Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Some Random Thoughts about Doing Good while Doing Minimal Harm

There has been a lot of healthy talk in Christian circles lately about how best to go about doing good in the name of Christ.  Both Fikkert and Corbett's When Helping Hurts and Tim Keller's Generous Justice contribute much to this discussion.  Some of this is distilled from them, and some from my own experiences.  Some of it may not even be right!  Just some thoughts.

1.) You have to be willing to be "taken," up to a point, without getting jaded.  This is really difficult.  The Christian should be wise --we don't want to help in a way that winds up hurting, but neither do we want to deny aid just because a person might be playing us.

2.)  Sometimes, the best thing to offer is comfort, support and companionship.  Some financial holes are simply too deep for most individuals (or even congregations) to fill.  The apostles once said to a beggar, "Silver and gold have I none."  Of course, they promptly offered healing that is beyond most of our spiritual gifting, but we can offer the same Jesus.

3.)  When in doubt, ask for counsel.  If you are faced with a decision as to how to help, or whether to help, get some quick counsel from like-minded brothers and sisters.  They will help you avoid purely emotional or reactionary decisions.

4.) Don't be too cautious.  God is with you and you have the Holy Spirit.  Not all doing good is safe.  Don't be foolish (I was once, and am glad I escaped), but don't be reticent.  Don't let the possible worst case scenario, or all the potential contingencies, keep you from helping someone.

5.) Doing real and lasting good is very hard to do.  Many people's problems are the result of factors far out of your control (relationship issues, health difficulties, lifestyle choices).  You can often alleviate immediate needs, but more needs will present themselves because of poor choices or just the size of the predicament the person is in.  Do what you can, but realize you can't do everything.

6.)  If you don't know how to help a person in a particular situation, get to know some people who do.

7.) Be willing to say "no," while still offering support.  Sometimes people will ask you to do things that are dangerous for them (like collecting an outstanding debt).  Politely refuse and tell them why.

8.) Be careful what you pray for.  Sunday night we had a prayer service.  Since we are an urban church, I told the congregation we needed to ask God to bring us all sorts of people, and help us welcome them and meet whatever needs we can.  Immediately afterwards (actually before!) an acute need became available.

9.)  Expect unexpected blessings.  Getting involved in peoples' messy lives is hard.  You will probably get hurt and taken advantage of.  But, you will also get some really awesome unexpected blessings, too.  I've seen it --tangibly and really.  I don't want to share details because of the potential for embarrassing some involved, but let's just say it can be spectacular to help people.

10.) Build relationships, don't just write checks.  We are good at alleviating guilt by giving money.  Money is necessary, to be sure.  Look to build friendships.  Ask for God to bring you friends who present particular challenges --who aren't from your walk of life, your race, your education level, your economic class.  Take them out, invite them over (Jesus said to!).  People are people.  You will be surprised at the deep bonds that can be forged.

11.)  It's not wrong to feel good about doing good.  Kant told us that if a virtuous act made us feel good, it wasn't virtuous (or something like that).  Nonsense.  It's okay to feel satisfaction when you help somebody.  It's part of the reward.  You won't always feel it, and not feeling it is not a reason for not doing it, but when you do, enjoy it.  "I did somebody some good today" is not a bad thing.


  1. Regarding #s 5 and 10 - I recently started reading some of my old copies of The Westminster Theological Journal. (They were collecting dust and heaping guilt upon me for not reading them.) In their first issue from 2009, there's a story on pp. 21-51 about "Mr. Machen's Protege." Yeah, that Machen. Apparently, while he was a Princeton student, he and some other students met an old drunk on an evangelistic trip through the city. They, through the Holy Spirit's work, led him to church and Christ (not sure which order), and over the remainder of the Protege's life, Machen (who was blessed by God with considerable wealth in his family) kept him afloat. The guy worked some. He relapsed occasionally. Machen occasionally had to tell him no, or just ignore some of his more extravagant requests. But for the most part, Machen was his soul benefactor.

    Fantastic quote from the article, from a letter of Machen's written (I think) to his mother: "A good many people might think Hodges not worth working for - there is deceitfulness in him as well as his recurrent weakness - but in the providence of God I have been given absolute responsibility (so far as anyone has it) for the welfare of a human soul, and I cannot put the matter out of my mind. Meanwhile my academic work has absolutely gone by the board."

    I love everything about that quote, including the final throw-away line about his academic work. And for the curious, the letter is dated 1919. I don't have a Machen timeline handy, but I think he was busy preserving orthodoxy or something at the time.

    Also, lest you think that quote makes it look like this protege was a lost cause, the previous page of the article quotes a letter to Machen from someone who helped look after the Protege (Richard Hodges). That man writes to Machen: "What Richard is, under God, we owe to you. The expense of time, thought, labor and money has been large, but I do not believe an investment ever yielded greater dividends to the glory of God. You have saved a man, and one redeemed life is worth more than the whole world, our Lord has declared."

    That got long in a hurry. Not my intent, but I couldn't help but share that. A side of Machen we don't often see. I'll probably repost that comment on Facebook.
    -Matt Giesman

    1. Lots of godly common sense, born of experience. Thanks, Ken.

      Tim Keller