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How to Tell a Need From a Want
April 16, 1989

ACTS 3:1-10

This sermon was requested. Several months ago I preached on the text, "Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ." (Ephesians 5:21) I tried to make the point that we are called to submission to one another; mutual submission, not one always the "submitter" and the other always the "submittee." I further made the point that we submit to one another, we serve one another, when one is in need. Serving is based on need. Sometimes you are the needy one and need to be served. Sometimes the other is the needy one and you submit. You are both giver and recipient. We are both people-feeders and people needers. Rather than submitting to one another on the basis of gender where the woman submits and serves the man; rather than submitting to one another on the basis of color where the person of color submits and serves the white; rather than submitting to one another on the basis of economics, where the own who "doesn't work" submits and serves the "provider;" the Christian style is mutual submission, where we submit to and serve one another on the basis of need.

After the sermon was preached, I was asked, "How do you tell the difference between a need and a want?" A good question. Does Christian service and submission mean we do whatever is asked of us, whatever is expected of us? How do you know when the need is genuine, and you are not being manipulated? Some women feel like maids because their husband and children want to be waited on. Is she not a good wife and mother when she asserts herself and differentiates between a need and a want? Just because the children want service, does that want justify their mother becoming their maid?

A child may want to eat candy; but needs to eat vegetables. A child may want to be cared for and protected, but needs to experience responsibility. A child may throw a temper tantrum, screaming on the floor in the middle of a store. The child wants attention, and is manipulating for attention. But, the negative behavior should not be reinforced by giving it attention. Wise parents know children should not always be given what they want, but the question is how does the parent know the difference between a want and a need? For the meditation in this morning's bulletin I chose a phrase from Mary Ella Stuart's book,

Love starts when another

Person's needs become

More important than your own.

But, how do you know what is a need? Are we really helping people when we submit to their wants? Are we really helping people when we participate in their sickness, rather than contributing to their health?

Jim Burklo of the Urban Ministry whose trailer lives in our parking lot, advises us not to give cash to those who ask. We here in the church office, and often you in the streets or on the patio are asked to help someone who says he is in distress. What he wants is cash. What he needs, says Jim Burklo, is assistance in getting his life together. Rather than giving cash, send them to the Urban Ministry who will feed them, help them find short-term employment and housing which may involve the use of our facilities, and counsel them. An alcoholic wants a drink. An addict wants a fix. You are not a good friend or spouse or Christian servant when you give them what they want. The point is: you do not necessarily help your children or your spouse or your friend by giving them what they want.

In our Scripture lesson this morning, Peter and John differentiated between a need and a want, and responded to the crippled beggar's need rather than his want. Peter and John went to the temple at the ninth hour--3:00 p.m.--to pray. This was the third prayer time of the day. A lame man was at the gate of the temple called Beautiful asking for money. The handicapped were supported in those days, not with SSI checks, but by begging. This man, and we don't know his name, was born crippled, and every day was carried to his place at the temple door. When he saw Peter and John, he asked them for cash. Peter stopped and looked directly at the man. No doubt he was pleased to receive attention. Perhaps the kind gentlemen will be especially generous. He looked at them expectantly. But, he did not get what he wanted. He did not get what he expected. He did not get what he asked for.

What he received was the caring and loving act of Christians who responded to his need, and not to his want. What the man needed was healing. He needed help to stand on his own feet and walk. Peter said to him, "In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk." Peter reached out, took him by the hand and lifted him up. Immediately his feet and ankle bones received strength. The man went into the temple with Peter and John, walking, jumping with joy, and praising God.

What we see here is the goal of Christian love and action. When you love someone and want to help her--neighbor, spouse, child, friend, stranger--the goal is to help her walk, jump with joy, and praise God! What we all need in our lives are people who will encourage and help us walk, jump with joy, and praise God. What we may want, and what we do not need, are well-meaning do-gooders in our lives who keep us emotionally crippled--dependent, defeated, empty of confidence, filled with self-pity.

