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The Lesson of the Brown Paper Bag

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It was a cold, gray day as I shuffled home from school on a January afternoon in 1959. Even as snow began swirling about me in the blustery Wisconsin wind, it felt good to escape the confines of my stuffy fourth-grade school classroom.

As I turned the corner and began walking up the street to complete my five-block journey home, there on the sidewalk in front of me lay a crumpled little brown paper bag. Nothing seemed unusual about it—just a simple, small lunch sack, the kind my mother often gave me to take to school. But rather than kick it out of the way or just ignore it, I picked it up to look inside.

As I opened it, my eyes widened with surprise and excitement—there in the bottom lay a $20 bill! Of course, $20 may not seem like much today, but in 1959 it had about the same buying power that $150 does now.

This was an amazingly huge sum, especially to a 10-year-old unaccustomed to seeing such a large bill! As I pulled it from the bag, I began sprinting home to show my mother this incredible treasure. Running breathlessly through the back door into our house, I shouted, "Mom, you have to see what I found!"

As my mother listened carefully to my story and the plans I had to spend my newfound wealth, she burst my bubble. "John," she said, "It's very likely the person who lost this money is searching for it. Shouldn't we try to return it to its rightful owner? Why don't we call the police to ask what we should do."

Reluctantly I agreed since I knew she was right. After all, my parents had always instructed my brothers and sisters and me to be honest and truthful and to do what was correct.

Mom then called the police department, and an officer recommended that we bring the money to the station. He explained that it would be kept in a vault for six months and then, if unclaimed during that time, returned to us. Indeed, no one claimed the money in that period, so we returned to the police station to retrieve it.

This minor event from my formative years made a big impact on me. My mother could just as easily have said, "Finders-keepers," and the money would have been mine immediately. But, being a woman of character with a desire to teach an important lesson in proper values to one of her children, she gave me a critical lesson about being concerned for and caring about others.

So why tell you this story? Because it's not simply a narrative about me finding a $20 bill in a little brown paper bag and my mother's advice and our actions. Rather, there's a bigger principle involved with a critical message for our day and time.

A selfish world

It's no secret that our world is in serious trouble. The news is often filled with reports of people's disregard for one another. We hear of endless episodes of corruption, deceit, dishonesty, immorality, crime, rape and murder. There are constant threats of violence, terrorism and warfare. Millions live in hopelessness, discouragement, fear and worry. Hatred, hostility and antagonism are the regular companions of people everywhere.

But why? Why do we find ourselves in this state of affairs?

The answer is that too often people don't really care about others or do what is right. As an example, I read a news report about an owner who mistakenly entered the wrong price for fuel into the computer at his rural convenience store. He mistakenly left the "3" off the price of $3.59 per gallon. The owner estimated that 50 to 75 customers filled up before the mistake was discovered, costing him more than $4,000.

Of all those who had fueled their vehicles, only one—an 18-year-old young man—was honest and truthful enough to return later and pay the full amount. But what about the scores of other people who bought the fuel? Undoubtedly they must have known something was wrong, but they had no interest in doing what was right.

We see other such incidents, showing widespread disrespect toward others, repeated day after day throughout the world. The wise biblical admonition known as the Golden Rule is constantly disregarded: "Do to others as you would like them to do to you" (Luke 6:31, New Living Translation). In other words, people commonly ignore what I would call "the lesson of the little brown paper bag." They look out for themselves and their interests while ignoring the hurt, loss and injury of others.

This is certainly a self-centered, selfish outlook, but it goes much deeper than that. All too often people want to decide for themselves what is right and wrong. They want to live by their own rules, values and standards. This attitude can be deadly because, as God's Word tells us twice, "There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death" (Proverbs 14:12; 16:25).

A "way of death"? To be sure, it's an approach that guarantees distressing, miserable results that can and do end in destruction.

Those consequences are summed up in Hosea 4:6, where God says, "My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge." What knowledge? The knowledge of obedience to God's eternal, spiritual laws expressed in the Ten Commandments and in other statutes outlined in His Word, the Bible.

Living laws

These timeless, divine laws are designed to benefit each individual as well as his neighbor. They're not just "religious instruction" reserved only for churchgoers. Rather, our Creator God set in motion living laws that govern all human relationships. If these laws are broken, they bring severe penalties resulting in suffering. If they are diligently obeyed, everything good is produced.

