Making Life Work: Do Good

delivering a surprise to someone
Creative Commons License photo credit: don.reid

It had been a long, draining day of meetings and visits, and I still had a training meeting yet to do that evening. I had just enough time to run home, grab something to eat, and pick up my training materials.

I was leaving the skilled nursing unit when I saw the same woman still sitting by the door whom I brushed by two hours earlier. “Oh-oh! Maybe I can brush by her again,” I thought. She usually sat in front of the door and long ago lost track of reality. But she saw me coming.

She called to me with a toothless smile, “Honey, honey, I knew you would come by to see me today!” There I was, ready to brush her off again and a proverb I wrote down in preparation for this blog popped into my consciousness. The most disturbing thing about some of these pithy verses in Proverbs is that once you get them in your mind, you can’t get them out! They keep coming back to haunt you!

There I was, in a hurry, in a time crunch, thinking about what was going to be best for me, and God whispered in my ear, “Your own soul is nourished when you are kind; it is destroyed when you are cruel” (Proverbs 11:17).

The voice in my head went on: “Yeah, Linda, I know you have already put in your time visiting LOPs (little old people), and you need to get something to eat so you have energy for tonight’s training. You’re feeling pretty maxed out and it’s already going to be a tight squeeze to get to your other meeting on time. But you have a chance to turn the whole thing around right now by taking a few moments to show kindness to a lonely woman. I won’t make you do it, but I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised if you do.”

Part of me was saying, “I don’t think so. I’m not in the mood.” But another part of me was saying, “Maybe my mood has nothing to do with it. Maybe I should just do it.” So I stopped, smiled, took her hand, and knelt down by her wheelchair. Tears came to her eyes as she touched my face. Clearly and lucidly she said, “Thank you for stopping. I feel so lonely and so forgotten.” And then she lapsed into another world.

When I got into my car, a wave of warmth and wellbeing flowed through me. The frustration and anxiety that had so filled most of my day started to dissipate.

What that proverb says is true. Our souls are nourished when we are kind. That’s not the only motivation for doing good, but it’s an undeniable benefit. That doesn’t mean we feel smug and self-righteous; it means that we experience that calm and quiet – and humbling-inner awareness that we have just had the privilege of being a channel of God’s love.

Why do we feel good when we do good? I think the main reason is that we are created in the image of a God who is good by nature. We were created to do good works. When we do them we fulfill our purpose for being alive. We grab hold of our destiny as human beings. Though our good works may at times require sacrifices of time, money, or energy, we can also do good through such simple acts as reflecting kindness in our eyes, speaking a gracious word, or offering an appropriate touch. However simple or dramatic our acts of goodness, the point is to become a way of life because we are made in the image of God. Our good deeds not only will uplift others, but it will also nourish our souls.

I suppose I could end this [already] lengthy post here and say, “Get busy. Discover your destiny in doing good. Respond to your calling with random acts of kindness. Live out the image of God by lifting up others.” The truth is, there is more to living out the image of God than indiscriminately performing good deeds. Being finite human beings, we have limited resources of time and energy; we can’t respond to every need in the universe. Committing random acts of kindness may be a nice idea and a catchy slogan for bumper stickers, but in reality we have to apply a bit of thoughtful strategy to doing our good deeds.

Proverbs helps us do this by offering a few qualifiers for doing good deeds. We discover the first qualifier in Proverbs 3:27: Do not withhold good deeds from those who deserve it when it is in your power to act.” The wise writer of this proverb tells us to do good to those who deserve it, implying there are some who may not deserve it.

For those who legitimately do need help, we are called to help them. There is no doubt about that. But there are other lessons from the Bible that also tell us that there are those who try to take advantage of goodness. God tells us not to waste our limited supply of goodness on conniving people who are trying to avoid taking personal responsibility for their lives.

A second guideline is found in Proverbs 16:26: The laborer’s appetite works for him; his hunger drives him on.” In other words, hunger and other kinds of personal needs or desires can be good for us because they motivate us to work diligently and provide for ourselves. What follows from this is that any acts of goodness that diminishes the recipient’s drive to work hard and meet their own needs is misspent goodness. It undermines development of people as responsible human beings and creates in them an unhealthy dependence on others.

A third guideline for doing good comes straight from the lips of Jesus:

He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

Jesus is concerned about self-ingratiating acts of goodness, or doing works primarily in the hope of receiving something in return. He knows exactly how easily we deceive ourselves about why we do what we do. He knows how quick we are to pat ourselves on the back for a selfless good deed when in reality we’re engaged in a favor exchange program that has little, if anything, to do with goodness.

It happens all the time. We socialize or do things with others just like ourselves. Why not transform some of those opportunities into settings for what would be true goodness parties. Why not invite a few people outside our normal circle of friends, a few people who don’t usually get invited?

The challenge is to not shrink back, chicken out, get lazy, or turn the other way when the opportunity to do good comes our way. We are made in the image of a God who is lavish in doing goodness, a God who delights in redeeming, restoring, refreshing, rebuilding, and revitalizing. We probably need to remind ourselves occasionally that we’re called to do the same.

Imagine how our world would be transformed if the approximately 2.1 billion people in the world who call themselves Christians were doing the goodness they have to power to do? Then add in others who are also taught in their spiritual traditions to do good? And then add in everyone else who may not claim any spiritual alliance? That’s roughly 7 billion people!

Why don’t we live in a world like that? Because the world is full of people like you and me who don’t let the call to do goodness penetrate our hearts and minds, and souls, and mouths, and hands, and feet.

Every time I fail to do an act of goodness that is in my power to do, I fumble an important ball. And that particular ball is never thrown again. I will never again have the opportunity to brighten that day of that old woman. What if I hadn’t been thinking about this blog this week? What if I hadn’t been reminded that my own soul would be nourished if I was kind to someone else? What if the deep-down selfishness of my own heart hadn’t been blown open for a fleeting moment by the challenge of this proverb? I don’t know the answers to those what-ifs. Maybe someone else would have stopped and taken a moment with that woman. Maybe not.

It may well be that the vast majority of unmet needs that bring sadness, heartache, loneliness, and despair into human lives are merely the flip sides of good deeds left undone. Think about that. Think about the incredible power of good deeds and the tragedy of our failure to do them.

God is a huge God with unlimited resources. The family of God is a huge family with many people to share the responsibility for doing good. We need to learn to assume the responsibilities that are ours and let go of those who aren’t. When it is in our power to do good, do. When it is not in power to do it, then breathe a genuine prayer of concern and intercession and ask God to provide someone else to meet that need.

How has your souls been nourished by doing good?

++Next Sunday’s Making Life Work will be about staying the course.

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