In a sermon given around 15 years ago I heard my pastor, Dr. Joel Hunter, state what I believe to be the only valid definition of romantic love–love between a husband and wife–or for that matter even the agape love one has for friends. He reiterated that definition several times in messages over the ensuing years. The definition: real love is caring more for the other’s welfare than you do for your own. It is pouring one’s life into another with no reciprocity. In other words, it is a self-sacrificing love. The first time I heard this definition I was not a very mature Christian, but I knew that I had heard the truth, and it came to define how I view love. And over the years I’ve repeated it hundreds of times to clients and couples that I see. Anything short of sacrificial love is selfish love. It is love rooted in getting one’s own needs met first and as such it reflects the ethos of selfishness pervasive in our contemporary secular culture.
A friend paid me a very nice complement recently. I was telling them about my misadventures in romance. They said that I had the capacity for loving someone more than myself. I have tended to believe that about myself, but it was nice to hear someone else say it. However, the potential dark side of my capacity to love is that in some respects I’m a classic co-dependent. Co-dependents usually have abysmal self-esteem, place others needs before their own, become care-takers and rescuers, have difficulty expressing or defining their own needs, see rejection as catastrophic, and mirror the feelings, values and attitudes of others, etc. However, their worst characteristic is that they are often “enablers.” They allow the addict they are co-dependent on to maintain their addiction.
Some Friday nights I attend a Celebrate Recovery (CR) meeting. After the fellowship, the worship, and the teachings & testimonies of the big meeting I sit in the men’s codependency group. There are usually 8 to 12 of us, and the transparency and sharing are often stunning. Issues addressed beyond codependency have to do with anger, lust, porn, alcohol, drugs–all the typical guy things.
One friday one of the regulars in our group made an interesting statement. He said, “I’m co-dependent on God.” What he really meant was that he was dependent on God, but what he said got me to thinking about the roots of my co-dependency. I’m quite certain that it is from God, and as such nothing to be ashamed of; it was He who gave me the childhood that predisposed me to being a co-dependent. And so now I tend to view my childhood wounds and scars as part of the Divine economy. Like many co-dependents I had an impaired parent. My mother was very bipolar and over the years had many hospitalizations. Early on, I got it into my head that I had to try to help take care of her; of course, it was a hopeless undertaking.
As adults we tend to try to “fix” the issues we were unable to solve as children. And so I have picked for a spouse, potential mates, and close friends people almost as broken as my mother. When we realize our co-dependent nature thru reading a book, seeing a therapist or attending a group most of us feel ashamed–sort of like we were tricked into some mode of being that was “less-than” our more fortunate peers. However, the pain of codependency is not necesasarily a needless pain. I believe it was Rick Warren who said God never wastes a hurt. They can all be stepping stones in the path toward maturity in Christ.
The hope for co-dependents is that once the lightbulb goes on, we can constantly keep in check our over-the-top tendency to take care of others. The main thing is to avoid enabling. One needs to balance the urge to take care of others with the need for self-care. Also, we should give the person we’re trying to care for back to the Lord. Pray: “God it’s You who saves and it’s You who takes care. I give ____ back to you. I trust in your grace and mercy. Release me from feeling responsible for them.”
Way back in 1995, I took a class at Northland on spiritual gifts offered by Theresa Lee, a truly “gifted” teacher and exhorter. This teaching was on the seven “motivational” gifts found in Romans 12. They are referred to as motivational as they are what energizes our service–our role in Christ’s Body. I quickly came to realize that I was a “Mercy” person. The gift of “mercy” is one of being empathetic–coming along side the hurting person and absorbing some of their pain, allowing them to vent, etc. In any event it’s what I have done for a living the past 40 yrs. Suddenly, my “shame” about being a softie suddenly came into focus as being part of a God-given nature, and I could view it as more of an asset than a liability. Of course, one of the drawbacks of being a “mercy” is the potential for being an enabling codependent–and thus vulnerable to being manipulated by narcissists.
I for one am less ashamed of being labeled co-dependent. God made me the way I am for a good reason, and there are a lot of people out there who need care–we just have to pick our battles. I’ve come to accept that my job is not to fix broken people, just to love them as best I can.