There’s a great series of scenes in the movie Walk the Line, which portray Johnny Cash trying to kick his drug addiction and face the demons that drove him there, especially the tragic death of his older brother when he was a child. It also shows the degree to which the Carter family, especially Johnny’s friend and future wife June, intervene to help Johnny get clean.
There’s one scene in particular that’s hard to miss. Johnny tries to prove himself to his father, who’s belittling him in front of the Carters over Thanksgiving dinner, and instead winds up pathetically drunk and in the lake, along with the enormous tractor*** he can’t seem to get started. Embarrassed and at a loss, June gets ready to leave with the Carters, but Mother Maybelle stops her and tells her to go down to the lake and help Johnny.
“Mama, I am not going down there,” June says.
Maybelle responds, “You’re already down there, honey.”
Ultimately, though, June isn’t “down there” with Johnny alone. The Carters end up quarantining Johnny in his own house as he goes cold-turkey, and even chase away drug dealers at gunpoint to make sure Johnny gets clean.
Be honest: Would you have been able to make the kind of hardcore commitment the Carter family made to Johnny? (And if you have, take some time to reflect about that now.) Where would you have drawn the line?
The fact is, all of us have faced situations that were too much for one person to handle—that we were completely unequipped to deal with. Even if you’ve somehow managed to not face this kind of situation with a friend or family member, chances are you will at some point. And the point isn’t to bail when things get tough, but to acknowledge that the situation is something more than you can handle. Our role becomes to help that person get the help he or she needs—even as you do what you can do.
This isn’t only about when someone is caught up in a particular sin or addiction. It also happens, and even more often, when people are victims of sin. It can happen when they’re overwhelmed by the results of a fallen world—a death in the family, a long-term problem another family member is caught up in and can’t handle, or hurts they’ve received because of a messy situation like layoffs at work*** or a church split, and they just can’t seem to get past it. And it could be the results of sins far worse than these, which I choose not to detail but I’m sure you can do for yourself.
The issue here, for our purposes today, isn’t to discuss what speed people should or shouldn’t recover at—that’s not our call to begin with—simply what our roles should or shouldn’t be in that recovery process. Because ultimately, we’re all victims of sin, in need of recovery.
“Brothers and sisters, if a person is discovered in some sin, you who are spiritual restore such a person in a spirit of gentleness. Pay close attention to yourselves, so that you are not tempted too. Carry one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. Let each one examine his own work. Then he can take pride in himself and not compare himself with someone else. For each one will carry his own load” (Galatians 6:1-5, NET).
I’ll throw in this quote too, from Thomas Merton’s Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, because I just reread it yesterday and it still rings true: “Hence, you must know when, how, and to whom you must say ‘no.’ This involves considerable difficulty at times. You must not hurt people, or want to hurt them, yet you must not placate them at the price of infidelity to higher and more essential values.”
As discussed this time last week, we want to help people get unstuck. But we also need to remember that it’s never entirely up to us. But the Spirit has gifted others to do what we can’t—people who have resources and wisdom beyond what we can give. And we need to recognize when it’s time to let go of our need to be the one who “fixes” those we care about—or, for that matter, enables them to continue in the behaviors they need to get out of. So, play along with me here and think this through:
• Name a situation people face where friendship might not be enough to get them through.
• Now, put yourself in that situation you just thought of. When would you know that you were in over your head? What would that person need that you know you can’t give?
Let’s take our scenario one step further. Let’s say you knew someone who could help your friend or family member—your pastor, a counselor, a program, or just someone who’d been there—someone who had the time or skills or resources you lacked….
• Truthfully: What feelings would you have about “letting go” and letting that other person take over—not surrendering your love and/or friendship, just those responsibilities you’d been trying to carry? Why?
• What else would have to change in your relationship with your friend once you’d let go of those responsibilities?
Maybe you’ve already been in this situation. Maybe you’re in it now. Don’t try to deal with it on your own. Indeed, accept the fact that you can’t. Find someone you trust who you can talk it out with. Take the time to pray together, and ask that God would give you the wisdom and compassion you need to know how to hand over responsibility in that situation, without letting go of your friendship. And may you sense God’s presence as you open yourself up to the answers the Spirit is offering.
*** P.S. I really wanted to show a clip from the tractor scene from Walk the Line, but couldn’t locate it. I settled for a still-frame from the remarkable video for “Hurt,” since it reminds us that overcoming is ongoing, and that it’s not the same as forgetting. And because it shows the real June Carter Cash, still “down there” with Johnny and watching over him nearly 40 years later.
*** P.P.S. Due to events that have transpired since, I feel compelled to add that the basic text here was written a couple years back. I.e., don’t read too much into this. 🙂