No, O people, the Lord has told you what is good, and this is what he requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God. [Micah 6:8 (NLT)]
It is not enough just to wish well; we must also do well. … It is thus a glorious thing to wish well, and to give freely, with the one desire to do good and not to do harm. [St. Ambrose]
Contrary to popular belief, “First, do no harm” is not part of the Hippocratic Oath. It is actually part of the History of Epidemics, one of several writings associated with the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates. Personally, I’m relieved those words weren’t recited by my doctor. Although it is a good guiding principle, just doing no harm seems to set the bar rather low. I want my physician to do more than not harm me; I want her to help me!
As Christians, it’s not enough to do no harm; we are to do what is right and good. Remaining on the sidelines may do no harm, but it rarely does any good either. We can’t stand idly by while people are in need and we can’t ignore the plight of our neighbor, whether he lives right around the corner or half-way around the world. I prefer the words of St. Ambrose “to do good and not to do harm” to those of Hippocrates.
Of course, following St. Ambrose’s advice requires determining what is good and what is harmful. In medicine that line is often blurred. Take chemotherapy—although it damages both healthy and cancerous cells, hopefully, it does more good than harm to the cancer patient. In life, the line between doing good or harm can also be unclear. After telling us to be generous in giving, Ambrose explains that doesn’t mean we should give an extravagant man the means to continue living extravagantly or to facilitate an adulterer in his adultery. In those cases, giving would be doing harm rather than good. While his examples seem pretty clear-cut, determining whether we’re helping or hurting others is not always so easy.
As Christians, we have the desire to help others, especially our loved ones. We must prayerfully determine whether we are empowering people to achieve something they couldn’t do by themselves or simply enabling them to perpetuate a problem. While empowering helps, enabling can harm. There are certain battles that are not ours to fight, debts that belong solely to the debtor, and work that must be done without our help. There are consequences that others must face—things that will be lost, disappointments that will occur, hardships that must be endured, and tears that will be shed. We do more harm than good when we deny our loved ones those life experiences. Sometimes denying help is the best way to do good for someone.
Father God, guide us in our efforts to do your good works. Keep us from ignoring the many needs around us but don’t let our efforts to be helpful to those we love do more harm than good. Show us the path you want us to take so that we always do the right thing—the God thing.