Social Justice and the Gospel – Paul’s Eagerness

When I began working in college ministry in 2009, I already had a desire to work in the church. In fact, I’ve often said that if I hadn’t previously made a commitment to Campus Outreach to serve for four years – which I believe God moved me to do – then I might have left that option behind and pursued pastoral ministry. But God always has his way with his people, and now I would say that those four years were preparation in many ways for my future ministry in the church.  Not to ignore the invaluable training and experience I received during those years, but part of the reason was a constant nagging I felt in my spirit, a sense of incompletion. I wanted to share in Christ’s compassion holistically, to be burdened with Paul’s burdens. I wanted to fellowship somehow with the many saints who labored to build the kingdom in the New Testament.  In most ways, I did experience this during my years at Bradley University. But I wanted to somehow serve the whole church, not just college students. God was growing in me a burden for the complexities of building his church, but there was always one area of church ministry that I had little desire to deal with: ministering to the poor.

I read Paul in Galatians 2:10 and pondered, “What could make him so eager to ‘remember the poor’?” It ate at me because I was anything but eager to remember the poor. I know that I do not have the “gift of mercy”, but that is not an excuse for not serving the poor anymore than not having the gift of evangelism excuses me from evangelizing. I had grown up very poor, living alone with my mom who couldn’t work, somehow eking out a living off of government assistance and the often shocking generosity of God’s people. I knew God’s provision in a way few experience it. But I was also convinced that I could (and did) rise above my poverty by the sweat of my own brow. And if I could do it, then so could others. I was a typical “rugged American individualist” and believed (without knowing it) that anyone who tried could pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, too. Sure, there are a few people who really can’t make it, and we should help them, but the government has them taken care of, right? The government helped me, and I made good on their investment! I sang this song all the way through college and into my years ministering at Bradley University. The poor should help themselves and could if they just tried harder. I met many homeless people over those years, and learned to tactfully “care for the poor”, both body and soul. If someone asked me for money, I’d offer to get them a meal or food nearby, and if they accepted I’d share the gospel with them over the meal. Sadly, I never saw any good fruit from these excursions. And perhaps that served to yet further harden my heart against poverty. Yet Paul kept saying to me every time I read it how eager he was to remember the poor!

I wanted to ask him, “Paul, why are you so eager?” At the same time I read other passages that surprised me. John 5:1-14 tells us about the invalid at the pool of Bethesda. After Jesus heals him, he tells the authorities to escape being in trouble himself for breaking the Sabbath by carrying his mat. I don’t know about you, but this strikes me as extremely selfish.  Contrasted to the blind man’s response in John 9, this invalid almost seems to be saying “I’d rather be an invalid than have to deal with this trouble!” While we can’t know the invalid’s heart precisely, many of us do know stories of people in poverty that have taken advantage of us or our love ones. We know stories of lies and manipulation, of theft and abuse of kindness. Many of us fear that if we help someone in need, we will get hurt. And we have gotten hurt. We have been used.  “Paul, why are you eager? Don’t you know what will happen to you?”  

Almost one year ago, God moved my little family of three to Louisville, KY. We were pursuing church ministry and found a great opportunity to grow and prepare through Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a local church in the area, Sojourn Community Church. The reason I mention this is because God also had a “sneaky” plan to help us downsize our home, our standard of living, and our prejudice against the poor.  Part of our journey put us in a tight spot financially, but we took a step of faith and began to prepare to move to Louisville anyway, confident that God was calling us there.  God’s provision and further confirmation came when a kind friend offered to let us to rent his house for free, only paying utilities, while it sat on the market for sale. We joyfully accepted because we knew that it was God’s hand! We hadn’t sold our house in IL yet, and the house in KY was in Shelby Park, the neighborhood that borders our church. The neighborhood looked a little sketchy, but the house was free and convenient to everything we needed, so we moved in. Within three days, there was a shooting behind our home, and I got to watch as five young men jogged through my back alleyway with guns in tow right after they had shot a teenager over drug money less than a block from my house.  I was a little slow on the uptake, but we soon realized we were in a ghetto. We have now lived in this “hood” for one year, and have moved three times, seeing it from three different points. The moves were not our choice, but we had two chances to leave the area and didn’t, because our eyes had been opened. To what, you ask?

