Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth (Matthew 5:5).
Almost 30 years ago, Melody Beattie published, Codependent No More, a book that made millions of readers finally feel understood. It made sense of their quiet desperation in relationships that punished them for good deeds. The term, “codependent,” became part of their identity.
Now common parlance, the label emerged from addiction treatment. Counselors saw characteristic patterns in the behaviors and attitudes of patients’ significant others. The drugs that control them often render addicts very self-centered. So not surprisingly, they often found partners with selflessness that defeated both of them. For a caricatured but common example, an indulgent spouse poured the alcoholic drinks as things spun out of control. Such service served no one.
Yet, the critique of codependency pathologized unselfishness. Does the now common-sense notion of codependency undermine Christians’ core commitment to agape love? Agape is Greek for self-sacrificial love that Christ showed and told. Christ took this love to the limit on the cross. Paul urged us to emulate this love by having “the mind of Christ…who emptied himself?” Fourth Evangelist said God is agape.
The folk diagnosis, codependency, did not stop pathological unselfishness. I see it no less regularly in my caseload, and my life seems an epic struggle with it. For codependency is an addiction to something good – the need to be needed, to belong, to the beauty in a beloved person whose own addiction turns the beauty into bait on a hook. Trying to cure codependency by eliminating unselfishness is like trying to cure overeating with starvation.
Unselfishness sets the stage for great joy. Ask any parent, anyone in love, any person who finds a career of service meaningful regardless of the paycheck. Nothing beats it. Jesus was right. Lose your life to find it.
Where then do we draw the line between pathological unselfishness and agape love? The meek know. In fact, such knowledge and practice goes a long way toward defining the almost universally misunderstood term, “meek,” a label appropriate for Moses, not Caspar Milquetoast.
Guilt or fear of abandonment motivates the compulsive care of codependency. Whereas, knowledge of being loved undergirds the kindness of the meek. While the meek love the unlovely too, they do not stake their happiness or security on them.
Love is not customer service that must please others or get fired. God wills our freedom and joy, so submission to a tyrant runs afoul of submitting to the guiding love of God. Standing up for our legitimate rights and needs draws the healthy boundary. Like refusing to pour a drink for a drunk, that boundary serves everyone.
Codependency’s hidden pride is belief that my love suffices for you. The meek know that only God’s grace suffices, and all I can offer worth having is whatever God makes with my weakness. Still loving but humbly yielding to God, anyone can become meek, truly codependent no more.
Agape Love: When Others Fail to Give Back
An Apology for Caspar Milquetoast