Okay, I’m going to start this broad and angsty, but it’s going to end up making you feel uncomfortable, unless you just dismiss it. Who wouldn’t want to stick around for that?
I assume, unless we are utterly narcissistic, at some points in life we ask if we matter. If our thoughts tend to run dark and deep, we move from there to questioning whether anything we do matters. Over seven billion people live on this planet and my little contribution makes less than the smallest ripple in the pond. My “big splash,” as I once imagined it, can’t move the water’s surface even to be detectable to the naked eye.
I don’t live there, in that thought bubble, but it passes over from time to time, like that moment you’re driving and you hit the fog bank: suddenly you can see nothing beyond your headlights, literally nothing. The fog reflects your beams directly back at you. You slow to two miles an hour because you won’t know if anything is in front of you until you collide with it. If you’ve driven in that, you don’t forget it. These thoughts are definitely not a faith view, and fog does clear eventually, but in the moment it’s stinking hard to see.
These thoughts can justify any number of horrible actions or decisions. “If there are that many people and I don’t matter anyway, who cares if I…[insert your most easily rationalized selfish choice].” Once we start down that road, many things previously unimaginable become possible, restrained solely at the discretion of our whims or our unwillingness to face possible consequences.* Imagine for a moment how many marriages have ended and how many children have been abandoned because someone simply decided, “It doesn’t matter whether I stay or go. Not really. Not in the big picture. I might as well do what I want.”
Oddly, paradoxically, the same destructive line of thinking can also feel freeing.** Perfectionists have notoriously narrow vision when driving themselves insane: “I must get this right!” Why must we? Those seminary papers I stressed and sweated over, I did get “A’s” on most of them, but were they all, always, worth the price I paid? Had I hit “save,” closed my books, printed, and gone to bed for six hours instead of staying up all night, even knowing that I would likely get a “B” anyway, would the world—or even my world—have collapsed? Here I’m reflecting on a time I was very driven, based on the belief that I had to do that…or…what? Well, I think I would not have gotten the perfect ministry positions, lived the ideal life, and had God love me more than anyone else who ever lived except Jesus. You can see why I stressed over these things.
Again, there are other arguments for doing our best, seeking excellence in our calling, as a student or a pastor or mom or dad or President. But if we allow ourselves, remembering the big picture can let us off some pretty gnarly hooks of our own making. Can I say, “This project I’m working on does not merit wrecking my health and neglecting my family because in the big picture, I’m just a guy doing a project” without slipping down the slope of “Come to think of it, nothing I do matters because I’m just a puny guy doing a meaningless project?”
A faith position, simply stated, is “We matter to God.” Amazing. Almighty God, creator of the universe, infinite and unsearchable (we can’t wrap our minds around Them), thinks fondly of you and cares about your day, about your breakfast, about your child’s crisis that you can’t solve. Believe it and your life changes. Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so–and the fog lifts. I can see ahead of me, I can see purpose, I can measure my actions and even measure the values behind my actions. I can read Jesus’ words and talk to Jesus and get input from people who embody Jesus’ values and spirit of love. His holy Spirit, in other imperfect people.
This will sound like a leap, but hang with me.
I live next to poverty. Poor families live across the street and sometimes share their food with us. That’s humbling (and it’s wrong to say “no.”) We hire them to do work we could do ourselves because we can afford to and sometimes that money they earn means that they eat and can feed their children.
I come back from a neighborhood where people never have enough to a place where people always do. These are the same world but sometimes we refer to them as separate worlds because they contrast each other to such an extreme and, maybe, because that allows for less responsibility toward that other “world.” Perhaps.
I like it here. I like the conveniences. I like Grocery Outlet where I can buy all the neat-healthy-organic stuff (and some not-so-healthy) at big discounts. I like roads that don’t tear my car apart. I like breathing cleaner air. I like filling a cup from any faucet and not wondering what parasites I’m drinking.
As I just told someone last night, in Nicaragua I always think about what others don’t have; in the States, I always think about what others have.
Here comes the make-you-uncomfortable part.
