By Peter Law
The Challenge of Serving Others
Serving others who are different than you can be a challenge. When serving people who are like us, our shared expectations usually make things friction free. When we set out to serve the “other” the one with whom we don’t naturally identify, things can be a bit rocky. I learned this while on a trip to India.
While visiting a poor area in Varanasi, we participated in a feeding program. We gave out small bags of food to the people we encountered. Conditioned by years of watching television ads where people politely sit in lines while Western aid workers give them a dollop of rice, I expected the recipients of our aid to be polite and orderly. Rather, when we showed up, it was like a feeding frenzy. Everyone grabbed at everything in order to get something before it was all gone. We even had a very distinctive looking gentleman argue with us that we hadn’t given him a bag, when we were positive we had. After a protracted argument, we gave him another bag just to end the conflict. A few minutes later, he showed up claiming he hadn’t gotten anything. This interaction in particular offended my sense of propriety.
Examining My Outrage
But should it have been such a surprise? Should I be shocked when people in desperate situations behave like, well, people in desperate situations. This man lied to us, knew he had lied to us and knew that we knew he had lied to us, but if he felt his life depended on getting a little extra food, then he had a motivation that I don’t understand. I’ve never known such disparate living. On top of all of this, we were foreigners with our own (foreign) culture judging people by a standard they neither knew nor should have accepted. Why should they behave according to our standard? this was their space.
Serving others who are on the margins here can reflect some of the same tensions. I’ve given out food intending that people to share, only to have people gorge themselves and left nothing for others. ‘How dare they?!’ we might ask ourselves. Yet, we have forgotten their situations are far more precarious than our own. In addition, in creating a space for them to be safe, we have effectively come into their space. Any outrage we feel over others not living up to our expectations is misplaced. Like the people I served in India, it’s improper for me to hold my own expectations over them, especially as a means of determining who should be served and who should not.
Serving Others Like God Does
The incarnation shows that this is not how God operates. Paul says, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8 NIV). God’s love is not dependent on my meeting his standards for how someone he loves ought to behave. He loves because it is his nature to love and his service to us is a natural consequence of that love. In the same way, when others withhold gratitude for service, when they seem demanding, when they don’t live up to my standards of propriety, I must always remember that I have done the same to God. He chooses to love me anyway. His love is an expression of who he is, not of what I deserve.
We are called to be his hands and feet in the world. We must be a demonstration of who he is to a world of people who have never seen him. To do this, our love for and service to the other must reflect God’s unconditional love and service. We love and serve others not because it’s easy or because by their actions they deserve it. We love and serve others because God first loved and served us, and through our faithful love and service God loves and serves them.
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By Peter Law
Sometimes I long for a life walled off from the troubles of others. I wish I wasn’t daily confronted by the reality of other people’s poverty, oppression, or loneliness. I wish I could close my eyes to the suffering of others and live a comfortable middle-class existence. My natural inclination is to say that your problems are not my problems, but I claim to follow Jesus who, unbidden, entered into my problems. He didn’t just witness them, but he took them on as his own problems.
In Christ we see God enter into our human weakness, our poverty our oppression, our alienation, not because he had to, or because he wanted to feel better about himself, but because it is the very nature of who he is. God can’t be emotionally manipulated, like a parent in the grocery store who buys that sugary cereal in order to stop the pleas of, “you don’t love me.” God doesn’t respond to emotional blackmail, so when he has compassion on us, we need to understand that having compassion on what he has made is at the very centre of who God is.
So why doesn’t God have compassion on me and spare me the unpleasantness of being around the suffering of others? The reason is that some things are more important than my comfort and happiness. God’s great goal is to reconcile all of creation to himself. Our happiness and comfort are good and desirable, but they have to take a back seat to God’s more pressing concerns. “How does my discomfort help God to reconcile creation to himself?”, you might ask.
