It’s an accepted truism that “you can’t please everyone.” And, as long as lazy people don’t use it as an excuse to ignore the preferences of those they are called to serve (i.e. their neighbor), it’s a useful one. But “useful” is not the same as easy.
I reckon it’s easy enough when we are letting down habitual complainers; it only takes most of us a few dozen iterations of going out of our way for them to realize that their problems cannot be fixed by trying to meet their expectations.
But what about reasonable people? What about those people who have real needs that we can address with our sacrificial service? Is it ever okay to let them down? Isn’t the whole point of ministry to serve the needs of others kenotically (i.e. as Christ did and does)? Don’t we ourselves preach against the hard-heartedness of the priest in the parable of the Good Samaritan?
It’s a great question, and I have to wonder about the priest that doesn’t experience the stress of its dilemma within the first few years of his priesthood. I still struggle with it.
So is it ever okay to let people down and to leave real needs unaddressed?
As best I can tell, the answer is … “No, of course it isn’t.” and “Yes, of course it is”.
Most people skip to straight to “Yes, of course it is okay”, so please let me explain the “No”. We live in a world that groans in sin. Every moment is wracked with the pain and suffering of innumerable souls. Our calling is to alleviate that pain and suffering. As long as there is grief in this world, it is our duty to be its salve. If there is a hungry child and I have food in my pantry, I am missing the mark. If there is a family that has no home and I have space in my house, I am missing the mark. If there is good to be done and I leave it undone, I am missing the mark. If there is evil in the world and I leave it unfought, I am missing the mark. When people voice their needs to me, I am being given an opportunity to incarnate the power of Christ in their life. When I leave fail to allow that to happen, I am missing the mark.
So yes, of course it is sinful to let people down and leave real needs unaddressed.
But let’s be honest; most of us aren’t called to serve in this manner all day, every day. Most of us all called to balance competing needs. If I were to leave my family hungry because I emptied my pantry to feed the hungry, I would miss the mark. If I were to put my family in danger by opening my home to the homeless, I would miss the mark. If I were to exhaust myself through battling evil and good deed-doing to the point that I was unable to meet the other righteous demands on my time (e.g. raise my children, partner with my wife, pastor my parish, mentor vocations, properly meet my own physical, mental, and spiritual needs), I would miss the mark.
So yes, while it is sinful to leave any good undone, it is also sinful to neglect our commitments, especially those that have a sacramental character (e.g. baptism/chrismation, marriage, and ordination to parish service).
This means that we have to admit that it is okay to let people down and to leave real needs unmet. But, more importantly, it leads us to admit that sin is unavoidable in this world.
I know that many people – probably most people (to include better trained theologians than me) will reject this understanding. And I admit that I may be wrong. Their most common defense seems to assume that if you pick the best possible solution that you are choosing the sinless option (this is the secular approach, BTW; it is also one of the few moral disagreements I have with conservative Jewish commentator, Dennis Prager). I would assume that the 2016 presidential election demonstrated the poverty of this approach, but there you go.
So where does that leave us? It’s like everything else:
- We do the best we can (using Orthodox methods of discernment etc. and seeking to do better each day).
- We go to confession regularly (repenting and accepting absolution even for those choices we cannot imagine improving upon).
So, how often do you go to confession? Me? I’m a regular.