God designed us to need each other’s help and support. But not all help is helpful. Sometimes the best intentions of those closest to us can go awry. Here’s a true story that illustrates what I mean by unhelpful help.

Poor Daddy

            The room was dark except for the harsh fluorescent lights over Daddy’s head. The clock said 2:37 a.m. A piercing beep made me jump nervously, like a shell-shocked soldier. His IV line was blocked again. Daddy had suffered a stroke five days earlier and just returned to his room after a short surgical procedure to give him a pacemaker.         

In his usual style, he sat wide awake, almost chipper, acting as though nothing was wrong, even though he had just been cut open to have a battery operated foreign object placed in his chest and plugged into his beating heart.

The stern-looking night nurse had been marching in and out to silence the loud beeping. She was about as gentle as tire iron. My mind conjured up visions of Nurse Ratched from the novel turned movie, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I found her demeanor intimidating and her lack of warmth toward my father annoying. Still, I had no desire to tangle with her.

My annoyance was growing. No one seemed to be in any big rush to ease Daddy’s suffering. He had not eaten for five days. The doctor’s orders were “nil per os” or “NPO”—the medical designation for “May the wrath of Heaven come down on you if you give this patient anything to eat or drink.”  Somehow, the five-day-old instruction had faded from my awareness. I asked Daddy if he was hungry. He nodded. I was not surprised. My inner voice spoke up, “What does it take to get a man some food in this joint?” It was time to take matters into my own hands.

Armed with Quarters and on the Hunt

There was nothing to eat at the hospital at 2:37 a.m., except vending machine fare. Locating one down the hall, I assessed the array of options. For a reason I cannot explain, I thought the ham sandwich looked like a good choice for Daddy. Row G, Number 3. Yes, I purchased a ham sandwich from a vending machine—something I had never considered doing before, nor since, under any circumstance.

I toted the sandwich back to the room like a happy Coon hound with its quarry and handed it to Daddy. He unwrapped it and bit into it with gusto. Victory! I had brought a moment of long-overdue relief to my long-suffering dad. A few bites later, his bending arm made the IV line clog, and the machine began beeping again. Nurse Ratched came right away and saw Daddy noshing on the best pork and white bread a $1.25 could buy. Words cannot describe her reaction, but let’s just say I was tempted to call an exorcist. Disbelief! Shock! Horror—a post-op patient eating a ham sandwich!

Nurse Ratched used all the restraint she had not to choke me with the catheter tubing she was holding. Spit flew out of her mouth as she described the risk of eating right after surgery, which I knew but had that fact had been obscured by my well-intentioned zeal.  Nurse Ratched didn’t hit me, but reality did.  I could have seriously harmed him. In my impulsive need to help—to do anything to relieve just a little of Daddy’s suffering—I could have harmed him. Praise the Lord, Daddy had no ill effects from the ham sandwich. He recovered from the stroke and lived another six blessed years.

Emotions Speak Louder than the Spirit

Perhaps this is an extreme example of unhelpful help. The deep emotion and love I had that resulted in my actions toward my dad produced the worst kind of help for him. My help came more from my selfish desire to make myself feel better about his situation. I selfishly wanted to do something besides sit there and watch him starve. It bothered me far more than it bothered him.

As I think back on this, I am reminded of the Apostle Peter. It took 3 years of walking with Jesus and some painful stumbles to tame his emotional zeal. Peter gives me hope. My ear for my own emotions and good intentions can be re-tuned to the voice of Jesus. Jesus knew Daddy didn’t need a ham sandwich right then. Now I always know Who to ask, and that it is most urgent to ask Him when I think I already know what to do!