Do-gooders

Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.
— Galatians 6:9-10, NIV

many-handsWe Boy Scouts are required to do a good deed every day. (I haven’t worn the Boy Scout uniform since I was 16, but once a Scout, always a Scout.) The Boy Scout slogan is “Do a good turn daily;” and as the Scout Handbook explains, “A Good Turn is more than simple good manners. It is a special act of kindness.” Helping an old lady across the street sort of stuff.

Doing good can weigh on you. I’ll get to the end of the day and realize with a groan that I’ve spent my entire day satisfying my own selfish cravings, not once giving a momentary thought to helping others. Panic sets in. I begin looking around for some act of selfless kindness that I can perform. Should I mop the floors? Take out the trash? Does playing ball with the dog count? Doing good, frankly, places a heavy burden on the do-gooder.

If only. If only the desire to do good really did weigh on my conscience more than it does. Paul has an interesting perspective on the spiritual significance of “doing good.”

In Ephesians 2:8-10, he writes that we cannot gain favor with God by doing good. This, of course, is Christian theology 101. We are saved by God’s grace, Paul says, saved by God’s special willingness to cover us, in Christ, with a goodness that is not within us. But he goes on to say that this God who created us has specifically planned that each of us should do “good works.”

So what Paul seems to say is that one of our core human purposes is to be people who labor in God’s creation and bring about God’s goodness in the lives of others.

Returning to Galatians 6:9, Paul addresses one of the central problems in this program God has created for accomplishing good: we get tired and quit. Why is that, do you think?

If the sort of good we’re talking about here is some selfless act that costs us something – time, money, inconvenience – but which benefits someone else, one obvious, and embarrassing, reason for becoming weary is that we adopt the attitude that there’s nothing in it for us.

That became Ray Kinsella’s ultimate complaint in the baseball fantasy “Field of Dreams.” After plowing under his corn field, risking bankruptcy, and becoming a laughingstock to his family and neighbors — all in obedience to a voice that tells him to build a baseball field in the middle of Iowa — Kinsella finally reaches the end of his rope:

Ray Kinsella: I listened to the voices, I did what they told me, and not once did I ask ‘What’s in it for me?’

Shoeless Joe Jackson: What are you saying, Ray?

Ray Kinsella: I’m saying, What’s in it for me?

Sometimes, we just want a little credit for what we’ve done, a little thank you, a Hallmark card, maybe, or some other sign of appreciation, but the good that we do goes completely unnoticed, or perhaps even unwelcomed.

Or we may come to feel small and ineffective, as if all the good that we try to accomplish is merely a drop in a vast lake of indifference, suffering, and evil. We call it quits because we doubt that we’re making any sort of ultimate difference in the world.

We can even take that one step farther into cynicism. This world is just too bad, too self-centered, too irredeemable; all the good in the universe won’t change a thing, so why try? Better to just hunker down in our cozy bunker and watch out for number one.

The persistence of sin and our own limitations, including our mortal inability to see history and human existence from God’s perspective, all conspire together to make us weary in doing good, to tempt us to give up doing good. So we turn our gaze inwards and focus instead on our own needs, our own yearnings, our own lives.

But God has created us to be outwardly focused. Only when we look for opportunities to serve others in love are we able to live out one of the key purposes we were created for.

God created us to do good, to be his instruments of good to one another. If we allow ourselves to give in to cynicism or despair or weariness, or if we twist doing good into something whose purpose is to make us feel better about ourselves, we are the poorer.

But when we serve others for no other reason than to bless them, we learn what it means to live like Jesus.

Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave.

For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give His life as a ransom for many.
— Matthew 20:26-28, NLT

Photo credit: Habitat for Humanity

 

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Comments

  1. My wife reminds me that somewhere C.S. Lewis says that sometimes it can fall to us to just visit a bore and that this can count as a service to the Lord. I have done a bit of bore-listening lately, and I find that it can be exhausting. And it leaves me wondering not only if I am “getting anything out of it,” but even if the bore is truly benefiting from my sacrifice or if I am simply wasting my time and patience. (I donꞌt have a lot of either one of those to spare.) But then again, I guess that some folks, maybe bores especially, need someone to listen to them, maybe just to affirm their value as people. If so, then I guess listening counts as a good deed, maybe even something done for Jesus, and I guess I had better keep doing it, even though I find it to be a lot more satisfying to read AnotherThink and to write comments on what I find there, neither of which would be of any interest to the bores I am thinking of.

