The Difference Between Empathy and Enabling

by Lysa TerKeurst October 6, 2022
"Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn." Romans 12:15 (NIV)

I wrote in my journal recently: When I share biblical discernment with another adult I love very much, but then they go away and do the opposite, it’s maddening. It’s especially troubling if I can so easily see how their decisions will hurt them, but they shrug off my concerns.

It’s like seeing a train barreling toward them, but they just sit on the tracks anyhow. My bottled-up wisdom in the midst of this chaos produces so much anxiety. My resulting reaction is not me being dramatic or overly emotional … I’m simply trying to save this person’s life!

But saving someone isn’t possible if they don’t agree they need to be saved. Even if I get them off the train tracks in this moment, they’ll climb right back on them tomorrow.

I suspect you know this frustration as well.

So here’s the hard truth: If your heart is more committed to change than the other person’s is, you may delay the train wreck, but you will not be able to save them from it. And from what I’ve experienced, the more you keep jumping onto the tracks to try to rescue that person, it’s only a matter of time before the train will run over you both.

I don’t say that lightly. I say it lovingly — because it’s true. Truly sustainable, lasting change must come from inside a person's own heart, not from pressure exerted from the outside.

This doesn’t mean I don’t continue to care about that person, but it does mean I change my role and my job description. I want them saved, but I am not their Savior. They need Jesus. They need self-control. So I shift from efforts of control to efforts of compassion.

Compassion lets me love that person, empathize with their pain and acknowledge their side of things, even if I don’t agree with them. And it still allows me to speak into a situation. But after I share my wisdom, my advice, my discernment … I make the conscious choice not to rescue them in any way if they walk away and do the opposite.

I weep with them, and I rejoice with them. That’s biblical — our key verse today, Romans 12:15, gives those exact instructions. But weeping with them and rejoicing with them does not mean trying to take control of their out-of-control choices and behaviors.

We can forgive others. But we cannot control them. And we should not enable them.

How do we know when we’ve crossed over from weeping with others in healthy empathy to enabling them to make unhealthy choices?

My counselor, Jim Cress, says, “I am enabling someone when I work harder on their issues than they are working. I am enabling someone when I allow them to violate my boundaries without any consequences. I enable a person when I co-sign their unhealthy behavior by defending their wrong choices, making excuses for them, looking the other way, covering for them, lying for them or keeping secrets for them.”

While we are affected by other people’s actions, we are not held accountable for their actions. We are held accountable, though, for both our actions and our reactions. So we have to make sure to be honest about the effect someone else is having on us and only be around them as much as our reactions and actions have the capacity to handle.

Although it may seem counterintuitive, this is biblical love. Demonstrating biblical love means we seek each other's highest good.

We honor what is honorable. We make the hard choice to let another adult who has a pattern of wanting to be rescued — over and over — own their own consequences. We trust Jesus to be their Savior and ours, knowing He’s the only One who can truly save.

Lord, I declare today that I will lean on You to transform me and help me have a heart focused on compassion and empathy instead of controlling and enabling. I’m committing right now to meditate on Scripture and allow it to rearrange my thoughts, actions and words. I will continue to trust You on this journey. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.


Relationships are wonderful … until they’re not. Maybe you’re beginning to realize if the other person doesn’t want to change what’s broken in the relationship, you can’t change it on your own. So now what? For years, Lysa TerKeurst struggled with thinking that setting boundaries was unloving and that saying goodbye was unchristian … until she discovered that boundaries aren’t just a good idea — they are a God idea. Start reading the first few chapters of her new book, Good Boundaries and Goodbyes, when you preorder your copy today.




Find real-life encouragement when you connect with Lysa TerKeurst here on Instagram.


Romans 12:16-18, “Live in harmony with one another … Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” (NIV)

Take time today to reflect back on some of the hard relationship dynamics in your life. Get some paper or your journal and write down some phrases from Romans 12:16-18 that you could live out more consistently by drawing healthy boundaries — and share your thoughts with us in the comments!

© 2022 by Lysa TerKeurst. All rights reserved.

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