Wineskins Archive

February 11, 2014

Book Excerpt: “Authentic Faith” (May-Jun 2002)

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Gary Thomas, Authentic Faith: The Power of a Fire-Tested Life.
Zondervan: Grand Rapids, 2002. Used by Permission.

The People of God’s Heart
The Discipline of Social Mercy
By Gary Thomas

In the early 1970s, few places on this earth were marked by more human misery than Calcutta, India. Franklin Graham, now president of Samaritan’s Purse, once told me about his first visit there.

Though Franklin has been in some of the world’s most violent places—Lebanon, Somalia, Kosovo—Calcutta may have been the most difficult, the type of place that makes you want to leave as soon as you set foot on its soil. Calcutta may not have been as violent as the other places Franklin has been to, but its abject poverty was just as deadly. Every morning a truck went through the streets, gathering the corpses of people who had died the night before. The bodies were stacked like cords of wood and then taken to the outskirts of town and burned. As Franklin recounts it:
It’s a ghastly sight to watch those bodies burn. As soon as the stiffened corpses hit the flames, the muscles, sinews, and tendons contract, many times grotesquely lifting the bodies into a sitting position, as if the dead were rising in front of you. The flames begin licking and then blackening the corpses’ skinny limbs. The fire consumes the hair first, then collapses the skin, until the body falls back over. It was a chilling sight.1
Franklin knew he was in a place where hygiene was an afterthought when he saw one man urinating in the gutter; half a block away, downstream, another man was using the “water” in that same gutter to brush his teeth.
Franklin was traveling with Bob Pierce, founder of World Vision and Samaritan’s Purse. They stopped off to visit Mother Teresa, an Albanian-born nun who left her home to live and work in the slums of Calcutta.
I want you to place yourself in Mother Teresa’s position. You’re being visited by Bob Pierce, who founded World Vision, one of the most influential Christian development and relief ministries in the history of Christianity. Along with him is Franklin Graham, who would one day become head of Samaritan’s Purse but who even at that time, as the son of Billy Graham, represented the doorway to millions of dollars’ worth of aid. When you run a charity dependent on others’ good favor, you need money to continue your work, and here were two of the most influential gatekeepers in the world.
Yet when Franklin and Bob stopped in to announce their arrival, one of the sisters returned to say that Mother Teresa would be happy to greet them just as soon as the dying man she was caring for had breathed his last breath.
Today, nobody knows who the dying man was. His name has been forgotten, lost among the thousands of seemingly insignificant casualties that took place every day in Calcutta. Yet for a few hours, that man was more important to Mother Teresa than two men representing some of the biggest religious influences from the United States.
Throughout history, an authentic faith has been marked by a compassionate response toward those the world tends to forget. Whether these persons are poor, imprisoned, disabled, sick, or mentally challenged, we are called to dignify them by caring about their condition and, whenever possible, reaching out to them on God’s behalf.

A Different Nation
God’s vision for Israel is stunning. The society he regulated through Moses was never fully lived out, but the promising ideal should challenge all of us to this day. There’s no mistaking Moses’ forcefulness: “There should be no poor among you” (Deuteronomy 15:4).
Because he understood reality, however, Moses went on to regulate how the poor should be treated so that they needn’t stay poor.
If there is a poor man among your brothers in any of the towns of the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother. Rather be openhanded and freely lend him whatever he needs… Give generously to him and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to. There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land. –Deuteronomy 15:7–8, 10–11
The Bible is replete with verses calling us to reach out to the disenfranchised in our society. Deuteronomy tells us that God defends the cause of the orphan, widow, and alien (see Deuteronomy 10:18). A portion of the Israelites’ tithes was to be set aside for these three groups (see Deuteronomy 14:28–29). We are told to take an active role in defending the cause of the poor: “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy” (Proverbs 31:8–9). This means our spiritual obligation isn’t fulfilled simply by not doing harm, but only by actively getting involved to confront and challenge injustice.
Even business dealings were to take the poor into consideration. Leviticus 23:22 tells the Israelites not to reap the edges of their fields but to leave those for the poor and for the alien. The Israelites were ordered not to return refugee slaves (see Deuteronomy 23:15) and were told they would be “cursed” if they withheld justice from the alien, the fatherless, or the widow (see Deuteronomy 27:19). Ezekiel forbids the practice of lending money at excessive interest (see Ezekiel 18:8).
Early on, the Old Testament connects our spirituality with our works of kindness. According to the biblical record, a truly spiritual person is a truly caring person. The book of Proverbs suggests that God’s willingness to hear our prayers is contingent on our willingness to hear the cry of the poor (see Proverbs 21:13). If we stop up our ears to the cry of the poor, God stops his ears to our own prayers of petition.
Solomon tells us that “he who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God” (Proverbs 14:31). In other words, our attitude toward God is defined by our actions toward the less fortunate.
Religious duty apart from concern for the poor is entirely unacceptable in God’s mind. We can have perfect church attendance, set records for fasting, have the longest quiet times, listen to the most sermons and praise tapes of anyone in our circle of friends, and avoid scandalous sin, but if we are missing this part of our religious obligation, namely, social mercy, we are missing God entirely:


Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe him,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn.
-Isaiah 58:6–8

In God’s own words concerning King Josiah, authentic faith is looking out for the least: “‘He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?’ declares the Lord” (Jeremiah 22:16, emphasis added). Righteousness always has a social justice element: “Renounce your sins by doing what is right, and your wickedness by being kind to the oppressed” (Daniel 4:27).
Given this biblical witness, I was somewhat astonished to hear the story of Gene and Helen Tabor.2 The Tabors traveled to the Philippines with a Christian evangelistic ministry and started helping Filipinos develop small, self-supporting farming and business operations. Gene thought it was important to minister to economic needs as well as spiritual ones, but apparently his mission organization didn’t agree, saying that Tabor was “wasting valuable time” that could be spent evangelizing. Tabor was given what seems to me an absurd ultimatum: Quit helping the poor, or quit the “Christian” organization.
Tabor sided with hundreds of years’ worth of authentic faith, quit the organization, and started his own work, now called REACH Ministries. Twenty-five years later, REACH has helped give birth to twenty thousand new Christians in twenty-one locations throughout the Philippines, India, and Hong Kong. This astonishing record of evangelism has been buttressed by social efforts. The Tabors have targeted the academic community by offering scholarships in tandem with discipleship programs. They also offer small loans to help the very poor begin home-based businesses. Apparently, we don’t have to choose between social mercy and evangelism. The two can be, and are, complementary.
We must beware of the warped spirituality that separates “the spiritual life” from our life of caring for others. In a self-based Christianity, faith is almost entirely about how we learn to overcome our sins, grow in the spiritual disciplines, and build healthier, happier families. These are all wonderful things, but authentic faith urges us to take our newfound victory over temptation, our strong character forged by practicing the disciplines, and the stability offered by having a strong family, and then put them to use by reaching out to those who need God’s love the most.
This others-focused faith is not a new teaching. It is the model that our Lord himself taught and practiced.

