January 2, 2014

Finding Balance in Our Ministries of Mercy

“We may cut off our aid only if it is unmerciful to continue it. It is unmerciful to bail out a person who needs to feel the consequences of his own irresponsible behaviour. Sometimes we may have to say, ‘Friend, we are not withdrawing our mercy, just changing its form. We will continue to pray for you and visit you, and the minute you are willing to cooperate with us and make the changes that we believe are needed, we will resume our aid. Please realise that it is only out of mercy that we are doing this!’ Let mercy limit mercy.” (p.98)

That’s the moment I knew that this was a great book. Divided neatly into two distinct parts, this little book first focuses on the ‘principles’ for mercy ministries and, secondly, on the ‘practice’ of mercy ministries.

The first part takes up about 100 pages and is pretty standard fare when setting out the biblical foundation for working with the poor. My only slight hesitation is his use of Luke 10 as a foundational story for his understanding of reaching the poor. I say this only because I am still unsure of my own exegesis of this text, and whether or not the ‘traditional’ understanding of it is the right one. Is Jesus answering the question of what a person needs to do to get eternal life, or is he answering the ‘who is my neighbour?’ question. If it is the former, then surely the story of the Good Samaritan was told to show the impossibility of gaining eternal life through religious works by presenting the impossible story of a Samaritan ever helping a Jew. The ‘go and do likewise’ being ironic insomuch as it can’t happen. I’m not sure, so I sit with the more accepted one for now. A small ramble there, but it is worth checking out Luke 10 again. Anyway, back to the review. His basic premise is that if we truly understand the gospel of grace then it will lead to us extending that grace to those on the fringes of our society.

The strength of his arguments come in helping the reader to look for balance in their view of the poor in regard to what the Bible teaches. Too low a view leads to hard heartedness, and too high a view leads to liberal wishy-washiness. What is needed, Keller writes, is balance. Chapter 6 is immensely helpful to those of us working in housing schemes. Entitled, ‘Conditional & Unconditional: A Balanced Judgement’, it discusses setting boundaries in helping those in need. He raises the question: ‘At what point do we stop assisting somebody in need, particularly those who are lazy?’ That’s when it becomes interesting and applicable to us. For those of us already engaged in this ministry, we don’t need convincing of its biblical merit. We need help digesting and working out those principles on the coalface.

I found the opening quote (taken from that chapter) so helpful that I handed the book to my wife to encourage her as she battled with a lady at the time who was (and still is) in great financial and physical need. As we all know, sometimes we can get sucked into the trap of feeling sorry for people when, in reality, our helping is actually doing more people more harm than good in the long-term. I found his comments on helping people who are lazy particularly inspiring and encouraging. We must not withdraw our love from them, but we must set firm limits and operate within them.

He informs us that the Bible teaches that there are three main reasons behind poverty.

1. Oppression or injustice (Ps. 82:1–8; Prov. 14:31; Ex. 22:21–27; Deut. 24:15; Eph. 6:8–9)
2. Natural disaster or calamity (Gen. 47; Lev 25:25, 39, 47)
3. Personal sin (Prov. 6:6–7; 21:17; 23:21)

Keller’s point is that we must be careful to distinguish between these three when relating to the ‘poor’ wherever we are. We don’t want to over romanticise the problem, nor do we want to just blame laziness. Again, we must have an informed balance to our ministries. Many people we work with don’t just fall neatly into one category.

“Experience reveals that the three causes of poverty often exist simultaneously in a case of need. The person may have sinned, and have been sinned against and have been the victim of natural calamity. Thus, in many, many instances of economic need (who can say what the proportions are?) families cannot be clearly categorised as deserving or undeserving, responsible or irresponsible. In such cases, the family is both.”(p.102)

It isn’t always clear-cut (although sometimes it is) when trying to address the needs of many people. Perhaps his most helpful point is that we evangelicals must ensure that what motivates our heart to help people in need is (1) a love for God and (2) a love for them and not some sinister move to smack them with the gospel. Yes, people need Christ more than they need anything else, but they need our help too.

The second half is full of helpful tips and ideas to help individuals think about ways in which they could be more effective in reaching out to people with acts of service. It has some useful ideas about structure and strategy and, whilst largely relevant to an American context, there are some principles that ‘cross the pond’.

I would recommend it to stimulate thought, biblical understanding, and methodology in how we think about and do ministry among the poor. Very ‘balanced’ as he would say!

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