Have you noticed that there seems to be two groups of people in the church today? One group cares a lot about relieving people from temporary suffering caused by various physical, material and economic burdens and works hard to rescue people from social injustices. Another group cares a lot about relieving people from eternal suffering and works hard to rescue people from various spiritual burdens. Moreover, each group sort of looks down on the other as getting the Christian’s mission of love and mercy wrong. But when it comes to loving your neighbor and showing mercy do you have to choose between social justice and evangelism?
Jesus surely didn’t think so. During his earthly ministry, Jesus modeled and taught his disciples to care for both the physical and spiritual needs of people. Jesus cared for the Samaritan woman’s soul (see John 4:1-30), but also gave regularly to the poor (see John 13:29b). His parable of the Good Samaritan is all about not being religiously blind to people’s immediate physical needs (see Luke 10:25-37), while his parable of the Prodigal Son is all about not being religiously blind to people’s immediate spiritual needs (Luke 15:11-32). Jesus’ mission involved the alleviation of both temporal as well as eternal suffering, with an emphasis on the eternal, and this should be our two-fold mission as well.
Pastor and author John Piper agrees. In a recent sermon addressing this subject, he urged his congregation saying, “Let’s be like Jesus. In every social issue from abortion to alcoholism, from AIDS to unemployment, from hunger to homelessness, let’s give the help that we would like to receive if it were us. And at every moment in that love, let us feel an even greater urgency to pray and speak and work to rescue people from everlasting suffering through the gospel of Jesus.” But the question remains, how is this actually done on a practical level? What are some helpful do’s and don’ts to keep in mind as you and I seek to love people the way Jesus does?
Be patient – When working with people in need, you must be willing to put in the necessary time it will take to gain trust and build relational equity. When people know they are more than “a weekend project,” they will be more likely to open up and allow you to speak into deeper issues.
Broaden your definition – Social justice issues go beyond eliminating homelessness, sex trafficking and hunger. Consider including within your definition such deeds of mercy as helping people read and write, mowing your elderly neighbor’s lawn, helping people move, befriending the lonely, etc.
Spend more time doing it – With the rise of social media, Christians have a tendency to spend more time discussing, debating, blogging and talking about the relationship between the gospel and social justice than actually getting out there and serving and sharing the good news. These issues are best worked out as they’re lived out.
Don’t get caught unprepared – While you can’t prepare for every situation, determine beforehand how you are going to handle people asking for money. Consider preparing a box that you keep in your car with large baggies full of nutritious items, a relevant gospel tract, and information about local shelters and development programs available to those on the street. Also, try to pay people’s bills directly to ensure that the money you give is going to meet that specific need.
Don’t reinvent the wheel – There are several churches and organizations (Christian and non-Christian) already doing a lot to meet a variety of social needs. If possible, save time and energy by partnering with these churches and organizations.
Don’t be pushy – When seeking to address spiritual matters and sharing the good news with people, don’t belligerently push them into that type of conversation. Pray for God to open up an opportunity in your discussion or ask their permission to ask some more private questions about what they believe.
Many of these Do’s and Don’ts came into play as I went over to help this man. His name was Reggie, he was fired from his job, had been in a fight, and his truck was towed the night before. His phone was in his truck and he didn’t have any money to call the tow company. I was able to call and locate his truck. But before I drove him there, to ensure my safety, I asked him to empty his pockets. Thankfully, there was no knife or gun. I prayed and decided to take a risk. I drove him to his truck, paid the towing fee and took him out to lunch. Over lunch, I shared with Reggie the good news of Jesus’ life and death in our place and His offer to forgive our sins when we trust in Him alone. We prayed together and I said goodbye. He moved back to North Carolina but called me a month later and, through tears, said, “Thank you. I’m back on my feet, going to church again, and I want you to know that I feel like you saved my life that day, in more ways than one.”