Sometimes I get a lump in my throat when I’m with my children. I look at their chubby limbs and am fortunate that my family has never known hunger; I hold them as they cry over a skinned knee and feel grateful they’ve never felt worse; I talk through a playground fight, thinking how lucky we are to live without fear of oppression.
Most women reading this blog are part of the global and historical fraction of women with access to education, free speech, first-world medical care, and enfranchisement. It’s good to be a Western, 21st century woman and mother.
A few days ago, I scrolled through images of Syrian refugees clutching children, babies, some of them, as they made the dangerous, weary way to a better life. They are helpless, desperate, and vulnerable. I sometimes wonder how I would respond to the hardships so many women have faced: childbearing and illness before modern medicine, war on my doorstep, oppression, hunger, and so on.
For the vast majority of the day, though, I forget my great good fortune. “First world problems,” I joke to my husband as my toddler throws his dinner on the floor or my preschooler refuses the third dress in her closet lineup.
If you’re anything like me, you might wallow in guilt when you remember how lucky you are… and then carry on with life as if wallowing was penance enough for ending up on the winning end of disparity.
But here’s the question that tends to circle in my head: what do we, as Christian women of the developed world, owe the world? It is not a comfortable question. I have nice stuff, and I like having it, but at times I wonder if I should have it when so many others don’t. I like my easy life, but should I enjoy it if most people aren’t?
Maybe we’ve read, with a squirm, Mark 10 about a young Jewish man who approaches Jesus and asks, “Good Teacher, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?” When Jesus tells him he ought to keep the commandments, the man replies that he’s kept them all his life. The Lord’s response: “One thing you lack: go, sell whatever you have, and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me, taking up the cross” (Mark 10:21). The young man goes away sad because he has many possessions.
This passage can throw me into a guilty panic. Is this the recipe for approaching the Lord: liquidating my material goods and distributing the money to those less fortunate? Is it time to become a missionary?
An explanation of the story from The Doctrine of Life helps me think about this story in another way:
It is said that Jesus loved him. This was because he said that he had kept the commandments from his youth. But, because he lacked three things, namely, that he had not removed his heart from riches, that he had not fought against lusts, and that he had not yet acknowledged the Lord to be God, the Lord said that he should sell all that he had, by which is meant that he should remove his heart from riches; that he should bear the cross, by which is meant that he should fight against lusts; and that he should follow Him, by which is meant that he should acknowledge the Lord to be God. (66)
Mark 10 tells us that keeping the commandments is the first priority. But as the passage from The Doctrine of Life points out, that’s not good enough unless we decide that earthly riches aren’t eternally important, that we should be rejecting evil desires, and that the Lord Jesus Christ is God, not just a good teacher or another self-help guru on the shelf, nor just a kindly mortal with revolutionary things to say.
In this story and others like it, I don’t think the Lord criticizes those who are more materially wealthy than others. After all, Joseph and King Solomon received great wealth as a reward for their trust in God. Rather, it’s when the wealth blocks the way to Him that He asks us to set it aside. I would suggest that the Lord is far less interested in our bank accounts and luxury items than He is about our spiritual welfare.
So what is the Lord asking of us? I believe the Lord asks of all of us what he asks of the rich man: to obey His Word, avoid materialism, reject our evil wills, and acknowledge that He is God. He asks sacrifices of us all, but it’s not necessarily giving up our wealth. The young man’s possessions were keeping him from eternal life; it’s up to us to figure out what we need to lay aside. A need to control people? Contempt for others? Prioritizing a career over relationships?
In short, we owe each other our best spiritual effort, doing our best in our daily lives. The Doctrine of Charity points out that the process of examining ourselves and shunning sin is the “first of charity” (1). It may seem counterintuitive: the way we serve others is to invite the Lord to change our lives.
Think of it this way, though. If soldiers strove to be merciful, if teachers resolved not to shame their students, if accountants avoided the urge to fudge the numbers, if spouses shunned situations that tempted them to leave their marriages, think of the peace and prosperity that could bring. The world would be a pretty good place.
Spiritual self-improvement seems like a cop-out from the question I posed, though. How does that dictate what we wealthy, educated Christian women should do with our time and money? My potentially unsatisfactory answer: something. What that something might be is up to us.
At the very least, we owe each other a compassionate and prudent effort. We ought to think of our fellow people as neighbors and to try to help them. We ought to approach any charitable effort we make with wisdom and foresight.
“Charity” has become a disappointingly narrow term. It comes from the Latin for “love for all.” Charity has many faces, and I imagine the Lord loves the variety He sees: a doctor working in an African malaria clinic, a nanny trying to be patient with a grouchy child, a woman tithing part of her income, a retiree serving on a nonprofit board, an elderly woman being kind with her caretakers. (Stay tuned for next week’s article of an interview with a friend of mine who has done and continues to do amazing charitable work.)
I’m not sure our job is any easier than the rich young man’s, but it’s important to remember that the Lord loved him for his effort, just as He loves us. I don’t think He wants us to wear physical or mental hair shirts. His goal for us is eternal happiness, after all. A wise old minister once pointed out, “Guilt is useful. For 30 seconds.”
I can put away what is between me and heavenly life. Freely I have received – care, kindness, education, good health, wealth, talents, time, energy – and freely I can give.