To help differentiate between a need and a want, consider the long range results of your actions, and ask yourself these questions:

1) Will what I do help her become self-reliant and independent, or more dependent on others? Will she learn to walk with head erect, or be emotionally crippled, dependent on others? I can still recall the scene in the play, The Miracle Worker, where Anne Sullivan taught blind and deaf Helen Keller how to eat. It was literally minutes where I sat on the edge of my chair, barely breathing, watching a woman and a little girl wrestle, hit, slap, kick. Anne would pick Helen up, seat her on the chair, put a spoon in her hand, and guide the food to her screaming mouth; without the sound of the screaming, of course, which made the scene even more dramatic. All I could hear was the sound of the scuffle. Some would call Anne cruel. Helen's mother coddled Helen, protected her, waited on her, and felt sorry for her in her handicap. The love of Helen's parents left Helen crippled. The tough love of Anne gave Helen Keller life. As a result, Helen Keller walked, jumped, and praised God!

In Manteca Church, a three-year old blind girl was a student in the Head Start Children's Center. The teachers were excellent. They followed the principle: don't do anything for her she can do for herself. This meant that the girl often stumbled, ran into things and fell. But, we watched that blind three-year old girl gain confidence. She laughed, she learned, she loved. She walked, jumped and praised God! Don't do anything for people, including the elderly, they can do for themselves. When you do, you increase their dependency and decrease their self-reliance and self-esteem. Don't do anything for people they can do for themselves, except for moments of celebration. Making the child's bed to surprise her is sometime a fun thing to do; but, as a rule, don't make the child's bed when she is old enough to do it for herself, which is probably age three. Don't pick up clothes lying around the house, including the husband's. Walk on them as if they aren't there, and refuse to do any laundry that is not in the basket.


2) Will what I do help him develop relationships of mutual respect, or will what I do encourage him to manipulate others to submit and wait on him? Back to the child throwing the temper tantrum in the middle of the store. Because he knows how to embarrass you by picking a public place in which to throw a tantrum, do you yield to the manipulation, pick him up, coddle him, and perhaps bribe him with candy if he will just shut up; thereby encouraging him to lose respect for you, and to treat you with disrespect by manipulating you. Or, do you walk away to another part of the store where the child cannot see you. He will soon quit because you are not responding, and because he now becomes the center of the public's attention which he has not really bargained for. Similarly, do you allow yourself to be manipulated by your spouse's or your friend's pouting and sulking? Or, do you walk away to another part of the store and wait for the spouse or friend to exhibit more mature, respectful behavior?


3) Will what I do help her face reality and live her life honestly and responsibly, or will what I do encourage her to tell herself lies, develop a distorted view of life, and blame others for her troubles and predicaments? A youth gets into trouble with the school or with the police. Do you try for a coverup? Do you intercede and try to protect her from the consequences of her actions? Or, do you let her face the music and learn how to live her life responsibly and honestly? When you are quick to bail her out, you are probably bailing her in, and contributing to her irresponsibility, and an irresponsible person who is bailed out by others has a very difficult time learning how to walk, jump with joy, and praise God.


4) Will what I do help him to gain self-confidence, or will what I do encourage self-pity and helplessness? A child falls. You can see it's not a serious fall, no danger of broken bones. Do you run, pick him up, wipe away the tears, and say, "Oh, you poor thing. That nasty sidewalk," which encourages him to be dependent on you, manipulate you for attention, and blame others or situations like the sidewalk for his problems. Or do you say, "Come on, you can make it," and wait while he picks himself up, which may sound cruel, but actually contributes to the child's self-confidence and self-reliance, and gives him a sense of victory because he can now pick himself up, walk, and jump with joy.


5) Will what I do help inspire faith and commitment to Jesus Christ, where they will live their lives in loving service to one another, and praise God in gratitude, thankful for their lives, rather than blaming, bitching, and griping that nothing is ever right.


To sum up, all five questions can be stated in one: Will what I do help people to walk, jump with joy, and praise God, or will what I do hurt them by helping them become emotionally crippled and handicapped?

One further point. Remember what Peter said when he helped the crippled man to walk, jump and praise God. Peter said, "In the name of Jesus Christ, walk!" You are not alone. Commit your actions to Jesus Christ. I Corinthians 10:31, "Whatever you do, do to the glory of God." Rely on God to help you make the right decision. Rely on God to help you differentiate between a need and a want. Trust in God to bless your actions.

© 1989 Douglas I. Norris