I find his experience and others like his highly intriguing. If you like "Dancing with the Stars," you should at least find this interesting.
Everyone knows you are supposed to do good things and avoid doing bad things. The trouble is that life tends to be more complicated than that. Or, wouldn't it be nice if we always only had to choose between doing nothing at all and doing something good? Instead, we find ourselves torn between multiple good activities where we have to choose one or some, but not all of them. Because it is often difficult to know the better or best choices, this is where the opportunity for self-deception comes in. It is easy to justify activities on a whim because they are okay or even good and do so without asking if that is really how my time and resources will best further God's purposes.
Do not misunderstand me, I am not trying to resurrect an earned righteousness view or talk about how we can become good enough for God. God forgives his children despite themselves and, furthermore, he is able to use the accidentals of all our doings to his own glory. We cannot botch God's plan. My point is, however, that the virtuous person will be interested in doing the best (s)he can and it is all too easy to unthinkingly lapse into a stagnation of status quo on the basis that one's schedule is filled with all good things. I could stand at a gas station all day, every day and do nothing but hold the door open for each person walking in and out. These individual good things could fill my schedule, but that does not mean that my God-given resources are best used that way indefinitely. It is necessary to ask what opportunities I would be giving up in the process.
The Bible and various other maxims from all the world may give instruction for particular situations, but love itself, a virtue that dominates ethical discussion in the New Testament, is so broad that one could never spell out for a person what love demands of him or her in every given circumstance. In a sense, then, the very chiefest of virtues that God longs to see in his children is the one he has left the most open and ambiguous. The lack of a publicly objective standard for love also means that we are not free to scrutinize one another's attempts at love, not knowing their hearts. Ironically, then, the accountability we can give each other for what matters most is very limited.
At least two things keep us from the better and best: (1) Constant distraction by the spontaneous on-goings of life and (2) the nature of the flesh to prefer the path of least resistance. For that very reason, the primary tools to fight this good fight are (A) the focus that comes with constant prayer and meditation, and (B) regular self check-ups to see whether one possesses the humility to deny self for the common good.
This topic has been weighing on my mind recently because I'm a people-pleaser with ADHD who works in a busy hospital. When I'm at work there are a thousand good things I could do, but I must choose among them. Unfortunately, distractions are everywhere. Even if I have settled upon a good thing to do for the time-being, I may be interrupted shortly thereafter by another good thing advertising itself as urgent. But choosing good things to do in a hospital is not being a one-man army or trying to rack up points on a pinball machine any way you can. I have discovered recently that you can really let some people down by doing other good things when you should have been doing the good thing that is actually in your job description, or the good things that are the priority for your own department. So often I find myself walking back to my unit from taking a patient out and bump into some staff member I can cheer up or a former patient that I can show care for. Or, perhaps somebody from another unit is transporting a patient somewhere and could use a hand. I'd love to help them and often do, but it is not always the right time for those good things. Indeed, these brief little asides can function as a means of escape for me. The downside is that all the while I can be letting people down whose claim to my time, energy or resources really ought to get the higher priority.
In these scenarios, I can allow myself to be completely distracted so that I do not even think about what might be better or best, or I can work on building the discipline of constant prayer and meditation in order to remain focused on or discern the particular good God has in mind for me. I can do what I prefer in these scenarios, which is usually to do the little aside that ends in a vainglorious pat on the back, or I can exercise a humble spirit in order to refuse indulging myself at the cost of the greater good. To be clear, I realize that the aside might sometimes be the greater good and that allowing myself what I desire can be recreative and replenish my ability to exercise that self-sacrificing love. My point, though, is that if I am not diligent in my introspection, going through my days willy nilly will tend to produce the rationalizations that stifle my potential. I can only maximize my love by constant meditation in all circumstances and the conscious humbling of myself in order to choose God's will over my own. Of course, the accumulation of my own and others experience contributes, but only if I'm intentional about it. For life in general, I wish that I would stop asking, "But who is my neighbor?" and start asking how far I can stretch myself. Please pray for me in this endeavor.
I discovered, as I was wheeling out one of my patients today, that he has been a Southern Baptist minister for 45 years. He indicated that he had some success in helping to build churches. He said that his key ingredient was simply this: "You gotta be a people-lover." That, and find ways to come in contact with and minister to lots of different kinds of people. I guess love plus people equals relationship/community.
I have to admit that I have been a bit crippled the past few months in terms of social justice ethics. Many passages in the New Testament lead me to believe that the stated ideal (but not necessarily stated law), is the one should divest oneself of all possessions except the basic necessities in order to meet the needs of others.
