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)]
Rather than in the Hippocratic Oath, “To do no harm” is found in Hippocrates’ History of Epidemics. “First, do no harm” actually dates to medical texts from the mid-19th century, and is attributed to the 17th century English physician Thomas Sydenham. Whoever said it first, I’m relieved those words weren’t the only ones recited by my doctors when they graduated from medical school. Simply doing no harm seems to set the bar too low. I want my physicians to do more than not harm me; I want them to help!
It’s never enough to stop at doing no harm; as Christians, 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 nor can we ignore the plight of our neighbor, whether he lives right around the corner or half-way around the world. Rather than Hippocrates’ “do no harm,” I prefer the words of St. Ambrose in a 391 AD treatise setting forth the duties of the clergy: “It is not enough just to wish well; we must also do well. Nor, again, is it enough to do well, unless this springs from a good source even from a good will. … 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.”
Of course, “to do good and not to do harm” requires determining what is good and what is harmful. In medicine that line often is blurred. Take chemotherapy—while it kills dividing cancer cells, it also kills dividing healthy cells like hair, skin, bone marrow, and the lining of the digestive tract. Nevertheless, it is used to treat cancer because it does more good than harm and the damage done to those healthy cells usually doesn’t last.
In everyday life, the line between doing good or harm also can be blurry. After he advised clergy to be generous in giving, Ambrose explained that generosity didn’t mean they should give an extravagant man the means to continue living extravagantly, facilitate an adulterer in his adultery, or aid someone plotting against his country because, in those cases, giving would do more harm than good. While his examples seem pretty straightforward, determining whether we’re helping or hurting others rarely is so clear-cut.
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 harms. 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, tears that must be shed, restitution that needs to be made, and even time that must be served. We do more harm than good when we deny our loved ones those life experiences that rightfully are theirs. 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. Give us the means and desire to do good and the discernment to know the difference between doing good and doing harm. Show us the path you want us to take so that we always do the right thing.