Then, as a teenager and young adult, I began to realize that living a godly life meant not only abtaining from "bad" things, but also actively doing good things: befriending the friendless, giving money to the poor, even choosing a meaningful career path as opposed to one that was simply about earning money. I got pretty hung up on this concept, maybe even paranoid, worrying an awful lot about doing enough good. (I wasn't concerned about whether or not God loved me; I knew His love to be unconditional, but I was concerned about what it would take to please Him.) At the root of this worry was a single line of Scripture, James 14:17: "Anyone who knows the good he ought to do and doesn't do it also sins."
Yikes. It seemed to me, in my young adulthood, that there was a lot of good out there to do, and I couldn't possibly do all of it, so I was therefor sinning all the time. A very crippling concept.
Like most times when scripture brings us worry rather than peace, I was reading this verse wrong. It doesn't say anyone who neglects the good there is to do sins, but the one who neglects the good he or she ought to do. It's an individualistic command. In context, I see that James was talking about making plans for our lives without regard to what God's plan is for it.
Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil. Anyone, then ,who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.
The more I listen to God, the more clearly I can discern where my priorities ought to be. Sometimes it's a conviction to call a friend I know is hurting; sometimes its to put down the kitchen sponge and read my child a book. Sometimes it's to put money in the box for the homeless outside the grocery store, or to agree to sponsor a child in Africa. It's very freeing, because the more I listen, the more I hear him tell me that some of the good things I'm trying to do really aren't on his list for me.
Our pastor recently spoke about doing good for the poor and oppressed in our world, the number of which is staggering. He made us repeat this declaration over and over again until we memorized it (or at least I did): "I refuse to be overwhelmed, and I will do for one what I wish I could do for everyone!" It was during this sermon that I suddenly realized my specific error in reading James 4:17. Too many people, overwhelmed by the fact that they cannot do all the good there is to do, end up doing none at all. I thought of people I know like my cousin Anne, who works with at-risk youth in Seattle; what if because she couldn't help every kid she helped none at all? Yet that would be the ultimate result of a do-it-all-or-I’m-sinning attitude toward do-gooding.
So: The good I ought to do. What is it today in my family? What is it in my formal ministry, which right now supporting and encouraging Mothers of Preschoolers at my church? What is it in my neighborhood? I don't always know. But I do know that God is already working in all of those places, and I will do a lot better if I ask Him where I can join in, rather than forge ahead myself. And what a relief it is to know that in my desire to find what that good is, even if I don't do it perfectly, He is already pleased with me.