Don’t Feed the Bears: When Helping Hurts

Howard Hendricks spent sixty years teaching Christians how to study the Bible. He taught Bible study methods and teaching philosophy to scores of Christian educators all over the world. One characteristic of his teaching is the ability to use stories to make principles unforgettable.

I remember vividly one example of this. Dr. Hendricks and his wife took a trip to Yellowstone National Park. As soon as they arrived, they received a piece of paper full of instructions. On it, in big black letters, was the warning, “Do not feed the bears.” He also noticed that as soon as they left the ranger station they started feeding the bears.

Curious, he asked a park employee why feeding the bears was prohibited. After all people are doing it, and the bears seem fine. So what’s the harm? “Sir,” the employee answered, “you have only a small part of the picture.” He then went on to explain how every fall and winter park-service personnel had to carry away the bodies of dead bears. You see, because people made gathering food too easy, the bears lost the ability to fend for themselves.  And when they lost that ability, they were in danger, which meant people’s attempt to help actually hurt.

If we are not careful, we can do the same thing.  Sometimes we need to embrace what noted Christian speaker Keith McCurdy calls healthy struggle.  That is, sometimes we need to understand it is ok for students to struggle with a problem for some time until they solve it.  It is ok for students to read a page twice in order to understand.  It is good, because God has designed us to grow through age-appropriate, healthy struggle (James 1:2-3).  Without such struggles, our helping hurts, and they will be unable to fend for themselves in an increasingly volatile world.