Transforming Lives By Getting Involved

by Amy Sherman

Good News, May/June 1999

The Church faces in this day a great challenge in light of the remarkable national welfare reforms passed near the end of 1996 by our Congress. Politicians, community activists, journalists, bureaucrats, and academics are all looking to the faith community to accomplish what the federal government has largely been unable to accomplish; namely, moving poor families out of poverty.

And so the question before the Church is: "Are we ready to become self-denying, risk-taking people who pour out our lives in loving service to our needy neighbors?" I think it is undeniable that we ought to do this. With more than 400 verses in Scripture calling us to imitate God’s passion for the poor and vulnerable, it is clear that this is something that God wants his Church to do. But what is so wonderful about Christianity is that God does give us an additional motivation to do what we ought to do—he promises incredible blessings and rewards for our obedience. When we, in love, pursue our neighbors’ welfare, we are ourselves enriched.

What wealth is ours to experience if we pursue our neighbor’s welfare with the same zeal we employ in pursuing our own welfare! What gifts we will receive by not merely assisting the poor, but actually entangling our lives with them through face-to-face relationships.

It is only a certain kind of merciful outreach among the poor that yields the harvest of gifts. It is from what I call "relational, holistic" mercy ministry that we gain these gifts. A commodified mercy—through which we give poor people things and money, rather than giving them ourselves and our time—does not yield these treasures.

We in the Church have sometimes been guilty of giving the poor irrelevant gifts; gifts not well-matched to their truest and deepest needs. We’ve given people money when they needed budget counseling. We’ve given them groceries when they needed job training. We’ve given them used clothing when they needed love to overcome an addiction.

We have been guilty of a cheap benevolence that wants only to help the poor, but isn’t willing to know them. We’ve tried to make mercy into an arms-length, clinical thing. We have strayed far from the example of the Good Samaritan, who did not toss canned goods and a religious tract at the wounded traveler along the Jericho Road. He got up close and personal with the man, dirtying his own hands as he bandaged the man’s wounds. Mercy is not a sterile word. The merciful get their hands dirty; the merciful get their shirt sleeves smudged with other people’s mascara and tears. True mercy is, as the church father Gregory of Nyssa taught many centuries ago, "a voluntary sorrow that joins itself to the suffering of another." This is the entanglement we need. We entangle our lives and we share the suffering. And by God’s wonderful grace, this very mercy leads to our own enrichment. We gain at least six wonderful gifts through the enriching entanglement of loving our neighbor’s welfare.

Gift 1: Agitation. First, we gain the gift of agitation. As John Piper has noted, the New Testament Church was in the posture of the longing bride, waiting at the altar for the appearing of the bridegroom. The bride is filled with a "holy discontent" over the absence of her bridegroom. The bride is keenly aware of—and acutely impatient with—the "not-yet-ness" of the kingdom of God. The bride, the Church, is supposed to be crying out "Maranatha! Come Lord Jesus!" That’s what the first century Church did. But can we report that this is the posture of the American church today? I think not. Why do we not long more for Christ’s return?

Isn’t it because we’re rather happy just the way things are? American abundance and affluence anesthetize us. But when we allow ourselves to be touched with the brokenness and pain experienced by our needy neighbors, then an oh-so-needed "holy discontent" can begin to grow within us. As we entangle our lives with those who suffer, we can begin to become agitated with the way things are. And we should be agitated because things are not the way they are supposed to be! That is why the Lord Jesus is coming back again to "make all things new." There’s not supposed to be discrimination. There’s not supposed to be destitution. There’s not supposed to be child abuse. There’s not supposed to be hunger and privation. But a numb, dulled church, anesthetized by the comforts of American affluence and removed from face-to-face relationships with the poor is not an agitated, longing, Maranatha-crying church. We need the "holy discontent" we can gain by participating in the sufferings of our neighbors.

