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Lending a Hand: Deciding How and When to Serve

By Karen Austin

BettyBalzarhandsServing others is central to declaring Christian faith. How to serve, when to serve and when not to serve is subject to interpretation.  Serving from time to time in Relief Society presidencies gives me additional cause to think about service since I end up observing more need and more acts of service.

How to serve.   Sometimes people serve others based on their particular talents and resources. You know the person with the truck. The person who can cook for a crowd.  The person who can fix a dryer. The person who can revise a resume.  The person who can offer rides.  Other times, the need dictates the service. For example, I am not particularly good at conducting music, cooking, gardening, sewing, or teaching teens, but I have been invited to serve in these areas.

I admit that I am often the person with the hammer who treats every situation like a nail. In other words, I try to find a way to write a newsletter, type a flyer, compose a group email or set up a phone tree—no matter what the best course of action might be.  These acts of communication aren’t always the appropriate way to address a need.

When to serve.  This is a very tricky aspect for me to negotiate. When am I helping and when am I enabling?

I admit that I am more eager to help a person who is otherwise self-sufficient but who is experiencing an acute, short-term crisis—particularly if that person has a reputation for doing a lot of service for others.

I am less eager to help people who have persistent needs.  If someone needs me to serve them every single day for years,  I feel as though that’s a systemic problem that needs a systemic solution.  If it’s an immediate family member, I can see it’s my responsibility to offer persistent service.

I also recoil at serving when the person in need has never demonstrate a willingness to serve others. True, some people have limits, but I’m more eager to help someone who is a good listener or offers words of affirmation to others.

But I don’t remember the Good Samaritan asking for a character reference prior to serving.

I greatly admire people who can serve needy people who are throwing off a lot of negative energy.  The saying, “Hurt people hurt people” comes to mind frequently.  Also, I have seen a meme several times about children needing the most love being the most challenging to love. I think this holds true for adults as well.

I greatly admire people who can look past all the negative energy some people generate and reach towards the person’s hidden vulnerabilities and minister to them.   I am capable of doing this for fleeting seconds when filled with the pure love of Christ. I would love to increase my capacity for such service.

But even if I iron out my attitude, I still have physical limits. I am human and can’t serve people 24/7, and I can’t use all my resources serving others and then fail to care for my immediate family.

When NOT to serve?

I spent a lot of time in my early twenties rescuing people, and I had a lot of unequal relationships. I was a mother figure, spending a lot of energy taking care of others. This led me to burn out.  And I don’t know if I was really helping some of those people if my assistance led them to plateau on their own emotional, spiritual, and financial growth.

Also, I have some history with addiction and co-dependency in my extended family. We had to make decisions on when to help and when to let natural consequences play out.

However, I also know that I have felt judgmental and contentious at various times when I was making the decision to withhold assistance.  I know that I am not adopting Christlike virtues when I spend a lot of time enumerating the needy person’s character flaws as a way to rationalize my inaction.

I have noted that when I focus on a person’s fault, I find myself committing a similar infraction within days if not hours of naming their weakness.   “And why beholdest thou the mote that is in they brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye.”

My husband wisely suggested to me that I should think more about what I am capable of doing (based on my resources) rather than focusing too much on everything that must be done or even the person’s worthiness.  “Do what you can and let the rest go.”

King Benjamin has a great discussion on how to establish our responsibility, asking, “Are we not all beggars?” (Mosiah 4:19).  He also recognizes that people should acknowledge their limits.  I find myself reading this chapter repeatedly and meditating on the call to serve others.  I haven’t studied it closely for a few months. I think it’s time to sit at King Benjamin’s feet again.

About Karen Austin

After living in UT, HI, CA, VA, DC, WI, WV & KS, Karen now lives in Newburgh, IN with her husband and two children. She's been a BYU writing tutor, an English teacher, technical writer, director of academic support services, and aging studies adjunct. She's reinventing herself--again. New role still pending, but mature athlete, thrift store fashionista, and court jester are strong candidates. She maintains the blog The Generation Above Me.

7 thoughts on “Lending a Hand: Deciding How and When to Serve”

  1. I love your honesty and your depth of exploration, Karen. Good questions. I seem to always be the one serving those whom others recoil from. I don't have any problem looking beyond the smells, the habits, the negativity, but I do get frustrated because nothing ever seems to change. EXCEPT, people feel loved. Maybe that's all we can do. Maybe my high hopes for change are unrealistic and all we can really do is love.

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  2. I easily find myself paralysed when I find myself confronted with the volume of need in this world. Even as a child, I remember praying for all the children like me in my city who didn't have a home, and revising that a few times to all the country, then all the world, then all ages, and even then, still only scratching the surface of all the things everybody needs, I just finished my prayer with something like "you know who needs what, so please take care of it".

    I don't know if I can "do what I can and leave the rest" without feeling defeated or insignificant, but I would like to be able to.

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  3. I think it's hard to serve people who are consistently in need of the same thing, especially when it appears like they aren't doing anything to try to change their circumstances. I have to remind myself that we are called to serve, not to judge. It would be nice if a service opportunity required my judging skills, but that hasn't happened yet. Come to think of it, my skills for snark haven't been needed either.

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  4. Lisa: You are very kind to loan your time and love to others. I do think we learn more about ourselves, about others, and about God when serving. Sometimes it's very painful, but it beats staying behind closed doors for fear of the pain that comes with close interaction with others. Hugs to you!

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  5. Olea: Yes, it's hard to shake the anxiety of feeling too small to address the task. I like the story of the person throwing starfish back into the ocean. Also the moral of the story from It's a Wonderful Life helps address my fears of inadequacy. Taking things one day at a time helps me, too. When I feel like an avalanche of duty is squashing me, I stand back and say, "What can I reasonably do TODAY?" You have a tender heart and the soul of a poet. Bless you for sharing these gifts.

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  6. M2theH: I fall into that trap, too. Then I think of how I have very gross weaknesses that my dearest friends overlook. They are so kind to stay loyal to me even though I am a broken record of faults in many areas. It's horrifying to see that in the mirror from time to time, but my greatest acts of charity come forth from the sincere humility I feel when faces with my own flaws. GAH! And FWIW, I do think having a critical eye is a gift. It's challenging to learn how to deliver the gift of insight in a way that doesn't grate. I only say this because I have (over) studied rhetoric, philosophy, critical theory, psychology, theology, etc., and I often get busted for my snark, too. Eep! Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. Hugs to you.

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