Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody. (1 Thessalonians 4.11-12)
Remember Ann Landers? She and her twin, Abigail “Dear Abby” Van Buren, were two Iowa farm girls who came to Chicago with cases full of common sense. They set themselves up as advice columnists at opposing newspapers and over the course of several decades pretty much dictated American mores. Ann was by far the franker of the two, which accounted for her edge over Abby as the nation’s most trusted sage. While not unsympathetic to her readers, she could be counted on for cut-to-the-chase advice friends and family tactfully withheld. She typically told readers who sent in complaints about feeling ignored or overwhelmed to “buck up.” People who wanted to blame others for their trials were advised to take responsibility—“get over it or get out of it.” And those who asked what they should do about friends whose situations needed fixing were usually told “MYOB.” Mind your own business.
As a kid steeped in his parents’ ministry of intervention, Ann’s “MYOB” response often struck me as uncaring and, well, unchristian. We were raised to assume the welfare of any and everyone was our business. When people asked for help, no sacrifice or effort was too great. Our home was a food pantry, a halfway house, a rehab center, a homeless shelter, an orphanage, and so on—usually all of the above—which meant a certain degree of chaos ruled the day within its walls. Yet as I grew older, I came to appreciate how diligently my folks guarded against imposing their calling on our community. While neighbors knew of their ministry, to all outside appearances my parents led quiet lives. It was understood their work resulted from the compassion through which they expressed their faith. Helping people was their business, and their vigilant mindfulness of that earned the confidence and respect of all who knew them. But Mom and Dad did their best to see their efforts didn’t make them notable or, worse yet, nuisances. Looking back, I'm sure those living around us understood that as well, which had much to do with the respect afforded my parents. (By the way, even though technically retired, they’re still “in business,” and neighbors in their Florida community admire them the same as those I grew up with did.)
When we read 1 Thessalonians 4.11-12 and hear Paul’s admonition “to mind your own business and to work with your hands,” we sense he’s doubling up—pairing Ann Landers’ MYOB with instruction to fulfill our callings in Christ. Our duty to care and intervene doesn’t include meddling or faux concern that licenses us to discuss those we help. This corresponds exactly with James 1.26-27: “If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” We make it our business to help others while minding our business to avoid losing respect. We lead quiet lives.
If we’re effective, our work will gain attention. Jesus tells us this in Matthew 5.16: “Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” Notice the dynamic: our deeds glorify God, not us. Calling attention to our work wins us praise that belongs to Him. We do His bidding for His pleasure, which is why Jesus also says, “When you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6.3-4) When we put this together, it’s very clear. Our attention focuses on God’s intention to use us as His emissaries to attend to others’ needs. Seeking recognition defeats His purpose. Everything we’re taught contradicts the idea that “creating buzz” benefits anyone, including those we help, God, or us. This gets harder in a culture saturated with hype as causes compete for scarce resources. Still, the principle holds and must be heeded.
The Need to Feel Needed
It’s instructive, I think, always to examine our motives before we extend our help—not because they’re questionable, but to ensure they’re properly aligned with Scripture. It’s very easy to place ourselves in positions where what we do meets the need to feel needed. And, like it or not, that need is universal because when it’s met it compensates for other deficits, such as feelings of powerlessness, insignificance, and incapability. Relying on concern for others as our means of caring for ourselves is a dangerous gambit that promotes self-pride and fuels expectations we’ll gain respect and gratitude for our deeds. Quite often we will. Yet if that’s why we plunge into our work, that defines our reward. It reduces giving into a contractual, quid pro quo arrangement that may or may not be honored. On the other hand, giving without expectation or regard for our own needs adheres to the Biblical concept of quiet living, which promises we’ll win the respect of outsiders who observe our efforts on their own. Staying out of the spotlight allows God's light to shine through us.
More than that, Paul writes honoring these basic principles ends without our being “dependent on anybody.” We were to dredge up those old Ann Landers letters from people “wanting to help,” we’d notice hints of individuals defined by dependency on others. Implicit in their questions would be the need to feel needed, to win favor or appear wise or prove useful. Many of us—particularly we who are traditionally marginalized by faith communities—often succumb to this idea in hopes of validating our faith, sometimes even hoping to debunk myths about “people like us.” All this proves, however, is our desire to be defined by how others view us. We’re better than that. We know who we are because we know Who our Maker is. It is He Whom we seek to please. So we live quietly, doing the work of our hands, and trusting Him for our reward. This wins us respect and frees us from depending on anyone other than Him.
We lead quiet lives out of the spotlight so God's light can shine through us.
Postscript: Hushed Responsiveness
I'd already roughed out this post when I received a message from a longtime Straight-Friendly reader and my cherished brother, Maithri Goonetilleke. Many of you already know him, but for those who don't, Maithri is an Australian physician who spends part of each year working with AIDS victims and their families in Swaziland. In some villages there, he says, you find more coffin-makers than grocers. He's soon to return to Africa and resume his ministry there.
I urge all of us to take a moment to watch his video appeal below and, if so moved, support his work via his foundation, Possible Dreams International. Our hushed responsiveness is in perfect keeping with Maithri's mission and character. (His personal blog, The Soaring Impulse, calls reader comments "whispers of hope.") You can whisper hope to those he helps by clicking on the foundation's "Be Part of the Dream" page.