When Helping Hurts

In both philosophy and religion, one subject consistently addressed is the matter of whether the human race is inherently good or inherently wicked. While major religions have formed immutable convictions on the issue, our personal convictions often wax and wane in direct correlation with whether we are speaking of our enemies or our allies. Regardless of religious belief, it seems our human propensity is to demonize our opponents while idolizing those with whom we agree.

Especially in our polarized culture, we often live as though our enemies can do no right while our allies can do wrong.

Perhaps the truth is subtler and more complex than these two extremes let on. On one hand, human beings seem wired to pursue what is good, true, and beautiful. Spend any time talking to people, and it quickly becomes obvious that most of us desperately want what is good. If that is true, then we can (and should) give even our enemies the benefit of the doubt. And yet, despite our good intentions, we human beings also have an alarming tendency to fall miserably short when it comes to pursuing goodness in ways that are not ultimately harmful. And this tendency includes the best of us, even our allies. As they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Our propensity to get this wrong is a topic that affects everything from missions work to medicine. Why else would we need books with titles like When Helping Hurts? Or in medicine, why else do we still carry close the Hippocratic Oath, with the very first pledge being to “do no harm”? We recognize that even in the most altruistic of professions, our human tendency is to taint what would otherwise be others-focused, making it more about ourselves than the person we are helping. And the really concerning fact is that our motives – to help others or to help oneself – are often impossible to judge on the outside.

This tendency to fall is a theme explored by Dark Romantics like Nathaniel Hawthorne. While Romantics rejected the cold rationalism of Enlightenment thinking, they also tended to see human beings as inherently good. Dark romantics, however, were adamant about the reality of the imperfect nature of mankind, and Hawthorne explores the dark underbelly of human intentions brilliantly in the middle chapters of the Scarlet Letter.

Chapter 9 is aptly titled “Leech”, a word often used for doctor. In the same way a leech can be used to heal by pulling toxins from the body, so too does a doctor offer healing to his or her patient. Yet, a leech is also a blood-sucking parasite of course, capable of pulling all the vitality out of its host. In the exchange between Chillingworth and Dimmesdale we see Chillingworth move from a leech of the first sort to a leech of the second. He was a physician assigned to bring healing to Dimmesdale, yet he ends up harming Dimmesdale and himself. His own broken heart gets in the way.

From all outward appearances, Chillingworth is a good man whose “piety and godly deportment were stronger testimony in his favour than any that he could have produced in the shape of a diploma.” Hawthorne also tells us that he was “kindly” and “pure and upright.” He is described as a “benevolent old physician” with “reverential love for the young pastor.” He seemed to be the perfect man to assist Dimmesdale in his healing. And perhaps this was true, initially. Chillingworth, it appears, began his probe into the soul of Dimmesdale with the best of intentions, attempting to be as objective as possible.

Yet, as he proceeds, his own frustrations take center stage, and we see the shift in Chillingworth’s countenance. While “at first his expression had been calm, meditative, and scholar-like,” eventually there was something “ugly and evil in his face.” As Chillingworth continues to traipse through every interior room of Dimmesdale’s heart, we see his carelessness for the sacred places over which he treads.

Though he finds many “precious materials,” he discards them like rubbish because they are not the secret he is looking for. This is hardly the countenance of a healer. Hawthorne tells us that “the intercourse between the clergyman and the physician, though externally the same, was really of another character than it had previously been.” Chillingworth’s hidden motives had shifted dramatically.

A traditional Christian understanding of the word love is to will the good of the other. While Chillingworth’s departure from healing to harming was extreme, Hawthorne invites us to explore the myriad ways, big and small, we ourselves fall short of this kind of love. Perhaps our efforts to help without hurting tend to lean toward the wrong side of the spectrum a little too often. Rather than offering healing, our love can become parasitic, existing for ourselves instead of those around us. What we see in Chillingworth is that even the best of intentions can become marred by our own brokenness. Our true motives are often buried under a heap of selfishness.

Perhaps the answer to this dark problem is found on the lips of Dimmesdale when he decries that he will not turn over his inmost being to an “earthly physician” but rather commit himself to the one “Physician of the soul.” Though a public confession was absolutely necessary for Dimmesdale’s healing, he is correct in asserting that Jesus Christ is the true Physician. Jesus does not seek to probe our hearts for his own vengeance, nor plumb the depths of our souls in order to parade the ugly He finds there. He is no parasite. Instead, Jesus is the one who draws His own blood and spends it so that we might live. He is the Son of the God who speaks to His people: “For I know the plans I have for you…to help you and not to harm you, to give you hope and a future.” As we trust the heart of our Savior, may we learn to love like this.


Are human beings inherently good? Why or why not?

In what ways did Chillingworth end up harming himself, in addition to Dimmesdale?

How would the story have played out differently if Dimmesdale had simply confessed what he had done wrong? How would this have affected Chillingworth?

Published by

Nicole Howe

Nicole Howe is a writer, speaker, Bible study teacher, wife, and homeschooling mama to four kiddos. She serves as editor and regular contributor for the quarterly publication, An Unexpected Journal and holds a Masters Degree in Cultural Apologetics from Houston Baptist University, where she discovered the power of the imagination to restore awe and wonder to her floundering faith. Drawing deep insights from her ordinary experiences, Nicole is passionate about helping others discover the Truth, Goodness, and Beauty of Christ in broken and unlikely places. When she's not devouring books, Nicole loves singing, pretending to be a chef, and performing Improv at her local theater. Her writing can be found at www.anunexpectedjournal.com, www.theperennialgen.com, and www.nicolemariehowe.com.