Adele Richards is an amateur parent of two exceedingly fabulous little girls. Once upon a time, in a galaxy far away...
I suspect Christian circles are rather rife with savior complexes (the compulsion to step in and “save” someone whether they’ve asked for help or not). Not to mention codependency, over-responsibility and false responsibility. I’m no psychologist but I can see it in myself quite clearly.
When the Holy Spirit prompts us to help someone, that’s awesome. But when we continually feel duty-bound to rescue people who haven’t asked for our help, that can become a heavy burden we weren’t designed to carry.
How about you? Answer these are five questions to reveal whether you have a tendency towards the old “savior complex”.
1. Do you find yourself stepping in to do things thinking, “If I don’t do it, who will?”
2. Do you feel a fluttery panic when it looks like someone else is going to mess up, and do you step in to help them so they don’t?
3. Is it your job to make sure everyone—and I mean everyone—is ok?
4. Do you care more about solving someone’s problem than they do?
5. What would happen if you didn’t step up to the plate? Missed the meeting? Didn’t volunteer? Let that person sort their own mess out? Does it feel like the world would end in a fiery ball of flames (aaarrrrggghhhh)?
I know, I know, when I put it like that it sounds pretty stupid right? But it doesn’t feel that way does it? It feels deadly important. With the emphasis on deadly. Over-responsibility, codependency and the savior complex don’t bring life in all its fullness—quite the reverse in fact. If you answered “yes” to any of these five questions, you might be swimming at the over-responsibility end of the pool. But why? Here’s what I’ve observed.
“If we’re all busy rescuing each other and taking responsibility for each other’s feelings, where’s the personal accountability?”
The eldest sibling is often “set up” to be more responsible from an early age. As a parent, I notice I expect more from my oldest daughter, yet can easily make excuses for the younger one. That’s pretty typical as far as I can see. We have high standards for the firstborn. So if you’re one of those, you’re already primed with over-responsibility tendencies. If you have a sibling with medical issues or needs, you’re even more likely to have grown up thinking that you have to be the one who takes care of others. But there’s no limit on who can be co-dependent or over-responsible… anyone can end up that way.
Of course there’s nothing wrong with taking responsibility if it’s yours to take, or with looking out for others. But if you often feel you’re walking around with a ten ton weight on your shoulders… you might want to stop a mo. and work out why. Because this is not the life that Jesus wants for you:
"Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28 NIV)
Having pretty much grown up in church, I’ve dallied with a savior complex—and I’m no stranger to the thought, “If I don’t do it, who will?” Being a bit of an empath, I tend to take on responsibility for people’s feelings and if I see someone isn’t doing well, I can easily see it as “my job” to “fix them”.
Now if the Holy Spirit puts it on my heart to pray for them or if He inspires me to connect with them, that’s all good. But if I’m picking up responsibility for every sad person I see without hearing from the Holy Spirit, I’m soon going to sink under the weight of all that responsibility. And here’s another thing: if we’re all busy rescuing each other and taking responsibility for each other’s feelings, where’s the personal accountability?
“How can He truly be their Savior, when the vacancy is already filled by you?”
When you have a baby or small child, you’re constantly doing safety checks on every new environment. You walk into a room and automatically run around like a maniac removing dangerous items—quick pick up that marble in case the baby swallows it! Take the glass vase off the low table and move it out of reach! Oh and pop that machete back in the drawer. Now if you did the same for a teenager, you’d start to look (and feel) a bit nutty. But that’s actually kind of how we act when we’re dabbling with a savior complex.
At some point you have to let go, and let God. A good old cliché… but if you don’t let go… if you keep trying to control circumstances for someone else, if you appoint yourself guardian of their health and well-being… you’re getting in God’s way. How can He truly be their Savior, when the vacancy is already filled by you?
As parents, especially mothers, we have a dual role to play: nurturer and releaser. When a child is young, our job is to protect and nurture them. But as they get older our job is to loosen the apron strings and release them to be independent. Depending on our personalities and upbringing, we tend to be better at one aspect than the other.