It is often said in our Bible classes when discussing the Rich Young Ruler, that Jesus asked him to sell everything and follow him because Jesus knew that money was something that had a particular hold in his heart. For him, then, it was a needed discipline to give those things up. This has a certain logic to it, but it neglects so much of the immediate and broader context of the Gospels. In that very passage in Mark 10 and parallels, the disciples go on to remind Jesus that they left all to follow him. This was standard fair for becoming a disciple of Jesus (as seen both with the fisherman in Luke 5:11 and the tax collector in Luke 5:28). Jesus then makes a general comment about the blessings that would come upon those giving up various things and relationships in order to follow him.
Nor is the story of the Rich Young Ruler the only place that Jesus tells people to sell their possessions. In Luke 12:31-34, Jesus says the following: "Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well. Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near nor moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."
In one of his famous sermons, Jesus says, "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled" (Luke 6:20-21). He goes on, "But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry" (vv24-25).
We are tempted to see "poor" and "rich" as relative terms, allowing perhaps that we have approval to follow through with our middle-class lifestyles as long as we are willing to give to this or that cause from time to time. But the story of the "widow's mite" in Mark 12:41-44 absolutely forbids us from thinking this way. Lots of people were donating money to the temple treasury. Jesus had no criticism for those who chose not to give. His criticism was that the giving he observed, even if it seemed like a lot some people, was no big sacrifice to those giving. We are told, "Many rich people put in large sums" (Mark 12:41). But it is the widow who gets the praise. Jesus says, "Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on" (Mark 12:43-44).
Likewise, Paul compliments the Macedonian churches about which he says, "their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For, as I can testify, they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means..." (2 Cor 8:2-3). And, like the widow, Paul says that, "For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has--not according to what one does not have" (v12).
It should be no surprise to note that Paul's model for giving is simply an application of what he sees in Christ: "For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich" (2 Cor 8:9). Predictably, Paul follows this very model in his own life. He says, "Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ....For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I main gain Christ" (Philippians 3:7-8).
This sounds like little more than an echo of Christ's words about gaining the world and losing your soul. Rather, the converse is that we must be willing to lose the world to gain our souls in Christ. Paul suggests that such poverty characterized apostles in general (1 Cor 4:9-13).
Not that the ideal of giving up all for the sake of others was limited to apostles. Thee book of Acts recalls those early Christian communities in which believers did in fact sell their possessions to meet the needs of others (2:44-45; 4:32-37). We are told that "no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common" (4:32). And, more strongly put, "for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold" (4:34).
In a time of no health insurance or 401K plans, the community itself was the insurer of each member, holding all in common. Indeed, the very thought of a personal retirement fund is rejected in Luke's Gospel where the man who pulls down his previous barns to build new ones for all of his crops is told that his life would be required of him for laying up all his goods and not giving them for the good of others (Luke 12:13-21). Jesus concludes the section, "So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God" (v21).
But, again, selling your possessions and giving the proceeds away is not just all about meeting the needs of others. It is also a discipline to protect your heart for worldly affections. Jesus says, "Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions" (Luke 12:15). Likewise, in 1 Timothy 6:10 we are warned, "For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves through with many pains." Instead we are told, "for we brought nothing into this world and it is certain we can take nothing out of it, but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these" (vv6-7).
James tells us, "Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he promised to those who love him?" (James 2:5). That is, lack of means requires of a person more faith in life just to get by. Divesting oneself of wealth, then, is a discipline that leads to more faith. This is precisely why, in the sermon on the mount, after exhorting the disciples to lay up treasures in heaven and reminding them that they can only serve God or wealth (Matthew 6:19-24), Jesus tells them, "Do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear....indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well" (vv25-34).
So, there are two general reasons why Jesus tells people to sell their possessions and give the proceeds away. (1) As a discipline to protect your heart from attachment to the world. And (2) to help those in need. Presumably, these are also the reasons he required those who would be his disciples to do so. Again, this is not to say that it is a sin to have a lot of money or that you are lost if you do. The NT knows examples of those who are wealthy but considered disciples. My point is simply that it was not considered the ideal for a disciple. Living in a world with an unlimited capability to find those around the globe in need, anyone of us could easily spend ourselves completely out in a short time.
The middle class lifestyle seems so foreign to the ideals of NT Christianity. And, yet, the road to radical generosity and frugality is inevitably also the road to less convenience. Cars, cell phones, computers and such decrease the time necessary to accomplish certain tasks and increase productivity in various areas of life. Fortunately, many of us have learned to grow suspicious about the "cost of progress." If it is in the best interest of the common good to be less "efficient" and slow down, so be it. Nevertheless, certain kinds of goals that seem noble may seem to require large sums of cash or costly tools. Education, for instance.
