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‘Forget the Community’: The Danger of Putting Neighbor Before God

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Dorothy Sayers“If we put our neighbor first, we are putting man above God, and that is what we have been doing ever since we began to worship humanity and make man the measure of all things. Whenever man is made the center of things, he becomes the storm center of trouble – and that is precisely the catch about serving the community.” –Dorothy Sayers

In orienting our perspective on work and stewardship, one of the best starting points is Lester DeKoster’s view about work being service to neighbor and thus to God. And yet, even here, we ought to be attentive about the order of things, keeping in mind Samuel’s reminder that “to obey is better than sacrifice.”

It may seem overly picky, but it may be more accurate to say that our work is service to God, and thus to neighbor. For without obedience to God, service to neighbor will be severely limited at best, and wholly destructive at worst.

I was reminded of this when reading Dorothy Sayers’ popular essay, “Why Work?”, which she concludes by offering a strong warning against various calls to “serve the community” — a challenge she describes as “the most revolutionary of them all.”

“The only way to serve the community is to forget the community and serve the work,” she writes, meaning that only when we work for the glory of God can we hope for the flourishing of our neighbors (and selves). “The danger of ‘serving the community’ is that one is part of the community, and that in serving it one may only be serving a kind of communal egotism,” she continues.

As a foundation, Sayers reminds us that Jesus doesn’t mention our neighbors until the second greatest commandment:

The popular catchphrase of today is that it is everybody’s duty to serve the community, but there is a catch in it. It is the old catch about the two great commandments. “Love God – and your neighbor: on those two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”

The catch in it, which nowadays the world has largely forgotten, is that the second commandment depends upon the first, and that without the first, it is a delusion and a snare. Much of our present trouble and disillusionment have come from putting the second commandment before the first.

She follows this with three reasons for “serving the work” (i.e. serving God), which I’ve preceded with my own headers:

1. Serving God Will Result in Good Service

The first is that you cannot do good work if you take your mind off the work to see how the community is taking it – any more than you can make a good drive from the tee if you take your eye off the ball. “Blessed are the single hearted: (for that is the real meaning of the word we translate “the pure in heart”). If your heart is not wholly in the work, the work will not be good – and work that is not good serves neither God nor the community; it only serves mammon…

The only true way of serving the community is to be truly in sympathy with the community, to be oneself part of the community and then to serve the work without giving the community another thought. Then the work will endure, because it will be true to itself. It is the work that serves the community; the business of the worker is to serve the work.

2. Serving God Is a Labor of Pure Love

The second reason is that the moment you think of serving other people, you begin to have a notion that other people owe you something for your pains; you begin to think that you have a claim on the community. You will begin to bargain for reward, to angle for applause, and to harbor a grievance if you are not appreciated. But if your mind is set upon serving the work, then you know you have nothing to look for; the only reward the work can give you is the satisfaction of beholding its perfection. The work takes all and gives nothing but itself; and to serve the work is a labor of pure love.

3. Serving God Orients Our Work Beyond Temporal Demands

And thirdly, if you set out to serve the community, you will probably end by merely fulfilling a public demand – and you may not even do that. A public demand is a changeable thing. Nine-tenths of the bad plays put on in theaters owe their badness to the fact that the playwright has aimed at pleasing the audience, in stead of at producing a good and satisfactory play. Instead of doing the work as its own integrity demands that it should be done, he has falsified the play by putting in this or that which he thinks will appeal to the groundlings (who by that time have probably come to want something else), and the play fails by its insincerity. The work has been falsified to please the public, and in the end even the public is not pleased. As it is with works of art, so it is with all work.

One might easily twist and over-spiritualize such matters, of course, using these reasons as justification for other types of selfish or silly behavior. “God told me to do X,” even when it serves no one, meets no need, and satisfies numerous unhealthy desires. There are competing risks in such balancing attempts, which is why we also ought to be wary of what Oswald Chambers calls “self-chosen service for God.”

As we pursue vocational clarity, the needs and demands of the community are a valid input we should seriously consider, just as the fruit of our work is a primary indicator of a Gospel-driven life. Indeed, Sayers’ fundamental point is that work that serves God first will, in turn, meet deeper needs, bear better fruit, and come from a purer heart than would otherwise manifest through our own humanistic perspectives. “If work is to find its right place in the world, it is the duty of the Church to see to it that the work serves God, and that the worker serves the work,” she concludes.

Although some might worry about this leading to some sort of anxious legalism, the result will be quite the opposite. When we are wary of the spiritual dangers of doing good, we can more boldly and freely obey God’s call over our lives. When we seek Him first, leaning not our own understanding or our own altruistic designs, he will make our paths straight, and the community will prosper in turn.

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Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Foundation for Economic Education, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

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