A Little Is Enough

There's a difference between accomplishing "big" things and accomplishing useful things.

We’re often reminded that “bigger is not better”—but it’s a deceptively hard lesson to learn. Little kids often and easily become upset because their brother or sister got a bigger Christmas present than they did (never mind how expensive their own present was). Older kids—that is, adults—are easily impressed by big houses or big muscles or machines with big engines. Of course, we also learn before too long that “good things come in small packages.” For example, when I bought my wife her engagement ring, that was far and away the “biggest” purchase I had ever made at that point. As we get older, we learn to break free of this obsession with “bigger” in more subtle ways: we learn to respect the power of the mind, which has no size at all. When we get older still, we learn to respect the power of the heart.

But an arena in which we tend to stay stuck in “bigger is better” thinking is that of our accomplishments. To put it more simply, we believe we should—or wish we could—“do big things.” Of course, just like we know that good things come in small packages, we know (because we’ve been told) that humble, “unremarkable” lives are often the most rewarding, and, at any rate, most real kinds of lives. But who, in the depths of their heart, believes that? Who is content with the idea that they probably will not accomplish great things, with the idea that history probably will not remember them? How many of us cling, deep inside, to some secret dream of greatness? How many of us are secretly disappointed by the “unremarkable” quality of our lives?

We know that it’s silly to feel this way. It’s obvious that we can’t all be heroes. Nor can we all be vice presidents of midsize companies, or managers at the local store. Someone has to work the entry-level job. Not everyone gets to “reach the top” before they retire. And it’s pretty obvious that all of this really isn’t important in the Lord’s eyes. He could scarcely care less whether we made ten dollars an hour or ten thousand—the value of our accomplishments completely and utterly fades in face of the significance of the spiritual choices that we make. We know this, but it’s easy to forget it; that’s why the Lord reminds us so often that a little is enough. He says:

He who receives a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet’s reward. And he who receives a righteous man in the name of a righteous man shall receive a righteous man’s reward. And whoever gives one of these little ones only a cup of cold water in the name of a disciple, assuredly, I say to you, he shall by no means lose his reward. (Matt. 10:41-42)

This passage is about our motives for doing good things. “Receiving a prophet in a prophet’s name” means receiving the truth because it is true; “receiving a righteous man in the name of a righteous man” means doing good because it is good—not because we profit by doing it. To do something “in a disciple’s name” is to do it because (even if only in a small way) we see that the Lord has taught it, and we believe that what the Lord has taught is good. A “cup of cold water” symbolizes just a little truth. “Little ones” simply means children, but it also symbolizes innocence. When we understand these things, the teaching that “whoever gives one of these little ones only a cup of cold water in the name of a disciple… shall by no means lose His reward” becomes a powerful one. The Lord is telling us that the little spiritual gifts we offer to one another—even the littlest of them—are significant. When we nurture the innocent, or when we support and satisfy the innocence in another person, we’re doing something powerful.

These ideas are echoed in another of the Lord’s teachings:

Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, “Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink?  When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?” And the King will answer and say to them, “Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.” (Matt. 25:37-39)

When we do what is good, we’re doing nothing less than ministering to the Lord Himself. We’re bringing joy to the King of heaven and earth—and how can that be insignificant? Humble acts of charity hold great things within them.

When Elijah was in despair, the Lord sent an angel to bring him a little bread and a little water. And we’re told, “[Elijah] arose, and ate and drank; and he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights as far as Horeb, the mountain of God” (1 Kings 19:8). The message is that a little of God’s power is all we need—a little of His love and a little of His truth will see us through anything.

The startling truth is that the Lord invites us to be the angels who bring these gifts. In the teachings of the New Church we’re told, “God loves each and every human being; and because He cannot do good to them directly, but only indirectly by means of other people, He therefore breathes into people His love” (TCR §457.3). When we serve one another—when we feed those who are spiritually hungry and give drink to those who are spiritually thirsty—we’re serving the Lord, and His power is present. To give our brothers and sisters “only a cup of cold water in a disciple’s name” may in fact be to give them the same sustenance that the Lord gave Elijah, sustenance that turned despair into perseverance. The simplest good thing has the Lord within it. And what is more significant, more enduring, and more powerful than the presence of the Lord?

—Rev. Jared Buss, February 2020