This semester we’ve been thinking about the kingdom of God and kingdom living. Some Sunday nights we haven’t explicitly mentioned the Kingdom – like when we spent six weeks on the Holy Spirit – but we were still talking about Kingdom stuff (kingdom life is life in the Spirit). Tonight, we may not speak too much about the kingdom explicitly, but we’re talking about kingdom stuff – specifically compassion and evangelism.
We have spoken repeatedly of the already, not yet aspect of the Kingdom. The kingdom has not yet arrived in its fullness, but is already present in seed and is growing. Our acts of compassion and mercy bear witness to this. They point ahead to the redemption of all things, to the kingdom in its fullest – where there will be no sickness, no hunger, no poverty, no pain or death. Our acts of kindness also show that the kingdom is already present in some form – that the saving power of Christ is not only a future hope, but a present reality.
But what should extending kingdom compassion look like? Should the church be running soup kitchens or homeless shelters? Should missionaries be involved in relieving the AIDS crisis in Africa? Or should Christians concern themselves only with soul winning?
Let me tell you a story of three doctors in different parts of the world, all dealing with the same painful and fatal disease. One doctor sees clearly that people will die without the cure, so he throws himself whole heartedly into dispensing the antibiotics that will eventually bring the person back to full health. However, in his concern to get the antibiotics to as many people as possible, he overlooks the horrific pain that racks the victims body while they are suffering under the disease and even in the weeks until the cure has fully worked. So he offers no pain medications.
The second doctor sees clearly that people are suffering and is moved by compassion to do what he can to relieve their pain. This doctor invests his time and energy into dispensing morphine to help people cope with the pain of the disease and eventually die in comfort. In his rush to relieve pain, he’s overlooked that this is a disease with a cure and offers no antibiotic.
The third doctor takes a more holistic view. He sees pain, and he sees death. He sees suffering and he sees the disease that is causing it. So he offers the antibiotic to cure the disease and restore health, and he offers the morphine to dull the pain in the meantime.
Which doctor would you like to be visited by? Which doctor are you?
The church seems to often struggle to have as holistic view of mercy as the third doctor. We are confronted with a world wide epidemic of sin – and it is deadly and causes all manner of pain and suffering. It leads to eternal death and also hunger, homelessness, poverty, injustice, intolerance and the list is endless.
How does the church respond? Some are so concerned with souls they overlook the bodies and physical realities of people. They are consumed with getting the message of gospel to as many people as possible that they refuse to be hindered or bogged down by other things – like feeding the people their preaching too. They are genuinely moved by compassion and concern for eternal souls, and so their neglect of people’s physical needs is almost excusable, but not Christ like.
Others are so concerned with the manifestations of the disease, with its painful symptoms that they are moved by compassion to relieve them and yet they forget that behind these visible problems there is an invisible disease – sin. It is a cancer that eats at human happiness and joy, but it is a cancer that Jesus, and only Jesus can cure. These churches often fall prey to the Social Gospel, which is no real gospel at all – just a band aid on the world’s great problems.
What’s the answer? – a holistic approach to mercy and ministry.
We engage our world. We enter into its messiness and pain, the turmoil and disquiet and we work to meet peoples felt needs – we feed, we clothe, we shelter, we listen and encourage. We are agents for justice. But, we don’t forget that these issues are only symptoms of a greater problem – and we seek to address that root as well as the weed. We understand that the most compassionate and loving thing we can do for any person is to lead them into eternal life and joy through faith in Christ. To feed, clothe, heal, house and educate a person without a view to their being converted to Christ is not a full expression of compassion, any more than merely giving a person pain killers for their fever is when you could offer them the antibiotic that would take the infection away. So feeding, clothing, healing, housing, and educating are good, but they become truly loving as part of a call to repentance and faith in Christ. Evangelism and world missions are the centerpiece of the mission of a compassionate church.
And this is important – you can engage in extending mercy and compassion right here, to those you live with. There are huge problems in places like Darfur and Uganda and New Orleans. We should be concerned about those, and so far as we are able, act to relieve suffering and injustice. But there is also pain and suffering in the dorm room next to you – lives broken by sin, lives needing the healing that only Jesus can offer. And yes, the gospel needs to penetrate the 10/40 window and places like Afghanistan and Tibet…but it also needs to penetrate your friend’s heart.
I pray that we, including myself, would become more committed and better equipped to extend mercy and compassion, both globally and locally, and both in the form of feeding/clothing/sheltering people, and in sharing the saving good news of Jesus Christ.