The duty of doing good to others, everyone will admit in the abstract; but it is not as uniformly performed as it ought to be, even by professing "christians." There are many discouragements in the way of beneficence, which make some well-disposed people useless members of society, and which partially paralyze the efforts of those who wish and strive to do good.
Το consider and, if possible, to remove a few of these discouragements, and thus to cherish in readers a spirit of active and cheerful benevolence, will be my object in the following essay.
1. The benevolence of many is plagued by doubts as to the expediency of most of the common forms of charity. All will agree that good ought to be done; but hardly any two people agree as to the best way of doing it. One says, "Individual effort is worse than useless. The principle of association lies at the foundation of all effective charity. You must do good with others or you can do nothing."
Another says, "Don't trust the judgment of large groups. The funds of benevolent societies are always either squandered or misspent. If you want to do good, seek out your own objects; and do it yourself.' In the same way, if you attempt a choice between the numerous benevolent projects, you may find objections to all of them. Would you aid in the general diffusion of knowledge?
Would you give your money or goods to feed the poor? They may spend your gifts, and be made more wretched, not more comfortable, by your charity.
Thus many people argue about the numerous ways of doing good; and at last, bewildered in the vain search after some form of beneficence, are ready to cry with the Psalmist: who will show us any good? Who will teach us how we may gratify our benevolent impulses to some undoubtedly good purpose."
This is difficult, but it ought not to discourage anyone from attempting to do good.
To every such enterprise there may be objections. If you can weigh the arguments for and against any particular charity, and determine to your own satisfaction that it will not do much good and is attended with little injury, it may be your duty not to help it, however strongly you are urged so to do.
And if, among all the ways for doing good, you find none with which you can agree, stand apart from all of them. But remember, your objection to their ways is no excuse for neglecting the duty; and there are still ways open for you, alone, to be useful.
And as long as so wide a field of charity is open to you, the fact that many of the ways in which others attempt to do good are manifestly faulty is no reason why you should not be active in doing good.
2. Another discouraging thing that prevents many people from engaging in works of active usefulness is the feeling that they can do only a little. "If," they say, "we had the capacities and means that others have, we would gladly devote ourselves to ddoing good; but we are able at best to do very little."
When you offer this excuse, what do you mean by "little?" In the material and the spiritual world, things are great or small only by comparison; and the way that any particular object appears small in comparison with others is far from making it worthless.
A lighthouse shines over a few miles of the ocean, and now and then saves a vessel from shipwreck, does just a little good when we compare it with the pole star, which guided those who first launched a boat upon the waves, and still shines over the whole Northern hemisphere. But would we, for this reason, demolish all lighthouses?
And that same star, how insignificant its twinkling, how trivial its use, when we compare it with the sun at noon, enlightening every home, cheering our hearts, guiding the ways of all the earth!
But would you for this reason blot out the pole-star from the heavens? "No," you would say, 'let the lesser lights shine, for they are useful to us, though the greater be infinitely more so." And the same reasoning holds in the spiritual world.
You excuse yourselves from doing what you can for the good of your brethren, on the ground that you can do but little. On the same ground, all the benefactors of humanity in past times might have excused themselves from doing the good that they have done
In the same way, all the benefactors of humanity in past times might have excused themselves from doing the good.
You say in despair: how little good can we do compared with what one wealthy person has done!" but the good that each of us can do, compared with what one has done, is infinitely greater than what that one person has done, when compared with the blessings derived from Jesus of Nazareth, the friend, not of a single class of people on a single continent, but of all people, everywhere.
But one who does good for others, does it in the sight and at the command of God. and with Him a person is accepted, not according to the reputed greatness or littleness of what they do, but according to their ability.
But to look at the subject in a merely human point of view. You say, reader, that you can do only a little good. If there are a million people who can do as much good as you can, and no more, multiply the little that you can do by a million, and will that still be a little?
No, it will be immense. But each of these million people may draw back on the same excuse you do, and thus an immense amount of good remain undone.
But if you, if each one of these million people would say: 'I can only do only a little, but that little, for God's sake, I will do,' what a vast difference it will make in the amount of good done in the world! It is thus, by numerous small sums, that great aggregates are produced; and these small sums are needed to make the sum total of good great.
There are only a few that can do much good; the greater part of the good done in the world is done by those who act alone, but do little.
You excuse yourselves from doing what you can for the good for others, on the ground that you can do but little. In the same way, all the benefactors of humanity of the past might have excused themselves from doing the good that they've done.
Look around you, among those who are the most actively useful, to whom the anxious apply for counsel, the needful for aid, the widow and the fatherless for protection, the sick and dying for care, for sympathy, for christian instruction.
Will you not find among the foremost of these sons and daughters of charity some who, though rich in faith, are poor as to this world's goods, humble in rank, of limited information, of feeble mental powers?
Cultivate a fervent spirit of brotherly love, and, though the means of your charity may appear small, you may yet be eminently useful.
Again, you say that you can do but little good. When you say so, do you speak of good appertaining to the body or the soul?
The good that can be done to the frail, perishable body is at best but little. Not so with that which is done to the immortal spirit. Not so with religious charity. That acts upon eternity; and must therefore, when it confers any good, confer a great good.
Finally, can you do only a little good? If so, God requires only little of you. Do that little, and your reward shall be great.
3. Another discouragement to benevolent effort and especially to religious charity is found in the way that the results of individual beneficence can't be traced.
Your little stream flows into the great ocean of charity, mingles with its waters, and you cannot follow its current any farther, or see what end it reaches and what good it does.
But here the way of duty is very plain. You are commanded to do good, and God has promised a blessing upon your efforts. No matter whether you see the blessing or not.
Adapted from EXCUSES FOR THE NEGLECT OF BENEVOLENT EFFORTS CONSIDERED. (1834) By Rev. Andrew P. Peabody (1811-1893)