Messiah’s Methods—and Message
When Jesus stood up in the synagogue and read a Messianic passage from Isaiah, proclaiming that this Scripture was fulfilled in their hearing, he read a passage (Isaiah 61:1–2) that focuses on the socially challenged. The Messiah was sent, Jesus read, to preach to the poor. He came to proclaim freedom for prisoners, restore the sight of the blind, and to release the oppressed (see Luke 4:16–21).
It wasn’t just the miracles that marked Jesus as the Messiah; it was also his care for the most unfortunate. At least, that’s the “evidence” he provided John the Baptist’s disciples when they came to ask Jesus if he was really the Messiah. Jesus’ answer is intriguing. Notice the objects of his outreach: “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor” (Matthew 11:4–5, emphasis added).
Jesus’ ministry was focused intensely on the disenfranchised, the down-and-out, the leftovers of society. These are the groups Jesus reached out to, the very groups he says validate his ministry as the Messiah.
Many of us think of holiness in terms of what we don’t do; it’s been an issue throughout history, going right back to the Pharisees. Jesus taught a positive ethic—what matters most, he said, is what we do do. When one of the Pharisees judged Jesus for not washing before a meal—a ceremonial concern, at best—Jesus lifted holiness to a new level: “Give what is inside the dish to the poor, and everything will be clean for you” (Luke 11:41).
Those of us who live in affluent societies may find it hard to take seriously the truly radical nature of Jesus’ teaching, but I’d urge us to consider, at least as it comes to expression in one community, the priorities that often mark our lives:
If you walk through the wealthier sections of Los Angeles, two things mark the prosperity: dogs and domestics. Rosa Diaz came to the United States from El Salvador, at the time I write this, less than a year ago. As a housekeeper, Rosa is struggling with her humble situation. “It’s still very strange that I’m doing a job like this,” the well-educated young woman told reporter Doug Saunders. “I once thought that I would end up having a domestic worker, but now I am one.”
In addition to following Rosa the domestic, Doug also followed Custer, a Los Angeles dog owned by a successful Hollywood screenwriter. The comparisons are astonishing.
Rosa’s salary is such that she can afford just $50 a week toward rent, so she shares a small two-room apartment with three other adult women. Custer was staying at Canyon View Ranch, “a canine spa, boarding retreat and training center that advertises itself as a ‘country club for dogs.'” This pet luxury comes at a steep price: Custer’s owners pay $70 a day or $490 a week for the privilege—almost ten times the cost of what Rosa pays for her lodgings. Custer’s owner explains, “It costs a little more, but it means that when we go away we can truly have a vacation without guilt. Just ask the dogs—you can tell how excited they are when they come here.”
Rosa gets $225 a week to work from dawn until late evening. Some domestics get paid more, of course. A few of the “lucky” ones get $450 or even $500, but Rosa also knows of some who start out at $80 to $100. Compare this to your average dog walker in Los Angeles, who is typically paid about $200 a week.
Rosa’s tight salary allows her to spend about $50 a week on groceries. Custer eats pretty well. Though the “standard” Canyon View Ranch meal contains lamb and rice, most owners leave special instructions. A Canyon View worker explains: “We get every kind of special food request you can imagine, and then some. We get vegetarian diets, and raw foods, and we get up to six supplements at a time that have to be crushed and mixed up and blended. And some people want the food heated up.” Several owners also ask for “dog gravy” to be poured over the top of their dog’s dinner.
Custer’s owner explains, “The joy of golden retrievers is their wonderful personalities, but the downside is that they are known for their sensitive stomachs. We have [Custer] on a special diet, and it costs us a pretty penny.”
Custer is treated to a monthly $40 shampoo; Rosa makes do with a bottle purchased at a drugstore. Los Angeles dog owners typically pay $100 a month in vet fees, even for healthy dogs. Rosa’s salary doesn’t include any insurance, medical, or dental coverage. Custer gets to ride in a car or limo; Rosa rides to work on the city bus.
Saunders ends his article with a report of the Los Angeles Times coverage of the trial of a California man charged with killing a woman’s small white dog in an act of road rage. In the aftermath local residents were furious, and they raised $175,000 to find the dog’s killer. This unleashed several weeks’ worth of front-page stories on animal abuse.
The day before this story broke, Saunders notes, the Human Rights Watch released a report of their own, challenging the “widespread physical abuse and economic mistreatment of thousands of domestic workers in diplomatic households.” Not a single Los Angeles paper chose to carry it.3
While caring for pets can be considered a sensitive act—after all, pets are God’s creatures, too—we have to guard against priorities that treat dogs better than humans. I’m not suggesting we should be cruel to animals, but I am asking us to reflect on whether we are as kind as we might be to humans.
According to Jesus, such kindness is essential for authentic faith. In the Gospels, Jesus stresses two things: (1) God’s generosity and (2) our corresponding obligation to show the same generosity rather than to hoard God’s blessing. Social mercy begins with the freedom we have because God is so generous: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.” It continues with the corresponding invitation: “Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Luke 12:32–34).
This verse follows the well-known “don’t worry about what you will eat or wear” passage. Jesus wants his followers to know that God’s kingdom is theirs. We are going to inherit unimaginable wealth. Our response shouldn’t be to put on airs, but to give away what we do have, knowing that abundance awaits us in the future.
If we fail to live up to this ethic, the punishment will be severe. Jesus’ teaching about “the sheep and the goats” has one clear strain: The sheep are rewarded for their good deeds—feeding the poor (humans), visiting the sick and imprisoned, clothing the naked. And the goats are punished for what they left undone—ignoring those already mentioned. All judgment is based on what the respective individuals did or didn’t do for hurting human beings (see Matthew 25:31–46.)
Because of this truth, Jesus stresses that our parties need to be the kind that will reap heavenly rewards. He tells his disciples that when they have a banquet, they shouldn’t invite rich people or their own relatives. Otherwise, they’ll be repaid and lose any reward. Instead, they should invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind (see Luke 14:12–14).
I think about this when Lisa and I plan activities. When I take my kids to a movie, they know I’m going to invite my friend Scott. Do you have a friend who just needs to get out of the house? Do you know of someone who needs an extra hand? If not, why not? Maybe it’s time to make a new friend, Jesus-style.
Jesus completely rejects any notion that “religious obligation” can be used as an excuse to ignore the poor or needy—including church building programs. He chastised the Pharisees for telling people to give money to the temple instead of to their needy parents (see Mark 7:9–13). He said that teachers of the law who specialize in long, showy prayers but who “devour widows’ houses … will be punished most severely” (Luke 20:46–47). There is an increasing interest in Christian spirituality today, including the prayer life, but any growth in prayer without a corresponding concern and demonstrated compassion for the down-and-out is a sham, according to the teachings of Jesus.
But perhaps the most poignant moment of Jesus’ teaching on social concern comes as he hangs dying on the cross. We know that Jesus was beaten virtually beyond recognition. The pain he felt, both physical and emotional, was eclipsed only by the spiritual anguish of having the entire sins of the world placed upon his perfect soul. No one had a more important mission to perform than Jesus. No one was more “busy” in that sense. And no one has ever had a better excuse to think about other things.
But even in the midst of this agony, Jesus focused his compassion on his widowed mother, who was watching her oldest son die. There was one piece of unfinished business, which Jesus nobly dispatches as he looks down from that cross, dripping with blood. He summons up his last vestiges of strength to say, “Dear woman, here is your son,” and to John, “Here is your mother” (John 19:26–27).
Some of the last words Jesus uttered on this earth were spoken to make sure a widow would be cared for after he was gone. Once that was accomplished—and only after that was accomplished—he could finally say, “It is finished.”

