Dumpster Diving for Good Deeds

She’s standing in front of the dumpster. The grayish brown of life on the road staining her face and clothing. Her eyes scanning the parking lot like a sentry. I roll up behind the convenience store; she hears the swoosh of the air brakes and pivots in my direction. In her sunken eyes that forlorn stare. I knew she would come to me. And she did. I step down from the truck as she walks up, wringing dirty hands. “Sir,” she says, “could you help me?” Now I’m not there to help. I’m there for a cup of coffee. I’m there because it’s one of the few stores in the area with a parking lot spacious enough for my semi. I’m there to put my feet up on the dash for thirty minutes and just breathe.

“My husband and me, we just got to San Antonio last night. We slept under the bridge. Ain’t had nothin’ to eat.” Then pointing, she says, “He’s in the dumpster, digging around, looking for us something.”

Strange how my mind can become almost schizophrenic at times like this. Instantly, I hear this jumble of competing voices in my head, “She’s scamming you…You should help her….God, she stinks…What are they running from?...You’re a Christian…Make an excuse…She’s probably on drugs…Jesus is watching you….Why should I give a damn?…You just ate two slices of pizza...Buy her something…Maybe God will pay you back…“For I was hungry and you fed me not”…Thanksgiving is coming…All I wanted was coffee…”

I walk on as the voices continue their cacophonous debate. I mutter a cowardly noncommittal, “I’ll see what I can do," and disappear around the corner, into the store.

One of the sad truths I realized about myself long ago is that I do nothing from completely spic-and-span motives. I mean nothing. When I hear someone say that they’re “utterly sincere” or they’re doing something “from pure motives,” I smell a lie. In this world, where we still lug around a nature that's selfish to the core, a nature that has its finger in everything we do, there is no 100% purity. Even if I decided to help this hungry, homeless couple, I wouldn’t be doing it only for the right reasons. Yes, I'd be doing it because I wanted to help them, but also because the wife had guilted me into it; because I’d feel better about myself afterward; because maybe God would then be good to me; because I could write a blog and tell all of you about it; because of a million self-serving reasons. It wasn’t really the woman’s husband who was digging through the trash; it was me, dumpster diving for good deeds.

About five minutes later, I walk out of the store. They’re slouched around a rusting table, their backpacks and plastic bags heaped about them. At the man’s feet is an old Dr. Pepper box crammed with sausages and corn dogs he’s scrounged from the trash. They look up. I hand them a bag with a couple of submarine sandwiches inside. “I hope this helps,” I say. They thank me profusely. He shakes my hand; I can feel the grease and the grime. He tells me, “God bless you.'' I say the same and walk away.

Good deeds, they’re a messy thing, aren't they? Put the best of them under a microscope and you’ll still find traces of hypocritical dirt, bits of selfish trash stuck to them. Put them to your nose and take a deep whiff; there's the faint hint of a dumpster about them. Even when we try to do something for godly, loving reasons, the hands that do it are still the unwashed hands of a sinner. As Isaiah says, ''All our righteousness is as menstrual rags,'' (64:6). And if such be our righteousness, how bad must be our unrighteousness.

But here’s the good news: in the end, it doesn’t really matter. You see, our failed attempts at good deeds are fixed, cleansed, made truly good because of someone else's good deeds.

Jesus died not only for our sins; He died for our good works as well. His perfect sacrifice perfects those imperfect strivings of ours to do what is right. He’s the only one who’s ever done anything from completely unselfish, loving, others-oriented motives. So even as I pray that He will forgive my sins, I pray that He will forgive the pollutants in my good deeds. I need His blood to wash away the traces of hypocritical dirt, the bits of selfish trash stuck to my acts of charity. And He does. God does indeed love a cheerful giver, but He also loves the forgiven giver, all for the sake of Jesus.

So, yes, I'll pray for a cleaner heart. I'll work on my less-than-chivalrous motives. I'll try to be a better person. But I know that, no matter how good or bad I wind up being, every time I hand a sandwich to the hungry, it'll actually be the hand of Jesus that is stretched out to give. He's got me covered. And He does all things well, even for the likes of me.