How should we respond when loved ones suffer bad outcomes from bad choices? Our instinctive response – what we think love for this person should look like – may not always be the right one.
From Boundaries (by Dr. Henry Cloud & Dr. John Townsend, 1992), italics used by the authors:
“The law of cause and effect is a basic law of life. The Bible calls it the Law of Sowing and Reaping. “You reap whatever you sow. If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit” (Galatians 6:7-8 NRSV).
When God tells us that we will reap what we sow, he is not punishing us; he’s telling us how things really are. If you smoke cigarettes, you most likely will develop a smoker’s hack, and you may even get lung cancer. If you overspend, you most likely will get calls from creditors, and you may even go hungry because you have no money for food. On the other hand, if you eat right and exercise regularly, you may suffer from fewer colds and bouts with the flu. If you budget wisely, you will have money for the bill collectors and for the grocery store.
Sometimes, however, people don’t reap what they sow, because someone else steps in and reaps the consequences for them. If every time you overspent, your mother sent you money to cover check overdrafts or high credit-card balances, you wouldn’t reap the consequences of your spend-thrift ways. Your mother would be protecting you from the natural consequences: the hounding of creditors or going hungry.
As the mother in the above example demonstrates, the Law of Sowing and Reaping can be interrupted. And it is often people who have no boundaries who do the interrupting. Just as we can interfere with the law of gravity by catching a glass tumbling off the table, people can interfere with the Law of Cause and Effect by stepping in and rescuing irresponsible people. Rescuing a person from the natural consequences of his behavior enables him to continue in irresponsible behavior. The Law of Sowing and Reaping has not been repealed. It is still operating. But the doer is not suffering the consequences; someone else is.
Today we call a person who continually rescues another person a codependent. In effect, codependent, boundaryless people “cosign the note” of life for the irresponsible person. Then they end up paying the bills – physically, emotionally, and spiritually – and the spendthrift continues out of control with no consequences. He continues to be loved, pampered, and treated nicely.
Establishing boundaries helps codependent people stop interrupting the Law of Sowing and Reaping in their loved one’s life. Boundaries force the person who is doing the sowing to also do the reaping.
Codependent people bring insults and pain onto themselves when they confront irresponsible people. In reality, they just need to stop interrupting the law of sowing and reaping in someone’s life.”
The point should be made here that the authors do not call us to abdicate our responsibility to loved ones. There is still a place for grace; the prodigal son was received when he came home. But caution flags must be raised whenever we are inclined to rescue a loved one from a self-made crisis. Is our course of action truly in their best interest?
This week was a frustrating week for me. While staying with my parents in Winnipeg, I received two $300 speeding tickets (caught by photo radar) in the mail – the second only four days after the first one. To bleed that kind of cash in such short order was maddening, and you can bet it will have an effect on my driving for the duration of my stay.
That is how we learn from infancy, isn’t it? From the time we’re strong enough to crawl and grab the cat’s tail, pain teaches us which behaviours are wise to avoid. The Law of Sowing and Reaping instructs us. We need to consider carefully before we interrupt this law in the life of a loved one.