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I am, by nature, a problem-solver. I am very good at it. If you want to succeed, problem solving is an essential skill.

The bad news: problem solving is necessary if you want to succeed, but it is not sufficient if you want to succeed in a meaningful way.

It is hard to focus our attention on both problems and people. We generally find it much easier to solve problems than to love people.

Popular culture

A great deal of our culture is based on a problem-solving mindset. Much of the advice we find in books and magazine articles can be boiled down to a simple two-stage process:

You can find this strategy in every field from self-help and psychotherapy through to economics and running a business.

This strategy provides a number of important benefits. Amongst others, it gives you a quick way of working out what you need to do, and it gives you a measure of success. Once you have identified the problem, success is purely a matter of fixing it.

We want to succeed: it is entirely natural. Which is what makes this strategy so seductive. Once you know the problem, you know what you have to do: fix it. In the real world, this is incredibly dangerous.

In the real world, we are faced with all kinds of problems, difficulties, questions and challenges. Should I marry this person? Should I take this job? Move to this town? How do I talk to my teenage son about his drinking - or other, more worrying, activities? What do we do about homeless people and drug addicts?

When we are faced with a problem which we can't solve, what we usually do is ignore it (I don't know what to do, so do nothing) or decide to fix an easier problem instead (I can do this, so this is what I will do).

When we are faced by a bunch of people whose lives are broken and dysfunctional in all kinds of ways, we either turn our backs on the problem, or decide to provide drug treatment, debt advice, accommodation or employment training.

Of course, all these possibilities are good things to do, and each of them will turn a few peoples' lives around, but they don't even begin to touch the actual needs experienced by most of the people whose lives are in a mess.

Once you redefine the problem as a need for drug treatment, you can solve the problem by delivering the drug treatment: success! And when they relapse, you can solve the problem again by delivering the treatment again: another success! The system you have defined is achieving success, even if the individual's life is falling apart more and more each time you 'help' them.

To take another example closer to home: the wife is unhappy, so the husband buys her some flowers or a necklace. Because he knows that flowers or jewellery will make her happy, in the short term, at least. But the chances are that she is not unhappy because she feels she lacks flowers: the reason is likely to be something deeper and harder to address. The real problem feels impossible to solve, so he does something to solve an easier, short term problem.

Solving problems

Of course, we encounter problems of many kinds in every area of life, and knowing how to respond to and solve them is vital. If your car or your computer is broken, this is exactly the right strategy: first, identify the problem; second, fix it.

But you cannot fix a broken person or a broken relationship like you can fix a broken car: we know intuitively that things don't work that way, but we keep on trying.

Much of the time, we try to fix people by fixing their problems for two basic reasons: it's what we have been taught to do, and we don't have an alternative.

The good news is that there is an alternative, and you can learn to use it.

Beyond problems

Jesus never commands us to fix the problems people have; He commands us to love people. We prefer to fix problems - it's much easier. It is also something we can succeed in. You try to fix a problem, you fix the problem, success. On the other hand, you try to love someone, you love someone, you keep loving them ... it may feel good, but it's not the sort of thing you can count as a success or tick off your 'to-do' list so you can move on to something different.

Jesus gives us two basic commands: love people, and make disciples. A disciple is a learner, so making disciples is all about helping people keep learning - which is a very good way to love them. You love people, which may include helping them, but you love them in a way that enables them to keep growing so that they will not continue to need your help.

If you fix the problems people have, they will always have more problems for you to fix. If you love people enough to help them grow, they will learn how to solve their own problems.

Just as importantly, they will learn from you and your priorities. If your priorities are to fix problems, their world will be full of problems to be fixed. If your priority is to love other people as you love yourself, and to help them grow as you are seeking to grow yourself, then their world will be full of people living and loving and growing.

Jesus wants me to live and love and learn and serve. We all know that. What we seem to miss is that this strategy which Jesus teaches us is also the best way to get our lives, and the lives of the people around us, sorted out. Astonishingly, God seems to know how we are made, and what we need.

What this means

If you invite me in to work with you, I'm probably going to identify some problems and help you fix them. After all, it's what I do, I do it well, and a bit of problem solving is often needed.

But the purpose of the problem solving is not to solve the problems: the purpose of the problem solving is to help you find a stable place - a place from which you can consider what you really want. And I hope that when you think about it, what you really want is to follow Jesus: to live and to love and to learn and to serve people the way He did.

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Copyright © 2021 Paul Hazelden
problems.php was last updated 15 January 2021
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