How to Avoid Enabling

Justin Lakemacher, Program Manager

One of the more unique aspects of addiction ministry is helping families to love their own family members in addiction. When addiction hits home, the emotional impact leaves everyone involved with deep pain, confusion, and at the same time an urgent desire to intervene.

One of the great temptations family members can fall into is becoming an enabler.  Enabling someone in their addiction is simply a form of misguided love.  The misguided love of enabling is tricky because it usually comes from a genuine desire to love and help someone struggling.  It becomes problematic when enabler’s allow their loved ones to continue in their sinful behavior without intervening biblically or in some cases, family members actually intervene in a way that is unhelpful (and sometimes sinful), leading to enabling and even exacerbating the addict’s behavior. 

Some examples of enabling are parents allowing their adult children to reside in their home with no job, not paying rent, all the while engaging in drug or alcohol abuse.  Other examples are when parents continually bail their children out of the consequences of their addiction such as paying legal fees or paying off debt the addict has incurred and should be responsible for.  Enabling also occurs when spouses minimize, cover up and even in some cases lie about their spouses addiction in order to “protect” them.  These are only a small number of examples describing the struggle family members have when trying to help their loved ones.  So prevalent is the problem in addiction ministry that there is a saying…“behind every addict there is an enabler.” 

It’s important to note however, while enabling is essential to discuss, no parent, spouse, or sibling should ever feel responsible for a loved one’s addiction.  While many factors come into play in how one becomes an addict, it is clear from Scripture that sin always comes from the heart of the individual.  The addict is always responsible for their addiction, no matter how much their family may or may not enable.

So how do we help family members keep from enabling their loved ones?

Though often difficult to navigate, we must begin with humility and compassion in understanding the enabler’s world.  Imagine someone you love more than anything slowly killing themselves while you watch.  That is addiction from the family member’s perspective. 

What does Biblically guided love look like?

Biblical love begins with God, who is love.  John tells us to love one another “for love is from God” (1 John 4:7-8).  Often times enabling begins with strong emotions.  “I don’t want my son to feel like I have given up on him too so that’s why I gave him more money.”  The care is evident in that statement but the action is unhelpful.  Instead, we must begin with God.  “How is God calling me to love my addicted son?” is a great question to begin with and one we must submit our wavering emotions too.  I admit this is very hard!  But we must let God define how we love, not our emotions.  Another emotion that often guides is fear.  “I don’t want my daughter to die and at least if I allow her to live with me, I can check in on her.”  In the parable of the prodigal son, I’m always shocked to read that the Father actually lets the son go to live in the distant city with his inheritance.  Now of course this is a parable teaching a specific lesson about God pursuing sinners but the way in which God pursues sinners is typically strange to the natural eye.  Take a look at the cross.  It is the suffering of Jesus that ultimately provides the comfort of salvation.  For us, sometimes our tough love, though it comes with suffering, brings about the change the addict needs to make.  I have witnessed several men over the years in addiction ministry thank their parents for kicking them out because they said it finally forced them to get help.  I’ve also talked to many parents who said kicking out their child and letting them be homeless was one of the most painful things they have ever done.  Lord, give us grace to know what to do!

Another element of biblical love is that we recognize we are not primarily responsible for saving our loved one out of addiction.  A great question to consider here is “Am I trying to do something for my child/spouse that only Jesus can do?”  As we attempt to “bear one another’s burdens” (Gal. 6:2), it is tempting to want to be the messiah figure in our loved one’s life.  We can help them carry some of their burdens but the ultimate burden of sin is one that only Jesus can carry.  We must engage them in a way that reflects Jesus and points them to Jesus, not us, for their ultimate refuge.  Sometimes family members that continually bail out their children are unintentionally diverting their attention from God.  When parents remember that their children first and foremost belong to God, and that only God can give them the help they truly need, it helps them recognize their role in loving their children.

Biblical love is never isolated from others.  You are not alone.  It may feel like you are alone, especially if you are a single parent attempting to help a son or daughter gain freedom from their addiction.  The reality, however, is that every Christian belongs to a universal family collectively making up the church, where Jesus is our head (Col. 1:18).  This is incredibly encouraging.  We can invite others into our struggles and seek help and wisdom in how we love our loved ones.  It can feel embarrassing at first but we are not called to bear our loved one’s burdens alone, we must reach out for help.  We collectively, as the body of Christ, are called to bear each other’s burdens.  Not to mention, Proverbs 11:14 reminds us that in “an abundance of counselors there is safety.”  Not only will we find help in carrying each other’s burdens when we reach out to others but we will also find that others may have a much needed insight or wisdom for our particular situation.  God has designed us for community and biblical love must involve others.

And finally, biblically guided love is a love that flows from the cross.  John said that this is love: “Not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10).  On the cross Jesus was the sacrifice for our sin so that we could have salvation.  Biblical love for one another will likewise have the aroma of sacrifice to it.  Sometimes this means putting everything else on hold until you can get your loved into an addiction program.  Sometimes this means sacrificing finances and paying for a program.  Other times it means sacrificing our comfort and kicking out a family member who refuses to get help.  And other times it means sacrificing our reputation and acknowledging to others we have an addicted family member and we need help.  This of course makes walking through addiction with someone incredibly difficult.  When to hold on and when to let go are incredibly difficult things to discern.  Thankfully, God has given us his Word, the Holy Spirit, and Christian community as we attempt to do this.

Below are some of the questions for family members to consider as they relate to the addict in their life.  These questions are only the start of the conversation as enabling is a very complex issue.  They are not intended to shame you or point out ways you may be falling short as a parent or spouse.  They are intended to help you love well and point you to the grace of God which is able to help you in your time of need.  Walking alongside someone you love who is slowly killing themselves in addiction is a form of suffering that is incredibly challenging and painful. May these questions be a grace and a help to you along the way. 

What emotions arise when I think of my loved one’s addiction? 

How are those emotions influencing my decisions in how I love them? 

How does God’s Word speak to me about my loved one’s addiction? 

Who can I invite into my decision making and am I willing to listen to outside perspectives?

Am I trying to do something for my child/spouse that only Jesus can do?

Am I regularly confessing my own temptations when it comes to caring for my loved one?

What does biblically informed, wise love look like in this situation and in this moment?

What does accountability look like for myself and my addicted family member?