This question was posed to me recently:
If the moral thing is to assist those in need but fear compels us to ignore that moral obligation is it no longer a moral obligation? Example: I should go give the homeless man on the street food and clothing but I’m afraid he might harm me. Does my fear relieve me of that obligation?
That’s a good question. As Christians, we’re commanded to help, love, and support those around us. Just read the Sermon on the Mount and you can see the dramatic examples that Jesus gives about laying down our lives for others and putting others first. Not to mention Jesus’ own death for the forgiveness of our sins. Forgiveness for the fact that we fail to live up to our calling.
It’s helpful to note that we often make “the neighbor” an abstract person on the other end of the world that we could, theoretically, care for if we ever met that him or her, but we forget what a neighbor actually is. In other words, we forget that a neighbor is a near person. Neighbor comes from the Old English nēahgebūr: nēah ‘nigh, near’ + gebūr ‘inhabitant, peasant, farmer’. In other words, our neighbor is any near person. It’s any person with whom we come in contact. The Greek word πλησίον (play-see’-on) is just the Greek word for a neighbor or a near person.
With all of that in mind, we have to use sanctified (holy-fied, set apart) common sense in dealing with any situation and take context into account for any given circumstance as we seek to help our neighbor whether it’s simply a person in need or a person in a dangerous situation. Context doesn’t provide a definitive answer to right and wrong but it can guide us in how we handle the situation. Throughout Scripture, we’re told not to fear. Take a look at all of the passages that involve “not fearing” due to our position as those in the hands of a loving and powerful God. We shouldn’t be afraid of death (well…we should and shouldn’t be. If we are living in opposition to God then we should certainly fear but as his baptized and redeemed children who live as forgiven children we have no reason to fear since we have the promise of eternal life). Instead, we rely on God for all things. When it comes to eternal life, there is nothing that should ever make us fear in this life.
But, Jesus also tells the disciples to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves when he sends them out to spread the word in Matthew 10. Of course, he’s talking about spreading the Gospel, not directly about how to engage with the poor on the street. But we hear in this situation that Jesus doesn’t tell them to go be doofuses and put themselves in specifically dangerous situations. He tells them to be bold, for sure, but not to be idiots. Even take a look through the book of Acts where we see martyrs, but we also see Paul using wisdom by invoking his rights as a Roman at certain times while appealing to his religious heritage at others based on his context to avoid other dire situations.
While we have a responsibility to those people we meet randomly who are in need, we also have responsibilities to people in other areas of life. Even though we might not fear for our life because our lives are in God’s hands (check out Romans 8), we still think about those around us for whom we have responsibility. We have a responsibility to our husband or wife, our mother or father, and our children. If putting our life in harm’s way ends up crossing the line into damaging our responsibility to the people in our other vocations in life then we’ve also got to take that into consideration. Sure we could give money to every person in need, but if that leaves us with nothing to provide for our family, then we’re being imbalanced. We could certainly bring every person who needs shelter into our home, but if that puts our family at risk because we know nothing about the person, then we may want to think of another way to approach the situation. The same is also true if we live in the lap of luxury and say, “I can’t provide for those in need because then I can’t afford my 150,000-inch plasma TV!” In that case, we’re also imbalanced.
If we’re walking down a road at 1 am and a man is in an alley and says, “Could you help me?” We will probably experience a fear that encourages us not to walk down a dark alley at 1 am. If we see someone in need we should find a way to help to the best of our ability. Whether that means calling a shelter or the police to help the poor man, or whether it’s in the daylight or you’re with a friend and can buy the person some food or have the means to provide shelter.
Fear never eliminates a moral obligation, but fear certainly informs how we make our choices, for good or ill. We can be bold and try to rescue a person who’s in a burning car that may explode, or we may see the danger and decide to find another way to handle it. Either way, we don’t just walk away saying, “Well, I was afraid and walked away, so I shouldn’t feel bad because my fear negated my moral obligation.” I can’t imagine how often this question comes to mind for those in fields like fire and rescue, law enforcement, or the medical field. I’m sure dangerous situations are presented regularly and those individuals run into what one of my professors at the Seminary called “Hot Soup Situations”.
Take a moment to place yourself in these shoes. You and your spouse are going out for your 50th anniversary to the nicest restaurant you’ve ever been to…or ever wanted to go to. There’s a beautiful view and you get the sense that even smelling the food when you enter the door is costing you money. You enjoy some conversation over appetizers while you’re looking over the mountain view with a setting sun. After the appetizers, the meal begins with a cup of delicious soup. In your excitement, you scoop up a full spoon of this soup, place it in your mouth…and immediately realize that it is boiling hot. Now, you can either spit it out in the middle of this fancy restaurant where you have already seen more etiquette and manners that ever before in your life, or you can swallow it down and feel the burn all the way. Either way, there are going to be problems. Either way, there will be consequences, but you’ve got to make a choice in the moment.
Sometimes life throws those curve balls. Sometimes we know the responsibility that we have for a person but fear creeps in and restrains us. That fear can be good or bad.
We won’t always have the answer, and don’t need to spend the time to ask “Oh, was that good or bad fear?” It’s fear either way. We’re sinners either way regardless if we make good or bad choices. The only thing we ever know is that we have a moral obligation to the people around us, and sometimes the answer to “how should I help this person” isn’t going to be an easy one to find. Often times we’ll walk away asking whether we did the right thing. Whether it’s a dramatic rescue from a burning building or an internal debate whether to hand over a $5 bill there are going to be a ton of variables and a ton of things to weight in how to handle the situation. The thing is, you’re made holy by Christ rather than your good decision making. You have been redeemed by Christ’s blood, sweat, and goodness rather than your own. You need not live in fear of “Did I handle it right?” Either way, we’re sinners redeemed by Christ.
Praise be to God that even when we are afraid, Christ has no fear. Even when Christ could have turned his back in fear of the pain, suffering, and death that he was going to experience upon the cross, he went toward it open-eyed for the joy set before him. We have our salvation in Christ alone and in light of that salvation, we have a responsibility to the people around us. How we handle that responsibility will look different in different moments and finding the right answer isn’t always easy. But, we pray for the Holy Spirit to guide us, to give us peace, and to keep our eyes on Christ who gives us eternal life by his grace alone rather than how well we help the people around us.
If you’re in a moment of wrestling with this yourself or want to talk about this in a deeper way, feel free to send me a message.