Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about “helplessness.” Or, you might say I’ve been pondering the different ways in which we find ourselves “helpless” in this life. For example, I am acutely aware of my helplessness as I watch my son learn the subtleties of playing defense in basketball. For myself, I notice how helpless I am to stop my hairline from receding. On a more global scale, I feel helpless as I watch all manner of ecological or political foolishness. But though I notice things like these from time to time, as a counselor, helplessness is something that I see and feel on a daily basis.
In a way, I’ve resigned myself to it. Helplessness is continually present in the counseling room because we are often powerless to determine the outcome of our problems. Whether it’s the loss of a job, a wayward child, the death of a loved one, chronic pain, being marginalized, receiving a diagnosis of schizophrenia, or attempting to reconcile with an estranged family member—our ability to accomplish our ends, alleviate our suffering, or change our situations can be extremely limited.
Scripture speaks to this. It validates our lack of control and even admonishes us to not assume the certainty of our plans or abilities (see Psalm 103:14, James 4:13-17, and Proverbs 19:21). In light of this, we could be tempted to adopt a posture of fatalism and hopelessness. But in the wisdom of God, helplessness does not lead to hopelessness, and powerlessness does not lead to fatalism. Though Scripture speaks of our limitations and utter dependence as creatures, it simultaneously proclaims God’s power and love. It is God’s power to act and his love for his people within their helplessness that mingles hope with helplessness.
Psalm 31:21 wonderfully captures this relationship:
Blessed be the Lord, for he has wondrously shown his steadfast love to me
when I was in a besieged city.
The imagery used by the psalmist in this verse is that of an extremely dire circumstance: the besieging of a city. It is the perfect illustration of helplessness because a besieged city is surrounded by an attacking enemy and cut off from all resources. There is no escape and no control—the only thing to do is wait. But note that while the setting is ominous, the focal point of the verse is positive, even uplifting. It speaks of God as the one who wondrously shows his “steadfast love” to his people when they are in a place of utter helplessness. So though besieged and helpless, the psalmist was not hopeless. Paul proposes the same thing in 2 Corinthians 4:16-18 and then again in Romans 8:35-39: Because of the love of God we do not lose heart, for nothing can separate us from the love of Christ.
In counseling ministry, this reality plays out every day. Sometimes the helplessness that I feel is due to a situation that I know is impossible to fix or change. Other times, the helplessness I feel is due to the complexity of the problem in front of me and I’m not actually sure how to help. Or, I experience helplessness when I know exactly what needs to happen, but I am powerless to bring it about for the person.
While the helplessness I feel may be more or less pronounced, more or less devastating, more or less urgent, in all cases, my hope as a helper, and the hope of those I am helping rests in the God who shows his steadfast love while we are helpless. Psalm 31:21 teaches me to humbly accept my limitations in ministry to suffering, struggling people. In light of this I do not lose hope, for our God is the God of the besieged, the God who is a hope for the helpless.