Ancient Concern
There’s no getting around the fact that even biblical characters could at times disagree with each other (see Galatians 2:11), but there was one aspect of the Christian life that they all held to be an essential element of the gospel.4 Paul tells the Galatians that as he, James, Peter, and John discussed Paul’s work among the Gentiles, the one thing the “pillars” of the church made sure to stress was that Paul “should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do” (Galatians 2:10). The writer of Hebrews concurs, stressing that we should “remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering” (Hebrews 13:3).
John goes so far as to question the sincerity of anyone’s faith and the reality of their conversion if they stubbornly stop their ears to the cries of the needy: “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth” (1 John 3:17–18). In John’s mind, compassion for the poor is one of the primary ways we build assurance of our faith. To the verses we’ve just read, he adds, “This then is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence whenever our hearts condemn us” (3:19–20).
The early church soon became known for putting Jesus’ and his apostle’s instructions into practice. The pagan emperor Julian the Apostate worked feverishly to crush Christianity in the fourth century, though he admitted to a fellow pagan that doing so would have severe repercussions: “The godless Galileans [Christians] feed not only their poor but ours also.”5 Given what we spoke about in the previous chapter, this is almost funny. Here we have a wicked emperor bent on destroying Christians, yet torn because these hated believers for the most part comprise his country’s only means of helping the poor!
The classic Christian writers acutely understood the need for social mercy. Ambrose of Milan wrote, “If thou clothe the naked, thou clothest thyself with righteousness; if thou bring the stranger under thy roof, if thou support the needy, he procures for thee the friendship of the saints and eternal habitations. That is no small recompense. Thou sowest earthly things and receive heavenly.”6 Teresa of Avila sternly warned, “As God’s stewards we share our wealth among the poor and must give a strict account for the time we keep a surplus in our coffers, while delaying and putting off the poor who are suffering.”7
Great Christian thinkers not only taught this, they lived it out as well. C. S. Lewis was among them. Even after enjoying great success, Lewis didn’t leave behind the principle of reaching out to the downtrodden. His literary production between 1942 and 1946 is, as his biographer George Sayer puts it, “astonishing.” Consider how many classics he wrote in this four-year span: A Preface to Paradise Lost, Beyond Personality, Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, That Hideous Strength, The Abolition of Man, and The Great Divorce. In addition to writing books, he continued writing his letters and papers and performing his academic tasks (he was working full-time as a tutor and lecturer). Yet in the midst of all this, Lewis still took time out to spend many hours trying to teach a mentally retarded boy to read and write.8
Some of the world’s greatest novelists (both Tolstoy and Dickens immediately come to mind) often used their talents to highlight the plight of the needy. Dickens has given us a legacy of compassion through his stunningly beautiful book A Christmas Carol. The best literature always highlights truth in a new light, and Dickens certainly knew how to awaken hearts that had grown callous to human suffering.
The point is that sins of omission are every bit as offensive as are sins of commission: “Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins” (James 4:17). Authentic faith calls us to express our belief by reaching out to the poor, the needy, and the hurting.
One caveat is in order: The ancients—beginning with Paul—urge us to be discriminating in our giving. Though some gave without reserve or even judgment (arguing that we are responsible to give, and the recipient is responsible for his or her motives and actions), many adopted the rule that Paul gave when he wrote, “If a man will not work, he shall not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10). Basil (a.d. 329–379), an early church bishop, made this distinction: “Experience [is] needed in order to distinguish between cases of genuine need and of mere greedy begging. For whoever gives to the afflicted [the truly needy] gives to the Lord, and from the Lord shall have his reward; but he who gives to every vagabond casts to a dog, a nuisance indeed from his importunity, but deserving no pity on the ground of want.”9
It’s a tough lesson to learn, but seeing somebody in want doesn’t necessarily mean they are in need. There’s a guy in Bellingham, my hometown, who stands near a busy intersection. One day his sign read, “Homeless vet, anything helps, God bless you.” The next day his sign read—I swear I’m not making this up—”Why lie? I need beer.” Apparently, that approach wasn’t too successful, because two days later he had gone back to, “Homeless vet, hungry, please help.”
Determining who is truly needy and who is merely lazy isn’t always easy to do, but I don’t believe either Scripture or the tradition of the Christian classics obligates us to support every panhandler we come across; to do so might, in fact, cause us to support any number of drug habits and other wasteful spending habits. At times, of course, God may indeed lead us to give to panhandlers—to, in fact, give far more than simply a dollar bill—by offering some time and conversation and perhaps pointing them in a direction where they can receive even more substantial support.

