Jesus’ question seems aimed at a practical response to an immediate need, but it’s much more. It’s a test of spirit, a test of faith. “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” he asked Philip (John 6:5). It’s a question you might hear at any church finance committee meeting: How are we going to pay the bills for this ministry? You might ask it of yourself: When I’m barely able to pay my own bills, how can I respond effectively to the need of others?
According to the story (John 6:1-14), Jesus knew what he was going to do about the hungry crowd coming toward him. “The time is surely coming,” God had said, “when the one who plows shall overtake the one who reaps, and the treader of grapes the one who sows the seed” (Amos 9:13); when in the fullness of God’s reign the earth will produce such extravagant abundance, the crops will be harvested as quickly as they are planted, and there will be more than enough for everyone to share.
We’re living in such a time, Jesus said to anyone who would listen. The reign of God you’ve been waiting for has arrived. You no longer need to live in fear of scarcity; the abundance of life is yours for the taking; there’s enough for everyone, and no one needs to be left out. It’s time to act as if that good news is true, Jesus said (Mark 1:14-15). And that’s just what he was going to do.
But if Jesus knew what he was going to do, it remained to be seen what Philip and the other disciples would do, and almost at once they showed their hand. “Six months wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little,” Philip lamented (John 6:7). He was responding not out of the abundance of the new reign of God but out of the scarcity of the old way of the world. Confronted with the need of others, he saw first his own limits: limits of resources, of vision, or of will.
Frankly, I don’t know that many people today would blame prudent Philip for raising the concern he did. He had a valid point. It’s important to recognize our limits. We are finite creatures with limited abilities and resources. The needs of others will always be greater than our capacity to respond. “You always have the poor with you,” Jesus said (Matt. 26:11).
But when is the recognition of such limits the product of a faithful and realistic humility, and when is it nothing more than the accretion of a jaundiced and self-centered worldview? There are many good reasons not to respond to the needs that tap us on the shoulder or grab us by the collar. Is there a greater reason to let our defenses down, open our hearts and hands and homes if need be, and respond with the same sense of extravagant abundance that motivated Jesus?
Many people are looking for meaning in their lives by accumulating awards and achievements. They put in long hours at work to secure better job titles or higher, more stable salaries. They do more and more in the community to enhance their reputation or position, and they spend more time on hobbies and recreation, leaving little time for a balanced life. Relationships with friends and family and even with themselves become strained and sometimes broken. The needs of others are kept at arm’s length. But is that the right path toward the meaning we seek in life?
There’s increasing evidence that kindness and generosity in responding to the needs of others adds a sense of meaning to our lives. And we’re rediscovering ancient wisdom about what we can do to reap those benefits. A recent study by Roy Baumeister at Florida State University found that, while having strong social connections was related to happiness, helping others in need and identifying oneself as a “giver” produced a greater sense of meaning and value in life.
The one factor that seems to be most important in developing a meaningful life is the capacity to develop high-quality relationships based on meeting the deep human needs of others. A recent article in The Journal of Positive Psychology surveying 400 participants found that those who engaged in more selfless activities to meet the needs of others reported a greater sense of purpose and meaning in their lives.
These studies and others suggest that helping others benefits us because it fulfills a basic human need to be generous toward others and because it strengthens our relationships and our sense of community. So how can we take advantage of what we’re learning? Here are some ways that work.
▪ Start with an attitude of abundance rather than scarcity. In the story of the feeding of the 5,000 (John 6:1-14), Jesus looked at great human need as something to be addressed with resources that God would provide. The disciples looked at that same need and saw only their own limitations and scarcity of resources. To paraphrase Henry Ford: Whether you think you can do something to relieve the needs of your neighbors or whether you think you can’t, you’re right.
▪ Think small. You don’t need to do everything at once or make a huge sacrifice to begin. Even very small efforts can have a huge life-changing effect on someone else. The feeding of the 5,000 began with one small lunch; it ended with twelve baskets of leftovers after everyone had been fed. Mother Teresa said, “In this life we cannot do great things. We can only do small things with great love.” Do the one small thing you can do, and trust it to make all the difference.
▪ Make your efforts count. Not all kinds of giving have the same effect on us. General giving to the poor or hungry or homeless is less likely to produce a sense of meaning and purpose for you than giving in particular. Of course, giving to large-scale efforts is important, as is our annual offering to One Great Hour of Sharing and its worldwide ministries. General giving must be balanced with particular giving, in which you get to know and get involved with the person you’re helping. Our Habitat for Humanity crew works shoulder-to-shoulder with the families who will occupy the houses they help build. Give in a way that lets you participate directly and personally in the outcome you hope to achieve.
▪ Take time to express your gratitude. Expressing gratitude to God helps you shift from a perspective of scarcity to one of abundance. That can help you free up your resources and your will to do the things that are most effective at adding a sense of meaning and purpose to your life. Expressing gratitude to others can help you build the relationships and form the human community that is one of the most basic needs of life.
“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2:14-17).