When I think back to recess in my elementary school days, I remember swings and slides, games of foursquare and tag – and a frequently overheard phrase: “Mind your own business.”
Though no one ever liked being told that, I don’t recall many ever questioning the command. There just seemed to be an intuitive sense of the rightness of staying out of what other kids were doing, especially if they weren’t hurting anyone.
When we see or hear about people acting in a way we don’t agree with, it can be tempting to cast judgment or feel self-righteous. But I’ve found that the concept of not being a busybody, meddling in others’ business, is more than simply a children’s playground rule.
Paul’s counsel, “Work out your own salvation” (Philippians 2:12), helps us understand that we’re not responsible for other people’s thoughts and actions. It’s right to allow people their individual paths of growth, learning experiences, and ways of letting their light shine. This doesn’t mean we disregard wrongdoing or become indifferent to those around us. But we don’t need to denigrate others or adopt a sanctimonious attitude.
Further, Paul’s statement has helped me realize that we have our own work to be doing! We’re each responsible for our own thinking and behavior. The founder of Christian Science and the Monitor, Mary Baker Eddy, writes in “Miscellaneous Writings 1883-1896”: “Great mischief comes from attempts to steady other people’s altars, venturing on valor without discretion, which is virtually meddlesomeness. Even your sincere and courageous convictions regarding what is best for others may be mistaken; you must be demonstratively right yourself, and work out the greatest good to the greatest number, before you are sure of being a fit counsellor” (pp. 287-288).
I’ve found that if I’m giving my own thoughts and activities the attention they deserve, it keeps me plenty busy. Striving to express more fully qualities such as love, selflessness, kindness, and humility is a moment-by-moment choice, and one that can take great dedication. But because God, divine Love, made us in His spiritual image (see Genesis 1:26), it’s natural for us to express these qualities, rather than giving in to the temptation to feel self-satisfied, condemn others, or meddle.
This effort to think and act in accord with who we are as God’s likeness blesses those around us, too. Letting God’s goodness fill our thought and expressing these God-derived qualities, even when another may not be demonstrating them himself, sets an important example for others and helps us fulfill Christ Jesus’ command that we love our neighbor.
One year when I was in college, I had a dorm mate who regularly skipped class and often asked professors for extensions on assignments she hardly tried to complete on time. Instead, she spent a great deal of time partying and drinking with friends from a nearby university. I was appalled by what I felt was her squandering of the opportunities provided her as a student at this college.
It occurred to me one day, though, that I was taking on this woman’s behavior as my own personal burden – indeed, the extent of my judgment was such that I rarely felt at peace when I was around her. I realized that my business was not to mentally chastise this person or allow the situation to consume my thought, but to live my highest sense of right in my own life and in my interactions with others – and to know that each of us is the creation of God, who is good, and therefore we are all capable of expressing Godlike qualities.
As I considered the nature of man as God’s reflection, endowed with innate Godlike qualities, I realized how unnatural it was to entertain self-righteousness; and then that feeling dissolved. I was able to greet this woman with a genuine smile, rather than quietly fume, when I saw her. I also felt a deeper sense of diligence and richness in my own experience.
It seemed that this woman was doing her own growing, too. When we had a class together the next year, she was always present and prepared.
Our real business is to express God, to be true to who we are as His reflection – an identity that includes love without personal condemnation. The less we meddle in others’ affairs, the more we can work on demonstrating meekness, joy, and kindness – the kinds of qualities inherent in all of us as God’s spiritual likeness – in our own lives. This blesses not only us, but those around us, too.