Contemporary Compassion
On the east bank of the Columbia River in Washington State, on a plot of land situated between Priest Rapids at Sentinel Gap and a small town called Mattawa, time hasn’t moved very fast. In September 1998, author David Guterson took a journalist’s tour of Washington’s apple country and discovered a makeshift village of migrant apple harvesters. These laborers—the vast majority of them from Mexico—exist in broken-down cars that double as hotel rooms and in tiny shelters constructed out of cardboard, old tents, and tarps. The population is seasonal, but even during the harvest, it changes by the day. The land is actually owned by the Grant County Public Utility District, which seems to have accepted the squatter’s claims. The county provides trash bins and portable outhouses, but that’s about it. The only visible means of recreation is an old hubcap with its center ripped out. It’s been nailed to a tree, approximately ten feet off the ground, and serves as a basketball hoop.
There is no electricity and no plumbing—little of the things that most of us take for granted. When workers want to bathe, they use the Columbia River. Many of the men are here without their families. The wages are poor by our standards (about $60 to $70 a day), but high by theirs, and many of their goals are simple. One man told Guterson he hoped to make enough money so that he could install electricity in his family’s home. Another said that one month of picking fruit will support his family for three months. Guterson did his best to elicit stories of misery, but the men had another take: “This is an adventure,” one man said. “And we are making very good money.”10
The next day, Guterson’s tour took him into the Yakima Valley, where he once again crossed the Columbia River (to drive through eastern Washington is to cross the Columbia every fifty miles or so) and made his way to the Broetje Orchards, virtually a sea of apples with its astonishing 4000 contiguous acres of fruit.
Ralph and Cheryl Broetje are Christians, and they own one of the state’s largest apple orchards. What marks them as different, however, isn’t the sheer quantity of apples they provide or the high number of workers they employ (1000 or more), but Vista Hermosa, one of the few housing complexes in the state privately built for migrant laborers.
Vista Hermosa did not come cheap. The Broetjes “have spent $5.5 million to build eighty homes; twenty-eight apartments; a school, gym, and day care center; a laundromat, gas station, and convenience store; a chapel and a post office.” This is all private land, not a municipality, but the housing complex reminds Guterson of the “clean, tidy, stuccoed look of a suburban development in Phoenix or Albuquerque.” The homes are adorned with green lawns, flower gardens, even barbecues. Workers have to pay to live here, but the rate is very affordable: $350 a month for a three-bedroom house (with a single-car garage), or $400 for one with four bedrooms. For just $25 a month, parents can send their children to the private school, and that $25 includes two daily meals and a snack.
The chapel offers worship services, and a community center holds Bible classes as well as an annual “Christian Talent Contest.” Housing leases stipulate that there will be no consumption of alcohol outside the house, no garbage left in the driveways or yards, no abandoned vehicles anywhere, and no fighting. With such regulations, Vista Hermosa will never degenerate into a slum.
Another astonishing fact is that the Broetjes are committed to nearly year-round employment for their workers. Most orchards hire only seasonally, but the Broetjes realize that it’s difficult to make a living when you only work a few months a year.
You’d think that offering seasonal workers year-round employment and the construction of a multimillion-dollar housing complex would suffice for any family’s social conscience, but not the Broetjes! They have a larger vision, and thus participate in World Vision’s child sponsorship program.
When Guterson probed Ralph Broetje to find out why he would spend millions of dollars on workers who, just miles away, fend for themselves in a makeshift village at zero cost to orchard owners, Broetje admitted that, while it might increase productivity by cutting down on turnover and building a more motivated workforce, “if you just look at the bottom line, it doesn’t make financial sense to spend so much on Vista Hermosa. But it does make human sense.”
This admission might explain why some rival growers call Broetje an “evangelical fanatic.” I think of him as a prophetic Christian, faithfully living out the truth of the gospel. Spending over $5 million on such a project is an amazing sum by any measure, but Vista Hermosa is right in line with what the most mature Christian writers and teachers have called us to uphold, beginning with Jesus himself.

