y home is full of books. Some are on bookshelves, most are piled on tables — my desk, the dining room table, the buffet table, end tables, nightstands — with the rest piled in loose stacks on the floor. My wife calls it a mess. But I see the beauty in such an untidy arrangement. For one thing, I am always surrounded by books, which is a book lover’s dream. And for another, I think God speaks to me through the mess. Often, when I find myself stuck on a difficult problem and I am just about to give up, my eye will catch sight of a dusty little title half-way up a stack, and that book (which I usually have forgotten I owned) will contain the help I needed.
It was in just this way that I came across Aesop’s fables. I had been thinking for some time about what makes a man good with little progress. Most, I think, would argue a man’s actions define him, that good actions make a good man. Which is certainly true to a point. No one would consider a man who continuously lies and murders to be good. But what about the man who does an even mix of good and bad? Or what about the man who daily commits of multitude of peccadilloes but every once in a while does something extraordinarily kind and merciful? Or the man who daily leaves a trail of good deeds but every now and then stumbles to commit some heinous sin? The issue gets complicated quickly. We have no good way to compare acts of benevolence with acts of sin. And even if we did, actions alone often tell us little about the character of the man doing them since we cannot see into his heart. Good men often do things that, to the outside world, appear bad; and bad men often do things that, to everyone, appear good.
Then I thought, maybe it is not mere action, but intention that defines a man — maybe the desire to do good is what counts. But, again, I was foiled in this line of thinking because often the intentions of an evil man can be very good. Jesus said evil fathers know how to give their children good gifts. Surely these evil fathers intend good for their children. And I recall Caesar was a man who gave gifts and did favors, even at times showed mercy. Surely Caesar, being evil, had good intentions for his countrymen. If intention is the standard, then I am no closer in knowing what makes a man good, since evil men often have good intentions.
I was about to shelve the whole matter when I happened upon my children’s copy of Aesop’s fables, and, having a free moment, decided to flip through them. A bit later I landed on The Wolf and the Crane and stopped to read. When I finished I knew the answer.
Here was a tale about a crane who did a very good deed: that of saving another life. And it was not by accident either — she was trying to save the wolf’s life, she had the best intention. Yet she walked away from the whole encounter disappointed because the wolf withheld her promised reward. It seemed like such an absurd reaction. A good man would be happy to have even a small part in saving another’s life, reward or not. Yet the crane was utterly crushed. Then the simple truth hit me: the crane was self-serving. Saving the wolf’s life was the means to an end, an end that benefited the crane. She wanted to profit off the wolf’s misfortune. And all at once I saw the difference between a good man and an evil one — the good man loves others more than himself, the evil man loves himself more than others.
If the crane had loved the wolf more than herself, then she would have walked away happy, knowing that she helped someone she loved. A reward you could put in your pocket wouldn’t have mattered then. The reward was helping another. A man who loves others more than himself is protected on every side from disappointment or failure because his joy comes from giving, which he can do endlessly, not receiving, which must always involve juggling competing interests over finite things.
So I have my answer. A good man loves. Which is not surprising since this is what God does, and God is perfect goodness. But here comes the difficultly — we are measured not just by our love toward those closest to us, or toward those who show us love in return, but by our love toward the unloveliest among us. This is the ultimate yardstick. It is easy to love those who love us in return; much harder to love those who return our kindness with ingratitude or hate. With those we very easily slip into the bargaining mindset: we love them for a reward, which could be money or favors — or maybe the glory of saying we loved someone who didn’t love us in return. The crane failed because she did the right thing but with the wrong heart.
How do we get the right heart? By never bargaining. We must make the well-being of others the sole purpose in our kindnesses. There should be no ulterior motive. Of course, we may fail, and all our little kindnesses may fall flat. The person we are loving may twist our benevolence into new ways of doing evil, like the wolf, but the attempt will make us better. That is our first reward. And if we are fortunate enough to have the other person experience our love and change for the better—that is, love in return—then that is our second reward.
When I finished that last paragraph, I turned in my chair and caught sight of Thomas Traherne’s Centuries on my desk. I opened it and these are the first words I read:
“When you love men, the world quickly becometh yours: and yourself become a greater treasure than the world is. For all their persons are your treasures, and all the things in Heaven and Earth that serve them, are yours. For those are the riches of Love, which minister to its Object.”
Like I said, God speaks through the mess.