by Ralph Owens, Jr.
I see a significant trend in Christian activities toward relieving the suffering of the poor in the underdeveloped counties. My concern is not with the desire to relieve suffering, but how does this square with the Great Commission?
I see a significant trend in Christian activities toward relieving the suffering of the poor in the underdeveloped counties. Sometimes it goes beyond the relieving of suffering and reaches into the area of community development. I am concerned because there is a trend in my own mission toward this type of ministry. My concern is not with the desire to relieve suffering, but how does this square with the Great Commission?
As I look at God’s Word, I am plagued with doubts. As far as the Christian is concerned, the desire to relieve suffering comes from a compassion generated by the Spirit of God. To look at suffering and not try to relieve it is to reject the Spirit. How then are we to relate this feeling to world suffering? Why doesn’t God relieve the world’s suffering? How are we to relate our abundance to those less fortunate? And how do we relate the gospel of Christ to the relieving of world suffering?
One Scripture that sheds a little light on these questions is the story in Matthew 19. The rich young ruler came to Jesus and asked what he should do to obtain eternal life. Jesus told him to sell all he had and give it to the poor and follow him. Three things are important here. First, to give away everything he had was really not good stewardship, if the purpose was to be effective in relieving the hardships of the poor. Second, there was no thought given to revealing Jesus Christ to the poor through the action. Third, because of the way the instructions were given, the emphasis was on the attitude of the rich young ruler, and not on the poor.
Another important story in this regard is in Matthew 26. A woman came with the alabaster of expensive ointment and poured it on Jesus’ feet and head. His disciples were horrified that the emphasis was not on the poor, but Christ said, "for ye have the poor always with you." Christ emphasized the preaching of the gospel. God’s emphasis is not on relieving the suffering of the poor but on the heart attitude of the believer, the one who is following Christ, the one who has yielded his life to the direction of the Holy Spirit. With this in mind what should our attitude be?
Our thoughts should not be on the material possessions we have, nor on the suffering of the world, but on the Lord Jesus Christ. Our compassion should be exercised anytime the Lord brings us face to face with hurting individuals whom we can personally treat with loving care as we tell them how Jesus Christ cares for them.
From my understanding of Scripture I feel that seeking out and relieving the physical and material needs of the underdeveloped countries cannot be considered a missionary effort. On the other hand, a true missionary effort of taking the gospel to the lost cannot be effective if it is not accompanied by efforts to relieve suffering. Our mission and motivation for going should be to spread the gospel of Christ. If we encounter physical needs in the process, the response of the individual acting under the direction of the Holy Spirit should be to try to meet those needs.
So far I have been referring primarily to relieving suffering. However, there is another category of work called community development, which deals for the most part with raising the local standard of living. This is a dangerous area for missionary effort. Jesus told us that we should take no thought for our life, for what we shall eat or wear. "For all these things do the nations of the world seek after, " he said. Can we teach this admonition from our Lord and teach self-gain at the same time? We can’t serve God and mammon at the same time.
Many times as we try to reveal Jesus Christ by meeting physical needs we go to an underdeveloped country and establish a comfortable life style for ourselves. Then we go to the underprivileged and teach them to improve their living conditions. Their response is, "I want what you have," but they don’t mean Jesus Christ. I know one situation where the people had a vibrant church, but since being exposed to "the better life," all they want to do is move to the city.
Community development, since it deals with materialism, probably is the greatest foe of Christianity. Welfare ministries are the easy way. Countries and people welcome you if you come to spend your money. The local people will praise you and give you lots of pats on the back; you are hailed as the conquering hero. In carrying out your ministry, you must be very careful how you talk about Jesus Christ, because you may offend someone who might hinder your efforts. It is assumed that because you come demonstrating Christ’s love through bringing of gifts, that the thankful benefactors will come to know Christ. The New Testament says that when we go forth with the gospel we will encounter much opposition. This does not mean the typical harassment from trying to function under the authority of a foreign government. The opposition will always be to the message of Christ. If we don’t meet that kind of opposition, perhaps there is something wrong with our message.
How are we to respond to the underdeveloped world? The world’s suffering is involved in the judgment of God regarding the original sin of man as well as our continuing sin. The answer is to work toward bringing the world to a knowledge of God through Jesus Christ. This is the cornerstone of the Great Commission. This should be the primary emphasis of every mission agency that says it is established for the purpose of carrying out the Great Commission.
How do we relate our abundance to those less fortunate? The increase in welfare-type ministries is directly related to the guilt we bear because we can’t justify or understand how to handle it. The rich young ruler was told to give his wealth. The disciples, when Christ sent them out, were told not to take anything with them. Some of the early Christians sold what they had. When my wife and I left for the mission field, we sold or gave away most of what we had. In the States we were a middle income family, here (Indonesia) we are among the wealthy. But if we had the same living conditions in the States as we now have here, we would be considered among those needing aid. The problems of living conditions are complex and related to culture, religion, history, and physical environment. The physical environment was created by God. The people were placed according to the overall plan of God. Who can explain the mysteries of it all? Our only hope is Jesus Christ; for him we must give everything we have, without holding back. Our orders are to go to every nation and preach the gospel. If we are properly related to the Holy Spirit, we will do what we can for the needy. As we are involved in, a personal relationship with that individual, we will reveal to him the salvation that is his through Christ.
When the emphasis is placed on the physical, all too often the spiritual is lost. To completely relieve the suffering of the world is an impossible task. It is a task that once engaged in requires all of the energies one can muster. After all the money, energy, and time are put-into it, the results are negligible Wouldn’t it be better for Christians to put their time, energies, and the Lord’s resources into-the spreading of the gospel, and be a neighbor to those whom God brings us in contact with as we go?
I have seen men digging in the garbage in front of my house. I can handle the situation one of two ways. I can place food in the garbage can that would give him an adequate diet, or I can invite him into my house, make a friend of him, and provide him with food for both the soul and the body. The first way will provide him with physical relief from his suffering and will provide me with temporary relief from my guilt feelings. The second will provide him with both physical and spiritual relief from his suffering and raise a chorus of praise from the angels in heaven because another child has been born into God’s kingdom.
Does a ministry of relieving the suffering of people in underdeveloped countries come under the heading of the Great Commission? No! But those people involved in obeying the Great Commission carry within them a compassion for the needs of others, and they will respond to their physical needs as they preach the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Large sums of money are being solicited for the purpose of relieving world suffering and for community development, in the name of Jesus Christ, and under the banner of the Great Commission. Those who have given all of their resources to our Lord Jesus Christ should examine Scripture for themselves, as they act as stewards of his resources. They should examine what Christ did and the primary thrust of his ministry. How did the disciples direct the major portion of their efforts? Is our motivation for supporting a ministry based on a love for our Lord, or do we feel guilty because we haven’t given all to Jesus Christ?
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