When Best Intentions aren't Good Enough
Dodge a bus and cross the busy Waikiki Way, head southeast on Westlands Road and then turn left on Chiromo Lane, and there I would find the blind man. Rain or shine, early morning or late afternoon, I could count on him being in the same place. He was a beggar in one of Nairobi, Kenya’s largest business districts, the Westlands. I worked a few streets over at a large international organization, and every time I passed this man, my internal battle began anew. "Give a few coins to him or just say hello," my conscience told me. "Don’t give anything to a street beggar," my training and wearied humanitarian experience answered back.
By this point in my life, I had worked almost two years with nonprofits and vulnerable people groups. I had read all the books about aid and mission work, and which I was pretty convinced had all the answers. Kenya is a country with a complex colonial history and the last thing I wanted to do was give to a beggar on the street. My true motivations had little do with how this man would receive or use my help. I told myself instead that I should be conservative in helping because of what it would mean to everyone else on that busy street if they witnessed an American girl in business casual giving to a Kenyan beggar. They would question my intentions, they would be unsure of why I gave, and so for their sake, I needed to be careful in how I gave. Yet even this concern didn’t really have those busy businessmen and shopkeepers in mind. At the heart of the issue was my own pride and self-worth, my own ability to prove either how compassionate or how thoughtful I was. I would do anything to not appear as though I had the wrong intentions.
Sin's Double Whammy
Yet there is no escape from wrong intentions for “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer 17:9). At some level, either deep down inside or bubbling to the top, helping someone else always comes with both the desire to credit ourselves while keeping this reality at bay. That’s a double whammy of sin: not only do we have selfish desires, we have deceitful hearts that work to convince us we are at least more righteous than the next guy. This doesn’t mean an attempt to help the other can’t truly help—it certainly can. But even if all we want is the smallest sliver of praise, notice, or attention, we must admit that this is not good, undoubtedly not good enough to save us from the rest of our sin.
Jesus is the only person who would have been able to walk down that same, dusty and hot Nairobi road, look that blind man in the eye and perfectly give him whatever he needed. And because He could love perfectly, we must see Him as more than a simple example for how to live our lives. Jesus’ perfection shows us that we are neither perfect nor capable of such. He uncovers our ‘little-l’ laws for what they truly are: attempts to dissuade ourselves from the true depths of our inabilities through rudimentary attempts to make His perfect, good Law doable. This perfectly lived life not only reveals us for who we truly are, but who we are made to be in Christ. In Christ we are made righteous, perfect and fruitful. “You did not choose me,” He tells us, “but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you” (John 15:16). It’s Christ Who redeems our ragged works for His good, and Who continues to carry out His plan despite our mind tricks and dishonesty.
The love of the Savior inevitably turns us outward to our neighbor, and here we have the freedom to give generously, give thoughtfully, give spontaneously, or give sustainably. His forgiveness gives us the courage to watch out for our neighbor in both the present and the future, and to act with wisdom while understanding failures are still ahead. “A Christian man who lives in confidence towards God knows all things, can do all things, ventures everything that needs to be done and does everything gladly and willingly, not that he may gather merits and good works, but because it is a pleasure for him to please God in doing these things,” says Luther.
I don’t know if I should have helped that blind beggar or not. But what I do know is that my rationale for not helping him was based primarily on how the outcome would make me look, not on how it could actually help or hinder my neighbor. Thankfully, Christ’s forgiveness points me back to Him and away from even the best of my intentions.