Text: Psalm 146; Luke 4:16-21 | Listen to Message
Apparently there’s some kind of debate in the church over whether or not Christians ought to be involved in social justice.
One side seems to be saying the mission of the church is to proclaim the gospel – and engaging in ministries of justice is a distraction (or even disobedience). The other side seems to be saying that justice ministries are an integral part of what it means to show the love of Christ to our neighbors. The first group is usually conservative, suburban, and/or affluent; the latter group is often liberal, urban, and/or poor.
Before I wade into this ever so briefly, I offer a few observations:
First, each position can be taken to an unhealthy and unbiblical extreme. It is wrong to cease to do justice because you’re solely focused on winning souls. It is also wrong to cease to evangelize because you’re solely focused on social justice issues.
Second, characterizing people with a different viewpoint as if they were all unbiblical extremists is not helpful. For example, there are many in our culture who refer to radical, pro-choice feminism, LGBTQ activism, and open borders as basic “social justice” issues. But that doesn’t mean every Christian working for justice in your city agrees – or is working to crusade for those issues. On the other hand, a person is not racist simply because he/she has some reservations or questions about the #blacklivesmatter movement. We’d do well to begin with a charitable view of others who disagree with us, appreciate the strengths of their position, and seek to engage in thoughtful dialogue.
Third, this is obvious to most people, but sharing the gospel and doing justice are not the same thing. Feeding the hungry doesn’t give them the ultimate hope of salvation in Jesus Christ. And sharing that message of hope doesn’t magically satisfy hunger. So let’s not confuse or separate evangelism and doing justice. They are like the two wings of an airplane, and neither is a replacement for the other. In fact, the most effective evangelism is often part of a comprehensive plan to care for the whole person, and the most effective justice and mercy points ultimately to the justice and mercy of the Cross of Christ.
Nothing I say here diminishes the central role of evangelism. In fact, doing justice and mercy enhances and lends credibility to our evangelism. Real world justice and mercy remind us that Jesus came “to make his blessings known as far as the curse is found,” and that one day he’ll save us – soul and body.
So how do we do justice and mercy? Let me offer 3 simple steps.
1. Pay attention to the needs around you.
Look for what Nicholas Wolterstorff called the “quartet of the vulnerable” in the Bible: the widow, the orphan, the immigrant, and the poor. This will train you to see those who lack basic needs like food, clothing, and shelter. If you live in a more affluent area, you might have to go out of your way to discover needs that are surely abundant somewhere else in your city. Especially look to observe these needs in community with others, whether at work or church or the kids’ soccer league.
Go ahead and meet basic needs as you’re able, no strings attached. Doing justice and mercy will cost you something. At a minimum, it’ll cost you time and money. So build margins into your life that give you space to serve “the least of these.”
2. Seek to discern the cause(s) of those needs.
After you’ve served the same people with the same basic needs several times, it is merciful and just for you to say something like this: “I want you to let me into the rest of your life. I care about you, and I want to know what’s going on. What’s happened to bring you to this point? And what would it take to get you out?”
See, at some point, you want to go beyond intervening justice (or relief work, as it’s often called) and you want to do some more preventative, transformative work on the level of root causes. That’s what real justice and mercy do.
There are three basic causes of poverty: oppression, disaster, and personal sin. Oftentimes you’ll come across a combination of these factors. But just knowing them will give you additional insights and resources to access a person’s heart and help him/her heal from the inside out.
3. Serve where your heart resonates with a need.
You can’t help everyone and you can’t do everything. If you’ll try, you’ll burn out with a combination of exhaustion and false guilt. So how do you pick which people to help and which needs to focus on? Pay attention to where God has your heart “resonating” with particular needs. Just as the strings of a grand piano will resonate with “sympathy” when the same notes are played by another instrument, God has tuned your heart to resonate with sympathy for particular needs. Go and do justice and mercy in the name of Jesus there.
We don’t serve with any ulterior motive, but we do serve with an ultimate goal: we want people to experience the beauty and the grace of Jesus. We want them to see that he is a God of justice and mercy, who himself is “Father of the fatherless and protector of widows.”