The answer is the Gospel. I began to see the scriptures in a way I never had before. Jesus really had gone to the physically poor: the lame, the chronically ill, lepers, the blind, all outcasts of society forced to subsist off of charity. Jesus healed people who betrayed him (like the invalid) and people who never expressed gratitude or allegiance (like the lepers that didn’t return). He preached in the Lukan version of the Sermon on the Mount that the physically poor are blessed (Luke 6:20). The proof that this poverty is physical is seen in the contrast in verse 28 where he pronounces a curse on the physically rich. Why does Jesus do this? Are not the poor in spirit likewise blessed (Matt 5:3)?  Certainly.  Did not Jesus minister to the rich as well? Certainly. Look at Zacchaeus (the tax collector disciple), Matthew, Nicodemus, and Joseph of Arimethea, to name a few.  Jesus is not cursing the rich or riches, but rather the self-centeredness and self-trust that often accompany riches.  Why then this emphases on those in poverty? Perhaps it is only my speculation at this point, but I have seen the gospel put on display among the poor better than I ever did during my years in college ministry. Let me explain.

One of the struggles of college ministry was finding ways to demonstrate the transforming power of the gospel through acts of love. You’ve heard all the catch phrases before: “love is a verb” and “people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care”. But it was really scripture that caught my heart, like when James says “Faith without works is dead” (James 2:18) or the 2nd greatest commandment to love your neighbor as yourself. Only a fool would suggest that love doesn’t demand action. And as a college missionary, even though I had been taught that I was demonstrating God’s love through my ministry of word (evangelism and discipleship), when ministering to the lost I often felt my words fall empty. Sure, I could love them in deed by inviting students over for meals, help them with homework, and being a listening ear when they were struggling through life. But I knew from experience how rare it was that a student would actually ask for help or accept my invitations. The fact is, the needs were not glaring me in the face with regards to the lost.  I had plenty of ministry to do – ask any college minister – and plenty of needs to fill, but I could not for my life do any deed that would powerfully demonstrate to a doubting world the self-sacrificing love that God has for man. I could love people well in word, but my deeds felt comparatively empty. I do not mean to minimize the important of ministries whose emphasis is word ministry. Many are gifted for this ministry and I praise God for them. I am gifted more for ministries of word myself. But I think God was sowing these seeds in my heart to prepare me for living, loving, and serving in a ghetto.

Now I see it too clearly. The sacrificial nature of serving in mercy ministry gives clear displays of the gospel in a way I could never demonstrate it before. When believers try to help a family or individual in poverty, the help is often taken advantage of. Mercy ministry is painfully slow and relatively unfruitful. Very few people seem to have the patience and longsuffering needed to continue in it.  (These traits are the fruit of the Spirit, by the way, not marks of gifting.) The fact is that most of us just don’t want to sacrifice and then have our sacrifice thrown back in our faces. But I’m going to say it, unpopular though I may be for it: this attitude is un-Christian. Christ died for men and women who would be agonizingly slow to repent, foolish, and selfish in the way that they live as Christians- not to mention the years of rebellion before their conversion! Are you teachable to the Holy Spirit? Are there areas right now that you are resisting something that God is trying to teach you or ask of you, neatly explaining the conviction away by saying “I’m not gifted for that” or “I don’t have enough resources to help” or “I’m just too busy” or “That isn’t safe”???  I know I do. Yet look at our Savior! He didn’t make excuses for why he couldn’t come to earth and redeem us: heaven’s knows he didn’t pick the safe option! And he is infinitely patient with us.  He waits decades for our surrender to Christ and then bears with our foolishness for decades more, sanctifying us by his Spirit. And he uses us in our great brokenness to be his light in this world! This is the power of the gospel! If he can save me out of my own jacked up past of abuse, self-righteousness, and debilitating timidity, then he can save families in poverty and transform their lives as well! He can even use them in their brokenness! BUT…it will be slow. It will cost us much. Our time. Our money. Our comfort. Our safety. Our hearts. Should we expect any less? Do we look at Jesus upon his cross and begrudge picking up our own? Did not Jesus warn us that we would have to if we want to follow him (Luke 9:23)? Certainly bearing our cross is more than giving mercy to be poor.  But I think Paul was eager to do it because he saw the sacrificial love of Christ’s cross put on display in an undeniable way through it. The world saw it through the New Testament church’s ministry to (and through) the poor. Men like Paul experienced it through ministering to the poor. For the first time, I am tasting this powerful grace too. I hope you also will find this sweet fellowship with the saints of the Bible in giving mercy to the poor.

Isaiah 58: 6-9

“Is not this the fast that I choose:

to loose the bonds of wickedness,

to undo the straps of the yoke,

to let the oppressed go free,

and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry

and bring the homeless poor into your house;

when you see the naked, to cover him,

and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?

Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,

and your healing shall spring up speedily;

your righteousness shall go before you;

the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard

Learn more about Ben Sholtes and his ministry at Sojourn Community Church.