What does it mean to do good? That is an important question. Is the question aesthetic in nature? Does it mean to do good work? Or is it primarily ethical in nature? Does it mean to do good deeds?
I believe the majority of people reading this blog would assume the exhortation to do good means to do good deeds. The Golden Rule as given in Matthew 7:12 is contextually about good deeds. “In everything do unto others as you would have them do unto you; for this is the law and the prophets.” It is between a section about how God gives good gifts and an admonition to find “the narrow gate” because that one leads to “life.” Doing good means to act in ways toward other people that enhances their quality of life. Or as we often hear, “treat people the way you want to be treated.”
The first issue I wish to consider here is an objection given on the basis of ethics. “What you may consider good for you is not necessarily what is good for me.” This objection is sound. It is quite possible that a dangerous situation could arise for another person from my offer to give them food or medicine to which they are allergic. This objection has led many to argue that the negative Golden Rule offered by various other ethical systems is superior to Jesus’s statement in Matthew 7:12. The statement of Rabbi Hillel, the Buddha, Socrates and others, “What ever is harmful to you do not do to another person,” becomes the actual golden standard of ethics. I find this conclusion problematic because what may be harmful to me does not necessarily mean it is harmful to someone else. I could be allergic to certain foods or medicine. Does that mean I should hold them back from you if you can use them to enhance your health? Of course not. This is why the first of Wesley’s General Rules is Do No Harm.
The second issue then is when we do good for others we should be certain we do not create harm for them. I live near a national park that uses a black bear as its symbol. Many tourists want to see black bears living in the wild when they visit this park. One major rule of the national park is that no wildlife including the black bears is to be given food, have left over available to them, or for any human to be within 50 feet of the animals especially black bears. The reason? Were we to take any action that would be good to help a human being, it would be detrimental to the wild bears. Attempting to do good actually causes harm when the animal learns to associate humans with food. The animals can be destroyed. If we are dealing with human beings it is possible to cause harm to one set of people in order to do good for another group of people. One cannot take needed food, clothing, or shelter from one person to give it to another. John the Baptist’s instructions are for the one who has two coats to give one to someone that has none. Moses instructed that the person who has one coat that must give it as collateral on a debt must receive it back at night as defense against the cold.
The third issue is an aesthetic one. To do good is to provide quality in our efforts for others. We do not say, “beggars can’t be choosers,” and throw anything we want to them. My youngest son once came to me with a pair of blue jeans he had outgrown. “Can I give these to the clothes closet?” He asked. Proud as I was that he was considering the needs of other people, I used the incident to teach the lesson he had learned on another level. Together we unfolded the jeans and looked for holes, tears, and very worn places. I told him we wanted to give away clothes we would wear if we could. If it was something we would be embarrassed to wear and we gave it to someone in need, what would the action show our mindset to be about those in need? When we consider that issue, giving is about doing good work.
Doing good then is not about the act taken or viewing ourselves as the superior or hero in the relationship involved in helping others. Doing good is about enhancing the life of the other person. As Matthew indicates in the context of Matthew 7:12, it is a narrow gate leading to life while emulating the goodness of God.