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Ethics and Religion Talk: How Do You Help People Who Have a Pattern of Making Poor Decisions?

How much are you obligated to help someone who is continually in a bind because of poor decisions and bad judgment, when you have already tried to point out that they could avoid this problem in the future if they made different decisions?

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“Ethics and Religion Talk,” answers questions of ethics or religion from a multi-faith perspective. Each post contains three or four responses to a reader question from a panel of nine diverse clergy from different religious perspectives, all based in the Grand Rapids area. It is the only column of its kind. No other news site, religious or otherwise, publishes a similar column.

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We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

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The Reverend Colleen Squires, minister at All Souls Community Church of West Michigan, a Unitarian Universalist Congregation, responds:

I am obligated to try to help them. Sometimes that help is guiding them to counseling or support groups. Once, dealing with a person who had hoarding issues, some help was offered. But then I offered support to set up professional counselors that specialized in patients with hoarding tendencies. That help was rejected by the person and they have stopped asking for help.

Imam Kip Curnutt, Director of Religious Education and Associate Imam of Masjid At-Tawheed in Grand Rapids, responds:

I think that this differs from situation to situation. Sometimes trying to help somebody who is not ready for help is the morally wrong thing to do, like giving money to an addict while knowing that it will go purely to feeding their addiction and possibly lead to an overdose. In this case even if your intention is to help you might are likely only contributing to the problem. Likewise, I think it is wrong to deny someone for whom you are responsible what they are due because your resources have used to help someone who will not benefit. An example of this would be to give the last of your paycheck to someone who will likely squander it while you leave your own family without food to eat. A different situation is where whatever form of help you are giving will not harm the person in question and will not take resources away from others for whom you are responsible, but it will put you at personal inconvenience and it is very likely that the person's situation will not actually improve because of their poor decision making. In this situation I think you are under no obligation to help that person but if you do it is a good deed. The worst case scenario is that they don't benefit but you at least get the positive spiritual experience of preferring others over yourself. 

Fred Stella, the Pracharak (Outreach Minister) for the West Michigan Hindu Temple, responds:

I know from personal experience that people such as these can be quite toxic. While all faiths encourage the aiding of those who are in need, there is no mandate to live another person’s life at their behest. Recently, someone attempted this with me. I did attempt to provide a temporary solution to her issues, which were brought about by poor decision making, but I set very clear boundaries. Years ago, I might not have done that, but I’ve learned over the years that in the long run, the “lost soul” is back where they started, and the “savior” is left exhausted.

If someone is assaulting your time and goodwill in this manner I urge you to be very clear up front as to what you are willing to do. Do not move from that stand.

Father Kevin Niehoff, O.P., a Dominican priest who serves as Judicial Vicar, Diocese of Grand Rapids, responds:

There is a proverb of unknown origin found in different cultural traditions. Give a man a fish, and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he will eat for a lifetime.

I employ a rule akin to baseball… three strikes and you are out!

I will always help someone unequivocally the first time they ask. The second time, I will help teach the person the error of their way. The third time, I will walk with the person as they work out the solution. After that, the person is on their own. I have done all I can to help. If the person does not want to resolve the problem, then the person has to live without a solution. 

Rev. Ray Lanning, a retired minister of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, responds:

The Reformed faith teaches that all men make bad decisions and exercise poor judgment, but for the grace of God. In consequence, Reformed Christians are obliged to bear with the failings of others, and extend to them all the help in our power to give. The logic is, God bears with my failings, and I must bear with yours. To withhold help form those who need it is to deny the faith: “What doth it profit, my brethren, if a man say he hath faith, and have not works: can faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, and one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone” (James 2:14-17).


This column answers questions of Ethics and Religion by submitting them to a multi-faith panel of spiritual leaders in the Grand Rapids area. We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up in the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

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