They knew not how, men trusted in him. When
He spoke, his word had all the force of deeds
That lay unsaid within him. To be good
Is more than holy words or definite acts;
Embodying itself unconsciously
In simple forms of human helpfulness,
And understanding of the need that prays.
And when he read the weary tales of crime,
And wretchedness and white-faced children, sad
With hunger, and neglect, and cruel words,
He would walk sadly for an afternoon,
With head down-bent, and pondering footstep slow;
And to himself conclude: “The best I can
For the great world, is, just the best I can
For this my world. The influence will go
In widening circles to the darksome lanes
In London’s self.” When a philanthropist
Said pompously: “With your great gifts you ought
To work for the great world, not spend yourself
On common labours like a common man;”
He answered him: “The world is in God’s hands.
This part he gives to me; for which my past,
Built up on loves inherited, hath made
Me fittest. Neither will He let me think
Primaeval, godlike work too low to need,
For its perfection, manhood’s noblest powers
And deepest knowledge, far beyond my gifts.
And for the crowds of men, in whom a soul
Cries through the windows of their hollow eyes
For bare humanity, and leave to grow,-
Would I could help them! But all crowds are made
Of individuals; and their grief, and pain,
And thirst, and hunger, all are of the one,
Not of the many. And the power that helps
Enters the individual, and extends
Thence in a thousand gentle influences
To other hearts. It is not made one’s own
By laying hold of an allotted share
Of general good divided faithfully.
Now here I labour whole upon the place
Where they have known me from my childhood up.
I know the individual man; and he
Knows me. If there is power in me to help,
It goeth forth beyond the present will,
Clothing itself in very common deeds
Of any humble day’s necessity:
I would not always consciously do good;
Not always feel a helper of the men,
Who make me full return for my poor deeds
(Which I must do for my own highest sake,
If I forgot my brethren for themselves)
By human trust, and confidence of eyes
That look me in the face, and hands that do
My work at will -’tis more than I deserve.
But in the city, with a few lame words,
And a few scanty handfuls of weak coin,
Misunderstood, or, at the best, unknown,
I should toil on, and seldom reach the man.
And if I leave the thing that lieth next,
To go and do the thing that is afar,
I take the very strength out of my deed,
Seeking the needy not for pure need’s sake.”
Thus he. The world-wise schemer for the good
Held his poor peace, and left him to his way.
This poem, excerpted from a much longer work by George MacDonald, has to do with an intellectually gifted young Scot who turned his back on a prestigious academic career to return to his aging father and to the family farm, there to engage in “simple forms of human helpfulness.” What a waste,” a world–wise schemer lamented and “left him to his way.”
So you too may serve in some unnoticed, hidden place, doing nothing more than “very common deeds / Of any humble day’s necessity.” Others may ask, “Why this waste?”
God wastes nothing. Every act of love, no matter how minute, rendered to him, is noted and has eternal consequences. Every place, no matter how small and humble is holy ground.
But, you ask, what of the world? I too “read the weary tales of crime, / And wretchedness and white-faced children, sad / With hunger, and neglect, and cruel words.” What can I do to bring salvation to the world?
The best I can for the great world, is the best I can do for this my world. My influence on my small part of the world will go where God determines it will go. “And the power that helps / Enters the individual, and extends / Thence in a thousand gentle influences / To other hearts.”
Influence is more than high and “holy words and definite acts.” It’s a simple matter—often an unconscious matter—of human helpfulness: being there, listening, understanding the need, loving and praying. This is what turns daily duty into worship and service. There is no greater spiritual work and no greater influence than that of a gentle, caring, unselfish servant of God.
Evelyn Underhill has written, “Among the things which we should regard as spiritual in this sense are our household or professional work, the social duties of our station, friendly visits, kind actions and small courtesies, and also necessary recreation of body and of mind, so long as we link all these by intention with God and the great movement of his Will…”
We must see that “our small action is part of the total action of God.” In other words, every small action, done for Jesus’ sake, is part of God’s larger work to save the world. “All may of Thee partake: / Nothing can be so mean (small) / Which with his tincture, ‘for Thy sake,’ / Will not grow bright and clean. / A servant with this clause / Makes drudgery divine; / Who sweeps a room as for Thy laws / Makes that and th' action fine.”
Having “swept,” however, we should then forget the consequences of our actions. Consequences are God’s business. Our task is the duty of the moment, whether we experience success or heartbreaking failure. “Every man proclaims his own goodness, but a faithful man who can find?” the wise man mused, lamenting the strange dearth of that simple, noble virtue.
I think of the Father’s words to Jesus at his baptism: “This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.” What had Jesus done for the past thirty years? He had not worked one miracle, preached a single sermon or done any of the mighty works we normally associate with greatness. Yet, he gained his Father’s unqualified acceptance.
Recently, a friend sent these words, “During the past few months, I’ve struggled to make sense of what feels like a shrinking vision for my life. I once aspired to greatness—not great in the sense of being President or world famous but great in the sense of dreaming and attempting great things for God… More and more, I’m content to stay close to home. Content to preach to the faithful flock entrusted to my care and who love me more deeply than I deserve. Content to leave the reformation of denominational culture to others gifted in that area. Content with a shrinking sphere of influence. The uncharacteristic contentment baffles me. I’ve wondered if… Jesus still considers me faithful.” He does, my friend. “Well done thou good and faithful servant.”
So, for those of us who wonder where we are to begin, we must begin where we are: by loving those nearest to us and giving human help where it’s most needed, whether our lives are filled with mundane duties, or matters of international concern. “Who is my neighbor,” the rich man asked Jesus, to which our Lord responded with the parable of the Good Samaritan, and its unexpected answer: The very next person I meet.