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Loving vs. Enabling - When Does Support Become Toxic?

Someone saying Shhhh

The Bible has much to say about love. There are four different words for it in the Hebrew and Greek languages, used interchangeably depending upon context. Philia is friendship love; storge the love for family; and eros the romantic love between a man and a woman. Then there is agape. This is the highest form of love described in the Bible which defines God’s incomparable love for everyone.


Yet, with all the information we read about love, all the songs we sing about it, and how we desperately look for it, understanding what love truly means escapes us. Inevitably we fall victim to unhealthy and difficult relationships. Christ-followers extend grace and mercy to demonstrate God’s love to others. But can too much be too much?




Love is an emotion unique to humans as an image-bearer of God. The principle of loving everyone, including our enemies, began with Jesus. In Matthew 5:43, Jesus instructs us to “love your neighbor.”  In Matthew 19:19, He underscores this command with “love your neighbor as yourself.”  Then in Luke 6:35, He broadens the directive by simply saying, “love your enemies.” Finally, John 15:12 says, “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.”


There is no doubt the Bible instructs us to love others. However, is this standard unrestricted? Can support or extending grace and mercy become destructive? Is there a difference between helping and enabling?


Helping vs. Enabling


There is a huge difference between enabling and helping. To “help” is to facilitate something someone cannot do for themselves. This would be: reaching a plate high on a shelf; taking someone to an appointment who can’t drive; or bringing groceries to someone who is sick.


Enabling, however, is doing something for someone who could and/or should do it for themselves. Paying fines for the chronic law breaker, continuing to support an adult child who isn’t paying their debts, or accepting a spouse’s addiction by making excuses for them are examples of support taken too far. This is when “helping” becomes enabling and irresponsibility fosters toxic behavior.


Where Enabling Begins

Being an enabler never starts with bad intentions, but begins with love. Watching someone make bad choices often triggers compassion. Mercy makes us excuse or cover for them, sheltering them from difficult consequences,


This is, however, misguided. The truth is, healthy love sets boundaries in order to nurture accountability, even if doing so isn’t easy.


Types of Enabling

Many experts agree there can be four different patterns of enabling behavior.


  • Caretaking. This is a nurturing role in a relationship that works to meet the needs of an enabled person in any way possible.

  •  Protection. Enablers who protect act as a shield, preventing their loved one from experiencing the consequences of their actions.  

  • Rescue. Whenever a problem arises, a rescuer rushes to save their loved one from suffering hardship or failure.  

  • Overcompensation. In this case, enablers take on too many responsibilities belonging to their loved one believing it will cover their loved one’s failings.


These patterns are not intended to harm. Yet, they inadvertently perpetuate the damaging behavior of the very person they are trying to help. Not only that, enabling can be keeping God from working in someone’s life.


God’s Word


As noted, enabling often begins with noble intentions. While the Bible does not use the term “enabling” directly, along with instructions to love it does address the concepts of accountability and responsibility.


In Galatians there are two important verses that encourage compassion but do not condone enabling. 


  • Galatians 6:2 “Carry each other’s burdens (baros) and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”   

  • Galatians 6:4-5 “Each one should test his own actions.  Then he can take pride in himself, without comparing himself to somebody else, for each one should carry his own load (phortion).”


Though these commands seem contradictory, the meaning of the words for “burdens” and “load” clarifies the intent.


In Galatians 6:2, baros (burden) means “excess trouble.” Trying to carry a basket of bricks alone is a good example. The bricks represent extreme issues like losing a job and having no income, experiencing an extreme illness, or a death in the family.       


Dealing with these heavy situations (like bricks) is a struggle. But by grabbing one side of the basket, lending a hand, we can “carry each other’s burdens.” Giving assistance with a resume, paying for someone’s groceries, or driving someone to the doctor are ways we can offer support.


On the other hand, phortion in Galatians 6:5 means a personal weight, like things you might carry in a backpack. Specifically for an individual, these are feelings, behaviors, values, attitudes, desires, choices, thoughts, talents, love, and trust. No one can “make” us feel a certain way, initiate our choices, or produce our behavior. These come from within, are personal, and our responsibility alone.


Both verses explicitly explain our obligation to others (lending a hand), as well as responsibility for ourselves. And neither removes accountability. Galatians 6:7 succinctly sums it up, “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap.” Mercy and grace do not eliminate culpability.


Enabling Sin


The most serious part of enabling is it can subtly encourage sin. Shielding someone from “reaping” consequences does nothing more than empower wrongdoing.


This is even true in a marriage. Satan unfortunately can use one spouse to participate in the bad behavior of the other. While we are responsible for the condition of our own heart, legalism, guilt, or misguided beliefs give the impression setting boundaries in a marriage is contrary to God’s Word. Taking submission out of context may make a wife believe it is her “duty” to cover for or enable her husband.


The truth is, being in a marriage relationship does not change how to address sin. There is a place for grace. However, nowhere in God’s Word does it condone constantly shielding your spouse, accepting abuse in any form, or quietly letting them off the hook. Enabling someone’s sin is the same as indirectly taking part in that sin. 1 Timothy 5:22 says, “Do not participate in the sins of others.”


How to Change Enabling Behavior


The definition of crazy is “doing the same thing over and over again, and getting the same result.” So, if you want to stop enabling your loved one, you must change YOU.


  • Be honest. Ephesians 4:5 says, “Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.” This includes being honest with yourself.  How are you enabling bad behaviors? Are you trying to shield your spouse or do you just like the control? Take a close look.

  • Get out of God’s way. Make sure you are not hindering God working through consequences. Excusing, covering, shielding, and rescuing prevents natural outcomes that would promote responsible behavior.

  • Encourage Accountability. If your spouse is destroying themselves or your marriage, ignoring the behavior won’t help. Don’t blame or shame, but start a conversation. Encourage responsibility for bad behavior and hold them accountable for their actions. Galatians 6:1: “Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted.”

  •  Set boundaries. A healthy marriage requires good boundaries. Remember boundaries are not about controlling your spouse. Romans 14:12 says, “So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God.” Establishing limits for yourself is good for any relationship.

  •  Be aware of repercussions. Often, an enabled spouse is not ready to take responsibility for themselves. They may threaten, punish you in hurtful ways, react with anger, withdraw, blame you, or even accuse you of being a bad person. Stay committed to doing what is right but make sure you are not in danger. “To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the Lord then sacrifice.” Proverbs 21:3

  • Take care of you. Proverbs 3:27 says, “Guard your heart.” Proactively care for yourself spiritually, physically, and emotionally.  Get rest, eat healthy and most of all, seek God’s wisdom to make positive changes. Consider therapy as needed.




Being supportive in a relationship is never wrong. However, enabling isn’t supporting, it’s damaging. Often it cultivates bad behavior, destructive decisions, and sin. Be brave and look at how your support could be toxic. Be open to transforming YOUR behavior with God’s help.


Acknowledge the problem exists, set boundaries, and seek professional guidance if you need it. Remember, “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” (Hebrews 12:11) Working to build a healthy relationship will be worth it.






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