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Avoiding the “Savior Complex”

As we serve our neighborhoods and communities, it is vital to remember there is only one Savior, and it is certainly (praise God) not us.

By Danny Zachariah, Pastor and Regional Director India Sub Continent

The savior complex, also referred to as the messiah complex  or Christ complex, is when a person feels a sense of intense responsibility to help or “save” others. It could be pursued even to the extent of it becoming counter-productive, where it may end up hurting the person providing the help or the one being helped. Sarah Benton, a mental health counsellor, says this:

Many individuals who enter into caring professions such as mental health care, health care and even those who have loved ones with addictions may have some of these personality characteristics. They are drawn to those who need “saving” for a variety of reasons. However, their efforts to help others may be of an extreme nature that both deplete them and possibly enable the other individual.[1]

This is where pastors and church leaders must be wary that, while being a shepherd to their congregations, they don’t end up trying to become the “Good Shepherd”! Unfortunately, some ambitious, misguided church leaders and members think that they can lend a helping hand to Jesus as they serve their congregations and reach out in their neighborhoods. By doing this, they fall into the trap of the savior or messiah complex. Andrew Purves puts it succinctly:

We do not mediate Jesus Christ. We do not make him effective, relevant or practical. Neither is it up to us to raise the dead, heal the sick or forgive the sinners … our ministries are not redemptive. Only Christ’s ministry is redemptive. If we stand in the way, focusing on our ministries, we have to be shoved out of the way. When we have a severe preoccupation with “my ministry,” that ministry has to be crucified.[2]

The negatives of a savior complex

There are several downsides if one is serving from such a complex. One is that the person being helped may be tempted to not take personal responsibility for any need to change. They can easily become accustomed to expecting your help, your prayers, your seeking of God’s will for them, and may not put any effort to take ownership of their own problems. Rather than empowering, we can actually be enabling them. This can cause them to become dependent upon you – the one providing help – rather than on Jesus. It can also perpetuate helplessness, leading them to believe they are powerless to help themselves. The end result is good intentions that end up doing more harm than good.

The flip side to this tendency toward dependency is that the person being helped may not feel they really require the extent of service being provided. The help could actually be seen as intrusive, make them feel obligated and at the receiving end of your good intents. They may avoid articulating this to avoid offending you, the helper, and this can lead into feelings of resentment.

Another downside is when the helper is struck by the need to be a “hero.” The obsession to fix problems becomes the primary focus, more than focusing on the person needing help. Sometimes the “hero” becomes more concerned about the problem than the one actually experiencing it! This could actually reveal deep-seated problems unaware to the helper. In the context of pastors, Greg Williams states, “Some even go so far as entering ministry because they need to feel needed. Frustration occurs when you realize you aren’t enough – you can’t meet all the needs of all the people in your congregation, and you can’t have your own needs met.”[3]

Yet another downside is when helping risks the helper’s own wellbeing. Helping others can indeed be fulfilling. There are instances, though, when it can be detrimental to one’s own wellbeing. Not feeling appreciated may turn into frustration and even resentment. Some who have a compelling need to rescue others, suffer from their own need to be rescued. This is called the White Knight Syndrome[4], and while we won’t get into all it entails, we encourage all to ask if the desire to help others is because Christ’s love is compelling you, or because you need to feel needed.

How to avoid the savior complex

Learn to distinguish between caring and saving. As pastors we need to genuinely care for the flock. Certainly, do all that is needed to care and support, but don’t cross the boundary to “save” when it is not in your power to do so. Ask yourself if your actions are really helping or could they be harming. It will also be wise to ask the one being helped what intensity of engagement they actually need. Then tailor the help accordingly.

Be honest about your feelings. Am I helping because Christ’s love compels me to do so, or because I have a need for feeling needed, or for acceptance? Feelings of superiority, narcissism, and delusions of grandeur have no place in our desire to participate with Jesus in what he is doing. And that’s the key—we serve others because Christ’s love compels us to do so. As Paul reminds us in his second letter to Corinth:

For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. (2 Corinthians 5:14-15)

As we move forward in the Love Avenue – sharing the love and life of Jesus with our neighbors and communities – it is vitally important to remember that Jesus Christ is the real and only Savior. It is he who said, “I am the way and the truth and the life …” (John 14:6). He does not just show the way but is the way, he is not just truthful but is the truth, and he doesn’t just have life but is life itself, in all its abundance. There is no alternative to Jesus. No one can replace him or be a co-savior to him (Isaiah 46). He is perfectly capable to save his loved ones and he invites us to participate in his ministry, not to replicate or replace it.

[1] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-high-functioning-alcoholic/201702/the-savior-complex.

[2] Purves, Andrew, The Crucifixion of Ministry, 2007, InterVarsity Press, 73.

[3] The Savior Complex, Greg Williams, Equipper, March 6, 2019.

[4] Rescuing Yourself From Your Need to Rescue Others | Psychology Today.

4 thoughts on “Avoiding the “Savior Complex””

  1. Excellent article! Much wisdom and helpful practical advice.

    Blessings,
    Santiago

  2. Excellent article! A sober warning covering major potential ministerial pitfals. There is only one “Great Shepherd” and his name is Jesus!

  3. Very insightful article Danny. There is only one Saviour! Understanding this helps avoid burn-out in ministry.

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