One day as Mother Teresa was working in the slums of Calcutta dressing the wounds of a dying leper, a tourist asked permission to take a photograph. The tourist, observing the tenderness with which Mother Teresa dressed the leper’s wound, said, “Sister, I wouldn’t do what you are doing for ten million dollars!”
What is it that drives people to do something out of the goodness of their heart with no expectation of reward? Are they motivated by an altruistic desire to help others in need? Do they sometimes hope deep down that someone is watching and impressed? Do they see themselves as the only one who can fill a particular need that’s not otherwise being addressed? Do they think it will look good on their résumé? Do they hope it will help them grow in some way? Do they feel it will help them find discover meaning and purpose in their lives?
Without a doubt there are many benefits to volunteering: It’s a great way to meet new people. You can learn skills that you might later put to use in the workplace. It allows you to connect more with your local community. When and for how long you volunteer is probably more flexible than where you’re employed. You get the sense that you’re making a difference.
I believe there’s a deeper root to any inclination we have to serve others without expectation of repayment. It goes back to the creation account in Genesis, the first book of the Bible, where God creates humanity in his image. In our appearance, reasoning, creativity, and compassion, we reflect something of God. Sin has certainly defaced God’s image in us, but it has not destroyed it. So if God is merciful and sacrificial, it stands to reason that beings created in his image also share these traits at least to some extent.
More than that, God is merciful and sacrificial without looking for repayment. Christians believe he offers us life through the death and resurrection of Jesus – the most wonderful gift which no one can ever repay. Yet he offers it freely. Therefore as God’s image-bearers, we are most fully human when we sacrifice without expecting something in return. I’d dare say it’s hardwired into us. We fight how God originally designed us when we are greedy, stingy, and selfish, first asking what’s in it for me.
Volunteering traces its roots back to that most ancient of commands: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” God gives us this command not just because he figures it’s good for us (which it is) but because through loving others in compassionate and sacrificial ways, we get at something central to what it means to be human.
The tourist remarked to Sister Teresa in Calcutta, “Sister, I wouldn’t do what you are doing for ten million dollars!” Sister Teresa replied, “Neither would I, my friend,” as she continued to tenderly dress the leper’s wounds.