I could just keep quiet about this. After all, we’re able to do much of what we do because people here share their resources with us. By the end of our U.S. visit I’ll have a large running tally of how many different vehicles I’ve driven here, none of which belong to, nor are rented, by us. Our friends and family and church “cousins” lavish upon us and I gain weight. Every year in my six +/- weeks in the U.S., I gain weight, as does most every missionary who comes back for a visit.
But we matter to God, so I’m talking about this.
We matter to God, and so do my neighbors who can’t afford adequate dental care.
What I do does matter. It matters if I’m faithful to Kim. My choice to love or neglect my kids matters. Whether I work at something that builds God’s Kingdom or hurts other people matters. In fact, this all matters so much, in the eyes of an infinite God who cares about sparrows and pygmy shrews and babies with Dandy-Walker Syndrome, that we have to talk about grace right here, before we go any further.
Grace means so many things and covers so many things, but in this context it means we can make choices with our resources without torturing ourselves because we know God understands and allows for our mistakes. And our selfishness. We know God accepts our efforts to be faithful with what we have and forgives our failures to be faithful and just and merciful with all that we have. Grace here means God loves us even when we care too much for ourselves and not enough for others, too much about our comfort and not enough (or at all) about their suffering.
Like I said, I could have skipped this. It would be more comfortable, and less judgy-sounding, for me to thank everyone for all that they give us and keep my mouth shut about responsibility. It’s nice to think, “We are generous folk who share some of what we have with the the needy and less fortunate.” Does grace mean however much or little we decide to share, that’s good enough for God? Or that God doesn’t really care how much we share of what we have, as long as in our hearts we’re not “too attached” to it? I’m going to say, “no” and “no.”
Being here, in the U.S., now makes me uncomfortable. Don’t get me wrong, I like it, and I expect that sooner or later I will live here again. But I feel the discord. Play three notes together on a piano and then add a fourth that hurts when played with the others, that harmonizes badly. Discord.
So what am I to do? I matter to God and I’m one person among a whole mess of people. Both are true. The former matters more than the latter in terms of how I think eternity will go for me or for any of us. These are real questions I’m asking: Do we spend too much on our cars, our toys, our selves? As others have suggested, is spending all our money on our families another form of selfishness? Might being “responsible” by investing everything so there’s nothing “left” to give not equal being responsible in God’s Kingdom?
I don’t feel important when I say these things, like I’m going to make any splash or ripple. I certainly don’t feel like I know exactly how to be faithful with our money. But I do feel responsible to say them, anyway: God cares about other people, not just us, and God gave us all the money we have, all the wealth, all our possessions. It’s no argument how hard you or I worked for them; that is not the discussion, because they are God’s resources, entrusted to us (when Jesus tells the parable, the master sends the slaves and entrusts them with his money, not the slaves’ money) in a world—all one and the same world—in which some children will go hungry tonight. And tomorrow night.
I don’t know what we’re supposed to do, but I know we’re supposed to do something. I know Jesus well enough to know that much for sure. I’m doing what I know to do, imperfectly, relying on grace like a tightrope walker over a chasm with a net strung across—grace catches me or I’m dead when I fall—and part of what I’m to do is live among people suffering poverty and talk to others about it. Talk to you about it.
So I’m sorry if you feel uncomfortable now, yet I hope you choose that over dismissing me. You might be pouring out all the resources God sends your way, doing the best drink pitcher imitation there is. I don’t know. I’m not judging or comparing. But I am saying this: only if we see a brother or sister in need and do something for them can we say that God’s love dwells in us.*** I don’t think the variable here was the seeing people in need, but the response to them in their need.
Holy Spirit of Jesus, guide our steps. Guide our thoughts. Guide our giving, especially of ourselves.
**And if we’re bad at foreseeing or grasping consequences, we’re in serious trouble.
**I’m not going to delve into whether walking away from all commitments and life responsibilities is a form of freedom. One big, angsty question at a time.
*** “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?” I John 3:17. Rhetorical question. It doesn’t.