Realistic Compassion
As you begin to reach out to the hurting, it’s important to check your sentimentality at the door. Some Christians who have never worked in the trenches may initially have an idealized view about the socially needy. They assume that such people are naturally lovable. Such is often not the case. The poor, diseased, and dispossessed can be as arrogant, ungrateful, bitter, and cruel as anyone else.
Directors of crisis pregnancy centers have on occasion found that some who come in to help as counselors are somewhat surprised by this. These well-meaning Christians want to help young women who are in trouble, but they may not realize that the reason they are in trouble is because they’re troubled! Many expect to see young women who resemble their daughters and granddaughters. They expect to be thanked and appreciated—and sometimes they are. But they also meet their share of “just give me the pregnancy test and I’m out of here” type of women.
Cesar Chavez had to work through this “romanticism of the needy” with the idealistic college students who volunteered to work with his farmworkers. When many of these farmworkers fully supported American involvement in Vietnam, the college students were surprised, as if the fact of having experienced suffering would suddenly turn the poor into pacifists.
Chavez immediately dispelled any such notions: “I told them to understand that farm workers are human beings. ‘If you don’t understand that, you are going to be mighty disappointed. You have to understand that you may work very hard, and the day will come when they will just boot you out, or they don’t appreciate what you are doing.’ And I warned them not to have any hidden agenda.”11
My wife volunteered to work with a weeklong camp that reached out to inner-city children from troubled backgrounds. She soon learned what she was up against. Any romantic notions she might have secretly harbored about what the week would be like were quickly dispelled when the trainer taught them how to respond to a kid who is biting you. (Rather than pull your arm back—which allows the child’s teeth to set—you should push your arm into the child’s mouth until the child stops biting. When the arm is pushed in, it’s far more difficult to receive a hurtful bite.) At the end of the camp, I joined my wife for a luncheon given in recognition of the camp workers. A young man actually received an award for being the most patient in the face of the most abuse. He had been kicked, hit, pummeled, even spit on.
I think it’s important to mention this, because after reading a chapter like this, some people might jump headfirst into compassionate service, when in reality it’s something we need to do with our eyes fully open. It’s helpful for Christians who are eager to get their hands dirty to first do a motivation check. Are you doing this to be loved in return? Are you doing this to save a life? What if the person doesn’t want to be saved? What if the addict refuses to quit? What if the crisis pregnancy center client gets pregnant again? Will that make you quit?
Social mercy is based on obedience to God and depends on God’s love for his failing children. We cannot maintain or manufacture a false love. Sentimentality won’t last you until lunchtime if you’re in a real ministry. Nothing short of God’s supernatural care and concern will suffice.
But behind this pain is an unparalleled, almost otherworldly, pleasure. J. I. Packer once told a class of seminary students, “As you serve the Lord, you hurt. And as you serve the Lord, your hurt, which feels sometimes like a death experience, gives way to a joy which feels like a resurrection experience. The Lord makes it happen.”12