Moreover, an anesthetized church is a church in great danger. I live with chronic pain as a result of a bad car accident a number of years ago, so I’ve done a lot of reading on the subject of physical pain. I recall reading an article one day about a medical condition in which a person’s pain mechanisms just don’t work at all—the body has something wrong with it that handicaps it from feeling pain. Initially I thought, "What a great disease to have!" But then I read farther about a little child who horribly burned his hand on the red hot burner of a stove because he could not feel the pain. His hand was disfigured forever. You see, pain can be a blessing, a good thing. Pain is a warning system for the body. It shouts to the brain: "Take your hand off this hot burner!"

Jesus devoted a great deal of time talking about the "hot burner" that wealth can be. He said it is hard for a rich man to enter heaven. He said we could not serve both God and Mammon. He said the cares of this world and the desire for riches are weeds that grow up and choke the good seed of Christian faith and living. He told the Church in Laodicea that because they were rich in the world’s goods, they failed to realize that their true condition was that they were wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, naked, and lukewarm (Rev. 3:14-18).

Wealth in itself is not bad. But it can become a hot burner that we should be careful of. A numb, anesthetized church stuffed full with affluence is dull to the pain of this hot burner. We need to be shaken out of this dangerous, anesthetized condition. An involvement with the poor can be the remedy we need, by cultivating within us the gift of agitation.

Gift 2: Humility and Dependence. Second, we can gain the gift of growth in humility and dependence upon God. When we are engaged in personal, face-to-face friendships with needy, poor, hurting, struggling people, we quickly become aware of their overwhelming needs. We recognize that we cannot personally meet all these needs, and so we sense our desperate need for God to intervene. What a gift this is! It is so good for us proud, self-reliant people to be reminded of our inadequacy and weaknesses because it is when we are weak that Christ’s strength is perfected in us.

It’s such a good thing to be overwhelmed—because it is that feeling which produces in us a true humility. We begin to think first of our need for Jesus and of getting people to Jesus, rather than being overly confident in ourselves and focused on what we have to offer to the hurting. The four friends of the paralytic in Mark 2 don’t look at their friend and think, "Hey, we can fix him! We’ve got a lot of our own resources to offer." No! They feel overwhelmed and the only thing that they can think of to do is to carry their friend to Jesus. Just get him to Jesus! It is always good for us to be reminded of our limits so that we cast ourselves upon God because of his limitlessness.

Gift 3: Faith. There is a third gift. By entangling our lives with the lives of the poor we can often learn much about the nature of true faith. We can be taught important lessons from Christians who are economically poor. We who have support networks and IRAs and savings accounts and educational degrees have all sorts of safety nets in our lives. But when you are without these security cushions, and you pray "God, give me my daily bread" there is an authenticity about your dependence. This vital dependency of the believing poor upon God is a good thing for us to witness and to learn from.

James writes in chapter 2:5, "Listen, my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith…?" Some Christians who are poor have a great gift of faith because they are so acutely aware of their dependence on God. There is an immediacy and an urgency about their relationship to God that we should learn from.

Gift 4: Aroma. The fourth gift we gain through relational, holistic, face-to-face ministries among the poor might be called "the gift of aroma." Every serious Christian wants to be a winsome witness for Christ. Every church should want to be a "drawing" church, a church that non-Christians wonder about and are attracted to because of the things that they see. I believe strongly that the Church’s witness in the world depends in part on what the world sees us doing through compassionate ministries.

The compassionate ministry of the church must be qualitatively different than that offered by the government or by secular non-profit organizations. The church’s benevolence should be marked by what the Rev. Beverly Carradine, a preacher from the 1800s, defined as the kindness of God. You see, there is a great difference between the kindness God expects of us and the kindness the world offers, which is really mere politeness. A truly powerful kindness comes from heaven. We Christians have got to be displaying a type of kindness and merciful servanthood that is quickly recognized as being "out of this world," as being something that is not indigenous to the human heart, but something put into us by the Holy Spirit.

Surely we want very much to experience the joy of attracting people to Christ; surely we want our witness to be effective. Author Ken Gire writes that the Bible is the recipe for life. It gives us directions. It tells us the truth. And the recipe is very important; knowing it and understanding it and memorizing it and communicating it to others is very important. We need to proclaim the recipe. But people can’t smell a recipe. However, they can smell freshly baked bread. Our lives are to have the smell of fresh-baked bread; we are called to be more than just recipe-knowers or recipe-carriers or recipe-memorizers. We’ve got to live out the recipe; we’ve got to be bread!

