Have you ever been with a person whose toddler is running riot around the house? He is shouting and screaming and lighting the cat on fire when suddenly the frazzled mother turns to you apologetically and mumbles something about poor Jonny “being tired.” Whatever. What we both know that Jonny is an ill-mannered brat, even if it’s impolite to say out loud.
We all make excuses, mostly for ourselves. Well, take that same excuse and spread it across many of our poor inner-city areas. There is a real victim mentality in housing schemes. It’s like an open prison where all the convicts are innocent. “It’s not my fault” could be the motto for most of the people in the scheme where I live and minister.
When I was a young man, I received a steady diet of counseling from therapists and social workers. They filled my head with the idea that I was a good person who had been put in bad circumstances. If I had had the same break as other people, they would say, then I wouldn’t be so angry and bitter at the world.
Time and again we run into this mindset in our work. People have become powerless and paranoid as they relate to the world around them; powerless to change their circumstances and paranoid that the world is against them. And there’s a strange dynamic when people become proud of their bad circumstances—as if they are the only ones who know what it is like to suffer. Everyone else is just getting by on what life has spoon-fed them.
Paul, a homeless drifter for twenty years, put it like this: “Before I understood myself from the Bible’s point of view, I felt like a good guy who did bad things sometimes but only because I was trying to get things right. I viewed people as obstacles to get what I wanted, even my so-called friends.”
Ricky, a 20-year-old homeless, aggressive alcoholic, agrees: “I thought I was worthless, drifting toward death, depressed, no meaning and lying to myself that somehow it was all going to get better. But all I did was drink and gamble more. People around me only registered if they wore the right clothes and footwear. I didn’t really care about them or what they were like. I only bothered if they could serve some purpose for me.”
Things only began to change in my life, and in theirs, when the Bible confronted us with the awfulness of our sinful condition before a just and holy God. Romans 1:20 is clear on this matter: “For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities--his eternal power and divine nature--have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.”
The Bible challenges us to own our sin and take responsibility for the things that we have done. Yes, we are all victims of sin to one degree or another; there is a place for compassion and mercy and sympathy. We should weep with those that weep and mourn with those that mourn. But the Bible never allows us to use the actions of others as an excuse for the things that we have done.
Anyone who wants to help people in needy areas must encourage them to see themselves not primarily as victims, but as sinners and willful rebels. We do sinful things because we are sinful people living in rebellion against our Creator. God is angry at sin and sinners. His wrath is against us, and he doesn’t grade on a curve.
This may be a bitter pill at first, but it is ultimately life-giving medicine. Just because my stepmother used my kidneys as a punching bag for most of my early childhood does not mean that I am any less culpable for my sinful, wicked rebellion against God. Putting your arm around my shoulder and just telling me that Jesus loves me, and that it is going to be all right, is not doing me any favors. It is sending me to hell and robbing God of the glory that he is due.
This might sound harsh. But on the contrary, the pastoral effects are breathtaking. Paul, the homeless man mentioned above, now sees himself and the world differently. Listen to how he describes himself now: “I was the problem. The problem was my heart and my choices. Of course, bad stuff happened to me, but now that I see myself as God sees me, I am free to make different choices, be less bitter and more at peace with myself.”
Ricky feels the same: “Understanding myself as a sinner has helped me to understand myself better. It has helped me to understand why I made foolish choices. I now see people differently. We’re all in the same boat, even the posh people. Now instead of feeling bitter against those who have stuff I don’t have, I feel sorry for them because they don’t have Christ. I have a heart for people that was never there before.”
Unless we help the poor to see themselves as the Bible does, we will ultimately leave them trapped and helpless like a hamster in a wheel. They will be destined to see themselves at the center of a world that is all about them and their problems. But when we help the poor to understand themselves as God sees them, we open up the door to real, deep, gospel transformation that goes far beyond our wildest imaginings.
This post is adapted from Church in Hard Places: How the Local Church Brings Life to the Poor and Needy by Mez McConnell and Mike McKinley.