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Avoiding Harm When Helping Others

There are three questions that should precede any service project. The questions won’t eliminate all unintended consequences or lead to a perfect service project, but I guarantee they will help. 

1. Is it necessary? 

2. Is it inclusive? 

3. Is it humble? 

The first question to consider before doing a service project is, “Is it really necessary?” This question may seem like a handy way to avoid doing acts of mercy at all, a cop out. It isn’t unless you turn it into one. There’s no avoiding our call to serve others, but we want to do so in the most loving and helpful way possible. So, what’s wrong with doing some good even if it isn’t entirely necessary? In isolation, it may not be such a big deal. In the context of a loving long-term relationship, it’s a wonderful thing. But being on the receiving end of repeated unnecessary acts of service from strangers perpetuates the notion that you can’t take care of yourself, and may displace those who have genuine relationship with and responsibility for you. We can foster unhealthy unilateral dependency and encourage irresponsibility when we perform unnecessary acts of service, neither of which is a loving or helpful thing to do. 

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We should also ask if the project is inclusive—by which I mean, “Have those being served been invited into the process?” While sometimes this is not feasible, often it is, and rarely is it done. It makes a huge difference in the lives of those being served when their abilities are affirmed. Being reminded in a respectful way that even while we are struggling, we have something to offer, is encouraging. Including this invitation will add a layer of complexity to the project, but it’s worth it and requires only one simple but powerful question: “Will you help us?” 

Lastly, we should ask, “Is it humble?” This is the trickiest of the three questions because evaluating humility is generally a self-defeating exercise. But this is very important and not so difficult to pursue. For starters, repent. The doorway to humility hangs low—you cannot enter fully upright. Take a moment before you serve to genuinely consider a current pressing need in your life and a longstanding besetting sin, confess these to others, repent to the Lord and fully accept His pardon. If you want to heighten the experience, also consider those (including God) who you feel have left you to struggle alone. Confessing before serving helps us not look down on others, dismiss their pain or too quickly find either fault or solution. It makes us more patient—something that is often sorely lacking in service projects.

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