The world is filled with suffering people. Millions are hurting yet most of us are immune to the day to day struggles of the poor, the destitute, the abused and the neglected. We go about our lives comfortable and secure with hardly a thought about our responsibility to serve others. The question arises, what should we do?
Social Justice has become a big deal in the church. Hardly a week goes by when I do not read or hear someone saying how important it is for Christians to be making a difference in local communities. Out of this philosophy a multitude of service ministries have arisen my local area. Medical clinics for the uninsured, food banks, homeless shelters, homework and tutoring centers, marriage counseling services and even free legal services are available to community members free of charge. The church has made a profound commitment to improving the life circumstances of others.
Service ministry has become, for many churches, the primary goal, the standard by which true Christianity is measured. Timothy Keller, in his book Generous Justice, wrote that when we understand what Christ has done for us, “The result is a life poured out in deeds of justice and compassion for the poor.”
The result of this new found emphasis on social justice has been the explosion of ministries like the ones described above. More than that, it has led many churches to get involved in the perceived structural problems in society that have allowed injustice to develop. Keller writes that a biblical perspective could lead Christians to be involved in such things as pressuring police departments to “respond to calls as quickly in the poor part of town as in the prosperous part” and to form organizations that prosecute “loan companies that prey on the poor and the elderly with dishonest and exploitive practices.” He further suggests Christians work to improve struggling schools and to give generously to the poor, going so far to suggest that if you do not “actively and generously share your resources with the poor, you are a robber.”
As I read through the words of social justice advocates I find myself asking, “Is this the message we are called to preach? Is the problem with Christians that we don’t do enough for the poor and needy in our communities? Is it that we need to be more involved politically to change the circumstances in which the weak in our society find themselves?"
As I consider questions such as these I am struck by the realization that the social justice emphasis is a safe road for the church to travel. It is politically correct and inoffensive. No one attacks the church when its focus is on the external condition of suffering people, no one argues when we address temporal suffering. But is this truly the mission of the church?
A few years ago I met with the US director of a social justice ministry in the Philippines. His church had the wonderful idea to build and maintain a safe house for women who were rescued from sexual slavery. Young women who had been stolen from their families and subjected to horrific abuse were given a place of comfort and refuge, a place where they could be comforted and restored as they transitioned to the possibility of a normal life. Such ministries have a special place in my heart and the meeting was an opportunity for me to learn more about their work and determine if it was something Lisa and I could support financially.
The man shared about their work, how the women were rescued, how the house was staffed and how over 95% of the money raised went into the ministry. As the meeting neared its close I asked him, “How does your program ensure that every woman brought to your home clearly hears the gospel message?”
He seemed surprised by my question. “I am sure that they hear the gospel,” was his reply. I pressed on, “Do you have a policy of how they will be intentionally taught what it means to be a Christian?” They did not.
I then told him my greatest concern. “We do these women no favor if we rescue them from a temporary hell and not the eternal one.”
And this is my fear for the church. It is socially acceptable to address temporary hells but that can never be why we do what we do. We need to proclaim the good news that delivers us from eternal suffering and that brings us into lasting relationship with the Living God. We must emphasize the next life more than the present one.
The problem with the eternal message is it is not socially acceptable. The Christian message is not that God wants to fix your outer poverty, it is that God wants to fix the destitution of your soul. If we address only the visible suffering, we are not fulfilling our purpose nor truly serving the world. It is my hope and prayer that the eternal message of the gospel returns to its central place in our preaching and practice. We need to continue to serve the poor and needy in this life but we serve them best when while doing so we lift their eyes toward heaven to the one who delivers us from ultimate suffering.
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