Embracing The “Magnificent Obsession”
By Maurice Smith
It’s About More Than Just Paying It Forward
The concept of doing good and “paying it forward” is not new. No, not even in the 2000 movie starring Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt and Haley Joel Osment. And therein lies a story worth telling.
Perhaps you remember the name, Lloyd C. Douglas. If not, allow me to fill in the blank spaces. Lloyd Douglas (August 27, 1877 – February 13, 1951) was a Lutheran pastor who became one of the most popular American authors of his time, although he didn’t write his first novel until he was fifty (yes, there’s still hope for the rest of us “late bloomers”!). Douglas is best remembered for his book, and the 1953 movie adaptation, The Robe. That book sold more than 2 million copies, making it a publishing blockbuster for its time. But Douglas’ first book was a novel entitled Magnificent Obsession. Published in 1929, the book was an immediate and sensational success, twice made into a major movie (in 1935 and again in 1954). The title comes from “the magnificent obsession that grows from doing good deeds” which Douglas based upon Jesus’ teachings in the gospels concerning good deeds done quietly and anonymously (the whole “left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing”thing). At the time of their respective releases, both movie adaptations were well received by a public which regarded them as reflecting a simple biblical truth: Good deeds matter.
And that’s where we begin to discover the profound difference between Pay It Forward on the one hand and Magnificent Obsession on the other. One is rooted and grounded in Postmodern existentialism (the personal philosophy of living in and for the moment), while the other is rooted and grounded in timeless biblical truth as taught by Jesus and the early Church. Standing on its own, the philosophy of Pay It Forward represents good deeds divorced from anything greater than the individual performing the deed, the deed itself and “the moment” (for more, see our article, “And That’s Why Harvard Can’t Teach Ethics”). Think of Pay It Forward as a sailing ship populated by a well-meaning crew which desires to do good. But it’s a ship with no sail to move it along, no compass to give it direction and no rudder with which to steer. In fact, one of the frequent points made by critics of the movie centered on the blatant attempt by the movie-makers to keep people engaged with the plot by means of emotional manipulation. While that might be good movie-making (questionable), any movement driven by adrenaline, feelings and emotional manipulation is doomed to long-term exhaustion and irrelevance, in spite of any good intentions on the part of its promoters and a myriad of internet websites.
A Longer-Term Perspective
“So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 7:12)
The concept of “pay it forward” actually mirrors a simple biblical truth taught to children in Christian Sunday Schools for well over 200 years (Sunday Schools were a product of the Evangelical Awakening in England to provide basic education to the poor, but that’s another story for another day). It is best known as “The Golden Rule”: do to others as you would have them do to you. Treat others as you would want to be treated if your situations were reversed. From a biblical perspective, “pay it forward” mirrors the teaching of Jesus in Luke 6 where Jesus tells His disciples, “. . . love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:35-36) What is missing in the world of “pay it forward” is a sustainable underlying philosophy which roots “good” in any objective reality greater than personal existential decision making based on what makes us “feel good” about ourselves and about doing good toward others.
In a biblical worldview, good deeds are neither random nor emotion-driven. Good deeds are personal and intentional. They represent the outward expression of an inward transformation driven by clear biblical instruction and reinforced by the inward conviction of the Holy Spirit. And, yes, that kind of “doing good” for the right reasons can also make us “feel good” about doing the right thing for the right reason. For the Christian, our worldview sustains us in doing good during those times when doing good is the harder choice and the more difficult path. We are commanded to do good to all men (see Galatians 6:10). It’s important to point out that this is a command, not a pay-it-forward suggestion. We are expected to forgive others in the same way that we have been forgiven (i.e., unconditionally, Ephesians 4:32). We are encouraged to not give up in doing good, even when we are weary in the doing (2 Thessalonians 3:13; Galatians 6:9). And we are reminded that there are eternal consequences for our obedience (or disobedience) in doing good (Matthew 25:31ff). We are not “altruists” who engage in good-for-good-sake without any clear definition of what constitutes good. We are “disciples of the Kingdom” who do good-for-God’s-sake toward people created in His image, and who are objects of His redemptive love.
A Genuine Movement Kindness And Good Deeds
“. . . love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:35-36)
On various occasions, I have written about the idea of a “conspiracy” of kindness and good deeds. Our English word “conspire” comes from the Latin meaning “to breathe together.” It suggests both intentionality and unity of purpose. It also suggests a degree of thoughtfulness that goes beyond random acts of kindness and simply “paying it forward.” A conspiracy suggests an intentional, thoughtful movement with a unity of purpose. Like yeast in bread, such a movement grows in secret. Like a mustard seed (among the tiniest of seeds), such a movement may start small, but its small beginning hides its true size and significance.
I believe it’s time to embrace a genuine, thoughtful, and biblical conspiracy; a movement which reveals itself in an intentional lifestyle of kindness and good deeds; a movement which reflects the goodness of God and the values of His Kingdom; a movement of both inward and outward good. It both LOOKS good outwardly (it is outwardly appealing) and IS good intrinsically (it rests on a firm moral and spiritual foundation). It mirrors both the intrinsic goodness of God and the outward beauty of His holiness. It reflects the kindness and graciousness of God while embodying His mercy and compassion toward those in need. It is a movement to intentionally and thoughtfully demonstrate what it means to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Welcome to the movement. Not it’s your turn to get involved, do good and make a difference.