Some mothers are brilliant at nurturing—they love the feeling of the babes being dependent on them. Others much prefer seeing the kids mature and stand on their own two feet—that gives us a great feeling of satisfaction. God bless mothers, we don’t have an easy job, and neither do we in the church family… where we perhaps need to learn a bit more about nurturing and releasing.
Now I’m being a bit hard on those of us with the over-responsibility wiring… after all, we’re doing 90% of it out of the best possible motives. But to rake up another excellent cliché; the road to hell is paved with good intentions. We mean well, sure, but what actual effects are we having on ourselves, our families and our churches?
If I want to make myself a savior or a rescuer, I’m automatically making the other person a victim. Through my best intentions I’m crippling them, denting their confidence and treating them like a child. Yuck.
Funnily enough, Jesus didn’t have a savior complex. If anyone understands the value and importance of free will and of raising up disciples, it’s God Himself. Jesus gave the people around Him choice. He treated the rich young man as someone who was well able to make up his own mind, and come to his own conclusions. He didn’t run around screaming, “You’ve got to trust me or else…” and generally panicking. He wasn’t terrified by our human frailties. On one memorable occasion He gently let (Simon) Peter know that he was just about to screw up:
“‘Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.’” (Luke 22:31-32 NIV)
Jesus told Peter (with no condemnation, mind you) that he was going to betray Jesus three times before the cock crowed (verse 34). He didn’t try and stop Peter, hide him away to keep him safe, or give him a strategy to avoid failure. Jesus just gave him a job to do when he “turned back” and repented for failing. I’m not saying that Jesus wanted Peter to fail, but He knew that Peter would. Jesus wanted Peter to understand he still had an important role to play despite his mess-ups.
“Messing up is not the end of our story, just an inevitable plot twist.”
In this, I think we’re very unlike Jesus. We’re so scared of failure ourselves, we can’t bear others to go near it. But sometimes it’s the only way they can learn and grow. I’m not talking here about giving a 1-year-old a box of matches and a lighter. But I am talking about treating grown-ups like people who are responsible for their own lives. And also believing that our Savior is amazing enough to catch them when they fall. Messing up is not the end of our story, just an inevitable plot twist. God is big enough to cope with the imperfections of those we love. Are we?
Those of us with savior complex tendencies need to take a step back. I need to let the people I love learn to clean up their own messes. I have to let them be free to fail and trust them to run their own lives. The Holy Spirit reminds me, quite often, that this other person isn’t actually my responsibility—they are God’s responsibility and He is perfectly able to keep them, cope with their mistakes and somehow still love them through it and redeem any experience.
“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him.” (Romans 8:28 NIV)
“To him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy.” (Jude 1:24 NIV)
A savior complex can seem like a good thing—the responsible thing—but actually, it’s a perversion of the gospel. There’s only one Savior and He’s Savior enough for anybody.
You might want to read it out loud. It’s actually pretty good to pray this about your children… and remember He is their perfect father.
“Father God, please forgive me for trying to be a savior to others in my life. Forgive me for taking burdens that are not mine to carry. I’m sorry for taking responsibilities for others that you haven’t asked me to take up.
I give (insert name) back to you. You are their Savior, not me. I entrust them and their future to you. Please help me to love them in the way you want me to. I repent for not trusting you to take care of them and their needs. I commit them to you and your safekeeping. I bless them to grow and mature as your disciple, and I repent of the lie that they need me to constantly rescue them. You are able to do immeasurably more in their lives than I can dream or imagine.
Thank you that you’re not scared of our failures and you can redeem any situation. Please now release me from any ungodly burdens, false responsibility or over-responsibility. I give (insert name) over to you, please lift them now off my emotions and off my physical being. Your yoke is easy and your burden is light. I now receive your lightness in my spirit, soul and body. Thank you!”
This archived article was written by Adele Richards for release in Aug, 2013. Circumstances and situations may have changed regarding the author, locations and ministries. This content may therefore be outdated or misinformed.
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