First of all, it helps me to rely on God. Reconciliation is not merely a one-time event, but it involves us living our lives in community with God. As a human I’m biased towards things I can sense—physical reality—over the things I can’t see—spiritual reality. If I feel like I have all I need, I can be more easily distracted by this physical reality, and end up worshiping creation, rather than the creator. My need keeps my eyes open to see God’s work in my life.
But there’s more to it than that. In Hebrews 1:1-2, we read how God’s most perfect communication of who he is was in the life of his Son Jesus. What came before was theoretical and abstract, but the life of Jesus brought the love, the holiness, and the justice of God into the world of the concrete. Those who saw Jesus, saw God (John 14:9). Jesus calls us to follow him, to be shaped by the Holy Spirit to become like him so that the world may see the Father in our lives in the same way the disciples saw the Father in Jesus. Part of the way that Jesus revealed God was to enter into the suffering and oppression of the poor. To become like Jesus, in order that we can reveal the Father to a lost and broken world, means that, Like Jesus, we must enter into the pain of others. When we build literal or metaphorical walled communities that seal out danger and suffering, we make ourselves unable to represent God to the world, a move that frustrates God’s purpose for the church.
My discomfort in this world reminds me that this is not my home. Comfort leads me to complacency, to lose sight of Jesus’ call to discipleship. Entering into the pain of another motivates me to enter into justice, to recognize and work against the systemic brokenness in the world. If I wall myself off from injustice, my faith becomes and exercise in moralism. Christians become those who don’t [insert your catalogue of bad behaviors here]. While Jesus was holy, to say that to follow him is merely to abstain from immoral behaviors is to trivialize most of what he did. We must follow Jesus in terms of what he did, not merely what he didn’t do. And the only place I can do that is out there.
–by Peter Law
So I have a confession to make. I don’t know everything. Shocking, I know, and very hard to admit. I’m simply unqualified to give answers to some of life’s most vexing questions. But that has never stopped me from trying. I suspect in this regard that I’m not alone.
Life is complex. All the time new questions that challenge basic held assumptions assault my basic structure for making sense of the world. These questions often feel like a threat (since they call into question the very framework I’ve set up to understand reality) so I simply ignore them or deride the person who asks them. I can use my existing world view to dismiss the questions as self-indulgent or irrelevant, all the while I’m completely blind to how my attitudes harm others. I have a heard of sacred cows and I don’t care how many people I have to destroy to protect them, I will not let them go.
My worldview helps me to construct a vision of the world that is comfortable to me and I’ve built it so well that reality can’t interfere with it. Evidence is that points in other directions can be summarily ignored without any meaningful examination or investigation. This way, I can keep the cognitive dissonance that comes from uncertainty under control.
But is this theoretical framework really what I need in order to understand reality? Can I really hope to understand poverty without knowing some poor people? How about understanding gender dysphoria if I’ve never had meaningful contact with a transgendered person? Honest investigation is hard, time consuming work, while relying on my world-view’s pre-packaged beliefs about things I’ve never experienced is so much easier. I admit, I often opt for the shortcut. I don’t have enough time to investigate everything, but in my places of ignorance, do I have the humility to say, “I don’t have enough information to make an informed judgment on that, so I’ll have to keep and open mind.”
I’m going to wager a guess that you have done this just like I have. If you say you haven’t, then you’re either a very diligent person at investigating everything, or you’re kidding yourself. In the church, we’re especially notorious for this. The Bible tells us the way things are, so we just take it at face value and dismiss all else as anti-God propaganda. The trouble is, that even when we read the bible, we’re interpreting it. The very act of figuring out what someone means from their words is an interpretive act. Sometimes it’s fairly straight forward as in, “it rained this afternoon,” but most of our communication has some ambiguity built in. When we take documents that are thousands of years old, written in languages that most of us can’t read and write in a culture that none of us are all that familiar with, the chances are that we might make mistakes in how we interpret it.