Unfortunately you can’t become fresh-baked bread unless you get in the oven. Living out the kindness of heaven that far supercedes the mere "niceness" of the world is difficult and painful. Practicing face-to-face mercy, mercy that inconveniences you and gets your hair messed up and exposes you to emotional pain is an "oven experience." But having the aroma of Christ is worth the price of being baked in the oven.

Our compassionate ministries become a visible, powerful witness to the reality of God and his love when those ministries have the look and the feel and the smell of God about them. They must be of such a nature that, when the world looks at them, they are intrigued and even enticed. As we demonstrate the presence of God through a relational, holistic ministry that transforms people’s lives, that witness goes out before a watching and "sniffing" world, and attracts and draws unbelievers.

Gift 5: The Garden. There is a fifth gift we receive from the enriching entanglement of mercy ministry among the poor and needy. God’s promise in Isaiah 58:11 says that those who spend themselves on behalf of the poor "…will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail."

There is an important linguistic connection we should notice here. The word translated "spend" in verse 10, "if you spend yourself" on behalf of the poor, connotes the idea of issuing forth. It’s the idea of pouring out. The King James version says, "draw out" your soul to bestow a mercy upon the recipient. We use terms like these when we talk about water. We talk about pouring out water or drawing water from a well. We are being asked to spend ourselves, our very souls. We have this "water" of ourselves, of our time, of our heart and soul, and we are to pour it out to water others.

In verse 11 Isaiah speaks of having our needs met "in a sun-scorched land." Now I’m not a Bible scholar, but I think that we can think about places of poverty and pain as sun-scorched places. If we’re going to spend ourselves on behalf of the needy, we’ve got to go where they are. There’s a dryness in the places of pain that needs the water we can pour forth from our own lives. So we’re being told in Isaiah 58 to invest ourselves and our energies in these sun-scorched places where the poor are.

What holds us back from spending our lives on the poor, from pouring out that which is inside of us? Isn’t it a fear that we won’t have anything left? That if we pour it all out we ourselves will be dry?

It’s the same fear that the widow of Zarephath must have had in 1 Kings 17. God told the prophet Elijah to go to Zarephath and ask the widow he meets there for something to eat and drink. This widow was at the end of her own provisions, and, incredibly, Elijah still asked her to feed him first! He promised her that if she poured out all that she had left, God would be faithful to provide for her and her son. The widow had faith and she poured out the little she had left to feed Elijah. And God came through. Verse 15 says: "So there was food every day for Elijah and for the woman and her family. For the jar of flour was not used up, and the jug of oil did not run dry, in keeping with the word of the Lord spoken by Elijah." God himself replenished what the widow poured out.

This is the wonderful paradox of the Christian life. When we pour ourselves out, we do not become empty; instead, we become full. As we give ourselves out, God pours himself and his provision in.

Gift 6: Invigorated worship. There is at least one other gift that we gain from the enriching entanglement. It is the gift of an invigorated worship. We experience this gift in at least two ways.

First, we experience the joy of contributing to the number of people who are worshiping God. In his book Let the Nations Be Glad, John Piper wrote, "missions exists because worship doesn’t." The goal of missions is worship. One very important reason why commodified mercy ministry is insufficient is that it so very rarely leads to conversions and to worship. Jesus ministered holistically. He sought to meet the needs of the whole man: physical, emotional, and spiritual. Jesus did not treat people as bodies without souls. But sometimes our benevolence ministry does just this. And we miss out on so much! We are too easily satisfied, content to be just good humanitarians rather than being missionaries passionate for God and his glory.

The restoration work that God has charged his church with is more than a restoration of material conditions. Perhaps the greatest Bible story on the theme of restoration is the rebuilding of the city wall of Jerusalem in the book of Nehemiah. The job is done by the end of chapter six, but the book goes on for seven more chapters. Why? Because the restoration project Nehemiah led was much bigger than the mere rebuilding of the wall. He was interested in a spiritual restoration, a restoration of the Israelites’ relationship with their God.

