Answering the call to love others even when the results could be negative.
I held a purse over my head and splashed through newly formed puddles between the grocery store and my car. I laughed, and my daughter shrieked. Rain in the desert was a rare joy. She reached the car first then ran in place while she waited for me to unlock the door. I hit the unlock button twice. We simultaneously hopped inside the dry shell. With windshield wipers turned on high I started to drive out of the parking lot. Through the water blurred windshield I observed a woman at the edge of the parking lot trying to lift a cart whose wheels had locked from an anti-theft device installed by stores. Three bags of groceries sat in the basket along with a backpack and a satchel. A large purse and a little dog were in the top seat compartment. Everything was being drenched while she struggled to make the cart move; the shivering dog was pushing against her possessions to try to find shelter.
I felt a nudge in my heart. I looked at my daughter, then at the clock. It was time to fix dinner and get to my book study. I pulled out of the parking lot still watching the woman in my rearview mirror. The rain did not relent over her hunched back. As soon as I turned onto the road I stepped on the gas. Home was only around the corner. I left the motor running when I arrived home and told my daughter to stay in the car. I ran into the garage looking for the umbrella and found it hanging next to the garden tools. I raced back outside, threw the umbrella into the back of the car then drove quickly to the parking lot. The woman was still there. Both my daughter and I ran to her side.
I offered the woman my umbrella. She pointed out she had one already but could not pull on the cart and hold her umbrella too. We tried pulling on the cart with her. It was clear we would not be able to make it across the lot and to the bus stop on the other side of the street where she was headed. Within seconds all of her wet possessions were in the trunk of my car with our unpacked groceries, and her and her dog were sitting quietly in the back seat. When she was settled at the sheltered bus stop across the street she expressed her gratefulness then she told us, “Thank you. I was asking God to help me when you came along.” We raced back to the dry car with tears in our eyes. We never saw her again.
There have been others like her. There was the red headed young man holding a sign near an off ramp on the 51 asking for food. My girls and I were tearful when his face broke into a wide smile as we held a McDonalds bag outside the window for him. Or the young man and his dog who sat outside Fry’s this past winter and how eventually he would look up from his book, make eye contact and smile in return to my smile. An elderly woman in the store who couldn’t get her wheelchair by a store display and needed someone to nudge the cardboard display to the side. I can’t help them all but I am grateful for the the few whose lives intersect with mine.
I hear those nudges to help someone more than I used to. That day in 2013 when I was standing in a coffee shop with a plan to kill myself and God used a cup of coffee to remind me He loved me, my perspective on life began to change. (See “Stopping for Coffee on the way to Death” blog). God used a stranger to simply pay forward a cup of coffee and it changed the course of my life. I never met the person who paid for the coffee so I do not know the reason they chose to do it. That person never knew if I said thank you or if I drank the liquid with delight. They had no idea they helped save a life that day. The good deed was done simply for the sake of doing good.
I have always wanted to make a difference in the world by loving others in need. When my husband and I could not have children we decided to adopt. Ten years ago I held a photograph in my hand of a brother and sister peeking out from behind a palm tree who needed a family. Four years ago my heart tugged again over the photo of a girl living in a shelter. Then two years ago my daughter’s friend came for an overnight and we learned she had nowhere to live.
I was ready to give, to share my life, to love. I wanted to do something of value with my life. Now, looking back and seeing how I struggled with the daily reality of helping someone in need I realized I had expectations I didn’t even know I had; expectations that seemed natural. I was ready to love but I hoped to be loved in return. I was ready to give but to someone who was grateful. I was ready to help if I could make a difference in someone’s future. I became exhausted doing the “right things” because I wasn’t experiencing the “results” or “rewards” I thought would naturally follow. I knew the passage in Matthew 25 but not as well as I thought.
For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers,[f] you did it to me.’
I became exhausted doing the “right things” because I wasn’t experiencing the “results” or “rewards” I thought would naturally follow.
The Bible talks a lot about loving your neighbor, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, helping the orphans and widows but not once does it say to do it when you think they will be grateful or when they will love you in return. We are told to do it because we do it to Him (Matthew 23:35) because it pleases Him (Hebrews 13:16).
My desire to do good was not a bad thing but the burden of what I expected in return led to disappointment, discouragement and heart break. The only reconciliation for the pit I found myself in was to surrender the outcome of my love toward others to God. I had taken ownership of outcomes that did not belong in my control. God had only asked me to love.
Love or good deeds given without expectation of what we receive in return is anti-cultural. As humans we naturally measure the worth of our actions by the outcome. We know we are doing the right thing if there is a measurable positive outcome. A negative outcome means we need to try something different. I love watching youtube videos of people helping others where the recipient is brought to grateful tears or ends up having a completely different future because of the help. I can be brought to tears any day of the week watching these kind of stories. Over the last couple of years I began to ask myself questions that were too embarrassing to voice to anyone else. Questions like, Is it irresponsible to feed a homeless person who maybe hasn’t been responsible? It is a waste of resources to sacrifice personal comfort or finances for someone who is ungrateful? Is it a waste of emotional energy to love a child who cannot or will not love you in return? God had only asked me to love.
Did Jesus hang on the cross knowing he would be rejected? He so loved the world that He gave His only son. He died for everyone but not everyone would love Him in return, and not everyone would be grateful. God reached forward with His love toward us. God tells us when we reach forward to others we are pleasing Him. God has a large plan at work that we only see a small part of. When I release the outcome or what I expect in return to God I gain a greater capacity to love. Whatever God is working out is greater than any expectation I can have.
I still want to make a difference in the world. I still want to be loved by others. By loving others without expectation I AM being a difference in the world. By knowing I am loved by God I can confidently love someone in need. By releasing ownership of the outcome I am able to rest when I am weary from the task, I am able to not grumble when someone is ungrateful, and I am able to give without wondering if my gift will be wisely used. It not about releasing the use of wise decision-making, it’s about releasing the results I cannot control. When I love my children or help a stranger I don’t have to worry about how they may respond. My job is simply to love.
Maybe today I will hear that voice inside nudging me toward helping someone in need outside or someone in need inside my four walls. It might be the answer to someone’s prayer, or it might be God is doing work inside me, or maybe a bit of both. I am free to love without expectation; free to thrive when I have spent my energy on love; free to be grateful when I have given my resources to love; free to love because God loves me.
Author of The Common Hours