Doing “All the Good You Can”: Invitation or Burden?

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‘Do all the good you can,

By all the means you can,

In all the ways you can,

In all the places you can,

At all the times you can,

To all the people you can,

As long as ever you can.’

These words, often attributed to John Wesley, the 18th century Anglican and unintentional founder of Methodism, offer quite an invitation!

To “do all the good you can…by all the means you can…in all the ways you can…in all the places you can…at all the times you can…to all the people you can…as long as you ever can” [emphasis mine]–what a challenge!

And that’s exactly how I’ve always taken it–as a challenge.  As a call to action, as an invitation to a way of being in the world that is oriented toward serving others, toward doing as much good in as many ways and places and times as is humanly possible!

And I’m happy to say that that “way of being” has led to feelings of deep satisfaction and profound fulfillment, feelings of unshakeable self-worth found in being someone who matters, someone who makes a positive difference in the world.  

I have found it to be true that when I…

‘Do all the good [I] can,

By all the means [I] can,

In all the ways [I] can,

In all the places [I] can,

At all the times [I] can,

To all the people [I] can,

As long as ever [I] can,’

…then Life is imbued with deep meaning, and I am filled with great purpose and worth!  YES!

Except that sometimes…not so much….

Sometimes, for me, Wesley’s “charge” has led to other, different feelings…other, less pleasant feelings!  Feelings, for example, of guilt for not doing enough–for no matter how much good I do, the “good” that still needs doing is endless; feelings of “overwhelmedness” at the inconceivable breadth and depth of need in the world–for no matter how many needs I try to address, those yet waiting to be met are boundless; even feelings of judgment at the perceived lack of commitment and involvement of others–if I’m willing to give my all to respond to the needs of others, why isn’t everyone??

And so I waver back and forth between welcome challenge and unwelcome burden, between profound fulfillment and deep guilt, between “Yes!” and Not so much….

Until recently.  

Just a few weeks ago I came upon those words, and for some reason, I was suddenly struck by how differently they spoke to me when I put the emphasis on “you” rather than “all”:

‘Do all the good you can,

By all the means you can,

In all the ways you can,

In all the places you can,

At all the times you can,

To all the people you can,

As long as ever you can.’

It suddenly had a whole different “flavor,” a whole different feel!  I was able to read it with a whole different understanding–hanging on to the potential for fulfillment but letting go, it seems, of the burden of guilt.

Doing all the good that I can do, by all the means that I can, etc., is clearly not all the good that can be done in the world!  The good that I can do, me myself, is defined to a large degree by my context and my limitations, and not only the broader limitations such as the time and place in which I live, but also those limitations that are very specific to me, such as the time available to me, the people present in my life, my personality, my passions, and my energy levels–not to mention the opportunities that present themselves to me.

Perhaps, rather than being a charge to doing the kind of good that is quite possibly deeply fulfilling, yes, but at the same time potentially non-stop, guilt-inducing, burn-out-producing, and self-sacrificing at the expense of wholeness, Wesley’s words can be interpreted as an invitation to doing a kind of good that hinges on awareness–an awareness of those around you and their needs and opportunities to put those needs above your own, yes, but also an awareness of yourself–your God-given passions and gifts, and your equally-God-given limitations….

Doing all the good I can, by all the means I can, in all the ways I can, in all the places I can, at all the times I can, to all the people I can, as long as I ever can…remains an appealing challenge to me–one that I now try to understand as an invitation to ever-increasing awareness, of others and myself, and one that I try to respond to in a way that leads to ever-expanding wholeness, for myself and others.  

Thanks be to God!

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4 thoughts on “Doing “All the Good You Can”: Invitation or Burden?

  1. patslentz

    This fits well with a women’s retreat I just finished using the book, “Do What You Have the Power to Do” – a great book to use in a group setting that looks at how six unnamed women in the NT were empowered to find their “voice”.

  2. Gordon L Peck

    The change of perspective, emphasizing “I” instead of “all” is very helpful, especially for some of us older soldiers. Thank you Deb.

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