We’ve all had influential people in our lives who remain unaware of the impact they had on us. An elementary school teacher who inspired us to dedicate our lives to educating others. An older friend of our family whose kindness and generosity we’ve tried to emulate. Maybe it’s a random stranger who, like a guardian angel, swooped in one day to help us in a life-threatening emergency, then left without our even getting her name.

Whoever these people are, they don’t know the extent to which their lives and actions touched our own. They go about their merry way, getting older and older, perhaps even thinking to themselves that they’ve accomplished very little in their small lives. They have no idea that, without them, we wouldn’t be who we are today.

And, in that way, these influential people are living reminders of the same kind of people that we’ll be after death.

Posthumous Good Deeds

We mistakenly assume that whatever good we accomplish ends with our last breath. Quite the contrary. In fact, I’d argue that our greatest achievements transpire while we’re in the grave. Our positive impact on others is largely posthumous.

In some cases, this is obvious. Emily Dickinson, for instance, was a Jane Doe during her lifetime. An eccentric recluse known only by family and friends. Fewer than a dozen of her poems were published. She was, as we say, a nobody. Not until after her death, when all her poems were discovered and published, did she become one of the most famous and influential poets of the world. Though she died childless, even after her death, Emily become a mother: a mother to countless progeny who, like her, grasp for winged words.

Less obvious, but nonetheless true, is how the same applies in the lives of all of us not-so-famous folk. One might say that we too, like Dickinson, are poets, but of a different variety. Our poems are incarnate as sons and daughters, grandchildren, younger siblings, nieces and nephews, all of whose lines and rhymes we help to write in the ways we love and guide them. Our poems are friends and colleagues, fellow church members, neighbors and strangers, with whom we share ideas, share faith, share compassion, share advice and wisdom.

And what is happening as we do this? We bequeath a little of ourselves to them. The students we teach. The children we raise. The friends we help. The strangers we welcome. They’re all human fields in which we sow small grains of kindness, generosity, and love. We give little bits of ourselves to them. And, as a result, they become more. Not only that, but they in turn have more to give to others—and these others to even more. This doesn’t happen overnight, of course. In fact, some of the seeds we sow will lay dormant for years, even decades, only coming to blossom long after our bodies have been sown into the soil of the grave. Who knows, it may even be that, 100 years from now, as a result of some small act of kindness we do today, someone’s life will be impacted in such a way that the ripple effect will go on from them to others, reaching its zenith after our body is but dust and ashes in a forgotten graveyard.

So we won’t be around to see the harvest. Like Dickinson, we’ll be in blissful ignorance of the impact of our life-poetry. We’ll be dead and gone, but our deeds will live after us in the lives of others.

Where the Good Things Run Wild

I find this understanding of the immortality of our good works especially encouraging because it exemplifies something else: the hiddenness of the Christian life. The followers of Jesus don’t pull out a pen-and-paper every night, list the good works they did that day, and rank them in order of importance and sanctity.

Besides being plain dumb, that would undermine the very reason good works are done—not for ourselves, but for others. Imagine a husband recounting to his wife, during pillow talk, all the ways he’s been such an awesome husband to her that day. We all know that would go well.

More importantly, making such a list is an impossibility because we remain unaware of the extent to which the Spirit is using us to work good in the lives of others. Our right hand doesn’t know what our left hand is doing. We might think all we’re doing is teaching Macbeth to yawning teenagers, or crunching numbers in our cubicle, or shoving another spoonful of Gerber’s carrots down our nine-month-old’s mouth, but the Spirit knows that we are writing poetry that only heaven’s ear can hear—poetry that might not be sung for many years to come.

So before our deaths, as well as after our deaths, we remain unaware of the extent to which the Spirit is at work within us. All we know is that Christ has called us to love our neighbor. So that’s what we try to do. How good or bad we are at that love, the extent to which that love makes an impact, the harvest from those seeds of love—all of that is none of our concern. It’s hidden from our eyes.

All we know is that we live by the grace of the God who has called us into a faith where there’s “room for good things to run wild,” as Chesterton so aptly put it. We don’t put a leash on these good things, or corral them so we can put our private brands on them, but let them run wild. Sanctification can’t be domesticated.

We are thus free. We don’t commercialize love to get a good return on our investment, but we love freely and thoughtlessly and haphazardly. We are free to do good without worrying about the outcome. We are, in other words, liberated from a life in which we measure our worth and confirm our identity by how much we’ve done. We rest in Christ, who is our identity and life, and who uses our own lives (and deaths), to stretch that love into the lives of others.