Consider the following scenario: you’ve been living in a new apartment for about a month or two. Your downstairs neighbor is an older gentleman who lives by himself, and if he sees you in the hallway or outside the building he will usually stop you to talk, going far beyond the standard greeting and not picking up on your cues that you need (or just want) to leave. 

He doesn’t have a car, and relies on a couple of his relatives to get around. 

One night you’re sitting at the kitchen table eating dinner, perhaps some leftover enchiladas, when your doorbell rings. Odd, you think, because you don’t normally have visitors. You open the door to see your neighbor, the older guy who lives downstairs. He asks you for a favor – since he doesn’t have a car and he needs a few groceries, can you give him a ride to the grocery store?

So many things pass through your mind in the space of about ten seconds – you’re in the middle of dinner, you’re not sure you’d be comfortable letting the guy in your car because you don’t really know him that well, you don’t know whether he actually needs groceries or is maybe just trying to bum a ride for a beer run…and, oh yeah, you kind of don’t like him. 

What do you do? 

Chances are most of us have faced a situation like this, or if not exactly like it then along the same lines. Someone asks us for a helping hand, and we have a decision to make – do we put ourselves first, or the person standing in front of us? If you’re the person who drops what you’re doing to help out, kudos to you. But it’s probably a fair bet that many of us would rather make up an excuse and go back to our reheated enchiladas and Netflix. 

When we think of charity, oftentimes what springs to mind are things not necessarily immediate to our circumstances, like donating money to an organization that builds wells in Africa; or perhaps something a little closer to home but still not personal, like volunteering with Habitat for Humanity. There is nothing wrong with this – service in such ways is good and vital work. Often, however, we can become so focused on serving those far from us that we completely look past those standing just a few feet away. 

Generosity towards our actual neighbors can take many forms, from giving the proverbial cup of sugar to watching someone’s children when a babysitter can’t be found to, yes, giving someone a ride to the grocery store. While there is certainly a difference between someone who is genuinely in need and a freeloader, this distinction is rarely ours to make. Jesus calls us to serve without reservation, but it is easy for us to come up with excuses for not doing so – too easy, really.

But, it’s important to remember that charity and generosity are not about our own wellbeing or making ourselves feel good. Three things happen when we commit to truly loving our neighbors and helping those who ask: 

We show love and grace to those in need.
While many of us probably wish that we could be entirely self-sufficient, the reality is that we all need a helping hand from time to time, some more so than others. When we are called upon, it isn’t really our place to judge motives or snap into self-preservation mode. Rather, we should love wholeheartedly and seek to offer whatever assistance we can out of a heart of grace. It isn’t easy to ask for help, and everyone deserves the chance to be lifted and relieved of a burden. 

We live in obedience to Jesus.
Most of us are probably familiar with Matthew 7:12, or at least the first part of it, otherwise known as the Golden Rule – “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” We are called to look past ourselves and our comfort and to think about those around us. While the verse doesn’t specifically refer to helping those in need, it stands to reason that most us would like to receive help if we ask for it, and so we should do the same for others. And by saying that this rule “sums up the Law and the Prophets,” Jesus is essentially saying that loving and helping our neighbors just as we would want to be loved and helped ourselves is what our lives are all about – other than loving God with all our heart, there is nothing more important (Matthew 22:37-40). 

We become more like Jesus.
Remember the words of John: 

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth. This then is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence whenever our hearts condemn us. For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.
— (1 John 3:16-20, emphasis added)

So, then, generosity and charity become not just about helping others for its own sake, which is where conventional morality would end, but about cultivating a spirit of grace and self-sacrifice. Not just offering aid in action, but evidencing the love of Christ in a world that doesn’t look past mere human goodness. In other words, everything becomes all about God and not about us. When we lay down our lives for others just as Jesus laid down his life for us, when we choose to love “with actions and in truth,” we inevitably become more like Christ, and our lives are transformed into something greater and more meaningful than anything we could accomplish on our own merit. 

As John reminds us, the ultimate act of love, of sacrifice before self, happened on the cross thousands of years ago when Jesus gave his life for us. When we choose to sacrifice ourselves in the service of others, whether by building wells in Africa or giving someone a ride to the grocery store, we are not only honoring Jesus’ sacrifice of himself but also choosing a life more Christ-like, so that his love, a love selfless beyond measure, is evident in and through our lives. So when you get that unexpected knock on your door or that unplanned-for request for help, just remember – TV shows can be recorded, and dinner can be put in the fridge.