Political Programs
Well-known writer, speaker, and inner-city ministry advocate Tony Campolo came to speak at my hometown in 1998. He addressed a large, refreshingly multigenerational crowd on the campus of Western Washington University. When Tony gave an impassioned plea to reach out to the poor, when he talked about how the essence of Christianity is its care for the disenfranchised, I could scarcely contain my “amens.” He was dynamic, powerful, and persuasive. I was delighted to have him address our community. But every time he then applied that concern to a political position, I cringed. I couldn’t disagree with him more on some issues.
Both of us have had our sensitivity to the downcast sharpened by the same Scriptures, but as soon as we both tried to apply how that concern can be best expressed in today’s society, we quickly parted company.
It’s the same with evangelism. Most Christians agree that it must be done. As soon as we begin promoting various strategies (“seeker-friendly churches” or “contact evangelism”), the fights erupt. With missions, there is a raging debate regarding whether we should focus on sending missionaries who must learn the language, or whether we should put increasing effort into supporting indigenous workers who can minister for a fraction of the cost—but who sometimes “take the money and run.” And what do we do when there is no indigenous evangelist?
As soon as policy or strategy comes into play, disputes break out. While this lack of agreement can be extremely frustrating for those of us engaged in it, it just might be that the cause of the poor is better served through a variety of approaches. Social compassion is not owned by Democrats or Republicans, conservatives or liberals. When I disagree with another believer politically, I can at least respect what he or she is trying to do in principle. The average Southern Baptists and United Methodists may well find themselves lobbying on opposing sides of any one bill, but even this is to be preferred over apathy. To ignore the poor and to do nothing is the sin that brings down Scripture’s most heated rebukes.
I was particularly impressed when I had the privilege of meeting Franklin Graham, president of Samaritan’s Purse and now CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA). The BGEA has about as much integrity as a Christian organization can have; there’s no way Franklin can improve on what is nearly a perfect record. Once Billy Graham retires (which probably won’t happen until God takes him home), Samaritan’s Purse will join forces with the BGEA as Franklin assumes his father’s leadership. The future joining of the country’s most celebrated and historic evangelistic outreach with perhaps our most strategic and effective ministry of compassion to the world’s disenfranchised is a profoundly significant merger, perhaps even a prophetic example of God’s providence.
While working on a project together, Franklin and I spent a number of days getting to know each other. Hearing his story and seeing how God is using him in so many hot spots around the world was a highlight experience for me. Franklin took what was a relatively tiny ministry and with God’s blessing built it into a force for good that has saved literally millions of lives. What’s more, Samaritan’s Purse prefers to work through local churches, so that the people who are reached connect with this local expression of faith rather than with a distant American organization. It’s a brilliant plan, prophetically heeding the call to share our faith while at the same time meeting our neighbor’s needs.
Franklin knows that no one can replace his father, and he would never try to do so. He is definitely his own man. Yet, after spending time with Franklin, I walked away amazed as I realized that, due in part to the social compassion ministry he has overseen for many years, he may well improve on his dad’s legacy. He may yet offer an even fuller expression of Christian care and concern for the whole person. Fifteen years ago, who would have ever believed such a thing was possible?

Called to Care
Regardless of where we live—whether in the suburbs of the Midwest, the elite societies of the East, or the rural South—or what we do, as a laborer or business owner, we are all called to care. If there is no evidence of social mercy in your life, if there isn’t a single poor person, prisoner, man or woman with a disability, or refugee who can stand up and testify that you have lived out and continue to live out your faith with compassionate care, then know this: Scripture, the Christian classics, and contemporary faith all stand in one accord to challenge the sub-Christian religion that you have adopted.
This might seem like a harsh statement, but you cannot read Scripture with any honesty, you cannot read very deeply in Christian history, and you cannot live with open eyes in contemporary Christianity without being challenged by how central a compassionate outreach to the poor and needy is to the gospel message.
The late Klaus Bockmuehl challenged me in seminary, “Living for yourself is too notoriously small an aim for any human soul.” If your faith begins and ends with you—your victories over sin and temptation, your ability to pay the bills, your family’s health—you are missing the truly profound experience of working with God to make a difference in a needy person’s life.
In your financial plan, besides retirement, are you investing in those who are less well-off than you are? Brady Bobbink, one of my early mentors, earns a relatively low salary as a campus pastor, but he made a pledge over fifteen years ago that each year he and his wife would add one more World Vision or Compassion child to their budget. On a limited income, they are looking at eventually sponsoring two-dozen children.
Maybe you’re the coach of a soccer team. One boy is being raised by a single mom and seems eager for more male influence in his life. That boy is the same age as your son. Will your interest in that boy extend beyond the season, or will it stop as soon as he can’t score goals for you anymore?
Perhaps your church has a strong outreach to teens, young married couples, and middle-aged professionals—but elderly men and women keep getting ignored. Their income is limited and many of them can’t make it to church because of physical constraints, but they still need spiritual and sometimes physical care. Will they be forgotten, or will you go out of your way to remember them? The integrity of a church is often seen most clearly in how it treats the people who seemingly can offer the least in return (although the truth is that many seniors are great sources of wisdom and guidance).
As our young people form their life plans, choose their majors in college, and begin preparing for their vocations, will we urge them to go after just the top-paying jobs, or will we encourage them to lay their gifts at the feet of Jesus and see where he leads them? They may still end up on Wall Street—but some may also be called to inner-city Los Angeles.

