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Loving Our Neighbor’s Welfare

By Amy L. Sherman

God is passionate for the poor and vulnerable. And He is passionate that His church imitate that passion. More than 400 Scripture verses make this plain. Jeremiah 22:16 says that defending the cause of the poor is what it means to know God. James 1:27 shows that "pure religion" involves visiting widows and orphans in their distress. First John 3:17 says, "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?" Proverbs 14:31 teaches, "He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God." And Matthew 25:44–46 warns that if we fail to care for the least of God’s children, if we neglect the naked and poor and hungry, we will be guilty of neglecting Christ himself.

We need no further motivation. But what is wonderful about Christianity is that God does give us an additional motivation: When we in love pursue our neighbors’ welfare, we are ourselves enriched. God promises incredible blessings and rewards for our obedience.

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Often the church has been guilty of a cheap benevolence that wants only to help the poor, but isn’t willing to know them. At times we have strayed far from the example of the Good Samaritan, who did not toss canned goods and a tract at the wounded traveler along the Jericho road. He dirtied his hands as he bandaged the man’s wounds. True mercy is, as church father Gregory of Nyssa taught many centuries ago, "a voluntary sorrow that joins itself to the suffering of another."

Six gifts can be noted, but these blessings come to us only through an entanglement of our lives with the lives of people in need. They do not typically accrue if our contact with the poor is cold, distant, and sterile. These enrichments are gained through a relational, holistic mercy ministry.

The Gift Of Agitation

As John Piper observed, the New Testament is clear that the appropriate posture of the Church is 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, "Maranatha! Marantha! Come Lord Jesus!" That’s what the first-century church did. Why do we not long more for Christ’s return?

Is it because we are happy the way things are? Abundance and affluence anesthetize us. It is easy to grow comfortable with this world — this world that we are supposed to see as a place of pilgrimage and not as our true home.

But when we allow ourselves to be touched with the brokenness and pain of our needy neighbors, then an oh-so-needed holy discontent will begin to grow within us. As we entangle our lives with those who suffer, we begin to become agitated with the ways things are. 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. We are spiritually impoverished by this absence of agitation. We need the holy discontent we can gain by participating in the sufferings of our neighbors.

The Gift Of Growth In Humility And Dependence On God

When we are engaged in face-to-face friendships with poor, hurting, struggling people, we become aware of their overwhelming needs. We recognize we cannot personally meet all these needs, and so we sense our desperate need for God to intervene. The reality of inadequacy is a great gift for all who are proud and self-reliant. God has told us that it is when we are weak Christ’s strength is perfected in us.

The feeling of being overwhelmed produces true humility. We begin to think first of our need for Jesus, rather than being overly confident and focused on what we have to offer to the hurting. The four friends of the paralytic in Mark 2 did not look at their friend and think, We can fix him. We’ve got a lot of resources to offer. No. They felt overwhelmed, and the only thing they could think to do was to carry their friend to Jesus. It is always good to be reminded of ourlimits so we cast ourselves upon God because of His limitlessness.

The Gift Of Learning About The Nature Of True Faith

We who have support networks, IRAs, savings accounts, and educational degrees have safety nets. In many ways we can depend on ourselves. When those in more marginalized positions pray, "God, give me my daily bread," there is an authenticity about their dependence. There is a sense, "If God doesn’t come through, I’m sunk." This dependency of the believing poor on God is good for us to witness and to learn from. "Listen, my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith?" (James 2:5). Some Christians who are economically poor have a great gift of faith. Their relationship with God is marked by an immediacy and an urgency from which we can learn much.

The Gift Of Aroma

The mercy ministry of the church is different from that offered by the government or by secular nonprofit organizations. The church’s benevolence should be marked by what Beverly Carradine, a preacher from the 1800s, defined as the kindness of God. 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. Christians must display merciful servanthood that is quickly recognized as being something that is not indigenous to the human heart but implanted by the Holy Spirit.

Our compassionate ministries become a visible witness to the reality of God and His love when those ministries have the look, feel, and smell of God about them. This happens when we minister as Jesus, the Bread of Life, ministered — to the whole person. A cheap and easy benevolence that lacks the aroma of the Bread of Life will not often get noticed by unbelievers. Our compassionate ministries must be of such a nature that, when the world looks at them, they are intrigued and even noticed. We demonstrate the presence of God through a relational, holistic ministry that transforms people’s lives. And that witness goes out before a watching — and sniffing — world and attracts and draws unbelievers.

The Gift That Might Be Called "The Gift Of The Garden"

We are promised the gift of the garden by God himself in Isaiah 58:10,11: "If you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail."

The word translated "spend" (verse 10) connotes the idea of issuing forth or pouring out. The King James Version speaks of "drawing out" your soul to bestow a mercy upon the recipient. These are terms used when talking about water. We speak of pouring out water or drawing water from a well. We are being asked to spend ourselves, our very souls. We possess this "water" — our time, our heart, our soul — we are to pour it out, to issue it forth to water others. When we pour ourselves out, we do not become empty; God pours himself and His provision in.

Are we fearful that by pouring ourselves out we will become empty and dry? It is the same fear that the widow of Zarephath must have had in 1 Kings 17. The land was plagued by famine and drought. God told Elijah to go to a place called Zarephath where he would encounter a poor widow. He was to ask her for something to eat and drink. Elijah met her at the town gate and asked for water and bread. The widow replied that she only had a tiny bit of oil and a handful of flour. She told Elijah she was gathering firewood to make a final meal for herself and her son before they died. Incredibly, Elijah still asked her to feed him first. He promised her that if she poured out all that she had, God would be faithful and provide for her and her son. By faith, she gave the hungry prophet of God her last morsel of food. The result? Verse 15 says, "And there was food every day for Elijah and 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."

That is the promise of Isaiah 58:11. When we take our water and pour it out in sun-scorched places among those who are thirsty, we will not run dry. God pours himself and His provision into us so that we become like a well-watered garden.

The Gift Of Invigorated Worship

Our vision of God enlarges as we begin to witness Him acting in other people’s lives in ways that may be unfamiliar to us. We see new facets of who God is as we witness different deeds He accomplishes that we may have otherwise missed. For invigorated worship, we need to mingle with people whose prayer requests are different from our own; for example, the circumstance of being persecuted or discriminated against or the circumstance of being healed from crack addiction or the circumstance of 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 see more clearly the multifaceted grace and provision of our Heavenly Father, and our adoration of Him is deepened.

Conclusion: The Gift That Keeps Giving

This way of approaching service has the additional benefit of helping us to pursue a kind of service that offers supplicants the chance to become contributors rather than mere receivers. 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 there is in giving. As Christians, the gospel we proclaim not only saves people from negative things; it saves them for positive things.


Amy L. Sherman, Ph.D., is senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, where she directs the Faith in CommunitiesInitiative. She is author of the widely used devotional booklet, Sharing God’s Heart for the Poor: Meditations for Worship, Prayer and Service and The ABCs of Community Ministry: A Curriculum for Congregations (Hudson Institute, 2002).

 

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