While human beings have discovered the unseen laws of science that control our physical universe, such as the law of gravity, they often refuse to recognize that there are invisible laws governing interactions between people. Some of these laws can be discovered by trial and error, but all of them are categorized and made plain through God's revelation in the Scriptures.

The first four of the Ten Commandments explain how to give respect and honor to God. The remaining six can be summarized as outgoing concern for the good and welfare of others. Once again, we might call this "the way of the little brown paper bag."

The reason human relationships are often in turmoil is that people habitually reject this giving, caring, thoughtful way of life and choose instead the way of selfishness. As a result, they are not in harmony with their Creator's laws, which are designed to help everyone successfully interact with each other.

If people break these instructions, the penalties consequently break them, just like trying to thwart the physical law of gravity. This simply means that God's living laws contain natural enforcement—penalties for their disobedience and rewards for obedience.

When people obey God's laws they not only help themselves and others, but they show esteem and reverence toward their Creator. Sadly, people often won't recognize or acknowledge those divine pronouncements and persistently and stubbornly attempt to determine good and evil on their own.

Is it any wonder then that mankind's decision-making process, using human reasoning apart from God's revelation, has produced crushing discontent and suffering down through time? The prophet Jeremiah summarized humankind's dilemma when he wrote, "O Lord, I know the way of man is not in himself; it is not in man who walks to direct his own steps" (Jeremiah 10:23).

The way to peace and happiness

Considering the often-dismal record of human relationships, is society simply doomed to continue along a path of anguish and adversity? Is it even possible that people can come to learn how to live at peace with one other?

The fact is, there is a way that can lead to happiness and peace for everyone. Contentment and success can be attained and people can learn to really care for one another. Does this sound too good to be true? It isn't. Anyone who is willing to search for those qualities can discover and implement them.

When people are given the knowledge of God and come to understand His laws and His plan and purpose, they must personally and individually take it to heart! They must turn from going their own selfish way and begin to follow God.

The apostle James explains that doing so requires profound repentance, careful obedience and faith. "So get rid of all the filth and evil in your lives, and humbly accept the word God has planted in your hearts, for it has the power to save your souls. But don't just listen to God's word. You must do what it says. Otherwise, you are only fooling yourselves" (James 1:21-22, New Living Translation, emphasis added).

God wants you and me to really listen to Him and then do what He says. Why? Because it's for our own good and the good of others and because it honors Him as our Creator (Deuteronomy 30:19). He wants us to live by His Word because it is the foundation of all knowledge. The Scriptures are designed "to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus" (2 Timothy 3:15).

A new day will dawn

We can obtain that very wisdom and enjoy its great blessings both in this life and the next. But we must continually and deliberately focus on going God's way, even as the world as a whole persists in traveling down its old, weary road to destruction. Actually, we can be on the leading edge of an exciting new day that will dawn for all humanity!

Jesus Christ announced the coming of that time with His wonderful news of the Kingdom of God (Matthew 24:14). In that day He will return to earth to establish God's righteous government (Revelation 11:15; 1 Thessalonians 4:16).

From that time forward humanity will finally end its long journey of stumbling from bad to worse as we try to decide right from wrong for ourselves. Instead, people will actively be taught the laws of God in a reorganized global system of right education. "Many people shall come and say, 'Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; He will teach us His ways, and we shall walk in His paths. For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem'" (Isaiah 2:3).

Every aspect of life will be changed in that coming new worldwide government based on God's commandments. Prosperity, joy and happiness will be the result of true, godly knowledge being carefully taught and observed. "For the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea" (Isaiah 11:9). You and I can have a part in that impending awesome future! We can help Christ rule in justice, morality, generosity and selflessness (Revelation 5:10).

Although the $20 bill and the little brown paper bag I found on that cold January afternoon in 1959 are long gone, the lesson my mother instilled in me continues to this day. I'm glad I've had the opportunity to share it with you. I encourage you to take it to heart and act on the knowledge of God. 

Together, let us prepare now for the wonderful coming time when everyone everywhere will deeply care about the needs and feelings of others and will strive to always do what is right. What a marvelous time that will be. I hope to see you there!