The Paradox of Invoking Jesus’ Name on Acts of Kindness

During our recent  snowpocalypse one of our neighbors had just had a knee replacement and the other is pregnant and the storms at times hit when her husband was not home. As a result I had three houses, driveway entrances and curbs to deal with. No big. That’s what good neighbors are for. I was thankful for the hours logged in at PlanetFitness.  And hot coffee. My neighbors were effusive in their expressions of thanks.

It got me thinking about ‘good deeds’ and ‘acts of kindness’. Many evangelicals feel that they should dutifully invoke Jesus’ name over acts of kindness. As in, “I’m doing this in Jesus’ name” or “well, it’s what Jesus would want me to do” or “Well, I’m a Christian” or “it’s what Jesus would do” aka WWJD. All that is well and good, and true to boot. I have enormous respect for what I am told is Samaritan’s Purse’s forthright tag-line: “We are doing this in Jesus’ name.”

However, there seems a paradoxical, counter-productive downside to me in everyday  life.  If we invoke Jesus’ name over some of these acts, what are we implying? Do people hear us saying “Well, I wouldn’t do this for you, except it’s my religious duty as a Christian” or “I’m doing this because I feel pressure that Jesus wants me to” or “I don’t care about you enough to do this on my own, my religion prescribes it” or “I have ulterior motives in helping you: I’m hoping that by doing this, you will see that Christianity is a good thing and maybe come over to our side”? And how does that make people feel about our help?

While it may be true that some people would not shovel a neighbor out if they weren’t a Christian (some people are certainly kinder than others by temperament), I suspect it’s often counter-productive to talk this way. It would be hard for me to sort out why I am the kind of person happy to help someone out;  I became a Christian when I was 12 and it has certainly been the primary influence on my development. However, the fact is: I didn’t shovel my neighbors out as a sense of religious duty, nor with ulterior motives, nor out of guilt, nor because I thought God was breathing down my neck, nor because I felt bad Jesus died for my sins, nor because I thought it would earn me points in heaven, (now points on an elk tag draw would be another story), nor because I wanted the label ‘Christian’ to look good, nor because I asked myself WWJD. No, I shoveled them out because they needed help and I was there. It needed done. These are people I care about. No big.

The paradoxical, counter-productive part of invoking Jesus’ name is when we do so and people think  something like “wow, they wouldn’t have helped me because they care about me, or out of the goodness of their heart, they did it as a religious obligation.” And what does it say when a person who is NOT a believer in Jesus is willing and happy to shovel someone out? How about when a Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, atheist, or NASCAR fan shovels them out, without any faith in Jesus? If you ask me, it makes it look like they are good enough to do it on their own, and I need Jesus to raise me to a Hindu, Muslim or NASCAR level of goodness.  Invoking Jesus’ name, often done in attempt to communicate something good, may well communicate something else.  I would hate for my neighbors to say to themselves,  “Gosh, I would have shoveled Todd out just out of the goodness of my own heart and because he’s my neighbor, but he only does it because of his religion.” An act of religious zeal or duty, not genuine goodness or authentic compassion.

Ironically, there are times, I think, when the better witness for Jesus, is to not invoke His name. To make it out as if Jesus made you do it may send the message that you are less morally developed as a Christian, rather than more.