    Some time ago I was commenting to some colleagues about the kindness of a Mormon friend who had offered to do me the good deed of helping me with his pickup to move a bunch of stuff. Someone in the group immediately pointed out that Mormons do that sort of thing, since they believe in salvation by works. Up until then I hadnꞌt realized just how different Mormons are from us evangelicals, but now I gather that they really are, since they believe in good works and we donꞌt. Which is odd, when you realize how focused both Jesus and Paul seem to be on the importance of good works in the life of a follower of Jesus. I really like the little letter to Titus, and one reason is because in it Paul seems to let no opportunity pass without mentioning how Titus is to instruct his flock in the doing of good works. And then there is Jesus scary foretelling of the judgement of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25, not to mention his pointed example to us of washing the disciplesꞌ feet as recorded by John, and that bit you quote from Matthew 20 (and the parallel in Mark 10) about how he said that even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve. Well, I guess we all know that none of us will be saved by “works of the Law,” but is it possible that we have been neglecting a fundamental element of the christian life and that we may have to answer for that someday?

    • Terrel Shumway says:

      If you want to understand why Latter-day Saints “work”, spend some time studying King Benjamin’s speech in Mosiah chapters 2 through 5.
      Verse 17 is the main point, but please read it in context. ( http://www.lds.org/scriptures/bofm/mosiah/2 )

      Benjamin explains how he has lived his life in the service of the people, and thus also in the service of God. He does not claim any special privileges for such service, and never asked “What’s in it for me?”

      He extolls the nothingness of man: “Behold, ye have called me your king; and if I, whom ye call your king, do labor to serve you, then ought not ye to labor to serve one another?

      “And behold also, if I, whom ye call your king, who has spent his days in your service, and yet has been in the service of God, do merit any thanks from you, O how you ought to thank your heavenly King!

      “… if ye should serve him with all your whole souls yet ye would be unprofitable servants.” (Mosiah 2: 18-21)

      So first God gives us everything. He asks us to keep His commandments. If we do that, He blesses us immediately. Therefore, we can never “get even” with God. (Read the rest of Mosiah chapter 2.) So if you think you can get to heaven by works, by your own merits, you are missing the point. This is not what the Latter-day Saints teach or believe.

      “For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father.” (Mosiah 3:19)

      If one exercises faith unto repentance, the atonement is immediately effective for that person. This is the “grace” part. I think Benjamin describes this quite well. But this repentance is an outward manifestation of the inward change that is wrought by Christ for our faith. It is the death of the natural man. It is the resurrection to a new life, as symbolized by baptism. (cf. Romans 6:3-6)

      So why would this new “saint” do all of this hard work of listening to boring people and raking their leaves and baking casseroles and changing bedpans and shoveling snow and digging people out of the mud after a hurricane? For the short answer, read the rest of Romans 6. I think Paul makes it very clear that we are accountable for our actions (“the wages of sin is death”) even after the atonement, the “gift of God” is active in our lives. [note that a gift is *by definition* not something that you can earn by working.]

      (Yes, Bruce, this is “a fundamental element of the christian life” “that we [will] have to answer for … someday.”)

      For the longer answer, read Mosiah chapter 4. This is the first page of the Zion literature that, while certainly abundant in the Old and New Testaments, is dramatically expanded by the Latter-Day Saint canon. The question to ask yourself is this: “Now that I am a new person because of the marvelous gift of the atonement — because the Savior saw me “while [I] was still a long way off” and embraced me in the arms of His righteousness — what kind of life do I want to live for eternity? Do I really want to live with a bunch of selfish, prideful people who are focused on ‘What’s in it for me?’ or would I rather live with generous, loving, outgoing people like the Savior?” If I want the later, I have a lot of *work* (guided by the Spirit) to become the kind of person generous, loving people *want* to be around. It really is about community. Heaven will be a very boring place if I am the only one there. 😉

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