Sunday, August 29, 2010

There's Fish, and There's Bait

Announce to the family that tonight's dish is fish, and the response is, "Okay."

But announce instead that you are serving minnows, and the response will be even less enthusiastic. Why? Because even your grade-school child knows the difference between food and bait.

A brother on a discussion board was asking the most common question known to organized Christianity: "How do we get more people to come to church?" And it got me to thinking, even as I was quick to recommend some form of service to the community. Question: If we choose to do good for our neighbors, is our intent important? If we offer to feed the neighborhood, does it matter whether we are using this as an inducement to church attendance or as simple altruism?

In a word, yes. It's the difference between serving fish and serving bait.

Jesus castigated the Pharisees for doing good works "to be seen of men". And we readily join Him in that criticism. But really, how different was the Pharisee's motivation from that of the average religion club? Is it really all that different when we hold children's events at our club in hopes of attracting that prize of demographics-- "young families with children"? Here, we are certainly not doing our good works in secret, but are hoping that the recipients of our efforts will "reward us openly" with attendance and cash in the offering plate. But since we are concurrently blessing someone else, we excuse our self-interest.

I wonder if this is the kind of activity contemplated when Jesus told of people telling God, "Did we not in your name do many wonderful works?" only to hear Him reply, "I don't know you." Perhaps the people were telling the truth. But God sees through to the intents of the heart.

In Latin, the question is "Cui bono?" That is, "Who benefits?" When we ask how to get something WE want, and the answer is to serve others, this is charity in service to self. We are the intended beneficiaries, the people we serve merely participants who will hopefully help us get what we want. But it is quite easy to claim that we are truly being altruistic. Sometimes we even believe it. But here's a simple test:

The next time your group plans a service to others, ask honestly if you can do it without anyone giving credit to your group. Real service can almost always be done this way. If you find yourselves having difficulty imagining a work of service wherein you get no credit, that should be a serious warning sign about the intentions of your charitable endeavors.

Doing our good works in secret is hard because we are so accustomed to putting our faces - or the name of our club - on the front of everything. We don't even think of it as self-serving. It's so common as to be invisible. Individuals seem to be able to serve selflessly, but organizations find it almost impossible. Here's an out-of-the-box question to kick around in your group, as you look at working in your community: "How can we bless somebody and not get caught at it?" If you can do that, know that your Father will reward you openly.

A good question to ask about a work of service: Would you do this in a dark room, where no one could see, and where no one would ever know? And before you quickly say, "Yes!" to the question, examine how often your group has done such things in the past. Often, such an honest self-appraisal leads to a lot of prayer. And change.

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