (Psalm 4:4; Ephesians 4:26).
Anger toward sin in particular, though a negative emotion, should be motivated by positive love for those caught in it—similar to a surgeon who uses a scalpel on a patient with cancer. The surgeon will cut into the patient not because she is against the patient, but because she is for him. Passionate for his restoration to health and longevity, she is against—even angry toward—the cancer that could cut his life short.
In a similar way, there is an appropriate and necessary anger that must be nurtured in our hearts toward the sin in ourselves and others. As we channel our anger in this way—as we correct and rebuke one another not as with a sword to destroy, but as with a scalpel to heal—we become channels of God’s love toward one another. Yes, love and anger go together. Both are necessary for the redemptive exchange that must take place between flawed sinners when one or both is “caught” in transgression (Galatians 6:1-2). Consider these words from Rebecca Manly Pippert:
We tend to be taken aback by the thought that God could be angry… We take pride in our tolerance of the excesses of others. So what is God’s problem… But love detests what destroys the beloved. Real love stands against the deception, the lie, the sin that destroys… ‘the more a father loves his son, the more he hates in him the drunkard, the liar, the traitor…’ Anger isn’t the opposite of love. Hate is, and the final form of hate is indifference… To be truly good one has to be outraged by evil.
Over the years, as a pastor I have had to preach hard words against the sin and foolishness to which we are all susceptible. As one who is called to preach the word of God “in season and out of season” (2 Timothy 4:2) and to use God-breathed Scripture to “teach, correct, rebuke, and train” my flock in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16-17), confronting sin is not an optional endeavor.
In my role as pastor—and also in my life as a Christian—over the years I have also had to arrange private meetings, and in some more serious and ongoing cases, group interventions, to challenge behaviors that dishonor God, that damage community, and that disorient those who are caught in transgression. These uncomfortable occasions have challenged sins like gossip, slander, divisiveness, aggression, sexual immorality, marital unfaithfulness, financial impropriety, greed, narcissism, and more. In some of these conversations, God has worked to bring about repentance in those I have confronted. In other conversations, the other person responded in kind—opening my eyes to things that I, too, have needed to repent of. And sadly, other conversations have led to strained or even broken relationships.
I suppose what I’m trying to say here is that the “faithful wounds” God sometimes calls us to inflict on one another—always as with a scalpel and never as with a sword—can sometimes create further relational strain. And yet, because God’s thoughts and ways are higher than ours, we must hold out hope that God remains at work. We must also remember that it is an unspeakable privilege to participate with God in one another’s redemption stories, for “he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” (James 5:20).
 Larry Alex Taunton, “Listening to Young Atheists: Lessons for a Stronger Christianity,” Atlantic, June 6, 2013, http://www.theatlantic.com/national /archive/2013/06/listening-to-young-atheists-lessons-for-a-stronger -christianity/276584/2/.
 Rebecca Manly Pippert, Hope Has Its Reasons.