Rebuilding the wall was an entirely legitimate exercise. God was interested in getting that wall rebuilt so his people would have physical protection. God was interested in their physical problem. And it was entirely right and legitimate that Nehemiah led a great restoration effort to rebuild the wall.

But that wasn’t all Nehemiah did. No! He had Ezra the priest read the Law to an assembly of the people. He led them in making a new covenant with their God, committing themselves to obey his Word. He emphasized worship. Nehemiah gathered two big choirs atop the wall, and the choirs gave thanks and led the people in joyful singing and worship, the people offered sacrifices to their God, and "the sound of rejoicing in Jerusalem could be heard far away" (11:43).

So how do we ensure that our ministry efforts among the poor bear this spiritual fruit? Not by keeping our distance and tossing the poor handouts. We do it by entangling our lives with theirs, sharing, participating in their struggles, and living out our faith before them, through our words as well as our deeds, with the earnest and prayerful hope that they will come to know Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. We run distinctively Christian social ministries that take seriously the reality of inherent individual sin and the need for a Savior. We protect the doctrine of Jesus Christ, resisting any forces that would reduce Christ to merely a good teacher of ethics. We hold fast to our belief that Jesus came not to make men a little better but to make them into completely new creations who would love and worship him. We maintain a high and big view of Christ, keenly aware that if our Christ becomes small, our ministry will inevitably become tepid and nondescript. We pursue the great gain of adding to Christ’s worshipers by being Christ-centered in our mercy ministry. And as we add to the choir members in Christ’s chorus, our worship is enriched.

There is a second way we are enriched in our worship through our ministry among the poor. Our worship is invigorated not only because more people join the choir, but because our vision of God becomes enlarged as we serve. We begin to witness God’s acting in other people’s lives in ways that may be unfamiliar to us. We see new facets of who God is and we witness different kinds of deeds he does that we may have otherwise missed.

When we are cut off from people with entirely different life situations than our own, we fail to learn how God gifts and graces those in circumstances unfamiliar to us—for example, being persecuted or discriminated against or healed from crack addiction or obtaining a job after 16 years on welfare. When we are in relationships with people who are praying for God’s deliverance and provision in ways that we have never prayed before, and then we see God answer those prayers, we get a whole new glimpse of the wonderful deeds of the Lord. We see more clearly the multifaceted grace and provision of our heavenly Father, and our adoration of him is deepened.

The Gift That Keeps On Giving In stressing these gifts I am not, of course, suggesting that we should seek to enrich ourselves at the expense of others, or enrich ourselves without any regard for the effect we’re having on those we serve. What we’ve been talking about is the wonderful discovery of how our own joy is multiplied when we pursue our neighbor’s good. In loving our neighbor’s welfare, we are, as a by-product, enriched.

It should go without saying that there is an enrichment we hope to affect in the lives of the neighbors we serve, and it is fitting for us to draw our reflections on the "enriching entanglement" to a close by contemplating the nature of the enrichment we hope to offer our neighbors. This enrichment beyond rehabilitation to transformation. Transformation implies bringing to bear the resources, power, grace, and love of God to assist in the creation of a new, changed person—a person who will respond differently to the same set of circumstances that once led to his downfall.

You see, if we truly love our neighbor’s welfare, we will not stop at merely meeting his needs. We will seek to exhort and encourage him to be a giver to others, because of the joy that is to be had in giving. This is an important part of our distinctiveness as Christian social ministries. As Christians, the gospel we proclaim not only saves people from negative things; it saves them for positive things.

Christian social outreach ministry gives the gift that keeps on giving. We are enriched when we give away our lives and give away the gospel—the whole gospel for the whole person—and the poor are enriched by receiving it. But it doesn’t stop there. For the gospel exhorts them to become givers; it exhorts them to seek the gifts that will come as they lay down their lives in mercy to others; as they become entangled with those who need their help. And so they give and serve, and they are enriched, and those they touch are enriched. And on and on and on it goes, to the enrichment of giver and receiver. Indeed, to the blurring of the lines between "giver" and "receiver." On and on, to the glory of God, the most generous Giver of all.

about us
| site map | contact us | © Faith in Communities 2009