Knowing the Roots of Service

By: Tim Ritter

This is Part 4 in a series entitled Wisdom For Charity. We want to love our neighbors well, especially the poor, so we’ve pursued wisdom, even if it challenges our common approaches to charity.

We’ve called Proverbs a User’s Guide to the Good Life because its wisdom teaches what life ought to be. Wisdom begins by painting the big picture, answering what is the meaning of life and why are we here? Subsequently, it explains how we then shall live. It teaches the ends and then the means of life, recognizing we cannot live a good life until we know what life is for, because purpose determines goodness. 

Tim Keller makes this point with an example of a wristwatch: If you use a Rolex to hammer a nail and the watch breaks, that doesn’t mean it’s a bad watch. Watches aren’t made to drive nails. But if it looks nice and tells the time, then it’s a good watch. Similarly, the good life is simply one lived as purposed. 

Since to love is to will the good of another, true charity then is helping others to fulfill their life purpose. 

Consider: What is the purpose of life?

Your answer determines the effects of your charity, because you inevitably steer others toward your philosophy of the good life, your idea of success, and away from your notion of poverty, or failure. 

In the West, we’re conditioned to see success in terms of material comfort. A chicken in every pot and a two-car garage on every lot – that’s our good life. So we define poverty as a lack of material goods and treat people accordingly: Sending trillions of dollars to Africa; giving thousands of San Francisco’s homeless free housing; traveling to Mexico to build houses and paint schools; toy drives; food pantries; clothes bins. Material means to a material end.

But consider the most practical sentence in history from the world’s smartest man: For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?

To Jesus, material stuff isn’t the priority. Soul stuff is. Success in life isn’t primarily material. Therefore, neither are our problems. The world’s real poverty is deeper, more spiritual. Material needs are real and valid, but food, clothes, and shelter are lesser goods. Acquiring them doesn’t make you happy or holy, only comfortable. They don’t add up to a good life, let alone one set for eternity. In fact, get enough stuff and you actually forget what life even is (If you don’t believe me, read Brave New World). But, this is a false cure based on a misdiagnosis. We can’t save the world with our stuff. It’s like trying to help a struggling co-worker by giving him a new set of pens. It misses the point. Hope for the poor isn’t primarily material. This thinking fails to address the heart of poverty and leads to all kinds of toxic charity.

In Christ’s words, “this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3).

And according to the Westminster Catechism, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”

This is success.

And ultimately, poverty is its absence, a lack of glorifying God and inability to enjoy him forever.

As Thomas Merton said, “We are not at peace with each other because we are not at peace with ourselves, and we are not at peace with ourselves because we are not at peace with God.”

So, again, what is your barometer of success? Is it culture’s idea of material profit or Christ’s notion of eternal life?

If you want to help the poor and serve your neighbors, understand life. Learn what it’s for. Put the checklists and guidelines aside and uncover the big picture. Study the potential of a soul and know why God created us in the first place. The key to loving others well is rightly understanding the good life. 

It matters greatly, for example, that our neighbor Jonah is homeless and often hungry. But, it matters more that he’s alone, without community or family, at odds with God and himself. He will be cold tonight and that should break and compel our hearts. But the realization that he is not living as an eternal, beloved child of God should nearly crush us under its weight. 

As we look around our city, let us say, like Paul, “from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view” (2 Cor 5:18).

In closing, consider C.S. Lewis’ words from The Weight of Glory:

“The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long, we are in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations- these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit- immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously- no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner- no mere tolerance, or indulgence, which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.”

Read our other three posts here: Wisdom for Charity