But, “The Holy Spirit will tell us what scripture means,” you might respond. Yes, the Spirit convicts and guides us, but our own prejudices, our captivation by our culture, and our ignorance can also shape our understanding. When Paul says, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Romans 12:2 NIV), he’s really telling us that the process of sanctification is an ongoing one. God has begun a work of remaking our minds in order that we can understand his ways, but we’re not there yet. We all have blind spots, places where the fullness of God’s truth has yet to transform our thinking. The Spirit may be telling us the truth, but sometimes we’re not interested in listening. We’ve got the truth figured out just fine without him.
Now I’m not suggesting that we can completely rid ourselves of bias and prejudice. But what I do think is incumbent upon Christians is to take a hard look at our beliefs when it comes to judging others. We’re often very keen to denounce people, to declare them outside God’s grace, at least until they become more like us. All the while, we haven’t done the hard work of looking through their eyes, and trying to understand their perspective and experiences. As Jesus enters into our experience in the incarnation, becoming a priest who has not sinned, yet sympathises with us in our weakness (Hebrews 4:15) so ought we to enter the experience of others (by this, I don’t mean by sinning, but by entering into relationship with those we think of as “other”) in order that we might be God’s priests to them.
Holiness versus Engagement
by Peter Law
As God’s people, sent into the world, we’re commanded to strike an often difficult balance between holiness and engagement. God hates sin and commands us not to live in it, yet Jesus sends us in to the world to make disciples, something we are totally unable to do if we live in a hermetically sealed bubble surrounded by moral giants.
Jesus’ enemies, the Pharisees, got half of this formula right. Their guiding principle was one of the mantras from the Penteteuch: “Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Lev. 19:2b NIV)
The Pharisees took God’s command to holiness very seriously: They detested those who broke the law of Moses. While there’s nothing wrong with being very careful not to do evil, all of this rule-keeping led them away from the very heart of the law. Jesus criticizes them, saying:
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel” (Matt. 23:23-24 NIV).
The Pharisees had excelled in keeping the rules, but in their fervour, they had missed the point: God is a missionary God who is holy, but who dwells with an unholy people and he calls us to follow his lead. He calls us to shun sin, but also to engage those who don’t with compassion not self-righteousness. The Pharisees’ understood God’s hatred of sin, but completely overlooked his love of people, even sinful people.
Jesus calls us to a different sort of holiness. In a prayer shortly before Jesus’ passion, the Lord for his disciples:
My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. (John 17: 15-18 NIV)
Jesus is likening their calling to what he’s just done. He has given himself to serving the lost and the poor, fully entering into their situation, only faithfully obeying God while doing so. What he has done is to give us a living example of the balance between holiness and engagement to which God calls us. We are to be present, compassionate and generous without being detached, proud or judgmental.
So what do we take away from this? In my own experience I’ve seen it be too easy to fly off the rails in one direction or the other. Like the Pharisees we can be very moral people, behaving in all the “right” ways, while forgetting that our morality is designed to show people who God is, the one who is both holy and loving. On the other hand, we can emphasize God’s unconditional acceptance of people, forgetting that he calls to something: to live a life free from bondage to sin. God calls us away from sin, not to keep us from having a good time and not to show everyone how moral we are, but so that we, the people he loves, are no longer ravished by the effects of sin that is destroying us.
Holiness and love may seem like they’re in tension, but it’s with this tension that God desires us to live our lives. When Jesus says, “[people don’t] light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven (Matt 5:15-16 NIV), he’s calling us not just to live holy lives, but to do so in a way that is evident to all. We can only do this when we live lives of engagement with those outside the church, or else we’re putting our lamp under a bowl.
This is the life of mission. It doesn’t have to be to the far corners of the globe (though sometimes it is). It doesn’t require a degree in theology. It requires us to allow ourselves to be fully present in relationship with people who don’t already know Jesus and to show them how he’s changed our lives, not with an attitude of pride, or condescension, which points towards ourselves, but with the humility of people whose lives have been transformed by the unmerited favour of another person: God.
P.S. if you’re a Christian looking to practice this sort of mission and don’t have these sorts of relationships in your life, and if you live near one of our centres, nightlight can be a great place to put your faith in action. Click on the link to our volunteer submission form to get started.
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