I say I have been "crippled" by this matter mainly because many of my tentative plans include spending money I don't yet have on education. However, when you plan on something that requires a fair sum of money you are then less inclined to give what you have away. I have chosen to live in a dumpy apartment complex to stay close to the kinds of people I ultimately long to help and look out for. However, given my one-track personality, I find myself very focused on school. That is, getting my thesis done and thinking about where to go to school next. I have spent probably hundreds of dollars on books this past year, over a thousand dollars on gas, and various other things that if I spent more time on I could spent less (food, etc). So, I spend my money on resources instead of people and notice around me as I hurry off to work the kinds of people I said I would like to help, but then don't have the time to. I come home and I go to a coffee shop to read.
Nevertheless, not to sound cliche, but I feel "called" toward the educational end toward which I working. There is no doubt that a good can be accomplished through it, but that doesn't settle whether or not it is God's will for me. After all, there are all kinds of competing good things we can do all around us every day. Maturity is about moving from good to better to best.
My constant fear is that I am choosing a course that I prefer rather than simply taking up the cross that I have been called to. Am I planning too far ahead and not really living by faith one day at a time? Should I stop concentrating on school and invest my time and resources in helping the needy? If I do this should I anticipate that God will somehow send me off to school without my over-planning it, if it is his will? Or should I simply be willing to accept doing without the education or fulfilling my personal desires for furthering God's kingdom? Should I wait for a sign of some nature to override the general of radical generosity/frugality? Every time I come home with food or come home from the coffee shop and reflect on how well I have it versus how poorly some of those lonely souls around me have it, I feel guilty. I truly struggle with what God would have me do. What can I do to best advance God's kingdom. Or is that even my decision to make? Its a crisis of ethics.
I would like to hear whatever feedback you all might give. Admittedly, I'm not particularly interested in a point of view that does not take radical generosity as an ideal or intended norm for discipleship (perhaps that eliminates most of my readers). Both Dallas Willard and Richard Foster have chapters in their most influential books denying that impoverishment could be considered an ideal for Christians. I find their arguments mostly philosophical and in neglect of many of the passages I have quoted here. They basically call on the individual to decide for themselves what would help them most as a discipline, but they neglect the particular approach consistently suggested by Jesus and the functional aspect of meeting as many needs as you can. So, with that caveat, please share with me your thoughts. Brotherly, Joshua
"Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you" (Matthew 5:42).
"Freely you have received, freely give" (Matthew 10:10).
"John answered, 'The man who has two tunics should share with him who has none. The man who has food should do likewise'" (Luke 3:11).
"If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, 'Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,' and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead" (James 2:15-17).
"How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?" (1 John 3:17).
Jesus is merely drawing on an old tradition from the Hebrew Bible in emphasizing taking care of the poor:
"Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see them naked to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? (Isaiah 58:6-7).
"Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker, but those who are kind to the needy honor him" (Prov 14:31).
"Those who mock the poor insult their Maker; those who are glad at calamity will not go unpunished" (Prov 17:5).
"Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and will be repaid in full" (Proverbs 19:17).
(Consider the appropriation of these verses in Matthew 25:31-46, where Jesus says, "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me" and "Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.")
"Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, 'Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land'" (Deuteronomy 15:10-11).
A comment someone made on the facebook version of this post helped me to boil down my question even further:
I can envision so many scenarios where I or others can spring into action wherever they find themselves, and for a while I was striving to do what I thought that entailed. And, to be sure, I enjoyed doing it. The real predicament I'm facing here is whether or not there is a one-size-fits-all spirituality where we all drop whatever we were working on, give away all non-necessities, join a Christian community with which to share all resources, activities and dreams with, using whatever skills previously accumulated to make ends me, grow the body of Christ like wildfire, swallow the entire globe in radical love, and the rest is eternity...
...Or, is it possible for some to be legitimate disciples, just as tuned in with radical values and longing to return to the norms of such a Christian community, but called for a time to pursue a special project, the good of which cannot be underestimated? And, in so doing, requiring the use of precious resources that would otherwise be channeled to the impoverished? Is such a good feasible, or is feeding the hungry belly always the ultimate priority? Could there be a good that competes with that? Could knowledge or understanding, even about God, be so important? Could the standard paradigm be so inflexible so as to disallow the use of resources for other great things in place of fulfilling basic physiological needs? This is the question that haunts me each day as I gear up to spend tens of thousands of dollars on more education (in which I truly believe I would make important advances) but do so knowing that tens of thousands of children die each day for poverty related reasons. I cannot avoid the seriousness of this question, nor would I want to. Thoughts?