Authentic Faith
Gary Haugen picked up a skull and called out, “Male.”
“Cause of death?”
Haugen picked up another skull. “Child,” he said.
“Cause of death?”
As part of Haugen’s work for International Justice Mission, the Harvard Law graduate directed the United Nations’ genocide investigation in Rwanda during the late 1990s. It was his job to go through mass graves to determine the number that had died and how. “It’s just filthy, disgusting,” Haugen admitted in an interview with Beyond magazine.
If anything was worse than picking up the dead, however, it was talking to the living, particularly the children with whom Haugen had to maintain eye contact as he listened to them describe the most brutal of massacres. Further adding to Haugen’s sobriety was the fact that at least half of the massacres took place in churches because that’s where people ran for sanctuary.
As a Harvard graduate, Haugen had the opportunity to choose where he wanted to work and where he wanted to live. There was no necessity to “get his hands dirty,” either literally or figuratively. He had the background that would have provided affluence and comfort, but he chose to enter work that eventually led him—of all places—to Rwanda, and that decision has had a profound impact on his sense of intimacy with God.
“If you want to know somebody,” he says, “you want to know where they come from, what they’ve been through. And if you want to know what God is like, you need to know something about where He’s been. I think it’s hard for us living in comfortable North American communities to think that God has been in some of the places that He has been. Because that’s one of the hard things for me to think about: what it was like for God to endure all those people gathered in these churches who clearly were crying out to Him in the midst of all that.”
Haugen’s perspective is extraordinary and profound. Imagine, indeed, what it must have been like as God personally heard the cries of children, women, and men who cried out to him as they were hacked to death with bloody machetes, on the very same spot where they had sung songs of worship and danced before his name.
“God was right there through every minute and hour of the genocide that was going on in that church. He’s there every minute for the child prostitute who is being raped again tonight. He’s there sitting by the bonded child laborer who spends 12 or 14 hours a day spinning silk or rolling cigarettes for 50 cents a week on a debt that will take him through his entire childhood even though it’s only $35. Jesus sits right beside that child all day long…. And the difference that makes helps you understand why God hates injustice so much. If you had to be there, day in and day out, and sit and watch it and hear it and smell it, you would hate it, and you would want it to stop.
“It’s not a side issue, that His people address suffering and injustice. It’s not one of those extra credit options, that if you do everything else, then maybe you can do something on behalf of those who are victimized by the abuse of power. It’s the thing that breaks [God’s] heart. And then we have to ask, why is something that is so passionately important to God only mildly interesting to us?”
In Haugen’s mind, if we truly desire to know God, we will go where the suffering is greatest. “My friends can’t understand what it’s like to interview a child survivor of one of these massacres, or what it’s like to roll over the corpse of a mother who clearly has thrown her body over the child to protect it. I can’t explain in any way that someone can totally understand what that is in terms of understanding me, but a person who really does want to know me … wants to sit down with me, wants to know where I’ve been and what I’ve seen. And likewise, if we want to know God deeply, it just requires some measure of willingness to understand the places where He’s been.”13
If you truly want to experience an authentic faith, go where people are hurting the most and get involved in their lives. You’ll not only see God at work, you’ll also gain his heart and very likely become transformed in the process.

“He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?” declares the Lord. – Jeremiah 22:16

Throughout history, an authentic faith has been marked by a compassionate response toward those the world tends to forget.
Religious duty apart from concern for the poor is entirely unacceptable in God’s mind.
We must beware of the warped spirituality that separates “the spiritual life” from our life of caring for others.
Jesus’ ministry was focused intensely on the disenfranchised, the down-and-out, the leftovers of society.
Social mercy begins with the freedom we have because God is so generous.
Any growth in prayer without a corresponding concern and demonstrated compassion for the down-and-out is a sham.
Sins of omission are every bit as offensive as are sins of commission.
Social mercy is based on obedience to God and depends on God’s love for his failing children.
Social compassion is not owned by Democrats or Republicans, conservatives or liberals.
If your faith begins and ends with you, you are missing the truly profound experience of working with God to make a difference in a needy person’s life.
“If you want to know what God is like, you need to know something about where He’s been.”
“Why is something that is so passionately important to God only mildly interesting to us?

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