When People Choose Poorly

By Dr. Paul Raybon

Sooner or later we all grieve the loss of someone because of what we regard as their poor choices. If you live enough years and love enough people, you will endure this pain many times, and it never gets easier. There is a level of anger, resentment, and sometimes guilt, peculiar to this type of grief. Curse words that aren’t part of your daily vocabulary rise to your mind and lips. The normal balm of sweet memories becomes fuel for the ire that burns within. The waste of life, the needless pain, infuriate the soul.

So, what to do with this grief? It might be easy to focus the anger on the departed loved one, after all, it’s their fault and they aren’t here to defend themselves. But staying there too long doesn’t help anyone. Here are some musings from the past few days, based on years of experience, offered not as expert advice but as food for thought. For past losses we have to pray for the ability to forgive and cherish the people we grieve. For the future we can consider how we might help someone we love who is traveling down a path we fear will end in disaster and grief.

  • Begin with love. Make sure those you love know that your love for them is not dependent on their good behavior. Without unconditional love, we are all lost. Without unconditional love, some will decide they have gone beyond redemption.
  • Share honest concern. Saying nothing is not helpful. Expressing condemnation is worse. Tell the people you love that you are concerned that the choices you see them making will lead to destruction. Don’t argue the right to make choices or the severity of the situation. Tell them what you see.
  • Offer to help discover alternative choices. Some people can’t see a way out of the consequences of their choices, or can’t face the shame of walking back from their decisions and declarations. They need to know that there is a loving place or person to which they can return. 

Unfortunately, sometimes we discover that once a person has sworn allegiance to a decision, they have no other choice but to stay with it, even to self-destruction. That allegiance may be emotional, spiritual, intellectual, or chemical, but to them it is irrevocable. At that point our options shift.

  • Refuse to be complicit. Learn not to be an enabler. Learn not to engage in pointless arguments. Learn not to be tolerant of intolerable behavior and language. Learn to speak truth with grace.
  • Retreat to a safe distance, both emotionally and physically, far enough to avoid being destroyed in the fallout, but close enough to hear a cry for help.
  • Evacuate the innocents. When children and others who have no say will suffer directly from the poor choices of a person, take necessary measures to provide a safe haven, either temporarily or permanently.
  • Pray. First, last, and always. We can be encouraged and humbled by the story (Mark 9) of the disciples who failed to cast out an evil spirit. When Jesus was successful in doing so, they asked him why they were unable to heal the boy. Jesus replies “This kind can come out only through prayer.” If the Son of God acknowledges the need for prayer to bring about healing, then our efforts to help a loved one require a great deal of prayer, for both their hearts and ours to be freed from pride and filled with grace.

These thoughts above are from Rev. Dr. Paul Raybon, our partner in ministry in the Western Carolinas, who can help you and your ministry navigate congregational unity and effectiveness. He is Associate Pastor at Hominy Baptist Church near Asheville, NC and works with churches and leaders as a coach and consultant in communication, visioning, administration, and spiritual formation. Email him for more information about how he can help you.

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