5 Things People Can Mean When They Say “I Want Help”

To flirt with rescue when one has no intention of being saved…
from Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music”Undecided

The first time I stepped into a counselor’s office, I was in so much pain (and so unaware of what caused my pain) that I couldn’t answer the simple, relevant question he asked me: “What do you want from these sessions?”

Sounds ridiculous, I know. Since when do you invest time and money in a professional’s services without knowing what you’re looking for? But the tug of war between my desire to be healthy and my terror of discovering why I wasn’t had me paralyzed. The best I could offer in response was, “Could you help me figure that out?”

I’m a firm believer in turning points, those pivotal moments God orchestrates to get our attention, steer us towards a new direction, then inspire us to take action.

But I also believe we can be unsure what the new direction will require of us, or whether or not we’re ready to meet its requirements. That’s why, 33 years after my own season of counseling, I never presume someone coming into my office wants to change.

He may, or course. Or he may want the people in his life to change, or his situation to change, or his discomfort with both to change. You never know, especially at first glance.

What I do know is that one of five things will usually bring people in. So, with some flexibility, I’ve come to expect that within a few weeks it will become clear which one we’re dealing with. None of them are inherently bad, though some of them may not be appropriate at a given time.

But at least one of them, I think, will show itself in our lives when we reach a point of knowing something’s gotta give; something’s gotta happen. The question at that point becomes, “What do you really want?”

People want Relief

If a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it, was there a sound? I never could figure out why anybody cared, but a similar question could be asked about human pain. If someone’s hurt, scared, depressed, or enraged, and no one hears their silent scream, was there a sound?

In their own eyes, probably not, which speaks to our God-ordained need for connection. That’s why I believe some people are looking for nothing more than the relief of someone else hearing their pain.

“Getting it off your chest” isn’t just a quaint saying, it’s a literal release. So at times, being a good listener is the best service you can offer. It won’t solve the problem, but solutions aren’t always what a person wants. Just the experience of being heard can be akin to the removal of a 100-pound dumbbell from that person’s chest.

People want Empathy

Sometimes, though, being heard falls short if what a person craves is to be understood.

In the film Something’s Gotta Give, a funny exchange happens when a character played by Jack Nicholson expresses his pain to a friend, who basically says, “I hear you.” Nicholson shoots back, “I’m drowning here, and you’re describing the water!”

To empathize with someone is to feel with them, bonding with them by sharing their pain. I learned this to my own embarrassment when my mother had surgery and I visited her afterwards, full of answers about what I would take care of while she was hospitalized, and how she didn’t need to worry about anything.

She nodded, unmoved. Then a nurse brought in a beautiful golden retriever who was a literal form of therapy to patients in recovery. He strode to her bed, placed his face on her lap, and gently nuzzled her.

She broke down and wept like a newborn, throwing her arms around him in gratitude. The darned dog outshone me a hundred to one, giving her the empathy she wasn’t getting from her son.

So Paul told the Roman church “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” (Romans 12:15) Good advice for them; hard lesson for me. But
well learned.

People want Validation

Some, as Sondheim described in the quote above, “flirt with rescue” without really wanting it. That is, they say they want help, but they’re really looking for someone to tell them they’re right.

That’s not always bad. The wife who’s dominated by a cold, controlling husband, for example, may feel she’s being wronged, but may also have little confidence in her own perception. She needs someone to validate her tentative beliefs by coming alongside her and saying, “You’re right.”

Other times, the very thing people want validated is the thing God calls them to turn from.

There are plenty of career victims perpetually jumping from pastor to pastor, counselor to counselor, group to group. Their story is usually the same: I was wronged by my family, wronged by every church I’ve attended, wronged by all my previous counselors, and innocent of any wrongdoing myself.

That’s when a word of correction can be more helpful than a word of sympathy. We can and should empathize with pain; we can also, and should also, refuse to validate the pride, excuses, or general laziness someone wants to feel better about with a little help from us. Because in cases like that, they’re really not asking for help to improve. They’re asking for permission to stay the same.

People want Explanations

I’m grateful for portions of scripture like Romans 5-8, which help us understand how we got into the mess of Fallen Nature. Understanding why I am how I am, or what’s been moving me to do what I’ve done, help me take responsibility for myself, clears the foggy Why This Happening? mindset, and helps me manage myself
in general.

Explanations, of course, aren’t solutions. But they bring their own vital relief by helping us know what we’re dealing with and why. So if you’re interested in being of service to people, study the human condition. Reflect on your own history, quirks, weaknesses and strengths. That alone will give you some good material to pass on.

Also, get well versed in scripture, especially the books of Proverbs, Romans, and Galatians. When you’re able to explain the struggle between the old and new nature, the power of sin, the deceitfulness of the unregenerate heart, and the hope of a final release from the worst parts of humanity and the eternal magnification of its best parts, then you’ll have what it takes to offer life-changing explanations

People want Guidance

Most women and men I’ve worked with have wanted direction above all else. Being understood and cared for is helpful; explaining a person’s behaviors or conflicts is instructive. But ultimately, What should I do? trumps the Why did I do that? Knowing how to live a better life is more important than understanding why you haven’t been living one.

That’s why much of the Bible is about what to do, spelled out in clear, practical terms. As sheep we need guidance from the Shepherd, and as servants, we certainly want to hear what our Lord requires. When presented with someone wanting guidance, you could do a lot worse than to draw on your own knowledge of scripture, your own experience of what works and what doesn’t, and your own God-given wisdom, promised to anyone who asks for it. (James 1:5)


God is constantly about the exciting business of interrupting people’s lives, giving them a vision for something better, and guiding them to sources of comfort, clarification, and guidance. I want to be one of those sources. I’d guess that you want to be one, too. So we can request, here and now in strong agreement, “Here we are, Lord. Send us.”


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