After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.” Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself. –John 6:14-15 (NIV)
The older I get the more I overthink things. Parenting, of course, is the worst, a nonstop treadmill of second-guessing, threading microscopic needles, endless recalibration, most of it probably pointless in terms of outcomes. Well, these days I’m too tired to overthink, and my kids are old enough that I have a decent amount of evidence to support the conclusion that they might turn out OK. (Even as I say this, I am terrified that saying it will jinx the whole thing. This post may not age well. Neither might my children.) But when they were little, a serving of broccoli could easily roll into an existential crisis.
One of the things I have often ruminated on to distraction is this: How do you help someone in need without condescension, narcissism, or self-congratulation? I mean, the very recognition that you have something someone else needs is wrapped in a kind of arrogance, isn’t it? How do you avoid succumbing to it? Especially if they respond with gratitude and want to honor you (which doesn’t always happen, and frankly, when it doesn’t, we tend to get quite huffy about it).
Growing up on the mission field, my family, and even my own child-self, was all too frequently in a superior position, economically, geopolitically, racially (in terms of how human society works), education-wise. And, regardless of what folks may say, the missionary enterprise operates from an assumption of spiritual superiority, practically by definition. Why else would my parents have gone, if they hadn’t believed they were right and everyone around them was wrong?
For a lot of my childhood and into my adulthood, I lacked all self-awareness when put in a position to help. I condescended away. I lapped up the praise like a hungry little kitten (but not as cute). I remember returning to Kenya as a young adult and taking a trunk full of clothing and other items to the child I was sponsoring through World Vision. First, I got to make a big deal about collecting a bunch of donations from my church. Look at me being an outstanding human being by taking a huge foot locker of stuff to a poor Kenyan family! Then I got to go out to the village where he lived to present the gift. I was sat down in a special chair. The children sang songs for me. I made a formal presentation to the family. The entire community turned out. I am amazing, I thought. Just like my parents. Y’all, I put pictures of all this on my desk at work. Y’ALL.
At some point, probably about the time when my life unraveled and I was confronted with the horrifying reality that I wasn’t actually a saint (honestly, every single damn person needs this moment, and too few Christians truly experience it), it dawned on me how smug I was in my good deeds. Well, how smug I was, period, really. But I began to see even my best of works in a new light. I began to make myself ill with the attitude with which I did them. Like, really, I want to vomit right now remembering.
I also began to see the deep complexity of problems like poverty and homelessness and addiction and how limited the impact of the vast majority of charity is. Don’t get me wrong, charity relieves many immediate needs, which is important. But what it rarely does is accomplish that at scale. And it almost never solves the underlying causes, which are invariably tangled up in systems and constructs that have developed over decades and centuries and even longer. It’s like trying to comb out dreadlocks.
(Side note/timeout here to all the uber evangelicals who are saying to themselves, “That is why we don’t do much charity, we save souls. That is getting to the root of the problem.” I have a lot of words, but I don’t think they will help you. So I’m just gonna nod, acknowledge that I have already seen you and heard what you have to say, and move on.)
So what do we do then? Just stop trying and live self-indulgent, Hollywood-starlet lives? I don’t consider that an option either.
So why even worry about the attitude with which we do good things? Who cares what the motivation is or why we are doing it if we are just doing it? Why don’t you just shut up, dear Holly, shut off your overthinking brain and let us all receive the gift of self-righteousness, the gift that keeps on giving?
Well, first of all, I can tell you that if you go that route, you’ll become incredibly annoying to be around. Probably even for the objects of you charity. Especially for them. But more importantly, for the rest of us. Did I mention that I grew up on the mission field? Honey, trust me about this, I know of whom I speak.
But probably more importantly, you should keep an eye on your heart because that is what Jesus did. Remember him? The guy who is supposedly the role model for Christians but whose teachings seem to be rapidly going out of fashion for too many American Christians?
Jesus did a lot of good deeds. Like miraculous deeds, better than whatever thin gruel you’re serving the homeless on the odd Saturday. It’s not terribly surprising that people were impressed with him. Grateful. Worshipful. Ready to make him king. And big deal, right? I mean, he was the King of Kings! God himself! Worship away, peasants, worship away.
But he wasn’t comfortable with that. That’s not actually why he came. That’s not why he did what he did. That isn’t the spirit he wanted to promulgate. He repeatedly rebuked it. Sometimes he literally fled from it. Like got in his own little row boat and shoved off.
Hate to tell you, friend, but if Jesus didn’t want credit for his miracles, your little sorry-ass charity drive doesn’t deserve it, either. And if Jesus fled from a self-congratulatory attitude and the adulation that threatens to spawn it, you better believe you better do the same.
I hate to tell you, but you’re not all that, I don’t care what kind of great works you are doing.
But that’s exactly why you should keep doing them. Because you are also in need, of grace, of community, of a hand out and up. We all are. We are all the same, at the end of the day. We are one family, one blood, one life. You are a homeless addict on the streets of life, perhaps not literally, but in a way, yes, you are. Maybe you somehow won the existential lottery and were born rich and healthy and well-loved. But that was dumb luck, my friend. And whatever you already have and own, you still desperately need. You need sustenance, you need love, you need to be heard and seen. And none of us have the answers. Y’all who think you do, maybe you have a piece of the puzzle. Maybe it’s done something for you. But you’re looking through a dark glass like everybody else. The questions were not made to have answers.
But we were made to love. To reach out in common humanity. To find a piece of ourselves in the eyes of another, no matter how different they may be. If your good works aren’t leading you there, you are missing the point.
Helping others should be a meditation on our own neediness. I’m afraid it’s often a meditation on our own wealth and superiority. Even gratitude, which is still a way better response in the midst of service than condescension, focuses us on our strengths. What we have already. Not what we lack.
So, yes, I overthink any charity or good deed I do. It’s the very least I can do.