The other day my husband was reading to me from our morning devotion and the author asked something like “Why is it that we show more benevolence to people on the street than to the people in our own homes?” My head immediately answered, ‘because I don’t care as much about the people on the street’.
Timeout: I know this sounds crass, so let me elaborate by way of an example. If I saw someone, who had profanity tattooed across their forehead, walking their dog on the street, I could genuinely smile at them, pet their dog and wish them a good day. Their tattoo wouldn’t matter to me. But if one of my kids came to me, in all seriousness, and stated that they had decided to get such a tattoo, I would agonize over it. Why? Because I love my children deeply and would quickly get tangled in the cause and effect of such a choice in their life.
The author’s conclusion was the opposite of what I was thinking. He said that we show more benevolence to strangers because we expect grace from people close to us. His point was that our behavior toward the stranger was preferable. It made me stop and think because this is an area in which I have felt incredibly misunderstood for years. Love can be messy and complex, while benevolence is simple. But is benevolence love?
What is the correct term for the compassion I feel for strangers?
I have been told by well-meaning people that if I don’t love the lady behind me in the checkout line, or the guy sitting next to me in the waiting room, then I might not really be a Christian. I can, and often do, feel benevolence toward them, but I don’t view love as something I could possibly give to someone I casually pass by. Love is enduring. Love is committed.
I am willing to give just about anything to see the people in my circle achieve God’s best for their lives, and it often requires significant sacrifice. Because of that, my sphere is small. It can include anyone, but it cannot include everyone. If I am bound by the constraints of time and energy, I can’t substantially love many people at once, the way I define it.
Love is an investment.
Are you familiar with the story of the Good Samaritan? He was the example Jesus gave as someone who ‘loved his neighbor’, as the Bible commands. He found a man who had been beaten and left for dead. He cleaned his wounds, put the man on his donkey and walked the rest of the journey to the nearest town. He took the man, who could not repay him, to an inn and left money for his stay and care until he could return to check on the healing and cover any further expense.
Benevolence is a quick deposit.
I can smile and compliment and wish well on everyone, but I call that benevolence. I can put a couple bucks in someone’s overturned cap and help a small child who dropped a shoe; again, benevolence. I can let the love, joy, peace, patience, kindness etc. that God pours into me to splash out on those nearby, but is that really loving my neighbor? Is benevolence love?
I recently heard an explanation of my responsibility that put everything into perspective for me. If God 1) shows me a need, and 2) causes me to feel the pain of it, and 3) has given me the resources to meet it, then He expects me to act on His behalf in full sacrificial love. Beyond that, allowing His Spirit to shine through me and onto those around me is enough, as long as I stay alert and available. I’d love to hear your thoughts. How big is the circle of people you genuinely love? In your perception, is benevolence love?