A father and his young daughter entered the shopping area, both anticipating good times about to be had. It was the kind of place designed to dazzle the senses and encourage those passing by to pause, look, and linger; perhaps even carefully pick up an item while considering whether or not to give it a new home. It was also one of those stores where you walk carefully lest you bump something fragile from the shelf and learn firsthand the meaning of “You break it, you buy it.” As you can imagine, as tempting as such a setting can be for adults, for some children this is a fantasy playground. So many new things begging to be discovered and touched – how can one resist?
The exchange overheard as the pair arrived suggested the little girl had a history, plus lot of energy and that the morning had already produced a bit of strain for the two. As they crossed the threshold into the area, the father was speaking in a calm manner, constructively conveying his expectations. “Now we need to be on our best behavior while we are here, do you understand? So, let’s not run and don’t touch the merchandise, okay? Your hands need to stay at your side. Can they do that?” The girl shook her head in the affirmative, indicating that she comprehended the request. She promised that she would abide by this request. Then, two steps further along their journey she asked in an honest and worried tone, “Daddy, I know I promised, but what if my hands lied?”
I had to bite my lip to keep from laughing out loud. I’ve caught my hand in the cookie jar enough to know you can’t always trust them. Here’s a young person who knows herself pretty well. She is familiar with her track record and already senses the challenges about to be faced as she enters this unexplored territory with all its beckoning treasures. She understands the tests she (and we) so often faces. Her reaction reminded me of words from the New Testament book of Romans, where Paul deserves some respect for his honesty:
“. . . for I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do. Instead, I keep on doing the things I do not want to do. And if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.” Romans 7:18-20.
It some ways Paul’s words remind me of life at our house, where “things” just happen but no one claims responsibility. This is presumably because if it wasn’t done intentionally then it wasn’t we who did it but rather someone/something else. Paul calls it sin; we usually blame our cats. It helps avoid an admission of guilt and is easier on the marriage! I can’t speculate about the child’s understanding of a concept like sin, but she clearly understood the reality of losing the internal struggle to do the good that was asked of her. Absent a pet to serve as the fall guy, she identified her hand as the culprit as though it operated with a will of its own. Where would we be without the ability to shift blame elsewhere?!
In the innocence of that exchange between father and child, there flashed before me the predicament that afflicts so many interactions and exchanges on a regular basis. To know the good, but feel incapable of doing it; even worse, to be unable to do the things one wants to do. I have a similar experience every time I try to stare down an opened bag of M&Ms. I have no idea if they would melt in my hand or not because they never stay there long enough to find out. I desire not to eat them, but don’t bet the house on that outcome.
In some cases, the good is an easy choice to make. Like a few days ago when a street vendor returned $1 too much with my change. I double counted the change and verified the amount due. Without hesitation I returned the overpayment. Sure, the stakes were low in that exchange but I’d like to think that is a lesson that has been deeply planted in my soul and that such a response is automatic. Fair is fair. Treat others as you’d like to be treated, whether it is $1 or $100.
Sometimes, doing that which is a good is a struggle even if we are intellectually committed to the idea. That can be the case when the right choice requires some sacrifice. Sacrifice is demanding. It takes away. No wonder, then, if one experiences a moment of hesitation in deciding how to respond. “Am I willing to do with less? Can I endure the pain this may cause me? Does this sacrifice leave me feeling wronged or taken advantage of?” I have a hunch that is one reason so many discussions that focus on equality and justice issues encounter resistance. The reaction against a perceived loss overpowers any openness to change for the betterment of the other.
The greater struggle with doing that which is good, though, is that on occasion the “good” isn’t so clear. I realize there are those who think most everything in life is cut and dry, black and white, but when I put myself in someone else’s shoes, so to speak, I find solutions can become more complicated. This past week, a strange vehicle pulled into our drive and out jumped two college aged students whom I didn’t know. I met them at the door where I discovered they hoped to make a sale. I never decided if they were legit or if the whole thing was a scam. I was greeted with a statement, “You must be the dad of this house.” We have no children so I am no dad. “We’re selling educational resources for children.” As I said, I have no children. “Perhaps you have a favorite niece or nephew you’d like to buy these for.” I don’t have a favorite, plus they are all too old for these materials. “The money we raise will help with ministry and mission work we hope to do over the summer. One half goes to the mission and one half covers my expenses.” His eyes lit up when I explained that my wife and I are both ministers and could respect that kind of commitment, thinking he’d found a connection. But I still wasn’t interested in purchasing the materials. He quicky made an exchange, pulling another book from his backpack. “Perhaps you’d like to buy this National Geographic Bible Atlas to use in your ministry.” I explained that my doctorate was in Biblical Studies, so I already possessed all the atlases that I needed. I shared that it wasn’t that I didn’t value the work he was describing, but I preferred to support causes of which I had better knowledge. Plus, I like to know more about the intent and the method of mission work, as I believe some do more harm than good. He finally accepted that no sale was to be had at this address. I wished him well as he returned to his car.
Sometimes the greater challenge can be to make a decision without allowing guilt, manipulation, or persistence to drive the outcome. Was there only one good decision in this case? I’ll reserve judgment on that, and only know that there was no inner nudge for me to contribute to this cause. Life can get even more complicated. Is it a good thing to buy from a store that on the one hand makes goods more affordable so that low-income families have access to a higher quality of life, but on the other hand squeezes vendors’ profits and underpays staff? Or is it good to pay taxes as part of being a responsible citizen when so many utilize loopholes to avoid paying their share and a sizable portion of what is paid funds programs and practices with which I have issue? The path toward doing good is not always well-marked.
Given various headlines that come our way, I sometimes wonder if much of the world has forsaken any semblance of a moral conscience. The ability to take advantage of others for self-advancement or other ulterior motives is commonplace. Lying hands, the cats, sin, or whoever/whatever redirects our actions complicate our commitment, leaving us to shift blame to explain or justify things. That is a frequent cycle in life. But it is precisely there that each day we encounter the opportunity to choose the good as best we understand it, and in doing so participate in the important work of bettering the world. I believe that is fundamentally the work to which God calls us all.. . . Or at least that is the story my hand is writing today.