Monday, January 12, 2015

The Curious Command to ‘Do Nothing’

Whenever any kind of difficulty arises in our lives, the first impulse is a desire to do something, anything to get it resolved. “Do something – even if it’s wrong!” - I’ve heard people say this more than once. We can’t wait to make a crisis go away or fix a problem. “What should we do?” “Don’t just sit there, do something!”

Even when not faced with crises, we typically feel better when we’re doing something, being productive. We’re a nation of doers, after all.

We usually have an impulse to do something,
but in one sense, it's better to "do nothing."
Interestingly, one of the most intriguing commands in the Bible is not about what to do, but rather, what not to do. There is a time and also a need for doing nothing. It says so – literally.

In Philippians 2:3-4, the apostle Paul urges his readers, Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” I like to refer to this as the “do nothing” verse.

Okay, this really isn’t an exhortation to not do anything. Paul is calling for us to make certain that what we do is carried out with humility and concern for others, rather than out of selfishness and self-centered motives. In God’s sight, the “why” of what we do is equally as important as “what.”

In actuality, observing many people today – from top leaders in business, politics and other realms of influence to our friends, family members, and even ourselves – if we were to take this command to heart, we’d wind up either doing nothing or radically changing the things we do.

So much of what we do is couched in a “what’s in it for me?” framework. Even as we perform acts of kindness, we feel disconcerted if our actions aren’t met by equivalent expressions of gratitude and appreciation. We want to feel good about what we do, and how can we do that if people don’t properly recognize it, right? So even our good deeds are often tainted by self-serving motivations.

Philanthropists give generous donations to their favorite charities, then eagerly pose for photos of them presenting the check to the head of the designated organization. Or they expect their benevolences to be rewarded by having buildings named in their honor. The prominent church member who devotes many hours to organizing the annual holiday event anxiously awaits being introduced so her efforts can be applauded and she can take an appropriately humble bow. “Aw shucks, ‘tweren’t nothin’.” Ah, but they hadn’t been acknowledged, that really would have been something – and probably not something good.

Maybe this is why the passage is phrased as it is, putting emphasis on “do nothing.” Perhaps it’s suggesting that if our intentions are for advancing ourselves, rather than unselfishly seeking first and foremost to address the needs and interests of others, it would be better if we did nothing.

This doesn’t mean, of course, we have a ready-made excuse for not doing good to others. “I don’t know if my heart’s right, so I won’t do anything until I’m sure that it is.” Rather, it’s a reminder that our good deeds should be accompanied by good motives, even if and when they don’t result in our receiving anything good in return.

Did you perform some kindness for a friend, and they didn’t fall all over themselves showing gratefulness for your “sacrifice”? Did you prepare a special surprise for your spouse, but he or she was preoccupied and failed to return the expected appreciative response?

So how can we effectively “do nothing”? Are you a teacher? Teach with all your heart and soul, doing all you can to educate and inspire those entrusted to you, even if no one expresses thanks for all you do. Are you a sales executive? Serve your customers to the max, even if their best interests don’t max your commissions. Are you a boss? Consider how best to encourage and nurture those who report to you, even if it means forgoing or compromising some of your personal goals and ambitions.

If we “do nothing” as the passage from Philippians suggests, we might find ourselves doing quite a lot. As President Harry S. Truman once said, “It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”

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