Serving God in a world full of needs

Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary. So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith. –Galatians 6:9-10

We all know Christians are called to serve. In fact, loving service is so integral to the Christian walk that James said “Faith without works is dead,” and Jesus declared that the distinguishing characteristic of His people in the day of judgment would be that “I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.” If you are a Christian, if you have the Holy Spirit living within you, then you have felt the urge to “do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.” But here’s the thing: all people is a lot. Anyone who takes the time to look will find needs and opportunities for service stretching far beyond our ability to help and give. It is quite simply overwhelming.

Personally, at various times I have served or had opportunities to serve as a guardian ad litem for children in the foster care system, with an afternoon program for at-risk youth, as a leader in a Christian debate league, with a church ministry at a local nursing home, as a counselor for boyfriends and husbands at a crisis pregnancy center, as a sidewalk counselor with a pro-life organization, as a Sunday School teacher at church; plus opportunities to advance the Kingdom through writing and speaking in different venues; plus the usual assortment of opportunities to minister to family, friends, and neighbors, and of course the responsibility to glorify God through good work at my job.

I would love to throw myself wholeheartedly into service in every one of those ways, but I simply cannot. I just do not have the resources: time, money, etc. And God knows that. He’s the one who put twenty-four hours in a day, after all, and allotted a certain number of those days to me to do His work. Our Father has created a world in which our resources are limited and tradeoffs are necessary. Perhaps that’s part of the reason why the parable of the talents includes not only a contrast between the servant who invested his talents well and the servant who didn’t, but a contrast between the servant who received five talents–and along with them the responsibility to invest five talents well–and the servant who received only two talents–and the responsibility to invest two talents well. God is reminding us that our responsibility corresponds to our ability.

In the face of a seemingly endless vista of need, this is the most important thing to remember: that the big picture is God’s responsibility and He is, in His timing and in His way, making all things new. Meanwhile, our responsibility is to be faithful where we are, with what we have. Peter tells us we are “living stones… being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” We are not architects. We are stones. Someday we will see the whole beautiful building and marvel at a design into which we fit perfectly, but for now the murk of earthly life is too thick to catch more than a glimpse here and there. But that’s okay. We are stones. Rather than worrying about whether we approve of the architect’s grand design, our job is to flourish (we are living stones, after all) where he placed us.

But maybe that doesn’t seem very helpful. After all, we just said that God put all of us in places where the possibilities for service exceed the resources He gave us. It’s well and good to say “serve where you’re placed,” but when I have one single evening and a lonely neighbor who needs a visit, a child who needs time with Daddy, a spiritual struggle that needs lengthy prayer, and a project from work that needs to be completed, “serve where you’re placed” doesn’t quite offer the help I need.

I wish there was some simple answer for this sort of dilemma. But there isn’t. (Before going on, it is worth noting that the ubiquity of such challenges tells us they must bring with them some good. Otherwise our Father who works all things together for good for His children would not distribute them so freely.) Instead of a simple answer, the right thing to do will depend on the whole sprawling array of pieces that make up an individual life. No single thing will always take precedence. Sometimes, you need to cut short your Bible reading so you can talk to your spouse. Sometimes you need to cut short your spouse so you can read your Bible. Sometimes you need to put both aside and change the baby’s diaper. There’s no simple and absolute answer. Instead, we have general principles, God-given wisdom, and the Holy Spirit.

Let’s start with the general principles: (1) We should do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith. (2) We have a certain amount of God-given “talents,” that is, time, money, opportunity, and other resources that can be invested in his Kingdom, and the particulars of my responsibility for service flow out of the particulars of my “talents.” The rich man’s financial contribution to charity had better be greater than the poor man’s. The Christian in Miami has a greater responsibility for the homeless of Miami than the homeless of San Francisco–unless God opens a unique door to serve the poor in San Francisco. The man with a family has a different set of responsibilities from the bachelor.

Having laid out our general principles, we need to consider how (2) informs (1). What should I do today? This is where prayer for wisdom and the guidance of the Holy Spirit is so critical. That might just be the most important sentence I’ve written here, and you probably just blew right by it, just like I would have if I was reading this, nodding my head because of course that’s true and I know that and let’s get on to the practical stuff. So I’m going to say it again: This is where prayer for wisdom and the guidance of the Holy Spirit is so critical. James 4:2 says, “You do not have because you do not ask.” In the practical nitty-gritty details of the Christian walk, few things are as important as wisdom, and we will not have if we do not ask.

Okay, so we’ve prayed, really prayed, for wisdom. And for good measure, we’ve asked fellow believers for advice, because two heads are better than one, especially when both are indwelt by the Holy Spirit. So what now? Well, there’s a short-term answer and a long-term answer. In the short term, if we remember we can’t do everything and that everything isn’t our responsibility anyway, there will probably be something that stands out as what Elisabeth Elliot called “the next thing”: not a game plan for the rest of our life, but the thing that ought to be done right now. The more we pray and study the Word and abide in our God, the better we’ll get at identifying the next right thing, but it’s important that we don’t agonize over whether or not we got it exactly right. If God can use the wickedness of sinners like Joseph’s brothers, Judas Iscariot, and even the entire Babylonian empire to accomplish his purposes, He can probably handle things if you accidentally put priority number two in first place. So do the next right thing, then do the next right thing after that.We often wish that God would tell us what we are supposed to do. Well, He did. He gave you a next right thing.

We need to be careful to avoid an entirely short-term view, however. True wisdom looks to the future as well. Our choices now affect the time, resources, and opportunities we will have for doing good later on. If I have a job which consumes all my time and keeps me from loving my family and serving my community, I should seriously and prayerfully consider whether there might be some better way I can fulfill my responsibility to provide for my family. If I spend hours a day watching television or playing video games, the short-term answer is to Turn That Thing Off, but I should also strategize about how to create new opportunities to better invest my time, because otherwise I’ll simply default back onto the couch when nothing magically appears to fill the opening I’ve created in my schedule. If our ability to advance the Kingdom of God is conditioned by our resources and opportunities, it’s only prudent to ask what we can do in the long run to maximize those resources and opportunities.

Then, do the next right thing.

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