I know I’m supposed to do the right thing, even when nobody but God would see. But sometimes I just want a little credit. I want someone to say, “Hey, I saw that. Good for you.” I want to be one of the good guys, who defeats the evil gunslinger in the black hat and rides off into the sunset with the undying thanks of a grateful town (feel free to substitute your own cinematic metaphors, young Padawan).
A small example. A few days ago, I received a shipment from Amazon. (There’s still a part of me that reacts like a little kid whenever I receive a package with my name on it–even if I paid for it.) Because I order books so regularly, I don’t always remember what I ordered, and have to open the package to find out. Curiously, they had sent me a duplicate copy of a book I had just received two days earlier.
So I did a little online sleuthing to find out what happened. Somehow, a second order had been generated. Normally, I would have suspected that it was my mistake, the inexplicable result of one of my occasional mental fogs. But the second order was paid for by a phantom gift certificate that I didn’t own. And it couldn’t have been a gift from someone else, since the order was made using my account. All very mysterious–but clearly not my error.
I believe I would have been within my legal rights to have kept the book; it was their mistake, and it cost me nothing. But the legally permissible thing to do isn’t always the right thing to do.
Besides, it was a book on the theology of Paul. Talk about your mental conflicts.
I clicked through all the automated website helps for returning a book. They asked for the reason for the return. “Damaged”? No. “Sent wrong book”? Well, not exactly. “Changed my mind and don’t need it anymore”? Definitely not. But “You guys messed up and sent me a free book by mistake” wasn’t one of the choices.
The site allowed me to print out a postage-paid shipping label for the return; all I had to do was pack up the book and drop it off with UPS. In all honesty, I felt a twinge of annoyance at even this small inconvenience. So I found a place to type an additional note to Amazon, explaining the situation more fully, and hoping that there would be an actual person at the other end who would read it and acknowledge, “Oops, sorry. Our bad. Thanks for being so honest.”
If I move over on the freeway to let motorcyclists pass safely, I want them to wave in acknowledgment. If cashiers give me too much change and I hand it back, I want them to smile and say “Thanks!” instead of looking at me like I’m an intergalactic alien with six heads.
Now really, is that too much to ask? It’s not unreasonable. It would be nice if people returned kindness with gratitude.
But the deeper question is, how much do I want or need others to notice that I’m one of the good guys?
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says this:
Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. (Matthew 6:1-6, NIV)
Me, blow a trumpet to draw attention to myself? Never in a million years. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t covet being honored by others. And I can’t pray in public without some part of me wondering what other people will think. Do I sound authentic or ostentatious? Humble or arrogant? Spontaneous or canned?
Lord, help me…
I don’t want to fall into the individualistic trap of saying that I should only “play to an audience of One.” God has put us in community. Spirituality is not a strictly private affair; what I say and do in the presence of others matters. But the litmus test is whose approval I seek. The applause of my fellow humans is the more immediate payoff, while waiting in secret on God’s reward may require a patience that points beyond my lifetime (e.g., Heb 11:13-16).
I want to be one of the good guys, and to be in the kind of story where the good guys always win. There’s only two problems with that. First, we live in a world in which the good guys sometimes get shot. Or crucified.
That can be hard enough to accept. But second, there’s also this: “There is only One who is good” (Matt 19:17, NIV).
There’s one real hero to the story, and it isn’t me. At best, perhaps, I get to be the oafish sidekick, that sometimes bumbles into doing the right thing, and only because I’ve been hanging around the hero long enough to mimic his ways a bit.
Bottom line: if there is any good in me that is worthy of the name, it is because of the righteousness of Jesus Christ, infused into me by the gracious gift of his Spirit. And that gift alone–that stunning, undeserved mercy–is worth infinitely more than any human words of approval or appreciation. The latter, of course, would still be nice; we should celebrate, even in small ways, what good we find.
But that should point us to the real cause for celebration: when we deserved to be run right out of Dodge, the One who is good deputized us instead.