The world’s need often seems overwhelming, especially given God’s command—in the Old Testament, on Jesus’ lips, through the apostles—to “love your neighbor.” In a globalized society, it feels like we have too many neighbors to love. Consider this passage from James:
If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
What if they show up in our inbox or at our church? What if they we drive by 5 people saying “anything helps” on our daily commute? We could end up with more brothers and sisters in need than we have hours or dollars. Reading Augustine for class this week, I was reminded that this concern is not unique to the 21st century. He reflects,
Further, all men are to be loved equally. But since you cannot do good to all, you are to pay special regard to those who, by the accidents of time, or place, or circumstance, are brought into closer connection with you. For, suppose that you had a great deal of some commodity, and felt bound to give it away to somebody who had none, and that it could not be given to more than one person; if two persons presented themselves, neither of whom had either from need or relationship a greater claim upon you than the other, you could do nothing fairer than choose by lot to which you would give what could not be given to both. Just so among men: since you cannot consult for the good of them all, you must take the matter as decided for you by a sort of lot, according as each man happens for the time being to be more closely connected with you.
-Augustine, De Doctrina Christiana, 1.28.29
This isn’t to say that we should put hard, geographical limits on our giving or hone down our donations to a rigid set of bylaws. In fact, this suggestion from Augustine is pushing us toward, not from, compassion—it’s encouraging us to see those God puts in our path and to allow our hearts to be moved.
Perhaps the sheer scope of need has hardened your heart; it regularly hardens mine. Consider repentance, turn to God in prayer. After all, these aren’t actually “accidents of time, or place, or circumstance” in the way we use the word today, they are God’s orchestrations, and you may be God’s means of caring for the people you meet.
Whom has God put close to you? Is there a family member for whom you need to muster a new measure of patience and support? Perhaps you have an acquaintance to whom God has sent you to become a generous friend. Maybe one of those you regularly see in need can become a person you love and know. After all, living faith comes with works—none of us will solve the world’s problems on our own, but we can do the work of God where God has put us.