There are two popular sayings that are in direct opposition to one another. The first is, “It’s the thought that counts.” (This one usually makes me feel better about things I’ve left undone.) The second one is, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” (Sometimes I’ll mix them together: “It’s the road to hell that matters,” or “The thought is paved with good intentions.”) If I had a preference over which one is more true, I’d definitely pick the first, because it lets me off the hook a little bit more.
Unfortunately, James 4:17 seems to affirm the truth of the second one. James says, “If you know the good you ought to do and don’t do it, you sin.” We typically think about sin as something that we do, an action we take that’s in direct violation of who God is or who God wants us to be; something we do intentionally that separates us from God. The kind of sin James is talking about, however, is called, in churchspeak, a sin of omission, where we intentionally don’t do something we know we should do.
If I’m honest, I’ll admit that I’m guilty of this kind of sin multiple times a day. I ignore opportunities to do good because I don’t have time in that moment, or I’m too busy, or it’s too inconvenient. It usually starts with small things: I HEAR the dog whining and know that he needs to go out, but I know if I ignore him long enough, Amanda will eventually hear him and take him out. I SEE the trash on the ground, but I’m in a hurry and somebody else will pick that up. But it’s often much bigger than that: I SEE the woman who stands at the corner of Franklin Road and Old Hickory Blvd almost every day, and I feel like I SHOULD pull my car over, get out, and talk to her to find out her story and see if I can help her in some way, but traffic is really bad and I’m late to a meeting. I KNOW that if five of my friends and I each gave a couple bucks a day for a year we could pay for a village in a third world country to have access to clean drinking water, but my afternoon Starbucks tastes so good and gives me the boost I need to get through the day, and those people are so far away anyway so I couldn’t really make a difference, right?
My hunch is that when I get an inkling that I should do something good, that it’s not just my mind talking, but it’s the presence of the Spirit of God moving me toward good. When I don’t act, I’m not just turning off my mind, I’m ignoring the Spirit who’s trying to work good for the world through me. That’s the sinful part. God is trying to tell me something, to enlist me in Kingdom of God work, whether big or small, and I’m too busy to respond.
What would it look like if I took one day and did good at every opportunity? John Wesley once said, “Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.” What would it look like in my life if I took him up on that, even if just for one day?
God, speak to me today the opportunities I have to do good, and give me the patience to listen and the courage to act.